Harold Best on Art, Authenticity, and the Hometown Hero

Your authenticity does not depend on proving to people or to God–with pitches, paints, or pen–that you really are quite a piece of work.

Art and artists are misunderstood, and yet very few Christian authors are able to speak truth into the art world. Being a subjective experience, art is surrendered over to the worldly side of “worldly wisdom.” But one of the greatest, most practical and pastoral books I’ve read on the philosophy of art is Scribbling in the Sand by Michael Card. The entire book is excellent but what I’m focusing on here is a letter he includes in the back. This one is from his friend Harold Best, who was head of music at Wheaton College and author of several books on the importance of music in the church.

Michael Card asked him to write a letter to a young artist, and what we get is a seven page treatise–a true gem–on the life of an artist and his role in the community. His wisdom transcends art and finds application in all of life. He begins by commenting on the sneaky relationship between truth and beauty.

I have an incurable hunger for the things of high quality, even to the point where I succumb to the sin of assuming that those who do not company themselves with the best art must not, after all, be deeply spiritual. While I have intellectually and theologically come to the point of refusing the equation of truth and beauty, I still find myself entangled in the temptation to reunite them, if only to prove my own spiritual depth and to confirm the shallowness of those who choose what I have labeled mediocre.[1]

Knowing that artists are known to be pedantic and elitist, he balances this with this pastoral plea for contextual humility.

Meanwhile, let’s do all we can to raise standards and to rescue people from groveling in mediocrity, but let’s not create any false equations between a people’s standing with Jesus and what kind of art they like. Don’t forget that while Jews were being gassed and incinerated, their tormentors were listening to Mozart and Beethoven, and returning home to dote on their wives and children.[2]

The Nazi regime provides incredible insight into the human condition and should help us to see through the lies of technology and culture, which claim to be our Savior. As Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Technology gives us power, but it does not and cannot tell us how to use that power. Thanks to technology, we can instantly communicate across the world, but it still doesn’t help us know what to say.”

He moves on to address the artist himself and a key topic most misunderstood in our culture: authenticity. “Authenticity” is esteemed by postmoderns as the greatest virtue, but, as J. D. Salinger proved, with this as our goal, all we will be able to do is authenticate ourselves to death.[3] (I LOVE this first sentence.)

Your authenticity does not depend on proving to people or to God–with pitches, paints, or pen–that you really are quite a piece of work. Rather, I pray that you are discovering that your authenticity lies in who you are constantly becoming in Christ, and that you make art because you cannot keep yourself from the simple joy of shaping something as best you can and then pouring it over Jesus’s feet. The only reason for doing our very best, despite any cost, is the infinite worth of Jesus, for making art this way is where authenticity lies.[4]

Being true to yourself only gets you as deep as the self, and as modern psychology is brutally discovering, self is an illusion. Finding yourself is therefore not a mystical, romanticized “personal journey,” but more so the discovery of–and within–community.

Finding yourself is not a creative soliloquy, a narcissistic look into a private talent pool or some kind of aesthetic pragmatism. It is, instead, finding others who themselves have found others who in turn have found still others, joining humbly and hungrily with this vast community, then seeing the difference that individuality has made all around you and praying that you will end up making enough difference to warrant your citizenship in the same community.[5]

The tired mantra of our culture is do what feels right: follow your heart. In the world of art, there are no standards. As I’ve watched this season of the Voice (an NBC TV show like American Idol) the coaches rarely, if ever, try to change their students and hone their artistic appetites and intuitions. They merely applaud their courage, their “uniqueness”, and their individuality. But this is doing art for art’s sake. This art is made purely as an image of the artist, and the person of the artist is becoming increasingly isolated in our individualistic culture and increasingly confused in a community where there is no truth, no standards, no absolute goal with which to judge any music or art form.

There is a profound difference between making and begetting. Don’t make the paganizing mistake of saying that you are your art, that it has somehow come out of your loins, that it is, amazingly enough, an extension of you. Artists, even the best of them, do not be get their art. … This is misguided and hyperinflated romanticism.

This romanticized relation to art is really a misdirection of worship. When we exalt the art above the True Artist, we replace God with romanticized passion for an emotional experience. Guarding against this, he writes:

Love [art], yes, just as God loves a zebra. But don’t outstep him by saying that you are your art when He can’t say that He is a zebra. We must guard as much against panthropism (man is his art) as we do against pantheism (God is his creation). Furthermore, remember that the greatest work of art ever, say, a Mona Lisa or a Taj Mahal, is of infinitely less worth in God’s eyes than the persons who made them. … Here’s a test for the elitists: if saving the life of an AIDS-ridden waif in a barrio or rescuing an embryo from abortion is not more important than saving the Mona Lisa from destruction, then your elitism stands.[6]

In the Christian community, we can often exalt artists well beyond their place, whether popular musicians (Hillsong United), or your favorite pastor-on-podcast. Those artists (and regular people) who claim to be doing ministry must understand that their ministry is about God, not themselves.

Don’t hide behind ministry as a way of highlighting or even sacramentalizing what you are doing. To an authentic Christian, ministry is simply another word for living a life of constant worship and witness. So don’t separate ministry out as if it brings special luster or mystique to the ordinary acts of service, whether through your art or your daily chores. … In other words, our ministry is truly ministry when we move the responsibility for its effectiveness from the gift to the giver, from the action to the actor. There is a world of difference between your art being expected to minister and the Lord being expected to minister while you make your art.[7]

Probably the most profound lesson I’ve ever learned in a book was the following lesson on fame. As a young man, seeking to make a name for myself in ministry, I began to adopt the worldview that says in order to be successful, I must be famous. But when God gave me a debilitating disease, I began to learn that my worth was not based on my popularity or platform. And when I read this paragraph my heart was set free to find meaning in something other than numbers, followers and fans.

Think about fame as a 100 percent efficient way of disappearing as a simple individual and joining the mythologized world of exaggeration and oversize. Think instead about the value of staying home and becoming what our culture so sorely needs: a local, hometown hero. This means spending your time as a demythologized servant, one whom little children can play basketball with, youth groups can learn from and senior power-pastors and music committees can be corrected by.[8]

Our culture worships the individuals–the individuals who reach the top of the iTunes charts, the companies who achieve the Fortune 500 list, the professional athletes who stand alone; and the church is no different. With the advent of streaming video, a single pastor can now shepherd a sprawling multisite campus, dipping into the smaller churches once every couple years. These pastors are our cultural icons. And yet. We all know the greatest and most effective way of growing any platform is by humble, grassroots efforts that engage single people in a single point in time.

This little letter is just an example of the wisdom coming from both these men (Michael Card and Harold Best). Pick up Scribbling in the Sand if this interests you. You won’t be disappointed.

  1. Scribbling in the Sand, pg. 120.  ↩

  2. Ibid., pg. 121.  ↩

  3. His book Catcher in the Rye is one of my favorites, but only because it captures the raw essence of humanity without Christ–cynical, hopeless, foundation-less, etc. If you find yourself overlooking the grace of God, men like Salinger will awaken you to the capital-G Glory of the Gospel.  ↩

  4. Ibid., pg. 121–122.  ↩

  5. Ibid., pg. 125.  ↩

  6. Ibid., pg. 125.  ↩

  7. Ibid., pg. 126.  ↩

  8. Ibid., pg. 127; (emphasis mine).  ↩