Christian t-shirts, mediocre films about the rapture, and Christian music that is a copycat of the Top 40 are proof that Christians largely misunderstand the doctrine of vocation. To be fair, this isn’t completely caused by Christian t-shirts and movies, and there certainly are some who do well within those spheres. But largely, within evangelical Christianity, the word Christian has been routinely used as an adjective that allows people to give uncritical approval to music, books, clothing, and movies.
Check out this incredible description of evangelical culture from Redemptorama:
“In Orange county, one of the chosen places of evangelicalism, it was possible to dwell in a total Christian environment. Letting their fingers do the walking through the Christian Yellow Pages evangelicals could buy a car from a born-again dealer, get their taxes prepared by a devout CPA, get their necks unchecked by Christian chiropractors, consult Christian lawyers for Christian divorces, purchase their fashion from a Revelation outlet, get their carpets cleaned by a Christian-operated hydro steam unit, have their coiffures trimmed at Hair After, have their pools cleaned by New Life Pool Maintenance, have their drains unclogged by Agape Plumbing, and get their pests fumigated by Golden Exterminators, Inc.” - Flake, Redemptorama, (HT: Harold Senkbeil)
When we understand God’s calling, it frees us from the need to escape the secular world in order to create a Christian subculture. It frees us from the need to create a Christianized version of our workplace and allows us to simply do our work well and for the benefit of our neighbor. Harold Senkbeil, in his book on sanctification, suggested that Christianity too often secularizes the sacred instead of understanding the secular to be sacred.
Make Good Shoes
Martin Luther allegedly had a conversation with a Christian shoemaker who tries to discern how he should do his work now that he is a Christian. Luther doesn’t suggest that the shoemaker start a Christian shoe company and place tiny crosses in every shoe. Instead he suggests that the shoemaker make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price.
Maybe this is why Christian art tends to not be very good?
Maybe too many people who had a gift of filmmaking were told at some point that they need to put tiny crosses on every shoe. And instead of good art we’re left with an imitation of something that isn’t as good and tries to check the boxes that meet the criteria of a “Christian movie.” Maybe some of our best artists have been burdened by a law that gave them rules of what is and isn’t Christian art.
But when we understand art, within the context of the freeing message of Jesus, artists are freed from the burden to create art that makes God happy and can instead make art that serves their neighbor. In the words of the theologian Gustaf Wingren, “God doesn’t need our good [art], but our neighbor does."
Sufjan Stevens describes this freedom when he says:
“Logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color,” said Stevens. “It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do.” - Sufjan Stevens, The Atlantic
The Christian calling in our work is not to do Christian work, as if there were such a thing. But to do our work well. In many ways, the work we do as a Christian looks very similar to the work of the unbeliever. The difference isn’t in the product that gets delivered, the difference is in the faith and motivation that creates the products. The Christian does his work in faith, knowing that his work doesn’t determine his worth. And he does his work not in order to earn points with God but to serve the world around him. The Christian artist doesn’t create art in order that God might be pleased by his efforts but in order that the world around him would be positively influenced by beauty and music and story.
When talking about the work that God has called us to do, it is easy to begin thinking of ways to Christianize our work. We think that the Christian carpenter should make Christian tables. The Christian designer should make Christian posters. And the Christian filmmaker should make Christian movies.
“Do you see a man skillful in his work, he will stand before kings, he will not stand before obscure men.” - Proverbs 22:29
But being a Christian doesn’t mean doing “Christian” work, it simply means as a Christian, you do whatever work God has given you to do.
The theologian NT Wright understands this influence of faith on work and art when he suggests, “[Christians should] be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology ... a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity."
The redemptive and creative story of love and grace found in the person of Jesus should shape the most beautiful, gracious, and powerful art in our world.
Because we’ve been freed from finding spiritual works that might improve our standing with God, we’ve been freed to do whatever work we find ourselves in for the sake of our neighbor. If you are a carpenter, make good tables. If you are a mother, raise your children well. If you are a graphic designer, make great graphics. If you own a business, run your business well. If you are an artist, please…please, make good art.