Saturday, January 16, 2010

A One on One with Dr. Anthony Campolo on the Arts

I recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Anthony Campolo regarding the arts and the influence of the arts on today’s society. We spoke about other things, like how the church or community of faith can use the arts to reach a secular society and the role they have played in relation to God. For those that know me, you will be surprised, surprised at how little I actually say in the interview. It was a rare opportunity and Dr. Campolo had a lot to say. I didn’t want to interrupt him so I let him go.

Dr. Campolo is a widely respected theologian who has written various books including: Red Letter Christians, The God of Intimacy and Action, Letters to a Young Evangelical (The Art of Mentoring), Things We Wish We Had Said, Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation, and many more. He has appeared in such films as Lord Save Us From Your Followers, and been on countless television and radio programs. While a professor at Eastern University, he has lectured across the globe. It may surprise some at the perspectives Dr. Campolo takes regarding the arts in its various forms. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did, sit back, relax, and enjoy. (note this is not the interview in its entirety, but does hit on the highlights of our conversation.)

Mike: Hi Dr. Campolo, this is Mike Furches in Wichita Kansas.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: How are you doing? How is the weather in Wichita?

Mike: Not too bad it is about 50 degrees today so not too bad.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Oh Gee, your lucky. Every place I’ve been going lately is around zero, man you’re lucky.

Mike: Well we were about 4 degrees and 10 below zero last week. You’re coming to Wichita in the near future aren’t you?

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Yes I am

Mike: I’m looking forward to seeing you when you get here. A friend of ours, Mark Hollingsworth told me to make sure I said hi to you.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Yea I was just with him a few days ago, I guess around 10 days ago in Nashville. He’s a very special person.

Mike: Today I wanted to specifically look at the influence of the arts on a contemporary and secular society and how it is that the faith community can use the arts to make a difference for people.

How do you see the importance of the arts in the eyes of God?

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Well first of all God is an artist, he is a creator. When we are exercising our creative juices we are imitating God. It is apart of what it means to be in the image of God, to be creative. Creativity can be expressed in music, in storytelling, in drama, poetry and more. Obviously Jesus himself was an incredible artist. It tells in one place in scripture that everything he taught he taught in parables. When he wasn’t speaking in parables, he didn’t say much at all. The scripture says that everything he taught he taught in parables, which is story, an obvious art form. Jesus artistically communicated the Gospel.

Mike: So you would say the Biblical examples of that would be like in Gospel book of Mark where it says, ‘He never taught them anything without first telling them stories.”

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Right, that’s correct.

Mike: So would you say movies, music, television, those types of things are a contemporary form of storytelling?

Dr. Anthony Campolo: There is no question that when we come to sharing the Gospel we must bring every skill, every creative gift, and every innovative technique that is possible. Let’s use everything that we can in all ways and in all manners to do our best to communicate the story of Jesus.

Mike: What are some ways you’ve seen the church actually use the arts in the sharing of Christ with people?

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Well, there is many ways of looking at the arts. First of all are the overt signals as Jesus did much of the time when communicating the Gospel in an artistic fashion. You can do that with Christian paintings, Christian movies, Christian Concerto’s, or Classic Gospel songs. These are all overt methods that tell the story of Jesus.

But there are other ways of looking at the arts. For instance the question is always raised, ‘what about non Christian artists? Can we use them?’ The answer to that is very important. People like Steinbeck, people like JD Salinger, these people say some things that we need to hear, but mainly, Tennessee Williams would be considerable. These people tell the story of Jesus. What these people often do, brilliantly, is give a very good, and bad description of what life is like without Christ. They really capture the meaninglessness of life apart from God.

Learning from people who are as atheistic as Jean-Paul Sartre and others including Nietzsche’s writings. These are antichristian writers in many instances, but what they do very brilliantly is they make us very aware of what life is like without God, without faith, without a quality of scripture. What is life like from that point of view? Insured, if our task is to speak to the millions of people apart from Christ, we need to know what their needs are and we need to preach the Gospel to those who are outside of the household of faith. We need to know what they are going through. What their emotions are, what their anxieties are. The other thing is what they are experiencing in their lives. We cannot project what we think they are experiencing. We must listen to them and we must respond to the reality of their existential situation. We can reach souls from learning from them.

The arts are very very crucial from that point of view. I know that when we’re working with a group of people who would be called secular. There will be Christians who have made all these plays. They have really pulled these bits of life that we have lived, that we have imitated on the surface because of God. Then the play is over. The characters come out, sit on the stage and the discussion moves forward. Then that is an excellent opportunity to say what life is like apart from God and in response, hope is the answer to the worrying needs of the people in the face of life.

Another thing that the arts do and another reason the secular artist has to be taken seriously is because, it should be noted they paint a picture of the church. You know we protect ourselves with lots of good friends, but to look inside what the secular world sees in us has to be taken seriously.

As a young man I remember very well reading the Sinclair Lewis book Elmer Gantry. I remember the way in which this slick new writer viewed evangelism. It viewed the way evangelist behaved on the circuit. That’s important for us to think, we need to see ourselves as people do that are apart from the faith. We will find the truth of how others see us. We need this because they see through us and see the shortcomings of us, but we’re not aware of how their knowledge of us can help us. To see those things in us that we need to see if we are to become better communicators of the Gospel. To see the examples of what a Christian should be in the eyes of the world.

Mike: It is like what you see in the film, Lord Save Us From Your Followers, the film you are in. Some of the comments in there talk about how we aren’t listening to each other and don’t understand the secular community.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: It’s what people feel about us. That movie Lord Save Us From Your Followers is pretty straight forward. People on the outside can say, this is what we see is wrong with you.

A good artist however does more than just tell us what’s wrong with us. A good artist gives us a sense of how the world outside of the church feels about us. They are emotionally reacting which may be even more important. They have the intellectual critiquing.

Mike: Do you see the church of doing a good job of using the arts right now? Or even listening to the community telling us what they are telling us?

Dr. Anthony Campolo: I think we’re doing a pretty good job of using the arts to communicate the Gospel. I mean if we look at Willow Creek, their morning worship service is very artistically designed, with drama, with skits, with good music. I think that from that respect, in regards to telling our message to the world, I think we are using the arts very effectively.

Shadowlands is a movie, Lord of the Flies, Lord of the Rings, the C.S. Lewis movies, all of these become great instruments. The Passion of Christ, my goodness, what an effective instrument that was at communicating the Gospel. The Jesus film that went all over Africa and still goes around Africa, the powerful impact and huge numbers of people coming to know Christ. In so far as we’re using the arts to tell our story to the world, we’re really pretty good at it.

In listening to what the world has to say to us through their arts, in interpreting it, in critiquing and reflecting on it. We’re not doing much of that at all. For instance, I could go on for at least 20 minutes talking about the way in which we could read JD Salinger’s book The Catcher in the Rye. You’d say, wow, that has a lot of insight that Christians need to pay attention to. The Christians response to JD Salinger was to not allow Salinger to speak to us and to teach us some things that we need to learn, but to say we want to ban the book from the library. (laughing) We’re great banners of books.

Mike: We even see some Christians doing that with the new current movie Avatar that are saying negative things about it.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: I didn’t realize that they have started picking on that.

Mike: Oh yea!

Dr. Anthony Campolo: So they’ve started picking on that?

Mike: It’s probably the most controversial review I have done in some time. Not sense Bruce Almighty have I done a review that was as controversial. It has the same type of criticism that ET and Star Wars had when they first came out. It’s getting blasted by a lot within the Christian community.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Well the Christian community has a capacity to over estimate the influence of Satan.

Mike: Yea.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: There are two mistakes that can be made. One is to underestimate Satan and the work of the demonic in the world. Remember, it is not just God who works through the arts. The evil one has worked through the arts. I think that when we look at what has happened with teenagers we cannot separate the denigration of young people in today’s society from the kind of music that they listen to and the kind of movies they see, and the kind of television that they watch. I mean, there is no question that the evil one has brought these principalities and powers under control to serve his purposes. There is no question about that. So, let’s not underestimate Satan, but let’s not over estimate Satan either.

You know, you mentioned some films there that I find have very wholesome messages. ET certainly has a whole array of positive messages. There is what we call Christ figures in these people. You know there is that great word that says, if we do not declare the word of truth, yea, the very rocks will cry out. I can say that if we don’t speak the word of truth, the very rock stars will cry out. (laughing)

I think God is speaking in our time through the likes of Bono; as a matter of fact I am one of those strange people that really felt that Harry Potter had a powerful message, a message that Christians need to be facing. As you remember, the Harry Potter story, Harry is born in a lineage that is very evil, but when he goes away to this place where all these other young people who have these supernatural powers go for training, he has to make a choice. He can go with the bad group which is where his biological character would direct him, or he can go with the good group which he does choose to do. In the end, regardless of what evil tendencies that are born within your psyche, you are a free individual and you choose your destiny.

Secondly, it’s a good indication that no matter what forces molded you in the past through decision making. You’re able to transcend your origins and become a good person. Harry Potter does that. Now, that’s not a Christian message, but it certainly is a message that Christians can use, namely that we are not fatalistically controlled by our biological inheritance. All of us are in fact free to become what in fact by nature, or by socialization we have been conditioned to be. We are free human beings; we can in fact choose to be other than who we are. I think all through the Harry Potter story Harry and all his friends are confronted with moral decision making. I think we have to recognize that we have not put enough emphasis on moral decision making in our society. We see people as inevitably constructed by social forces when in reality their not.

Mike: Quick questions to finish up with. You’ve given me some great material that will be wonderful for people to read. Questions or comments though; your favorite movie and what would be your favorite CD?

Dr. Anthony Campolo: One CD, I mean, I’ve got to tell you, when it comes to CD’s; I love two kinds of music. I love Bill Gaither and Country Gospel and I am also really hooked on opera. Don’t try to explain how those two go together, but they are what speaks to me and what nurtures me.

Bill Gaither’s music always picks up my spirit. It causes me to think that there is something good and positive about to happen in my life. Opera always does what I think secular art should do; it introduces me to the deepest emotions of the human personality. In terms of a CD, that would have to be it.

In terms of reading I’m hooked on Fyodor Dostoyevsky, particularly The Brothers Karamazov which I think has more spiritual truth than almost any Christian book I have ever read.

Mike: And a movie or program if you were going to watch something?

Dr. Anthony Campolo: A movie I was going to watch? My favorite movie, and once again this isn’t going to sound very profound, it was My Fair Lady.

Mike: That’s one of my wife’s favorites.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: I love the music number one, and in terms of a musical on Broadway; there’s nothing that speaks more spiritual truth to me than Le Mis. That closing song of Le Mis should be sung in the church instead of some of the junk that we sing. I can almost hear Jesus singing that song. I don’t know whether you remember the words; ‘Who will be brave and stand with me. Who will join my crusade, for beyond the barricades is the world you wish would be. Can’t you hear them sing this song, can’t you hear them beat the drum. It’s the future that they bring when tomorrow comes.’ (Do You Hear the People Sing) I can almost hear Jesus pleading with people to respond to his call and to march in his crusade. The same with the Man of La Mancha; I think the song, to dream the impossible dream, to beat the unbeatable foe to strive with the last ounce of courage to go where the brave dare not go and the world would be richer for this. That one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove, with his last ounce of courage, to reach, the unreachable star. I think we could use that song in missionary conferences to challenge young people to live heroically for Jesus.

Mike: To some of the folks that read this, maybe they’ll do just that. Dr. Campolo, thank you so much, what an honor and I look forward to seeing you in Wichita in the near future.

Dr. Anthony Campolo: Thank you Mike, hang in there.

The following is a video of those two songs Dr. Anthony Campolo would like us to see in the church as well as a bonus. Just click on the video to watch, if the video don’t appear, click on the link.

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Janet Conrad said...

Excellent interview. I've just started my own blog. I came across this one and I have to say it was very inspiring. I was reading 1 Cor. 3:3-4 where it talks about the differences between natural man, spiritual man, and carnal man. After studying these verses I came to the realization that a carnal man is an immature Christian more concerned about the opinions of humans than the opinions of Christ. I wrestled with that because the purpose of my blog is to change the world's view of an Evangelical/Christian. Then I realized that it is the carnal Christian who is more concerned about his own circle of fellow believer's opinions than Christ's opinion (which is to love gays, accept those who are shunned by our fellow Christians). Thank you for this blog and it's contents. You have encouraged me and inspired me. God has used you to confirm in my heart that my interpretation of this scripture was correct. God Bless. Janet

Mike Furches and The Virtual Pew said...

Thanks Janet, make sure to subscribe to the different writings here, and join us up at The Virtual Pew at where you can get the newsletters and the such. Sounds like our goals, ministry, and mission is the same.

Blessings to you,