Misquoting Augustine

Once, in my college years, a couple friends and I grew tired of the mush they served in our cafeteria and we headed to Krispy Kreme Donuts. It was a golden October day, and we wove through traffic while listening to music with the windows down.

As we drove along, a song came through the car’s stereo that called into question whether God exists or whether He is good. I’d expect to hear a song like this among friends who aren’t disciples of Christ, but on this particular friend’s playlist? I knew that she was a Christ-follower.

“Hey, what’s with this song?” I asked. “It’s pretty dark.”

“Oh, yeah.” She was a little defensive. “It’s a little negative. But it’s how the singer feels, and it’s honest. You know what they say, ‘all truth is God’s truth.’”

This is a prevailing rallying cry for many artists who profess to be Christ-followers. It sure sounds right. If it’s an honest feeling…how can you discard it? Aren’t we as disciples of Jesus supposed to be enamored with genuine, truth-telling art?

It’s worth looking into the origins of the catch-phrase “all truth is God’s truth.”

The popular expression is actually a modernization of a line from St. Augustine. In his treatise, “On Christian Doctrine,” Augustine writes: “Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”

“All truth belongs to God.” It’s a pithy little maxim, and undoubtedly true. But many who hold on to this gem from Augustine tragically miss the context in which he wrote. Indeed, it’s conceivable that many people who use Augustine’s quotation don’t even know that it was him who said it.

Perhaps the most vital statement came in the second half of Augustine’s sentence:

…and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition, and let him grieve over and avoid men who, ‘when they knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.’

Augustine understood that all truth belongs to God. But while deftly invoking the book of Romans, he also pinpointed a common error we can fall into, lest we’re discerning: If we focus wholly on fragmented “truths” without getting around to glorifying God, we’re only exercising our own pride.

So how does that play out in the actual creation of art?

I think as artists who are followers of Christ, we have two great responsibilities: 1.) to glorify God through our craft, by carefully directing others to Christ and not ourselves, and 2.) ensuring the presentation of such a message is artful, beautiful, and meaningful. The latter responsibility is a difficult one, and of paramount significance. But make no mistake, these responsibilities are numbered in order of importance.

In my opinion, falling short of these responsibilities can take on two different forms, both equally dangerous: Some artists lead others astray through their art (a sin of commission) and some artists fail to glorify the Lord through their art (a sin of omission.)

When writers, musicians, or artists dwell on thoughts or philosophies that are not glorifying to God, they commit a grave mistake. I believe this was the case in the instance of the band that was playing through the speakers in my friend’s car. The lyricist who penned that song would do well to remember what became of Job’s friends, who urged him to “curse God and die,” because they thought the Lord was not benevolent.

A good methodology for determining what content we should include in our art is Philippians 4:8, which reads “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” (HCSB)

It’s pretty easy to rule out things that aren’t true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable. But the good news is that the things that these attributes do encompass are limitless. Does your 500-page epic sci-fi novel address topics of justice? Put it on paper. Does your painting showcase the pure creativity the Lord has endowed you with? Then paint it. Is your sestina, which reflects on an aspect of human nature, lovely and commendable? Write it down.

If we create something beautiful, but fail to direct others towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ, we’re only giving them part of the truth. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Half the truth is often a great lie.”

Unfortunately, this plays out in the music industry time and again. If a “Christian band” achieves mainstream success, their lyrics are often called into question. Any oblique references to Christ or the gospel seem to be quickly abandoned.

Many musicians stated that they don’t prefer to use the “Christian band” moniker, because they feel it excludes certain audiences, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for that belief. However, if artists are unwilling to mention the Lord in their lyrics, interviews, or personal interactions with fans, they are likely not using their music as a vehicle for ministry.

Christ-honoring art needs to contain both compelling, well-crafted, beautiful messages, and point others, in some way, to the glory of God. With the Lord’s help, may we tell the whole truth–God’s truth–through the art we create.

 

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3 thoughts on “Misquoting Augustine

  1. Thank you for your article. It really hits home. My frustration with most “Christian” musicians is the fact that once they were that moniker they seem to give up on any real creativity. Worship through music becomes stale and formulaic. There seems to be a great deal of “fluff” in Christian writing and music today as churches move to becoming “seeker-friendly”. Unfortunately, there’s a lack a real substance. Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. I agree completely. How many more songs do we need using water imagery (fountains, oceans, and rivers being among the chief offenders.) I’ve often wondered if the staleness in Christian music is a byproduct of the artists themselves or their recording contracts/producers stifling all the creativity out of the process.

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  2. It is fine balance….
    To be relevant to those
    transversing a fallen state
    of existence, or reading
    to the ‘book club’?

    Like

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