Canvas Preview: Q&A with Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken, a writer and journalist based in Southern California, will be presenting at the upcoming Canvas Conference—a joint venture between Humble Beast and Western Seminary that seeks to address the intersection of Christianity and creativity through a gospel lens. The second annual Canvas Conference takes place August 11-12, in Portland, OR. Registration is here.

Transformed: Tell us a bit about yourself.

McCracken: I’m passionate about Jesus and the church, art and culture, and how those areas intersect in healthy ways. Most of my work and writing is about helping the church better appreciate, engage with and understand its place within culture. And so I write about movies, technology, media, current events, music, politics and other such things, all from the perspective of a follower of Christ who wants to honor and glorify God and advance His mission.

Transformed: Canvas addresses the intersection of creativity and theology. What’s your interest in this topic? Why is it an important topic to address?

McCracken: This has been one of my main interest areas as a writer. I’m passionate about helping Christians think better about culture and be better makers of culture. I think creativity is in many ways curiosity, and curiosity makes for a healthier Christian life. Christians should be the most curious people in the world; curious to discover, identify, celebrate and create the good, the true, the beautiful. Not only does this help us grow in our faith, but it helps us missionally as we are better able to connect with people on a wide range of cultural topics.

Transformed: What is lacking in the way that Christians presently and/or historically approach creativity/the arts? Where is progress being made in this area?

McCracken: Historically (speaking of the 2,000-year history of Christianity), Christians have been leaders, innovators and makers of masterpieces in the realm of creativity/art. Christianity has been central to most of the best painting, music, and architecture in Western civilization. Sadly, the last century or so has seen a decline in this, and a more apathetic and skeptical posture of Christians toward the arts. The reputation of “Christian art” suffered and became more or less synonymous with moralistic, low-quality, sterilized propaganda. But there are signs of progress in reversing this!

The good news is, current generations of young Christian creatives are truly passionate about quality and truth. They want to make beautiful things and (mostly) aren’t interested in hijacking art to impose a heavy-handed message or agenda. I have much optimism about the next generation of Christian creatives/artists, but I do hope that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far in the opposite direction, such that young Christians are afraid to bring their faith into their art at all. That would be tragic.

Transformed: Different forms of creativity so often seem to be tied to culture. How can Christians embrace what is good about cultural expressions of creativity—and even use these as bridges to communicate the gospel, without compromising their call to be a holy/distinct people?

McCracken: This is the central tension which I think gave rise to the skepticism and distance between Christians and art in the last century. It’s a complex tension for sure! But what is art and creativity if not the willingness to embrace complex tensions? My advice to a young Christian artist or appreciator of culture would be: avoid extremes. You should identify and celebrate what’s good and you should also be able to identify and critique what is bad. Most cultural expressions of creativity are a mixed bag. There might be something good and praiseworthy in a movie that is worth pointing to and celebrating. In the same movie there is likely something false, ugly and problematic. This is also worth pointing out.

Part of our witness as Christians is being countercultural in our ability to be nuanced and discerning. This means we don’t have a legalistic, “all culture is evil!” approach, but neither do we have an arms-open-wide posture toward everything in culture. This sort of uncomfortable nuance is a rare thing in today’s world, but we are called to it as Christians.

Transformed: Can you give us a preview as to what to expect from your talks at the conference?

McCracken: One of my talks is centered around the idea that discomfort in the Christian life is actually a good thing, particularly as it relates to the local church. There is no perfect church, and church is always going to be messy and at times frustrating. But this is how we grow… not by being consumers but through commitment to a specific community, for better or worse. I have a new book coming out this September which is all about this topic: Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community.

The other talk I am giving at Canvas is on how we discern truth and find reliable sources of wisdom in a “post-truth,” “fake news” world where more information than ever bombards us but less and less of what we come across online is reliable. This has created something of a crisis of epistemology. Where are the sources we can trust? Whose version of the facts is reliable? I’m excited to share my thoughts on solutions to what I think is a very present crisis in our society.