Dave, Her Failure, and a Different Success: A Pastoral Response

I have an imaginary friend – you haven’t met her, I don’t think, but she’s a blend of artists I know and you may have met some of them. She’s called Dave (weird, I know) and she’s a musician (in fact, I met her through music).

Dave’s identity is all tied up in her music – she lives and breathes it, it’s all she’s ever wanted to do and she’d be terrible at anything else. She’s also a little insecure, and is hoping to earn the respect of her friends and family through her success as an artist. As a Christian, she also has a strong sense of being called to shine the light of Christ in the dark world of pop music. All the Christian arts groups she’s ever joined have encouraged this kind of thinking – Christian artists need to be supported because, as a culture-forming force, they are strategic for the gospel.

Dave isn’t an exceptional musician. Or maybe she is, but she’s never had the break she needs in an increasingly arid music industry where musicianship is certainly no guarantee of success. Either way, as far as she’s concerned, she has failed – it is now clear that she’s not headed for superstardom. Her savings have run out  and she can’t even pay the rent through her music. It’s time to hang up her banjo. She has lost her reason to get up in the morning. She doesn’t know who she is. She feels she has failed Jesus – she’s not a force for anything and God’s a little bit weaker for it (of course, she wouldn’t put it that way). She feels like an intruder among her (apparently) successful Christian-arts buddies. She has invested neither in a relationship nor in any transferable skills, and is stuck pouring coffee alone while her old college friends take maternity leave from their city jobs.

Most artists experience failure. This often derives from skewed ideas about what success is, as well as unrealistic expectations regarding our ability to attain it. Dave put too much weight on the effusive encouragements of clueless friends, she felt supported only insofar as she was ‘useful’, and she put promises into God’s mouth that He never made. She let success define her. And of course success is like money – even when it does come, it is never enough – Usain Bolt could run faster, Van Gogh’s paintings had room for improvement, Schindler’s ‘List’ could have been longer.

So, what’s the answer? How do we help Dave and others like her? Of course, grieving with them is a big part of it – failure is a normal part of Christian experience. But we also need to communicate the old cliché that real success is not the product of personality and context, it is not defined by us or those around us, nor is it primarily experiential – as William Temple said, “My worth is what I am worth to God, and that is a marvellous great deal, for Christ died for me.”  Maybe true success is living well, out of our true identity.

Better than that – wouldn’t it be great if we worked to inoculate artists against failure, rather than treating it when it strikes? I’m not talking about guaranteeing record contracts, but rather hammering home our true identity. I can’t help but think that we set artists up for failure when we communicate that worldly success is spiritual success. We make artists feel valued because they are strategic, not because they are children of God. We give the Christian column inches and pulpit time to the ‘successful’ artists and brag about them. We need to start celebrating those artists (failed or not) who embody a different success.

Jez Carr is a musician. He is also in the process of setting up Freeform, a new ministry which seeks to encourage artistic Christians towards spiritual maturity.

 

8 Comments

  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for your post, Jez! How much do you think embodying a different success goes hand in hand with embracing a different understanding of beauty?

    Also, speaking of success, Eugene Peterson in The Jesus Way offers a timely observation, albeit into the American context, although I think it translates anywhere:

    “Isiah 53 is the final nail in the coffin that buries all the false expectations, all the devil’s seductions, all the pious revisions of the biblical story that make Jesus and his followers into American success stories.”

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Jez, thank you for this insightful post that so clearly identifies the way that the art industries can set up a very false expectation of success. It would be interesting to explore (perhaps in another post?) this ‘different success’ you point towards at the end. My question is regarding your suggestion that we “inoculate artists against failure.” Obviously these posts don’t allow for very much writing, so I thought it would be helpful if you expand what you mean by this a little. My initial reaction was, “no, I actually don’t think that would be great.” It is not that I want artists to feel the pain and sense of rejection that negative criticism (pointing out the ways that a work of art does not succeed) can bring, but I do think that negative criticism is essential for learning and for becoming a better artist. Like you, I don’t think that negative criticism, or even bigger failures, should cause Christians to lose a sense of their identity, but I would worry about a Christian artist who thought that such different aesthetic standards and criteria applied to their work that they did not need to care about what “the world” has to say about it. So, could you offer some thoughts on the positive aspects of failure, and also on the relationship between your “different success” and success in the art industry?

  • Jez says:

    Hi Wesley. Good EP quote!

    In terms of beauty, it depends what you mean… By definition, the pastoral perspective is concerned (in the first instance) less with the beauty of someone’s ‘output’, and more with their ‘inner’ beauty. The art of a life well lived etc etc. Yeah yeah.

    Having said that, a ‘different success’ should create the freedom for true beauty, one that mirrors more closely the grace and unnecessary-ness of God’s Creative Acts.

    Of course, there’s the whole question of the relationship between strategy/function and beauty, and that speaks into this. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

    Does that sort-of respond to what you’re getting at?

  • Jez says:

    Hi Jim, thanks for nuancing that point – there’s an inflammatory nature to such broad brush strokes… I absolutely agree with what you say. My point there was that too many artists go into failure without a sense of their true identity, and that the Church exacerbates that by compounding the world’s sense of success. That is best dealt with before the failure (i.e. inoculation) rather than after (i.e. treatment).

    I’m not arguing for some form of gnosticism where our true identity makes work meaningless. This has to be held in tension with the notion that our work echoes into eternity in ways we may not understand. I’m also not suggesting that we should be unconcerned with ‘strategy’ – we’re clearly supposed to strive for the best return on what we’ve been given. Industry success isn’t irrelevant, and the experience of failure shouldn’t fall off us as if we’re too heavenly-minded for it. (Different aesthetic standards and criteria? Absolutely not, though of course, sometimes the gospel does make us challenge the industries’ criteria.)

    I’m often struck, however, by the chosen weakness of God – the big plotline of Scripture hangs by what appears to be the smallest of threads. God’s modus operandum is one of using small, unimpressive means, so we have to view industry success through that lens.

    In terms of the positive aspects of failure, I’m not sure I have anything profound to say, apart from to agree. Failure is part of ‘struggle’ which is kinda the cauldron in which art is created, isn’t it? And it builds character, it keeps us humble and accountable to our true identity, without it we have nothing to say to a world which experiences it daily. And as you say, it’s an integral part of honing our art. Are there other positive aspects I’ve missed?

  • Kelly Barrow says:

    Hi Jez, I think I do know “Dave”. We may have met her at Laity Lodge about a year ago. I agree with the direction your ideas are going. For all of us, artists and simply creative folk, we feel a need to make something that will be useful or “sell” in same shape or fashion. There is a great fear of putting ourselves out there and being rejected. I recently watched someone sing onstage for one of the first times. She has an amazing voice, different from what is usually heard on the radio, but she was so worried about how she sounded that she didn’t project or put any of herself into the performance. I wanted to stand up and yell to her…”You are amazing! Sing like you do when it’s only you and God.!” I realized that the same could apply to me. I need to paint the same way. Perhaps its simply a matter of changing our focus audience. Talent is from God (and I don’t mean to minimize the blood, sweat, and tears involved in the development of said talent). We need to figure out a way to support artists as they live out their calling.

  • Jeanette Sears says:

    I agree entirely that the Church often does not help by holding up for admiration Christians who have been successes in ‘worldly’ terms and largely ignoring those artists who are still struggling. Perhaps one antidote would be for churches to include Christian artists in their intercessions each week, just as much as missionaries and others on the ‘frontline’. Just as we wouldn’t blame an evangelist for living in poverty for his or her calling but would continue to support them, so we should recognise similar callings for Christians seeking to communicate Jesus to the culture in different ways (and sometimes more effectively). Equally we know it’s about beauty too, and if we were all nurtured in churches that weren’t afraid of the imagination then we might feel more affirmed, and have a more positive and supportive context to even experience ‘failure’. (By the way, thanks for quoting William Temple – if I was young enough to say ‘he rocks’, I would!)

    • Jez says:

      Thanks Jeanette. I agree. I think this is one area where the notion of patronage needs to see a resurgence, where money is only the start of the support. (Cue Sara?)

      And wouldn’t it be great if churches were commissioning all of their members, from the plumbers to the evangelists, to do their work well…

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