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.