Redeeming the time: Calvin Seerveld's cultural guidelines transposed

Last week Calvin Seerveld suggested for Comment five guidelines for Christian artists as they contribute to society. This week, Comment editor Gideon Strauss transposes those guidelines for application to the lives of non-artists.
January 27 th 2006

I have been thinking for years about Calvin Seerveld's cultural guidelines for artists (re-published in Comment as "The strategy of giving away gifts: cultural guidelines for artists"). I am convinced that these guidelines are not only helpful to artists, but that they can be transposed to almost every sphere of human action. What I am going to try and do in this article is to generalize the guidelines, to show how they can provide us with hints for engaging culture beyond the realm of the arts.

Calvin Seerveld brings a lifetime of experience as a reader of the Bible and a student of the arts and the aesthetic aspect of life to the conversation about Christian contribution to our cultures. Out of this experience he acknowledges that the world in which we life is complex. But he insists that Christians are given clear direction for cultural action amidst the complexity.

In summary, he writes, this is the way we should go: "Give back to the Lord and to your neighbour the gifts the Lord has given you, in a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5: 17-19), joyously redeeming the time despite the tears (Colossians 4: 5, 6)."

Or, as he also phrases the direction: "Let each one give away whatever kind of gift you have received from the Lord, give it away in a holy spirit, with a sure skill, as an innocent and wise, faithful, compassionate deed (Ephesians 4: 7, 12-16; Matthew 10: 16), no matter how imperfect. That is all the Lord requires of you as one of Christ's body on earth (cf. Micah 6:8)."

In Rainbows for the fallen world Seerveld elaborated on this cultural strategy of giving away our gifts by identifying five directives "for those who want to be christian artists, distinguished in their artistry by the holy spirit of compassionate judgment proclaiming the Rule of Jesus Christ." If we tweak these guidelines slightly, we find that we can be guided by them in almost every area of human vocation. Here is how I would rephrase the guidelines:

  1. Become filled with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Conceive of your vocation as work and undergo its training like a trade.
  3. Distill a fruitful christian vocational tradition in your own blood and pioneer its contribution in our day.
  4. Integrate yourself as a band of christian cultural activists in one vocational sphere with christian taskforces in other cultural areas in order to reach out as a peoplehood of God to the public at large.
  5. Persevere in unfolding your sphere of responsibility historically, with a generations-long patience and hope.

Turning to these guidelines one-by-one, I think there is much that those of us who are not artists can glean from Seerveld's suggestions.

1. Become filled with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

In any vocational sphere, cultural leadership requires a view of the big picture of the encompassing work of God—God's creation, judgment, and redemption of all things. An alert, nuanced response to the good-and-evil borne by the zeitgeist—the spiritual atmosphere of a particular historical moment—in a particular arena of cultural struggle requires an attentiveness to the preceding contemporary work of the Holy Spirit. To gain such a view and to exercise such attentiveness, says Seerveld, "One's roots have to be deep in Jesus Christ and one's sensitivity to creation has to be uncommonly rich." That is, if you mean to bring new life, fresh hope, substantial healing (Francis Schaeffer's helpful phrase, as Steven Garber reminds us) to your theater of action, with a distinctively Christian lilt in the midst of the surrounding historical cacophony. Christian cultural work can not be done by formula.

The unchristian spirit of the age is woven deeply into the cultural possibilities at hand even to Christians. To exorcise it demands the doing of our work within the context of a life structured by the habits of intense prayerfulness. Whatever kind of work we take up, we can be sure that a committed lifetime of service will come with serious difficulty—sacrifice and suffering, even. So we must plead with God that our work be used to establish his reign. Apart from the present work of the Holy Spirit our cultural efforts are a pretense, a waster of time. Seerveld writes, "Unless the river bed of our consciousness is as deep as the living Spirit of God, no matter how fast the water flows or sparkling it seems, it is christianly shallow."

2. Conceive of your vocation as work and undergo its training like a trade.

As Seerveld writes,

no one thing has ruined art so much in Western civilization as the cumulative nonsense about the artist as supra-rational genius, the pious talk about 'creativity,' and the Romanticist creed that an undisciplined bohemian life affords the milieu most conducive for having artistic 'inspiration' strike.

But artists are not the only people suffering from an historical distortion of the nature of their vocation. There is hardly a kind of human work that has not been twisted askew by various cultural forces. While it is necessary to discern the contours of distortion peculiar to each particular vocation, in general it is good to keep in mind that our work is part of the easy yoke of Jesus Christ. All work is "just work"—demanding trained skill and routine practice. At the same time, all work is a wholehearted response to the call of God. All human work requires some kind of educated intelligence, a sensitivity to the needs of our neighbours, and specialized expertise. All work demands a period of apprenticeship before becoming a qualified journeyman approved by God. There is much more to be said about the nature of human work, but these are the basic insights from which to start.

3. Distill a fruitful christian vocational tradition in your own blood and pioneer its contribution in our day.

Seerveld writes that

Christians have no right to be ignorant of history just because they stand in the truth. As guardians of culture Christians should explore omnivorously whatever men and women have done in the Orient and Africa, Europe and the Americas, in ancient times and today, not to paste bits and pieces eclectically together and not to assimilate a nondescript 'best' that has been artistically done throughout the ages, but in order to know surely the consistency and contours of one's own particular christian tradition so that one can work out the integrity of our christian minority culture set off from but in the context of all the other ways men and women have invented cultivating responses.

He continues by arguing,

I believe it is a mistake to try to go back and recapture some earlier, canonic christian synthesis: a holy spirited undertaking will always be driven to work reformingly with an historical inheritance. But it is crucial for would-be christian artists in their youth to realize you cannot go it alone; and it is short-sighted, not to say stupid, in the correct desire to be relevant as christian artist in an unchristian age, to pick up the secular fashion of the immediate generation before us and immerse oneself in that as your tradition […]. That is why christian artists so often seem to be a generation late, rootless and drifting all by themselves, and seldom stand out from their day with art that raises the scandal of christian artistically presented insight.

He concludes by insisting that

the point is—even though it takes years of maturing before you have really distilled an art historical tradition and made it your own: as christian song-writer plumbing the soul of black spirituals or the joy of early jazz, as christian poet getting blood transfusions from Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Hopkins and Thompson, or as painters finding roots in Breughel, Rembrandt, Jan Steen or German 'Expressionist' figures—it is imperative that one enters a communion of artistic saints if one would produce poems and songs and paintings of a third and fourth generation of those kept faithful by the Covenanting God of history.

Whatever our vocation might be, this insight demands that we work hard, not only at acquiring the technical skills and understanding the political demands of our work in the present moment, but also at understanding how Christians in our arena of service have struggled with the creation patterns and historical challenges inherent to this arena. Every cultural activist must in some way be a practical historian, and just a little bit of a philosopher.

Consider the accountant. What is the nature of accountancy? What are the divine ordinances for economic stewardship, financial trothfulness, archival accuracy and communicative imaginativity relevant to the task? How does its history from double-entry bookkeeping to economic value added enable and constrain obedience to those norms, today? Who has struggled with these questions Christianly, not only in theory, but in the everyday practice of the art? Is there a Chaucer or a Rembrandt of accountancy from whom to learn, perhaps? These are questions that can and must be transposed to every area of work, so that we can find the Christian traditions from within which to respond to the call of God.

4. Integrate yourself as a band of christian cultural activists in one vocational sphere with christian taskforces in other cultural areas in order to reach out as a peoplehood of God to the public at large.

Seerveld writes:

Culture always has a global spread; so a minority culture cannot long, purposefully exist as a mini culture, a few loose strands. Christian schooling limps without supportive christian family life; the christian forming of certain abilities can go down the drain if they are ensnared in an utterly unredeemed, mercenary business enterprise; christian artistry remains badgered if there be no gallery outlet or publishing firm or media center that has ended initiation fees, 'best seller' strictures and demands of crowd guarantee. There are numerous exasperating problems in building an integrating minority culture within a dominant, monolithic secular culture (Black culture found this out), for the current monolithic culture tries to disintegrate everything that resists its technocratic mould.

Along these lines I have written in an earlier article for Comment that "I am astonished by the power of liberal capitalism to persuade even those whose deepest commitments should predispose them against the libertarian erosion of communal ties and the grasping extension of market logic beyond its proper economic sphere that there is no alternative. Living in a society guided by liberal capitalism is like being submerged in an acid ocean stretching to the horizon—there seems no possible escape, and the very flesh is being eaten off our bones. Having seen the pragmatic power of liberal capitalism in action up close, in the shaping of the decisionmaking of marxist politicians in Africa and of evangelical social activists in North America, I am perplexed by the difficulty of figuring out how to live faithfully to the gospel, in every sphere of life, in the smothering embrace of a society that is radically and comprehensively guided by this sweetly destructive force."

Christian cultural action can not be done in a Lone Ranger kind of a way—not even with the help of some or other Tonto autochthonous to our arena of cultural service.

As Seerveld continues to write for artists,

the point is this: the most full, cultural obedience by the communion of saints is not the stand-up testimonial of a lone christian artist, to which one may applaud, but rather an international community of christian artists' showing themselves, in all their dedicated weakness, as one open door in a christian cultural ark not established by human hands, where young and old believers and unbelievers may enter as a relief and workshop, out of the pouring secular rain—an open-door, christian minority culture.

This is true in every sphere of culture: somehow, Christians in the arts must band together to challenge and encourage one another—but so must Christians in accounting, and Christians in farming, and Christian car dealers. It is also true in between the spheres of culture: it is necessary for Christian venture capitalists to meet up with Christian arts gallery curators, for Christian families to support Christian schools, for Christian labour unions to engage the services of Christian economics think tanks. Not so as to conspire together for self- or sectarian interest, or so as to advance narrow partisan agendas, but so as to jointly give away to the culture at large the gifts given into our stewardly care.

5. Persevere in unfolding your sphere of responsibility historically, with a generations-long patience and hope.

Seerveld writes:

Culture honouring the Lord has been born long ago […], and in our seeing to it responsibly that christian culture gets born anew in our increasingly secularized day, we must plan long-range and take comfort in the promise of God that the believing generations still in our cultural loins will be given the time and grace to develop our communal offering (cf. Psalms 89, 145). Culture by nature is an ongoing affair that lasts longer than anyone's lifetime. Therefore, to live under the promise of blessing upon the faithful cultivating responses of coming generations taking up our same task in the same spirit of praise and reconciliation takes the pressure off us Christians to set everything straight ourselves, something that bedevils counter-cultural movements. Christ's body does not need to finish its cultural task in a given generation: it only needs to be faithful with what it is entrusted.

Of all five cultural guidelines identified by Seerveld, this is the one that most encourages me. The knowledge that I can make a difference in my generation, although the eventual success of the ultimate project to which I commit my life—the establishment of the reign of God—does not depend on the work of my hands, but is assured by the work of the Holy Spirit, gives meaning to my efforts without overstraining their significance in a utopian way. The combination of hope and patience changes the tone of my work, and enables me to be both grateful and generous in my interactions with my contemporaries. It points to a strategy of cultural engagement that does not depend on cataclysmic success, but instead invites a positive, relentless incrementalism—as in David Mallet's "Garden Song": "Inch by inch, row by row/Gonna make this garden grow …"

I have done little in this article other than to suggest that the cultural guidelines offered to artists by Calvin Seerveld are relevant to other areas of cultural service. Seerveld's directives are worth the repetition, I believe. In whatever sphere of culture we serve, these hints point us in a direction that will enable us to give away our gifts to our neighbours as servant-leaders.

Most fundamentally, we can be assured that "We do not bring Christ's Rule complete to the earth in our lifetime, and we need a vision that will reach across the generations. We only need to be generous stewards of what we have inherited, to edify the faithful and provide direction for the neighbour. God's providing grace and the promise of Christ's Rule is sure."

Topics: Arts Culture

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.