Nigerian Christian Arts: Creative, Spiritual And Intellectual?

In a recent chat with a writer friend, he seemed to see me a ‘religious writer’ and much as I hate categorization of sorts, I couldn’t mount a protest against him. For each time I pick up my pen or computer to write, I seem to ostensibly wriggle in Christian themes into my works though by default. So on many occasions, I have been guilty of committing the inevitable ‘crime’ of expressing my spiritual and Christian worldview in a lot of my writings in the public domain. Recently, the moderator of a website who had requested me to contribute articles to the site had ‘warned’ me not to send in writings with religious themes for according to him ”the youths who visit the website are indifferent towards spiritual and religious matters since they tend to be divisive and controversial.”

As an arts and culture enthusiast, I am not happy with the quality of music that rules the airwaves in Nigeria. I flinch often when I flip through music channels only to be treated with music that burnishes and elevates mediocrity to an enviable level. They are bereft of lyrical content and unable to stimulate the intellect. Someone described today’s popular music and culture as amusement oriented, entertainment-driven and diversionary, hence not intended to engage the mind. And because it is profit-oriented, marketing techniques and new technologies are used to push the music to the psyche of the public. And with the connivance of our profit-driven corporate bodies that sponsor shows and awards, we end up accepting the deplorable status quo without a fight.

As a Christian I have tried to seek for refuge in Nigerian Christian music but have ended up sulking in disappointment. I would have despaired save for a few musicians with Christian background like Jeremiah Gyang, Samsong, ‘Olorioko’ crew, Mike Aremu, Iyke Onka, Modele, Tosin Martins, Kunle Ayo, Buchi , Chris Delvan and a few others. I deliberately left out the ‘gospel music made in Ariara market Aba’ for most part; they sound like the ranting and gossip between two ‘face-me-I-face-you’ neighbors.

Rather than produce an alternative to the shallow art around, Christian artists have also joined the bandwagon of those who produce music, books and magazines just for amusement and mindless entertainment that lack spiritual content. When Asa’s music landed on the scene in late 2007, so many Nigerians experienced what it means for art ( in this case music) to be spiritual, intellectual and yet creative. And I still haven’t heard of any church that claimed ownership of Asa, yet pious believers are proud to stock her CDs.and even bought extras to dole out to friends like I did severally.

At the heart of the grouse is the tendency for contemporary Christian artists to produce works that are mediocre and ordinary when compared to the creatively superior but non-religious art produced by the broader culture. Only a few contemporary Christian artists have produced works that crossed both cultural and religious boundaries. The Christian artist’s audiences seem to be those that sit on the same pews with them every Sunday. They accept and consume whatever he produces as a member of their community without subjecting it to critical analysis like others in the broader culture. Rather than influence the culture positively, we get swallowed up and remain passive. This prompted a leading American contemporary Christian arts critique, Frankie Schaeffer to express his disappointment with evangelicals/Pentecostals and their art in his book aptly titled, “Addicted to Mediocrity.”

Some critics have actually accused Christianity of stifling creativity and originality. Moreover Christian artists seem to generally copy and imitate the contemporary pop culture and in doing so have become poor imitations of the original. For instance, the average Christian hip hop/rap artists are far behind the hip-hop guys in the mainstream hip-hop culture and other genres of artistic expression. In his bid to ‘catch-up’ with the latest trend/s, he ends up producing shoddy works. But for centuries before the age of modernism, Christians were known for their intellectual, artistic and spiritual contributions to society.

Christians first thought RAP music was from the pit of hell only to reckon later that it is pure poetry and spoken word on the fast lane. Now we struggle to rap like late-bloomers. We also thought ragamuffin and dance hall was evil and now we can’t push Sean Paul out of the hot seat. We let R. Kelly teach us how best to sing R&B by allowing him produce and release his gospel R& B album on our behalf when he’s so far away from church-life. We have not been trend-setters and trail blazers for the wider society in the major genres of arts except for an insignificant few. With all the resources available in churches, we still don’t have enough Christian-owned state-of-the-art digital studios where Christian artists can horn their skills to produce quality music and films that are culturally-relevant to the society.

T.S. Eliot, a respected Christian poet once said that “No culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion: according to the point of view of the observer, the culture will appear to be the product of religion, or the religion the product of the culture.” Unfortunately, the Christian artist has sequestered himself from the mainstream culture for fear of being contaminated rather than contribute to the creation of positive culture.

We now have a generation of artists, tagged Christian actors, musicians and writers whose artistic expressions are popular only within the walls of cathedrals and church auditoriums. Yet we complain and feel frustrated that mainstream artists are producing works that are shallow and bereft of spiritual and intellectual content. We can now appreciate the famous saying of C.S. Lewis that ”we don’t need Christian writers but great writers who are Christian” and whose art reflect and explore the experiences of living existence and occurrences gilded by their Christian worldview.

Ben Okafor; a Nigerian-born Christian and a reggae/world music artist based in the UK, few months ago exhorted me to ensure that my writings and artistic expressions are not compromised in terms of their intellectual, spiritual and creative content. He lamented that popular Nigerian music and arts seem to be creative in its beats and rhythm but spiritually and intellectually bankrupt. We all consume the impoverished offerings of today’s pop culture without critiquing the steady diet of drivel which Nigerian artists especially musicians have been offering our patched palates and taste buds.

Many Christians in Nigeria complain of how the ‘booty calls’ and ‘do me I do you’ songs have been eroding the value systems of the youths and even adults who consume Naija hip-hop. But the ‘born again’ artists seem to provide no alternatives to what the media are promoting through their airwaves. Sadly Christian artists are not making any cultural statement with his music or his writings whereas there’s a strong connection between spirituality and arts.

The Christian who claims to be in touch with God, the Arch-ARTIST, should not produce any art that is mediocre or shallow. His art should exude from the wellspring of his faith and spirituality, without necessarily being preachy and confrontational. It should be transcendent and able to illuminate the path to God. When done properly and creatively, the Christian’s art should help people ‘see God’.

A kindergarten teacher while walking around her classroom to see each child’s artwork asked a little girl what she was drawing, and she quipped, “I am drawing God.” With bated eyelids her teacher protested, “But no one knows what God looks like.” Sounding confident and still engrossed with her drawing, the little girl shot back, “They will in a minute!”

Christian art should give expression to the collective frustrations of modern living and able to connect with our pains and aspirations as a people. Bono was credited as once saying that

“the music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot; that God is the centre of the jaunt.” In the opening page of his novel ‘As It Is In Heaven’, the Irish writer Niall Williams showed that arts helps us to explore the mysteries of life when he wrote, “there are only three great puzzles in the world. The puzzle of love, the puzzle of death, and between each of these and part of both of them; the puzzle of God. God is the greatest puzzle of all.”

Even non-Christians and irreligious artists have also experienced the transcendent while writing, painting, singing, and other forms of art because it connects us with God and the deepest and immaterial elements of our being. I experience such feelings when I watch Yanni close his eyes to escape from this world while his fingers waltz across the black and white keys of his piano. I experience the transcendent when I watch Nigeria’s Cobhams Asuquo sing or play the piano deftly even when he doesn’t ‘see’ the notes on the keyboard. The artists who experience the transcendent as they produce their art become inseparable from the source of their joy. Hence the saxophonist falls in love with his sax like Mike Aremu, the jazz guitarist like Nigeria’s Kunle Ayo won’t part with his guitar, while the painter sees himself in the strokes and lines on his painted canvas.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic believer who wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy; a collection that was named the most influential literature in the twentieth century in some polls. His works reflected deep thinking and only a spiritually-creative person would be able to create the ‘middle earth’ and craft an entirely novel and unspoken language used in that classic. He may not have died as a billionaire author and writer like today’s J.K. Rowling of the famed Harry Potter series, but his legacy as a transcendent writer is unquestionable. The history of classical music is incomplete without the mention of Christians like Bach, Mendelsen, Handel etc who shaped the culture of their day. Tolstoy was a Russian Christian whose literary genius earned him accolades globally and he espoused the principle of non-violence which influenced M. Ghandi and by extension, Martin Luther King Jr. It was said of Shakespeare that he used his plays to creatively smuggle intelligence into the broader culture in an entertaining way.

Novelist John Updike once said, “I feel I am closest to God when writing. You’re singing praises. You’re describing the world, as it is. And even if the passages turn out sordid or depressing, there is something holy about the truth.” I also feel close and in tune with God through my writings in the past. In 2007, I gave a friend my personal journal to read through. She later gave it to her mom to read through. It took several months before I could retrieve it because according to her mom, the journal ‘made her think about God’. In the said journal, I wrote from the depths of my pains, sorrows, joy and desperations. They were prayers that I didn’t pray out loud but had poured out of my heart through writing. It was such a humbling experience that made me know how art can stoke our spiritual longings!

Tolkien said that artists are ‘sub-creators and as such, even their best work should be done humbly in recognition of their inadequacy as tools in God’s hands. James Lee Burke (one of the two authors to win two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America) sees the artist as an unworthy co-creator with God. When ARTS is viewed from this perspective, it makes the musician, author, and painter etc to reckon that he is literally a conduit pipe through which the divine essence flows to the society by favor of his creative expressions. It is therefore the responsibility of the artists to dig into the deeper recesses of his spirit to harness his creative resources for the production of arts that stretches the boundaries, and able to snub the allure of ordinariness and mediocrity.

He should write or compose his songs like the emergency doctor in whose hands, hangs the precious life of an accident victim. This is in synch with what Annie Dillard said to writers. “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

In an interview published on Sunday, the 15th of March 2009 in Nigeria’s latest newspaper, NEXT on Sunday, Tobenna Okwuosa (first class honors’ graduate of University of Benin); an avant garde artist whose best medium is acrylic, oil, PVC, leather-cloth and wood, said that arts connects us with the physical and sublime, and very closely connected with spirituality and life. He further stated that art has lost its original relevance in our present society due to materialism.

Besides his deep respect for the traditional African artist, he said his favorite artist of all time is the famous non-objective painter Wassily Kandisky (1866-1944) who stated in his book, “Uber das Geistige in der Kunst [Concerning the Spiritual in Art] “Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will someday reach heaven.”

Written by
Felix-Abrahams Obi
Join the discussion

  • Greetings:

    As an aspiring Catholic author of fiction stories, I have struggled with the thought of coming across as too preachy towards my reader. But I can not help that…I’m a believer. Our Father is the center of my life…and I want to share Him with my reader.

    This was a very insightful article.

    God’s peace…


  • I enjoyed reading your article so much that I was left wishing there was more at the end.

    This has really inspired me and I feel as though you have given a voice to something I have been shouting about inside my mind for a very long time.

    I am glad to know that I am not alone. Good work, more grease to your elbows!