Ep. 082: Art in the Church and World with Sandra McCracken
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Long time singer-songwriter in the Christian world, Sandra McCracken, joins us this week to talk about art and faith, art in the world, and art in the church. The conversation covers things like, Why is the art of music and film (seemingly) the only main mediums used in church’s today? and How can Christian creatives be encouraged to use their art not just in church, but the world also? and What’s the first step in creating art (specifically songwriting)? Because of her many years of experience in this area, she brings a seasoned answer to these questions. Whether or not you call yourself an artist, we all are creative, so this conversation will benefit you.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken. On her site, it lists at least seven albums she’s done, but on Spotify, it shows three more going back to 1999. Maybe there’s a reason why those first three aren’t on her site, but either way, she’s been doing this for a while. Anyways, thanks for being here today Sandra.
Thank you so much. I’m glad to be with you.
First things first, who are you? How did you meet Jesus and what is your life look like right now?
Well, I am from St. Louis Missouri. I’m the youngest of five kids, big family. We had a lot of cousins and extended family, so I grew up really finding that belonging in the context of community. Came to Nashville in about ’95 and became interested in songwriting. I was pretty much interested in music from a young age, just even hearing it on stereo and everybody in my family playing songs for me that they loved. Music and faith and family were all interwoven, so that’s become my craft or the place where I feel called vocationally,
to make art in the form of music.
Then my mom had become a Christian a few years before I was born and taught me the Scriptures from a very young age, and prayed with me. I don’t really remember a time before that. She had a lot of energy and excitement, even, as a young Christian, the excitement that says, “Oh, I want to pass this to my kids,” so I was the beneficiary of that. It’s been a huge part of who I am and how that, the Scripture and even hymns and songs got in my memory and in my heart from such a young age.
When you say that about your mom, my sister and I have a similar story where my parents became Christians about two to three years before we were born, so they were really kind of gung-ho and on fire for their faith, which is really great for that to translate into us at a young age, so that’s really cool.
Since we’re going to be getting into faith and art, Sandra, and I mean, faith and art can be sometimes difficult to think about – at least for some people. I remember actually asking Drew Holcomb in a twitter Q&A, I said, “Do you enjoy thinking about the relationship between faith and art?” and he was like, “I do until the headache starts.” I feel like we all feel that way a little bit. Anyway, so I thought it would be good to begin the conversation with a simple, but maybe it’s hard, a question. What exactly is art and does the Bible shed light on what art is?
Oh, wow. It’s such a good question and such a big question, one that takes a little time and may not have a clear answer, but I think it’s an important one. I would say
art is what comes out of us as people who are made in the image of God.
God is the source and the builder, the architect, the designer, the right potter. All these images of him in the Scriptures that show us that he is innately artistic. He is the source of all that, so as we are made and designed, like Psalm 139 says, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” This intentionality with how we’re made just means we have his fingerprints on us. Those fingerprints are art, and as we put our hands to things in the world, that becomes art. It’s not just painting, it’s not just music, it’s not just the practical study. It’s actually who we are.
Even people that don’t feel like they’re creative or very good at that, maybe they’re more like, “I’m interested in math,” but even that, it’s like there is not … I think it’s Abraham Kuyper who said, “There is not a square inch in this earth that the Lord does not say, ‘This is mine.’”
In all fields, there is artistry because we are made in the image of our creator, God.
Some people really identify, like, “I am an artist,” or “I am creative,” and some people don’t. The reality is, since we’re made in his image as you were just saying, we all have that capability of doing things creatively, whether it’s a math equation or writing a song, which I think is really cool.
Sandra, I don’t know about you, but I feel like in the last 10 years or so churches and parachurch organizations have really grabbed hold of specifically the art of music and film. They use those two things to tell stories, to worship with, to do their announcements, to market and promote, all that stuff. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. That’s good, but for the vast majority of Christian creative’s in the church, I find that this can sometimes create a false mindset that music and film are like the most important mediums of art. That if they wanted to do art, they have to either be on staff or volunteer at a church. I don’t know. I know it’s kind of a vague sort of thing, but do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah. That’s an interesting thought, question. In hearing it, I guess the analogy that comes to mind is that those forms of media are at the present moment, like the most accessible public transportation, like socially. It’s the way by which your idea comes over here or mine goes there. It’s not, of course it’s not exclusive to church and church organizations, or parachurch organizations. It’s happening in the larger culture as we are more and more plugged in and we’re more and more connected digitally to each other, and all the things that come with that, and all the things we could say about that. I think it’s on one practical simple level. It’s like, that’s just how we are. That’s how we communicate.
That’s the back and forth, so it would make sense that that’s used by churches the way that we, as a church, tend to follow the norms of the larger culture rather than pioneering or leading out of true imagination that comes from our design in who God has made us to be.
We sort of just jump on the train and we’re not driving the train, we’re not critiquing whether or not this train is going to the right place.
Trajectory is important because that train might be pretty close to where you’re aiming but then when the trajectory is aimed pretty far out, you might land somewhere you didn’t need to land, some whole other town of thought or habit, and so I’d say I don’t feel a lot of judgment toward music or film being used that way but maybe even below that, just to acknowledge that we are plugging into systems that are already in motion culturally that help us to communicate to each other to find connection, which I think is the human struggle.
How do we connect to each other in such an individualistic moment of society?
Now, how have you as a Christian artist – or an artist who’s a Christian, I’m not sure what you like to go by – but how have you thought about art in the church generally and art in the world? So sort of separating the whole sacred secular divide? Maybe there’s a whole conversation there as well, but how has that played a role in your life?
It’s taken many, it’s been kind of a meandering journey since I was really young. Even when I was growing up, I was exposed to lots of different kinds of music. My mom exposed me to church music and then my dad and my siblings exposed me to different genres of style like country and rock ‘n roll, and Johnny Cash. I don’t know what he is, but all these different … I think that was part of my formation as an artist, as a musician, was to say, “Man, this is all good.” There’s good and beautiful in every one of these different reflections of music as far as genre and instrumentation and arrangements is concerned. That led me on a path to try to figure out, “Well, what is it that I want to make?”
Over the years, that’s changed. Sometimes I would make an album of … The large majority of the time, as a vocation, as a craft, I’ve made my living as a singer-songwriter and just stayed off the radar. It was like Americana or folk or however you … pop, or however you would categorize that, from record to record. Then in the last few years, I have just found a natural and personal calling toward ministry in the church. I don’t think it’s more sacred or more elevated than the other.
It’s just where I’ve been called, and so my trajectory in that regard has moved me toward serving a local congregation, singing and wanting to communicate Scripture with new melodies in ways that feels fresh and emotive. I’ve spent a lot of time doing that. I don’t know that that’s what I’ll always do but I sure love it right now. I feel, yeah, I guess that’s to say that I would value all kinds of shapes and sizes in terms of what we’re called to do within a field.
What would you, as someone that’s been in the … I don’t know, you’ve been doing art through music for a long time now, in the world but also in the church. How would you encourage or maybe give guidelines to young Christian creative’s who desire to do art outside of the church? Would you kind of help give guidelines, I guess?
Oh, man. I would encourage that. I think doing all kinds, like sacred and secular, I think that the distinction between those two can be a very … just making a dichotomy out of those two where they’re separate is problematic, and so I would affirm creatives to, which is all of us, in whatever the field, to … If you were in a different vocation, if you were like a math teacher, as we talked about the example of math, you wouldn’t feel like it’s more … in one sense, you’re not doing Christian math or secular math. You’re doing math.
This is the design of the universe, the way that God has made it. It causes us to wonder and worship, and scratch our heads and wonder, especially in my case when it comes to math. I think it applies to music as well, and I would encourage folks to explore widely within a general market of whatever their unfiltered art needs to be.
I think at the same time, we need community. I can be very permeable and I need to know that I’m anchored to a community that I’m accountable to. If I were just off the rails and in a party scene with music for an extended period of time, it would cause my soul and my spirit to become hungry for nourishment. Just practically, it’s not that I would be bad and the others good. It would be like, “No, that’s not really smart. You’re not feeding your soul.”
So being connected and anchored to truth and to community, to other believers and to the Scripture, I think, is part of the balance when you’re continuing to be out in light and darkness, whatever that looks like.
Along with that question, to dig a little deeper on a specific part of that kind of issue, how would you encourage Christian creative’s to not only think that their art can benefit a Sunday service, but also the rest of the world on any given day?
I think that’s a great question to ask. I would say the focal point for me is that I wouldn’t think too widely or too … The most effective and the most embodied form of faith would be small and particular, so rather than thinking about like, “Oh, these people on the other side of the world that I’ve never actually met and I don’t really know anything about,” to try to think too far out there can be futile because you missed the idea that
you are actually put in a place in life with very particular people.
Those people you might want to … you might have a resistance to because they actually know you and you know them.
The more particular it is, if you’re a songwriter and you’re writing for a local congregation, or you’re writing for a particular service, or you’re setting music to a text that would be relevant for this Sunday in July, that tends to be where art becomes most universal at the same time because you’re getting specific about what you mean and where it belongs.
This is another question. It’s kind of a shotgun approach, by the way. I’m just asking you all these different questions, which is awesome. You’re giving good answers, but how can we draw from the Scriptures to help us make our art? For instance, you have your album called Psalms, which obviously you went and spent time in the Psalms in order for you to then write these songs. Anyways, how can we draw from the Scriptures to help us in our art?
That’s a good question. I think sometimes we can be very transactional or very pragmatic about like, “Oh, I just want to read this so that I can write something about it,” and then you get to where you’re just reading so that you can write something and you’re not actually taking it in. As John would say, like to eat the words, that you actually take them in, and the Psalms is talking about the words being like honey.
It requires slowness of taste, of experience, like letting all your senses take it in.
I think, I did make an album of Psalms, but that album formation actually began when I was probably three years old and my mom wrote portions of Psalms on an index card and it became like part of the sustaining grace of life. These are the words that you go to when you’re sad or when you’re scared or when you are happy. As basic as that is, it’s like that was a slow reveal. I think, I don’t know. I think that’s the invitation of faith and of even the Christian, the history of faith, is to say “we slow down.” We are invited to slow down and to savour and to just realize that God wants to meet us and not just have a transaction with us.
He doesn’t just want to save us. He wants to actually be in communion with us.
Yeah. It’s interesting. I was just talking with Don Whitney a little while ago. He wrote a book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, and he talks about meditation. As you say this, all I have is that word “meditation” in my mind because really that’s what you’re doing. You’re eating the words. They are like honey in your mouth. You’re reflecting on them. It really is this kind of meditation, which Scripture tells us that we have to do anyway, so it makes sense.
We have to train our habits to where we would want that because all the natural default, like as Jamie Smith would say, the habits or the liturgical formation of our culture is like, “Go to the mall. Buy something.” It would be very immediate gratification and just put something new on that and it’s going to be shiny and everyone will want that. It’s like, “No, this is an invitation to something else.” It takes, it’s very opposite and I think … It’s not just the discipline. I love that word, meditation.
It’s been one that I think is experiencing some revival because that word is so associated with Eastern or Buddhist ideas that we think, “Oh, just to empty our minds,” but biblical Christianity, like Christ-following meditation would be what you’re describing where you sit with the presence of God and allow him to speak truth and beauty that you’re not having to do the work. You’re just receiving his presence and then whatever he’s going to give. He’s so ready to give. I think as we begin to taste that, like the honey, we begin to want more of it. It does take time.
Well, it’s interesting. As you say that, I’m starting to think in my mind, I’m like rhetorically … Can a good effective Christian artist be a super fast-paced person in the sense that it says in the Psalms that we have to be still and know that he is God? In order to actually meditate on Scripture and fill our minds with who he is, we can’t be a perfect product from our culture because our culture is go, go, go. I think there has to be that. Would you agree with that, that an artist has to be, like “slow down” a little bit?
Yeah, I think it’s even just written on us as humans. Even for artists that are not followers of Jesus, there’s something about Sabbath practice that was intended from the very beginning that we have rest, we have white space, so if you take a day off, even pure business principle, when they do studies about people taking vacation time or taking a day off, shutting their phones off and being with their families, it increases productivity. Practically, it makes sense because we are designed for rest and we’re designed ultimately to rest in God, but those little things that we build in, they just make sense.
Art that’s coming up out of chaos or the path of least resistance, you’re just bottom feeding. You’re just going along and taking the scraps or whatever else is sifting to the bottom.
I have a friend, Makoto Fujimura, who is at Fuller Seminary and talks a lot about, in culture care, his work, there are a lot of resources around from artists like Makoto who demonstrate the slowness of art and of being human and of following Jesus in that way. I’ve learned a lot just from sitting with that.
As our last question here, what would you say is the first step in creating a piece of art? For you, maybe you could speak specifically when it comes to songwriting? What is the first step?
That’s right on the heels of your last question. I think the first step is having enough margins, so having some rest, having a deep breath and maybe it’s a little bit of silence, prayer, time to reflect, time to shut things off and get quiet. I think that feels like it helps to create a blank canvas, even if I’m not a painter, but metaphorically, the blank canvas or the blank page and just letting that be and realizing that from that starting point that
to write something or to bring a song into the world does not make me more meaningful or more loved or more significant to God or to other people.
I think starting from that place of centeredness and receiving God’s creative love and energy, I think that is, ideally, that’s where you begin.
Then lastly, lastly for real. You released God’s Highway last fall. To listeners who don’t know what that is, that’s one of Sandra’s albums. Thanks for your work on it. It was awesome. Can we be looking toward something new in the future?
Yes, there is a new project called Steadfast Live. It’s coming out in August, August 25th. It is a recording, both audio and video, so it’s old-fashioned. It’ll be available online as well.
We basically captured one evening performance in a living room in Nashville at an old church that’s been converted into a home. It’s prayerful and contemplative. There’s music performance and there’s group singing and stories woven in. There are some new songs on that as well and it continues to highlight some of the songs from God’s Highway and just this season of God meeting people in the stories of our lives.
I love it. That’s awesome. Sandra, thanks so much for your time and your wisdom. If you’re listening right now and you’re interested in Sandra’s music or Steadfast Live, this new initiative that they have coming out in August, you can go to SandraMcCracken.com where you’ll find all of her albums, well almost all of them. If you want those first three, then you go to Spotify.
If you’re a musician, she’s also put the lead sheets to her two latest albums up for free, which is also really cool. Anyways, thank you so much Sandra and I hope to have you back on the show again soon.
Thank you so much Isaac.