Balladeers shape culture
We are witnessing the slow death of Western civilization and indeed whole nations in Europe and North America. Cultural Marxists and their moral and cultural relativist followers celebrate this deconstruction of Western culture and society. Others mourn the loss of the order that made the glory of Western civilization and the lands of freedom and opportunity, the order that created great nations and, in the case of the United States, a great nation of immigrants.
Those who mourn should take courage: we can act to turn the tide and bring revival and reformation. Among other assets, we need a new generation of balladeers. We need minstrels, traveling singers and artists who move from place to place telling stories, reciting ballads, singing of heroic actions and peoples.
Culture is upstream from economics, politics and society. Who shapes culture more than anyone else? It is the artists, those who consciously create or critique culture with their art.
These people may be called modern-day balladeers. They are singers and songwriters, playwrights and filmmakers, writers and poets, painters and sculptors, choreographers and composers, architects and fashion designers. From these gifted artists we must call forth a movement of modern-day balladeers.
Every movement must have its music and art. British historian Arnold Toynbee believed that civilizations did not need to die; they can be revived through a creative minority. That minority includes the balladeers, the artists who through their art bring a life-giving, cultural-reforming message.
Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust,
Send in the artists, mystics and clowns. Their fertile imagination pours the new wine of the gospel into fresh wineskins. With fresh language, poetic vision and striking symbols they express God’s inexpressible word in artistic forms that are charged with the power of God, engaging our minds and stirring our hearts as they flare and flame.
Reformers who were balladeers
Martin Luther and other reformers were such balladeers. It was Luther and his peers working from the framework of the Judeo-Christian monotheism that lifted countries out of poverty, brought literacy to the masses and opened the way to the modern world. Luther understood that every movement needed its music. He has been
described as “the father of protest songs.” It was a way to convey theological truth to the masses. Luther wrote, “By embellishing and animating their tunes in wonderful ways singers could lead others into a heavenly dance.”
Luther and his followers reveled in communal singing with the common man in their heart language, in Luther’s case, German. At the time, 85 percent of Germans were illiterate. But as Luther set to music lyrics conveying biblical truth, they were able to learn these songs and thus be effectively catechized to some degree.
In The Balladeers of the Reformation Andrea Valentino writes of Luther’s impact.
But if Luther’s music was soothing to supporters, his hymns also grabbed new converts. New music buzzed from town to town before the Catholic authorities could swat it down. As with other aspects of the Reformation the printing press was key; Luther’s hymns were sold hot off the press as pamphlets and taught to entire cities by traveling singers. Sometimes Luther’s hymns worked faster than he did. In Mackburg, mass singing of his anthems converted the whole town months before Luther arrived.
Then you have John and Charles Wesley and the English revivals. It is said that Charles Wesley composed between 6000 and 9000 hymns over his lifetime, composing an estimated 10 lines of verse every day for 50 years! Between the two of them, John and Charles published 56 collections of hymns over a 53-year period. Some are classics still being sung today.
Like Luther before them, the Wesleys’ music captured the imagination of non-literate masses, bringing new life and a new order to English society. Among the children of the Wesley revivals are William Carey, the father of modern missions, and Arthur Guinness, founder of Guinness Brewery. Guinness was one of the greatest social reformers in Catholic Ireland, and at the same time his company produced one of the landmark beers in the world.
Balladeers contributed to the abolition of slavery
A third child of the Wesley’s was William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament who led the Clapham sect that fought for the reform of England and the end of the slave trade.
Many balladeers joined the movement to emancipate slaves. Josiah Wedgwood, an English potter and entrepreneur, founded the Wedgwood company to produce some of the finest ceramics in the world. He joined the emancipation movement under the leadership of Wilberforce and Clarkson and in 1787 developed the slave medallion that adorned hat pins, brochures plates and decorative plaques. The slave medallion read, Am I not a man and a brother?
England’s growing middle class and wealthy were made aware of the evil of slavery through these slave medallions. Many became advocates of emancipation. Today we wear T-shirts that promote or protest all kinds of messages. Wedgwood’s medallions were the protest T-shirts of his day. By 1791 thousands of these medallions were in the public eye. They changed public sentiment about slavery. As Clarkson remarked of Wedgwood’s fight against slavery, “He made his own manufactory contribute to the end. Fashion which usually confines itself to worthless things was seen for once in the honorable office of promoting the cause of justice humanity and freedom.”
Wedgwood was a balladeer using his art form of pottery to speak prophetically to the nation contributing to the end of slavery in the British Empire.
Across the Atlantic in the United States other balladeers were fighting to set the slaves free. One was Harriet Beecher Stowe, an American author with over 30 titles to her credit. In her writing she was a reformer and an abolitionist. Her 1852 book Uncle Tom’s Cabin spoke prophetically to the conscience of the nation regarding slavery. The novel was developed into a play. Together, the two reached millions of people with the abolitionist message. Like Wedgwood in England Stowe made a major contribution to the emancipation of slaves in the USA.
Jarius Lincoln, author and songwriter, published a song book titled Anti-Slavery Melodies for the Friends of Freedom. The book included 57 songs and hymns. It was used at abolitionist meetings and rallies to get the people singing messages that stirred the heart and changed the mind. One of its most famous was hymn 17, an abolitionist parody of My Country Tis of Thee.
My country! ’tis of thee,
Stronghold of slavery,
Of thee I sing:
Land where my fathers died,
Where men man’s rights deride,
From every mountainside,
Thy deeds shall ring.
My native country! thee,
Where all men are born free,
If white their skin:
I love thy hills and dales,
Thy mounts and pleasant vales,
But hate thy negro sales,
As foulest sin.
Seeger (who, unlike the examples above, was not a professing Christian) had two underlying assumptions: 1) Music has the power to bring transformation to society, and 2) individuals have significance and power to effect change. He introduced a whole generation to the power of music to protest injustice. His was not simply a work of entertaining large crowds. He didn’t merely sing, he got the people at his concerts to sing his songs of fighting against injustice. Through his music he got them singing and engaging and spreading the message.
One of the favorite songs of the civil rights movement was We Shall Overcome Someday. Go to YouTube to listen to Pete Seeger leading a crowd in that song.
Balladeers needed today!
In another time, Stowe, Lincoln, and Seeger used their art to shape the culture. What about today? Where are the Christian artists today? Some are involved in worship, some in evangelism. These are good things. We need music and art in the life of the church and the proclamation of the gospel outside the church. But so many Christian artists are involved in simply entertaining the church.
On the other hand, some Christian artists do their art for the sake of the creator, the primary artist, to reflect God in his nature. They are reflecting the primary creation, its beauty and its brokenness from the fall. To do art for the sake of the Creator, this is enough.
But where are those rare Christian balladeers who are called to use their music and art form to speak prophetically to culture, to create culture that is reflective of the kingdom of God, to build nations through their music and art? Our societies desperately need Christian balladeers to step into their role and contribute.
What are the makings of a Christian balladeer?
First, they have a calling for the arts and a secondary calling to use their art to speak prophetically to the culture.
Second, they pursue excellence in their craft. What does it take to produce excellence? In his book Outlier, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Where are the Christian artists who love God and are so thankful His gift that they will spend the time necessary to master their skills and become excellent in their calling?
Third, they have a love for the Lord and have a vision for the advancement of his kingdom.
Fourth, they are serious students of the word of God. They understand the biblical worldview and seek to consciously function within the framework of the worldview of the Jews and the Christians. They love truth, beauty and goodness, the culture of the kingdom. They bring that culture into society, putting feet to the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.”
We need Christian artists to write the plays, poems, songs, books, and screenplays of a great protest movement, a new reformation. We do not need more nice Christians; we need more dangerous Christians. As my friend Tish Shelton says, “There seems to be something lacking in our churches these days. We’ve done a great job producing nice Christians rather than dangerous Christians full of courage, ready to take risks.”
These Christian balladeers will deal with pressing themes like the dignity of all human life. They will promote family, marriage and binary relationships.
They will sing and paint and write about the beauty of human sexuality, of justice, human creativity and entrepreneurship. They will speak and sing about a moral ecology for economics, and an ecology of creation, the stewardship of the land.
And they will speak truth, and the need for truth in media universities and in science.
If you are an artist are you ready to be a balladeer to speak prophetically to the culture?
Are you ready to join a movement to bring revival and indeed reformation to the Western world?
A movement needs artists to carry the message through their songs, through their plays, through their sculptures. Are you available?
Consider putting your heart and talent to work to contribute to the discipling of nations by your work in the arts.
- Darrow Miller