Reflect the Times

Let The Artist Speak

Nina Simone, an American singer and civil rights activist, said it best.

“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

An artist’s responsibility is to demonstrate to the viewer, the art gazer, the entertainment consumer that which they observe about society, structures, and individuals of their choosing. Their reflection is subjective, be it offensive, degrading, on the mark, or indecipherable. Artists have a way of communicating to us what quotidian vernacular fails to do. The final work of art is then immortalized or fetishized because of its absurdity or its striking verisimilitude to its source.    

We reflect on Shakespeare’s poetic prowess concerning feudalism, assassinations, and forbidden romance in a world where Queen Elizabeth I reigned. Her rule was plagued by wars between England and France, wars concerning religion, disputes about her Protestantism in a world where Catholic doctrine was accepted as the only true faith, and lastly, she combated internal strife because she did not marry nor did she have children to further the royal bloodline into the future. William Shakespeare had his fair share of content from which to develop his perennial literature.

The Influence of Elizabeth I

“Elizabeth I reigned for 45 years, from 1558 to 1603. Shakespeare, born in 1564, spent the majority of his life under her rule. The influence of the Queen, and the way in which she portrayed herself, was pervasive, and can be seen in many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Merry Wives of Windsor. In this play, reference is made to the Queen of the Fairies, an allusion to Elizabeth.” 

Let us consider Langston Hughes, a Black American poet who used his intellect as a means to portray the realities of black suffering into poetic beauty. His controversial dicta held little back about black strife, pain, lynchings, poverty, and outright depression in an era where blues music, nightclubs, and daily beatings of black bodies by white cops and lynch mobs were ubiquitous in the American Deep South. Hughes used his reality to inform his art and his artwork informed the public, better demonstrating to them what was really happening in the ghettos and how that reality was ugly but worth publishing.

Christ in Alabama

“Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!

Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.

God is His father:
White Master above,
Grant Him your love.

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth.
Nigger Christ
On the cross of the South.”

“An artist’s duty… is to reflect the times.” 

Black liberation theologian James H. Cone reflects on the sad reality that many sciences and arts have ventured to tackle the truth about black suffering in America, absent one, theology. 

In his autobiographical work, I Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, he makes a scathing claim against Christian theologians who spoke plenty about God’s love for all people but were silent about the ills of racism in America. 

“At that time, sit-ins and Freedom Rides were erupting all over the South. Black and white activists were being beaten bloody, sometimes killed, for advocating the right to eat at lunch counters, ride on integrated interstate buses, or use public bathrooms. White ministers condemned their actions from their pulpits and in the media, calling such activists “outside agitators,” “communists,” “criminals,” and “thugs.” White theologians, including my advisor and his colleagues, said nothing. They taught as if nothing was happening in the streets of America. My anger had been building for days, months, even years. I felt that I should be with my brothers and sisters who were actively fighting for black freedom.”

James Cone informs us that an artist who is unaffected by his or her surroundings is no artist at all. And I will go to the length to claim that a theologian who fails to reflect the plight of his immediate community, or rather, the broader community of believers – their hopes, aspirations, their pains, their oppression – is disinterested in his craft or morally compromised and unable to produce any good fruit from his studies. 


If PETs (preachers, elders, and teachers) cannot look outside of the four walls of their church buildings to bring more to their communities than systematic theology then they’re soulless individuals.

If the theology, the message, the hope that was imbued to a small body of believers two thousand years ago cannot resonate and advise the lives of modern-day Christians, then that message is corrupt and filthy. 

A messenger of this gospel of hope who cannot address the problems of our society in the 21st century is no messenger at all. This person becomes a vase of regurgitated cultural intellectualism that suits the intelligentsia of yesteryear but leaves the commoner by the wayside. 

If women are abandoned while books are studied and libraries are filled with volumes of theological information, then the message is corrupt. If racial minorities are forgotten in the process to advance the gospel then it isn’t the gospel, it’s racial supremacy disguised as religious edicts. If the poor are forgotten as we venture to fatten ourselves with more conferences, more exposition magazines, hermeneutical study guides then what we are worshipping is knowledge and we’re no better off than the gnostics of the fourth century. 

Our God is information, our priests are professors and diplomas substitute immersive baptism. We care little for people and prove this by stepping over them as we wave our accomplishments in academia and further enrich our lords by writing about everything but that which truly matters.

Reflect the times does not mean our theology is formed, molded, influenced, and possibly distorted by our culture and time. 


It means our theology is timeless and fruitful enough to address every cultural-socio issue that arises without losing its integrity. 

“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

Theologians are artists, too, you know. 

Not many are good ones. 

Featured Image by David Mitchell.

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