Monday’s post brought up a conversation about Art, and our current [mis]understanding of it in relation to the Church, and as Christians. It made me think of a couple of posts I wrote awhile back, attempting to define what Art is – and is not – for Christians. They were probably the most linked-to posts on my blog, generating quite a lot of discussion. So it seemed like a good time to re-present them. Here’s the first, originally titled “If it’s Christian…”
I’ve been thinking about what today’s Christian culture regards as the “Christian Arts” – literature, music, art, movies. Frankly, it’s not very inspiring. No modern-day Paradise Losts or Mozarts or Sistine Chapels. Tragic. Shameful. We don’t even know what we’re missing because we don’t recognize it anymore. Beauty and creativity all get watered down by rules and legalism and suspicion and modernist literal thinking into a gray morass of mediocrity. By rules and literalism I mean Christian art/literature/music must always be about God, or a “Christian” theme, include Bible verses, and provide closure with Jesus as the solution.
I’ll be frank: those expressions are not Art. They may be creative, and thought-provoking, and have a place in the Christian life. But true Art is something else entirely. So – tackling a giant topic in a short amount of space – here are some radical definitions for “Christian” art. (For all art, really.)
1. It has to be excellent. The artist must be skilled. Art has rules for design and the use of color and texture, and it’s true that you must first know the rules in order to break them. The same is true for music and movies and literature. No shortcuts or imitations.
2. It does not have to have a purpose. Meaning, (particularly of art and music) it does not have to convey a message. It can just be. Beautiful. Thought-provoking. Disturbing. Like a flower or a sunset that has no purpose other than to wildly display a riot of temporary color and beauty. God came up with the idea of useless beauty.
3. It does have to be true. This one gets a little stickier, and is where some “Christian artists” can get confused. Simply put, “true” is when something matches reality. Christian art must certainly be true. Stories and characters must match reality. Dan Edelen wrote an excellent post awhile back about literary characters. Real people struggle, and have conflict. They fail. They even curse. Yes, dammit, they really do. (And I’m not talking about movies that use the F-bomb in place of writing meaningful dialogue.) Real people sin. (gasp!) And truthfully relating the conflict of that sin and failure is truly Christian Art.
One more thought about #3. Themes are the overarching values of a movie, or book. Conflict is a situation that moves the story forward. It is what propels the characters to specific actions – honorable or not. Christians often completely overlook a movie’s often-Christian themes, because they are offended by specific conflict. (Think forest and trees.) Finding Nemo is a goofy example. Some Christian parents decry the film because it depicts children being disrespectful to parents. This is simply the conflict that drives the story. It matches reality. (Last time I checked, most kids are at some point disrespectful to their parents.) The theme of the film is a father’s love for his son, and his relentless pursuit to find him and bring him home, despite all dangers and obstacles. I think this might be a Christian movie.
4. Non-Christians can create Christian Art. (I’ll wait while you get back in your chair.) Human beings (believers or not) are all created in the image of God, and all bear the thumbprint of His creativity. Non-believers can certainly create something that is excellent, and true. Lost people expressing their “lostness” in a yearning for love and acceptance and meaning is very Christian. (We were all there at some point.) Don’t split hairs about them not intending it for God. I think this is a pretty good example of them understanding God’s invisible qualities (Romans 1:19-20).
I think part of the confusion is misunderstanding terms. The “Christian” label on books, movies, and art is actually used to define the audience, or market. It should not be used to denote the sanctification of items in these categories. (That’s kind of silly.)
There’s so much more about what Art is…(what was I thinking?) The arts speak to the heart and to the soul. As Franky Schaeffer said, “Christians of all people should be those who manifestly are applying what they believe in such a way that it frees them to truly see the God-given worth in things that they really have. And if this is so for nature and objects in the world around us, how much more so for our fellow human beings and their creative talents which God has given them.”