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.”
6 thoughts on “christian art”
The best Christian-themed novel I have ever read, without even one second of hesitation as to that achievement, is The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. The best Christian-themed short story I’ve ever read is, by far, “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde.
Wilder and Wilde were, as most know, homosexuals.
While I wish that were not the case, as it would make recommending them to the more pinch-faced of Evangelical audiences easier, the fact remains. That they wrote more truly Christian works than most Christian writers can is troubling to me, but something I see as a challenge rather than as a boat anchor on Christian fiction in general.
I recently read Athol Dickson’s Lost Mission and, while it had some lacks, it is definitely a step in the right direction of character-driven Christian novels that aren’t simplistic or preachy. Oddly enough, it reminded me a lot of Wilder’s novel.
I almost wrote a series of posts about Christian art, but got bogged down in the sheer enormity of the issue.
Here’s some tricky questions I was planning to tackle amidst that enormity:
All classically trained artists are taught the human figure through nude figure studies. In the past, this was not seen as a problem for Christian artists, but we make it an issue today. Why?
In the same vein, if we DO give our imprimatur to Christian artists to participate in nude figure studies, should we also permit Christians to be the models for those studies?
Dan, I wish you WOULD write a post(s) about this… It definitely is a much larger topic than the skimming I gave it, and I know you’d have great insights. Like the ones you just posted. 🙂
Amazing article! Totally right on target! This is in some ways similar to a blog post I had written about how Christians used to be great innovators in society (http://worshipleadingblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/great-innovator-sleeps.html). But what have we innovated in recent history? I think both the lack of innovation and real art among Christians relegates us to our current minority status in modern society. We’re no longer the leading, driving force in our culture, so we’re falling further and further behind, into obscurity.
Thanks, Mike. Innovation is definitely another area where Christians seem to be comfortable copying rather than innovating. (there was a period of time where every church I came across on the web was doing a message series called “Heroes,” or “American Idols.”)
A noteworthy exception is lifechurch.tv who developed the YouVersion Bible mobile web app.
How about Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis? It is about life in a pagan society, and includes a pantheon of gods, but is also about how the self really is.
I think that Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy also is excellent art, although it is less likely to appeal to people who don’t read sword and sorcery fantasy than Till We Have Faces is. See here for my discussion of these works.
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