Art and Christian Excellence

As I was browsing home décor items recently, I encountered some interesting (to use a kind word) pieces. One was a reprint of DaVinci’s Last Supper, which is all well and good, but this was not the only image in the picture. Superimposed over the famous painting in a 1990s holographic nightmare was an atrocious rendering of Jesus on the cross. I don’t think this particular piece nor two other similar works were intended to mock the Christian message in any way. Perhaps worse, they seem to have been produced with a Christian audience or clientele in mind.

When did we become the people who would buy pictures like these? Why are we so easily satisfied by cheap imitations of secular artistic expressions that have been “Christianized” and aren’t themselves characterized by excellence? This failing is true not only of visual art but also of Christian literature, music, and film. Somewhere along the way, Christians seem to have lost the drive toward or desire for excellence.

Recently, a reader of World magazine wrote to the editors, “We have turned American Christianity into a business, churning out mediocre books, music, movies, speakers, and trinkets for the ever-willing faithful to purchase.”[1] This statement captures the essence, I believe, of what a growing number of Christians are feeling.

So how we did get here? What are the predominant ideas that drive this consumeristic model of creativity? Can anything be done to fix it?

A Very Brief Survey of History

A very quick (and altogether inadequate) survey of Western Christianity might be able to shed light on our current situation. During the Renaissance, two different schools of artistic expression were prominent: the Italian and Northern movements. The Italian Renaissance frequently, if not almost entirely, used religious themes and subjects in their works. In many ways, though, these religious artistic works didn’t reflect the lives of their artists who lacked the authority of true Christian belief and practice. The Northern Renaissance in Europe, however, frequently featured nature or other non-religious subjects in their works. However, the artists of the Northern Renaissance valued authority and balance and practiced true Christian faith. From this movement came artists such as Rembrandt and, eventually, Bach.[2]

Mainstream Christian culture now, though, seems to have much of the personal piety of the Northern movement along with the belief of the Italian movement that most art should be religious in nature. Unlike the Italian movement, though, many of the products are merely imitations of secular counterparts, often of poorer quality.

We can also trace much of the current dilemma to the early twentieth century. The rise of Protestant Liberalism caused orthodox Christians to re-affirm the fundamentals of the faith, for which we praise the Lord. However, many (though certainly not all) in this Fundamentalist movement further responded by disengaging from culture almost entirely. The need for education was de-emphasized and many limited themselves to almost exclusive interaction with Christian works.

In the late twentieth century, the church realized that they needed to engage the culture. Unfortunately, though, this good desire wasn’t paired with a good solution or outworking. In an attempt to attract the culture, Christians formed their own pop culture with music, novels, movies, and other art that attempted to mimic their secular counterparts. While not all of these products were of poor quality, many were, and they were often seen as “knock-offs” that weren’t nearly as good as popular originals.

In The Courage to Be Protestant, David Wells captures the essence of this problematic mindset:

[Many evangelicals] want to know what the trends and fashions are that are ruffling the surface of contemporary life. They have no interest at all in what lies beneath the trends, none on how our modernized culture in the West shapes personal horizons, personal appetites, and provides us ways of processing the meaning of life. . . . Pragmatists to the last drop of blood, these evangelicals are now in the cultural waters, not to understand what is there, but to get some movement.[3]

In my view, the Christian subculture is rife with poor artistry due to this lack of thoughtfulness that Wells describes. Christian radio generally features songs with melodies that are nearly indistinguishable and lyrics that are less than deep. Christian novels frequently follow a formulaic plot with bland writing and sunny endings. Christian films, unfortunately, are often mocked for their cheesy plotlines and less-than-stellar acting. Still, though, as the World magazine reader observes, Christians rush to purchase these items. Many seem to feel that it’s their Christian duty to support their tribe’s artistic endeavors. However, this seemingly noble and loyal act may be serving only to perpetuate the problem of Christian creative mediocrity.

Why Is this A Big Deal?

Some Christians may wonder why mediocrity is a problem in the first place. After all, just because something is mediocre doesn’t mean that it’s morally bad. Isn’t it better, they argue, to interact with texts or music or movies that have a good moral message than to invest in creative works with anti-Christian themes? At least these brothers and sisters, they contend, are providing us with alternative entertainment that could be edifying.

The problem, though, is that artistic expression betrays what the artist believes about the world around him. Andy Crouch explains, “[Culture] is what human beings make of the world. It always bears the stamp of our creativity, our God-given desire to make something more than we are given.”[4] It should follow, then, that Christians who believe in, worship, and serve a God concerned with truth, beauty, excellence, and goodness (Philippians 4:8) ought to create works that reflect this worldview. Such works would be characterized by these attributes, making our art of the highest quality.

When we instead offer works that merely bland imitations, the watching world is less likely to take the Christian church seriously. Making Christian art, in their minds, becomes the simple task of copy and paste. Thus, secular culture maintains its creative superiority, casting doubt on the legitimacy of Christian ideas altogether.

Perhaps the problem is that, as a subculture (which we ought not be), we have lost our aesthetic. As Wells notes, we are more concerned with pragmatic solutions to “attract the culture” than we are with considering what makes artistic expressions good, beautiful, and excellent. It’s certainly easier and more cost effective to settle for “okay” art, but it is certainly not most helpful.

We are also ignoring Biblical instructions when we produce lower-quality art: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” writes Paul in Colossians 3:23 (ESV). In 1 Corinthians 10:31, he instructs believers to do everything for the glory of God.

For Your Consideration

This author certainly can’t claim to have perfect solutions to this problem, but I believe that we ought to consider several ideas as we begin to think about this important issue.

First, should there even be separate categories for Christian art? Have we failed the culture at large by making art that is only and, perhaps more tragically, always targeted to a Christian audience? C. S. Lewis briefly addressed this idea: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”[5] Even if we are ultimately focused on and motivated by “getting the message out there” in our artistic endeavors (and I’m not sure that we should be), wouldn’t it be much more effective to produce a work that appeals broadly because of its excellence rather than a middling work that is primarily targeted to the faithful?

Second, education could certainly help us as we consider the marks of good art. On one hand, we ought to seek education that does more than solely prepare us, or our children, to secure high-paying jobs. Instead, we need to find ways to educate the whole person—mind, heart, and will—and lay the foundation for a deep and true Christian worldview. Thus, even if we are not artists ourselves, we’ll be able to recognize good art. Perhaps this education can also take place on the local church level so that those who are unable to attend Christian institutions are nonetheless prepared to think about these important issues.

Finally, I realize that I am painting with a rather broad brush. There are several Christian artists across artistic mediums who seek excellence in what they produce, who understand that both the form and content of their work inherently have meaning. We should seek out such artists and support them in their endeavors as we’re able. This may also mean not participating in Christian pop culture to the extent that it perpetuates the problem.

May God give us wisdom and understanding as we endeavor to think about this issue. May we learn how to thoughtfully engage the culture through God-given creative means that reflect Who He is. May we continue to encourage discussion and thoughtfulness in this and all other areas of life.

____________________

[1] Anthony Brooks, “Topping the Top 50,” letter to the editor, World 32:8 (April 29, 2017), 61.

[2] For a fuller treatment of this subject, see Francis Schaffer, How Should We Then Live (1976; repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).

[3] David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 3.

[4] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 23.

[5] C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 93.

Author: Christa Hill

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2 Comments

  1. This is a great article that the Church needs to hear. Schaffer and Rookmaaker both wrote about this very issue. You noted that we should not separate categories of Christian art which exactly what these men were explaining. In fact, Rookmaaker even wrote, “Christian art is nothing special.”^1^ What he meant was Christian art is not art that has biblical themes; it’s the spirit of the art that is important. Rookmaaker said, “art must never be used to show the validity of art, rather the validity of art should be shown through Christianity.”2^ Good art is art that is beautiful and loving with a true view of reality.^3^ Art has meaning because God gave us beauty and art expresses that beauty.

    ^1^ H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 228.
    ^2^ Ibid.
    ^3^ Ibid.

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    • Thank you so much for your insightful comment!

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