Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christian Art

While at Oxford this past semester, the topic of Christian art made a powerful resurgence into my thought via various conversations, studies, lectures, and yes, works of art I encountered.

Having grown up in a family of Christians that are very passionate about art, I've participated in many dinner-time conversations that revolved around the nature of art and whether or not "Christian" is a helpful or necessary descriptor for various pieces of art, and whether or not the job of Christian artists is to create "Christian art."

Discussions of such a kind inevitably raise the question of what it means for something to be Christian at all. If Jesus himself is Truth, and "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:2 TNIV), are not all things that are profoundly and deeply true automatically Christian in nature? And if that's the case, and all great art fundamentally tries to get at something true about humanity, the human experience, or the universe we live in [a sentiment you can find among any number of the greatest artists, whatever religion (or lack thereof) they claim, whether Christianity, atheism, or anything in between], then is not all art that is qualitatively great Christian at its heart?

To a large extent I think so. But I'm warned by C. S. Lewis that if we continue down that vein of thinking we will start to lose the meaningfulness of words. If we start to speak of something being really Christian because it somehow captures Christian values despite not claiming Christ in any explicit fashion, yet disregard works that explicitly proclaim Christ because we think that at the end of the day they stray from Christian values, we will eventually lose the usefulness of the word Christian in its entirety (Lewis discusses this in his essay "The Death of Words," and might touch on it in Mere Christianity--I can't quite remember and don't have my copy with me. I think it's well worth the read, though I do think there are some weak points in the argument).

I've found that the idea of Christian art (or Christian artists) has become a very touchy subject with many artists of various kinds who are Christians (especially of my generation). One of my Oxonian friends mentioned at various points this past semester that anytime someone talks about Christian art and particularly about using art for evangelistic purposes, he gets really riled up and genuinely upset. Sentiments and responses of this kind are quite common among my friends. (And I am sympathetic to it).

I think a lot of this arises from films and books of recent years which call themselves Christian art (or get labelled such by others) which many think are tacky and done poorly from a craft perspective (I don't think I need to state any titles for people to know by and large what I'm referring to). A lot of artists feel that the creators behind many of these works try to force a message up and above trying to create a powerful and well-crafted piece of art that simply communicates the message it communicates. And I think many artists would go so far to say that those behind these pieces of "art" are perhaps not even artists, but rather simply evangelists with an agenda and a propagandist message that distort art to their ends, often resulting in the destruction of the art itself.

Nonetheless, I think these films and books are in fact Christian art. And here is where we can argue over the legitimacy of tagging them as either Christian or art--which is where the worry of losing the meaning of words comes in. If we insist that they are not truly Christian, or they are not truly art, we will eventually lose the ability to dialogue in certain ways. For example, if the criteria for Christian shifts from "explicitly claims and proclaims Christ" to "upholding and setting forth the values of Christianity," we lose the most significant and unique thing of Christianity, and we will start to lose a whole category of distinction when dialoging with those who do not agree with us as to the values of Christianity, or who claim those values for themselves, despite not being Christian (I'm thinking here of the reality that many other religions have the same basic moral criteria and values as Christianity).

Don't get me wrong, I think it's fair to call most of these works that rile my friends bad Christian art. But I think letting them be both Christian and art helps retain more of the usefulness and integrity of the language than if we insist on saying that they simply aren't art to begin with. I think the conversation will prove more articulate (and include more people, honestly) if it keeps its focus on whether art is good or bad instead of on whether it is Christian or it is art (though I acknowledge that even if we agree on what I propose, conversations over what exactly is art will and should continue, but I want to keep a qualitative aspect in the conversation, not just say that bad art is simply not art).

But I've heard it said that we should just get rid of the distinction of Christian entirely--why do we need it? Good art is good art, bad art is bad art, the end. Well, yes, that's true. But it's also true that Hamlet is good art, and Mrs. Dalloway is good art, but you're unlikely to find them underneath the same label at the bookstore, and we find distinguishing them by genre helpful in terms of thinking about them and making sense of them.

The fact of the matter is, there's plenty of good art out there that is explicitly and unapologetically (and, at the end of the day, I think rather undeniably) Christian: Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, John Milton's Paradise Lost, Handel's Messiah, Mel Gibson's The Passion, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel--the list goes on, and spans mediums, and I believe that labeling them "Christian" is both legitimate and helpful just as labeling the Ramayana "Hindu," or Dracula "Gothic" is helpful.

Don't misunderstand me, simply having "Christian" as a category isn't necessarily easy: I think this gets tricky, just as putting works of art into any category gets tricky--some books more clearly portray what we consider to be defining elements of the Modern novel, or of Romantic fantasy, or whatever the case may be, than others. My argument here is simply that it is worthwhile to retain "Christian" as a valid label and category for art (I think it worth mentioning that while I do think that Christian music is a category of art, I also think that Worship music should be its own category entirely and should probably not be considered art, no matter how good the craft. And simply because I call it "worship" music, one should not take me to mean that other music is not worshipful, either in the creating or listening of it, but rather that Worship music as a category contains music meant to be played and sung in the context of Christians coming together corporately or privately or however to enter into an intentional and directed time of sung worship to God).

I think by and large Christian art goes wrong when it attempts to convert or manipulate or badger its viewer or participant or reader (or whatever the case may be) in some fashion. That is to say, it goes wrong at the same point that Christians themselves go wrong when interacting with others--when we cease to witness and proclaim and love, and move into these other realms that become deceitful and violent.

The question of Christian artists or simply artists who are Christians I think follows along the same lines, and I will not flush it out here.

Basically, let's make good Chrisitan art, and let's make good art that is not particularly Christian--we need both, and I really do think there's a useful distinction between the two. And if you're Christian and an artist, but don't want to make Christian art, by all means, don't make Christian art--but do strive to make good art.

I, for one, would like to see some more art of our day that's the caliber of the Commedia, Paradise Lost, the poems of Donne, Herbert, or Hopkins (sorry that most of my go-to's are literature--it's simply what I know best), the Pieta, etc., and in their general vein, for I think it would do something to stem this aversion to "Christian art" (and there's plenty already out there! Christian Wiman and Mary Karr, for starters?) We seem to encounter bad Christian artists who fail in their craft, the way they love, or whatever, and then want to throw out the label altogether, because we don't want those negative connotations to become ones we bear ourselves.

But there's a quality tradition behind us, and speaking as one who has an interest in making Christian art, why don't we bear the connotations despite the discomfort, and continue to try and redeem the label?


  1. Thani,
    You pose good questions here. When I was about your age—just out of university and starting my first teaching job—I was wrestling through a lot of the same things. As I think you may know, Dorothy Sayers was very influential in my thinking at that point, as were a number of Christian academics, especially Leland Ryken, Gene Edward Veith, jr., and Gregory Wolfe. At that time, I would have argued strongly against the use of Christian as a modifier/qualifier. I fell into that category of folks you mentioned in your blog that saw “Christian art” as more propaganda than well-crafted work. (On a side note—I loathed Christian bookstores, primarily b/c I could never find what I considered “true” Christian works—ie, works by Spencer, Milton, Donne, etc—there.) I tended to argue vehemently for the position you laid out that for a work to be truly Christian art it must first be good art. I was pretty black and white in my thinking then.

    You are much further along in your reasoning than I was, and I applaud you for that! Now that I’m a little further along in my journey, my position on the term Christian as applied to art has mellowed quite a bit. I would say that still hesitate to use the term Christian as a modifier, but for far different reasons (and this is true for subjects beyond just the arts). I’ve found that as a term, Christian does carry a number of different connotations, and often confuses rather than clarifies an issue. (You allude to this in some of your comments.) Where you argue for Christian as a category, I tend to use the concept of faith. Admittedly, this is a much broader category than just Christian, as it can include faiths of all sorts. However, it serves the purpose of giving a common starting point for all participants in a conversation. And because faith can mean so many things, there is an expectation that it must be defined within the conversation; this is not necessarily true with the word Christian.

    In general, the words that I use are heavily dependent on my intended audience. If I am having a discussion with someone that I know shares my beliefs, I am far more likely to use the term Christian. Even so, I am less comfortable with the term in general than I used to be and tend to use it less often. (This is likely b/c I am currently wrestling through the dissonance between the worldview I see in scripture and that which is cultural American Christianity, a dissonance that adds confusion to Christian terminology. But that is a different discussion all together.)

    You summed up the crux of the matter in your final paragraphs. Let’s make good art—art that celebrates God’s word, and art that celebrates his world. Let’s seek to honor the Lord in all that we create—even if we aren’t always (or even often) explicit in that aim.

    Thanks for including me in this conversation. I’m enjoying reading your thoughts, and those of the others who are engaging in this as well. I love being challenged and spurred on by others—and delight when those others are those I’ve invested in as students or younger colleagues. 

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Boss! As always, I appreciate your stimulating thoughts. It's definitely something I'm still thinking through and appreciate all the input I can get!