There's a grand tradition of Christian art that includes people like Bach, Michelangelo, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, to name a tiny few.
But what made past works of art Christian? And what characterizes Christian art today? (If there is any Christian art today?)
In a post several days ago, Jan of TheViewfromHer, effectively slams contemporary notions of what makes art Christian as, essentially, legalistic, proscriptive, and frankly, not art.
She reviews some of the usual criteria that contemporary Christians seem to associate with art they describe as Christian. Reading them, you can almost feel the walls closing in, Jan effectively portraying what the Pharisaic guardians of contemporary Christian "art" claim to be the rules, presumably given by Christ Himself:
Christian Books. 1. Books written by Christian authors. 2. Can be about any theme, problem or storyline, but provide "Christian" solutions. Usually with Bible verses. 3. Printed by Christian publishers. "Secular" writers do not write Christian books. (Duh.) That's why books on the New York Times Best Seller List are not Christian. (With the exception of The Purpose Driven Life, which meets the criteria of numbers 1-3.) See, how it all starts to fit?There really are Christians who think this way and by simply and honestly presenting their thinking, Jan, a committed Christian herself, demonstrates how stiflingly silly it is.
Christian Music. 1. The songs are about God. 2. The music is usually distributed by a Christian label. 3. The singer/artist is a Christian. Songs by a "secular" artist that may seem to have a Christian theme can be categorized as such only when re-recorded by a Christian artist. This is understandable, because they need to be specific about whose money they're targeting. Christian money, of course!
Christian "Art." 1. Contains a Christian symbol: cross, dove, or fish. 2. Contains a Scripture verse. 3. Has John 3:16 hidden somewhere in it. 4. Is only created by a Christian artist, because no one else would even think to include numbers 1-3 in a work of art. 4. Sold in Christian bookstores, because, well...of numbers 1-3.
Such strait jacketed notions are great if your goal is to create a hermetically-sealed religious subculture. But we Christians belong to a Savior Who has repeatedly told us to go into the world, to be the good news to our neighbor, to love others, and to care about the world God has given to us.
Those "rules" for Christian art forms are terrific, too, if you buy into the notion that all Christians have their lives together and that having come to faith in Christ, their primary task is to tell others how to live. Christians are the ones though, who have been given the courage by God's Holy Spirit to admit their humanity and their need for the God Who made Himself and His love known in Christ. There can be no self-righteousness in Christian art, because Christians know, as Martin Luther put it, we are all beggars.
The fact is that, like the rest of the human race, Christians have problems and conflicts. We face challenges and our lives aren't perfect. (The only difference between us and the rest of the human race is that we face these with a dependence on Jesus Christ.)
Any artistic expression that acknowledges the realities of life is far more likely to be Christian or to have Christian implications than some of the bland banalities that pass for "Christian art" these days.
That's because we Christians follow an incarnated God, a God Who has entered into our realities. When God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, the Bible reminds us, He experienced everything we experience except that, because He remained sinless, He conquered sin and death for us. Jesus experienced fear, grief, anger, disagreements, disappointments, hunger, thirst, prejudice, disdain, internal conflicts, betrayal, the temptation to go against the plan for His life, and much more.
Real art, whether it mentions Jesus or quotes Bible passages overtly, may be Christian insofar as it deals honestly with such themes and issues. This past Friday, writing about the stifling definitions of what constitutes Christian art, Jan says:
[Considering the common criteria for] what today's Christian culture regards as the "Christian Arts" - literature, music, art, movies. 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.Amen!
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.
Jan then goes on to discuss what might be good definitions of Christian art:
1. It has to be excellent...Read both of Jan's posts (see here and here) on this important topic.
2. It does not have to have a purpose...God came up with the idea of useless beauty. [I love that line. It's so true!]
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 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.
4. Non-Christians can create Christian Art...Human beings (saved 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).
Christian art has the ability to touch all people at the cores of their beings. It avoids the formulaic, self-righteousness, and jargon.
Christian art breaks open truths about life without preaching.
And for it to be Christian art, it must be art.
Maybe there's always been precious little art that expresses Christian truth and sensibilities. But I can't help but feel that future generations will regard ours as a dark age, not because of that evil world from which we Christians seem to want to retreat, but because of the dearth of great art coming from Christians and because of the failure of Christians to recognize Christian themes in the great art being produced by non-Christians.
Jan does a great job with this topic. Make sure you read her blog every day.
[THANKS TO: John Schroeder of Blogotional for linking to this post. He observes that he doesn't see much in the way of Christian art in existence these days.]