Monday, October 16, 2006

What is Christian Art?

What constitutes Christian art?
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?

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.
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.

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.

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...

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).
Read both of Jan's posts (see here and here) on this important topic.

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.]


jan@theviewfromher said...

Thanks for the link, Mark, and for all your kind words. There's such a lot of "line-drawing," by many Christians. This movie goes on this side of the line, and that book goes on that side of the line. I can only wonder at how such narrow thinking must wound the heart of God, who gave us all things to enjoy - including ways to express our humaness, emotions, conflicts. I love your reminder that we serve an incarnated God - one who entered in to our realities, and so understands our struggle to express our need for Him.

Reel Fanatic said...

I think the definition of "Christian" movies will change as more such movies hit the box office and do poorly ... "Facing the Giants did OK, but Fox Faith's first two flicks, "Love's Abiding Joy" and "One Night with the King" have both been relative flops .. what they seem to forget is that movies should be entertaining, not just preachy .. the most spiritual movie I can think off the top of my head is "You Can Count on Me," a movie chock full of flawed people

Mark Daniels said...

Jan and Keith:
Thanks for your comments.


Anonymous said...

Why do we have to be able to put a label on everything anyway? Why can't we just say, "This book is worth reading"?

Having said that, it brings me to another question: What is a Christian blog? ;o)

I, for instance, am a committed Christian. I have a blog. I rarely discuss Christianity. This is partly because I'm interested in a lot of things that don't fit in that box. And it is partly because that when I DO talk about Christianity, I would like to be listened to by people who don't agree with me. And the only way they're going to be listening is if I've gained credibility in other areas. Is my blog a Christian blog? And does it matter?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing this!

S.R.Squire said...

I'm so delighted to have found your fascinating blogs, Jan and Mark! I offer for your perusal: CIVA is Christians in the Visual Arts, a network of artists, teachers, curators, historians, etc. who are interested in being part of a more vital connection between faith and art. Hopefully their work will encourage you that there ARE faithful people pursuing the kind of real art you talk about.

Mark Daniels said...

Martin and SR: Thank you for dropping by and for your comments. The CIVA site looks great, SR, and I look forward to exploring it.


air said...

Hi Mark , hello world

I read this topic with interest - found it through the google search engine under religious arts.

WE have contributed some material to blogspot Christ Mimodram - and would love to get some feedback on it.
We used music from different ethnic and religious origins to support the christian topic in it's similarity to the core beliefs of all major religions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments on Christian art. I was just reflecting on the same topic on my blog today @ ID Blog

I would agree that Christians can participate in "secular" art as a Christian gloryfing God. Just as a Christian businessman can be in a secular company or a Christian can teach in a public school. What good is our witness if we create our own little box and completely ignore engaging the world.

Mark Daniels said...

Dr Knox:
Really interesting comments. Thanks for dropping by!

Thanks also for leaving your comments. I checked out your site back when you first visited here and found it interesting.

Blessings in Christ,

hiswitness said...

Much of todays "Christian" art is pure restatement of truth as in the case of biblical narrative. Just Google "Let There be Light" traveling exhibit that just (2008) finished at the Chrystal Cathedral, and Overlake in Seattle, soon to show in Dallas, Paris and New York. The 22 nationally known artists who participated are not worried about their work being too explicit or boring and therefore not art. You be the judge.

Mark Daniels said...

Great comments. I think that you and I are in total agreement on this subject.


Cross Verse said...

Christian art is defined in so many ways. For me, the art that I create is intended to be a devotional tool to encourage, uplift and feed your spirit while, at the same time, it is a witnessing tool to others that see each painting. When I create a painting for someone, I allow them to select a cross design and included their favorite bible verse. These "Cross Verse Paintings" are very unique and personal for the person that it is for. God gives us all spiritual gifts. I've been led to use mine in this way and I appreciate blogs like this that are willing to openly discuss these topics. Thanks Mark.

Unknown said...

Great to read this! Thanks loads! I am an artist and a Christian, so it's very interesting to read this post! Encouraging too!!!

See for some of my work. Just a few crosses here and there!!!!

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing the link to your work. I enjoyed looking.


Dawn Maureen said...

As a visual artist, I really love this quote.

Unknown said...

I'm glad you've posted this discussion. More blogs should talk about Christian art in the light that you have! I use my form of "Christian Art" to personally worship and minister to other and allow them to worship as well. I perform live on stage and create large Jesus paintings while using my hands to really get into the art. It can be a very moving experience. You can see some of my work at Painted Christ .com

Unknown said...

enjoyed reading your thoughts on Christian art... I'd like to share with you what we're doing as well with Christian artists. Please check out and

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for sharing these links. God bless you and your work.

Gabrielle said...

Very thought provoking. I am a teen who likes art and I just started a blog at I would be honored if you would check it out and consider becoming a follower. Thank you.

Dawn Maureen said...

I paint a lot of art that is being painted by a christian "me" but does not necessarily have a formal religious theme. Some of them are just me exploring with color, shape, line, and form and playing, and process, questions, exploration, mystery, and surprise have something to do with God too and is part of us being human. Little children don't worry about stuff like this and just paint.

jhon mathew said...
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Howard said...

Great to find somewhere actually considering this issue in a worthwhile fashion.