What Is Christian Art?

In a fantastic GQ essay called “Upon This Rock,” John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about his experience as an attendee at Creation Festival 2004 (I was there!) and his total immersion into the world of Christian music and the people who love it. As an outsider who was once an insider, he pretty much nails the scene and ultimately poses a very interesting, and important, question:

A question that must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns 19 and finds he or she can write first-rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would ever have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock. Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety. And believe it or not, the Christian-rock establishment sometimes expresses a kind of resigned approval of the way groups like U2 or Switchfoot (who played Creation while I was there and had a monster secular–radio hit at the time with “Meant to Live” but whose management wouldn’t allow them to be photographed onstage) take quiet pains to distance themselves from any unambiguous Jesus-loving, recognizing that this is the surest way to connect with the world. So it’s possible—and indeed seems likely—that Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.

The extended passage can be found here.

While I would argue that there are talented artists working within the Christian rock genre, or at least were in the mid-2000s when I was last following the genre, I do admit that these artists are the exception to the rule and for some reason choose to operate within a system that discourages the risk-taking and creative freedom that generally characterize good art. The same is true for Christian visual artists who produce passable but uninspiring pictures for other Christians (i.e. Thomas Kinkade). But if all this is not good art, what is it? Is Christian art art that is separate from “real” art? Do we want it to be?

What even is Christian art? Is it defined by its message? By the faith of its creators? By its intended audience? By its quality? By the faith of the individual consumer?

A case can be made, it seems, for each of those criteria. Christian rock falls into the first category–it is message music, meant to encourage and never to offend. In some ways you could almost argue that this definition considers Christian art to be anything “clean,” as in, no swearing or sex and preferably no violence but weirdly, most Christians don’t seem to get too worked up about that one. It upholds a worldview that is safe and comfortable. The second category casts a wider net, drawing in artists like U2 who don’t always write about faith but are known believers. The third category–intended audience–seems the least helpful, as it immediately brings to my mind Thomas Kinkade throw blankets and calendars and the acres and acres of gift shop filler at every Amish restaurant I’ve ever been to. This backs up against the idea that Christian art could be defined by its quality, suggesting that we should reserve this term for work that can hold its own among its non-Christian peers. But quality alone doesn’t make art Christian, even if we believe that all truth is God’s truth and all art points to truth, making any good art in some sense Christian art. Which leads to the last criteria, which is to me the most intriguing and most compelling: that the faith of the individual, my faith, shapes the way I view art and makes any good art, in that sense, Christian art. The most compelling art, in this definition, will be that which most directly portrays truth, but does so in a way that engages the mind, the heart, and the

As Christians we tend to diminish the role of good art in our communities and in the world. We want our buildings functional, our music easy to perform and easily accessible, our decorative art to reflect how we already see things and preferably cheap, if we feel it’s worthwhile to have any at all. Why waste time and money on creative pursuits when we could be saving souls and sending more money to missionaries to do the same? I felt mostly this way until I studied abroad in London and attended services in the great cathedrals of London and toured the basilicas of Italy–good art conveys the beauty and mystery of God in ways words never can, and leads the viewer into a deeper understanding of who God is. I had this moment, sitting in a chair in the middle of the chapel and listening to a choir sing a beautiful choral work while taking in image after image of familiar Bible scenes that suddenly didn’t feel so familiar when set against each other and the songs, and it clicked, why all this might be worth it after all.

One of the most compelling arguments for Christian artists and art I’ve ever come across came from Edith Schaeffer, who died this past weekend. She was the wife of Francis Schaeffer, and together they founded and ran L’Abri, a retreat/commune/seminary in Switzerland that provided a community for countless Christians over the last fifty years. She was also known for love of fashion, music, art, and literature. In her book The Art of Life, she wrote:

A Christian, above all people, should live artistically, aesthetically, and creatively. We are supposed to be representing the Creator who is there, and whom we acknowledge to be there. It is true that all people are created in the image of God, but Christians are supposed to be conscious of that fact, and being conscious of it should recognize the importance of living artistically, aesthetically, and creatively, as creative creatures of the Creator. If we have been created in the image of an Artist, then we should look for expressions of artistry, and be sensitive to beauty, responsive to what has been created for our appreciation.

I also want to fight the idea that my judgment can make any piece of art “good” or “bad,” or even that such definitions must necessarily exist. The one thing I know for sure is that the call to value and create art should pull us as Christians to reflect our God’s creative nature and pursue the creation and valuing of better and better art that leads people to know Him better. And the reality of God should shape the way we view every piece of art and judge its portrayal of truth, even and especially as it leads us to questions about who we are and what it means to be human and what this life is all about.

It doesn’t matter where–I have seen beautiful examples of Christian art in cathedrals, in churches, and in bars–and it doesn’t matter who–atheists have played songs, written books, and painted works that pushed me closer to God. And that is the best kind of art there is. That is art worth making and art worth pursuing.

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