Podcast #16: Where is All the Good Christian Art?

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Look around and you probably don’t see a lot of Christian art. Walk into a Christian bookstore, and you probably don’t see a lot of good art. Look… well, anywhere and you probably won’t see a lot of good Christian art. So is there such a thing?

We have good news and bad news:

The good news is that Christian art is possible (remember the Rennaissance?) and that it’s becoming more common all the time.

The bad news is that it’s kind of hard to find. And by that we mean it’s not really at your local theater, and it’s probably not in the Billboard Top 40. MTV isn’t all about it.

You have to look for it.

In this episode, we get you started, discussing the nature of Christian art, what makes it good, and listing our Top 5 Examples of Good Christian Art.

But we know we didn’t cover it all. Want to add (or subtract) something to the conversation? Just comment below, email us (at christandpopculture@gmail.com), or leave a voicemail at 206-333-0211. We’d be especially interested in hearing your own top fives!

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  • Alan Noble

    Great topic. Waiting for iTunes to show the episode so I can download it.

  • I’ve never really liked the descriptor “Christian” when applied to something like art. It’s just too ambiguous. It doesn’t really get at anything important.

    If we simply mean art created out of a Christian worldview, then any piece of work created by any Christian person is “Christian art” as every produced thing is a product of its producer and a producer’s worldview absolutely governs the product produced and a Christian necessarily has a Christian worldview (whether that worldview is biblical or not). If this is what we mean by Christian art, then I see good Christian art all the time. I am an artist and my father is an artist and I know artists and there is some great stuff there, which according to the definition is Christian art regardless of theme or content.

    Now, I don’t think that this is what anybody really means by the term.

    The other realistic possibility is that we mean art created specifically with traditionally Christian themes in mind—therefore including things like resurrection, glory, creation, sacrifice, holiness, etc. into the interpretable work. This makes sense despite the grammatical hurdles the term “Christian art” presents. However, it also means that Christian art is far from the sole province of the believer, as non-believers have created some awesome works that reflect the themes of Christianity. Some of Craig Thompson’s pieces* in his book, Blankets, are among the more beautiful efforts I’ve seen that attempt to capture the holy dignity of God and Christ and the nature of sacredness.

    I’m not certain that this is what’s meant either though. Some how I can’t see much of the world that is interested in quote-unquote Christian art readily accepting seminal works by those who don’t share in the blood of the covenant. Perhaps then the qualification combines the two? Art created by believers that reflects the traditional themes of Christianity and the life in Christ represented in the Bible?

    If that’s the case, I’m sure that’s okay, but I don’t think that needs to be any kind of goal that creative believers should** work towards. If our every act in humble reliance upon the gospel is an act of worship, then I am representing Christ just as well by painting a good bamboo stock or plum blossom as I am by painting a lighthouse or Peter hanging on a cross. It’s a “make a good shoe/sell it at a good price” kind of thing.

    All that said, I’ll play your little game and mention my favourite “Christian band” (I think they were referred to as that once or twice). They were even on the Tooth & Nail label for a couple of their album—pretty much until it was realized that their extreme indie sensibilities were not all that marketable (they were punk in the truest sense of the term). They were, of course, Havalina Rail Co. you could detect strains of faith in their work if you strained, but mostly it was just good, heavily underground music that was true to nothing save its own creative impulse. And as such, may be a fit expression of the bands shifting Protestantism.

    *note: Craig Thompson is an apostate of the church.

    **note: I use “should” here to reflect a moral imperative.

  • Rich Clark

    Seth, when leading that discussion I purposely dodged the issue in order to save time. You were the one who wanted the minisodes to be normalisodes.

    Anyway, we basically had in mind either/or definition. It was purposely vague. This is pretty much what we will always mean. Think of it as a sort of rorshach test.

  • Since music is kind of my area of expertise, I’d like to chime in there, naming what I think are some of the best contributions to Christian music. The biggest example I can think of is Thrice. I’m not even a huge Thrice fan, but they stand out to me as being a largely successful rock group, celebrated by Christian and pagan alike. Their lyrics tend toward the philosophical end of Christendom, but the nature of the songs are certainly in line with a Christian worldview.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Rich that Sufjan is an incredible contribution to the cause. In a similar vein, I would recommend Anathallo. Anathallo’s largest achievement, Floating World (2006), recasts a traditional japanese folk tale through song, ocassionally singing only japanese (with the lyrics translated in the insert). Lyrically, what I find so Christian and so cultured about Sufjan and Anathallo is the posture of joyful subversion. Stories about Illinois and Japan (Sufjan and Anathallo, respectively) are passionately told with dignity and vigor, but they are simultaneously infused with imagery (such as resurrection)and metaphor that belong to the Church. This sort of approach is found strangely appealing to those outside of Church culture, yet all the while it converts their imagination (gradually, mind you).

    Just to plug Anathallo one more time, music from Floating World was chosen for use in a Vick’s medicine commercial. Also, for fans of the indie/folk genre, I’d like to share a band called The Oaks. I go to school and church with one of their band members and I heard that Asthmatic Kitty is looking into taking up their next album.

    One final plug, though there is certainly more, I can’t recommend highly enough the work of mewithoutYou. While they are certainly on the edgier end of the spectrum (in terms of sound), they are mellowing out (“maturing”) and their lyrical content is just incredible. More spoken word than actual singing, Weiss (the frontman) paints passionate tales of angst, love, death, and hope in a way that has caught the attention of believer and non-believer alike.

    In all these artists, one need only know their respective genres to see how skillfully they have tweaked the sound of their peers to actually create something that furthers their noble ends.

  • Rich, I wasn’t criticizing the episode, just airing my own frustration with the pop terminology “Christian art.”

    I personally find it wholly meaningless, but it’s preponderance amongst the Christian proletariat makes it worth discussing.

    I think another good question is whether Christians actually harm both art and faith by the coining of such terminology (my answer, predictably, would be in the affirmative). Michelangelo’s work isn’t Christian art, it’s just amazing art. Kincaid’s work isn’t Christian art, it’s just sentimental pap. In either case, the terminology only serves to disguise the object; in Michelangelo’s case it camouflages greatness and in Kincaid’s case it cloaks aesthetic detritus.

  • David Dunham

    I think the either or definition is best as well Rich. The struggle that some might have to identify “Christian Art,” is probably a result of two things:

    (1) In generations past where “Christian” was basically what almost everyone wanted to go by, the concept of “Christian Art” was foreign. It was all simply art.

    (2) In the modern context we have either Christians or artists, and rarely any thing that represents well what “Christian Art” should be. This is, I believe, largely the result of the fact that most Christians, despite ThDane’s assertion, do not have a Christian Worldview. They may have pieces of one, but not an actual Worldview that sees Christ in all things! So they are artists one minute, and Christians the next (at least in their minds).

  • David Dunham

    I would also like to add that I greatly regret bringing up Christian music in this podcast as a major portion of our topic on Christian Art…there’s so much more out there to talk about and I wish I didn’t have the tendency to shift immediately to music in my thoughts about art! So, sorry to our listeners for bringing up crappy Christian punk bands again.

  • Seth, I have heard music that I am content to describe as “overtly pagan” (and not just in a lyrical sense). I have also enjoyed aspects of it (common grace). The line isn’t always clear, but sometimes it is. Where it is clear, there’s no harm and only gain in employing categories of Christian and non-Christian. While I understand your desire to prevent the marginalization the arts by forcing unnatural categories upon them, I think refusing to allow for a ‘religious’ category disrespects the artists who conscientiously wield their songs with respect to those dimensions of the human experience. It’s not only about Christian music versus non-Christian music – Muslims and Hindus and Atheists and Jews have just as much right to construe their own craft in religious terms.

  • Alan Noble

    Love the section on Kinkade. I couldn’t agree with you more. If you’re in my take on Kinkade, I wrote a fairly lengthy post about his paintings called One Sided Posts about Thomas Kinkade.

  • Technical note: it’s not a big deal as yet, but if this site gains a commenting audience, numbering comments would be helpful (as I could just say “@3 – Rich: I wasn’t critic…”).

    Also, I wouldn’t mind seeing a small comment count next to the past features (the little square-imaged guys).

  • Thanks Seth, I’ll work on it.

  • Scott, I’m fine with “Christianity-themed art,” since it makes semantic sense. The present term, however, doesn’t mean the same thing though and while inclusive of Christianity-themed art piles on extra meanings in such a way that we cannot be sure exactly what’s being talked about when we say “Christian art.”

    I think the most sensible definition of terms like Christian art or Muslim art would revolve around the incidence of those works that are created by the official religious body toward the end of official religious business. In that, we would include works contracted by, say, the Greek Orthodox church (e.g., a cathedral or a saintly icon) for use of the Church but not include the individual, personal works of the members of said church.

    I know I’m speaking out wishful thinking here, but the semantic confusion inherent in the current term is real. When Rich began talking about how Kinkade was pretty good so far as Christian art goes, I was immediately confused as I know for a fact that my fathers art was far superior and that he is a Christian of more sure standing than Kinkade and that he devoted his entire produced artistry to God (despite the fact that there was no discernible Christian-theme in much of his work). It’s that confusion that bothers me about the term.

  • I think I agree with you. I think the language can be unhelpful. But I still think that art by Christians (even pottery) has a trace of that faith in and about it, even if it is faint.

    The grammar of our faith necessarily makes its way into the grammar of our lives and works. This can be as simple as embodying virtues (such as order and balance) that find analogy in Christianity (peace). Some virtues, I might add, are found not only in formal and material properties, but in teleology as well.

    Likewise, I think that there is a trace of paganism throughout all pagan work.

  • That’s an interesting theory. I suspect that the trace you’re talking about would be so light a trace that it would be indiscernible in a Pepsi Challenge. That doesn’t mean that the trace isn’t there – just that it can easily go undetected.

    (but that’s probably why you introduced teleology…)

  • I’d like to say that it’s more than theory because it seems pretty obvious to me, but I guess, technically, I can’t prove it.

    The driving principle, for me, is that there is no thing-in-itself. This is something I learned from a pagan philosophy professor, and he argued that we have (as a culture) forgotten Aristotle’s fourth cause to our loss. Without teleology, every ontology is doomed to nihilism. Though he was discussing religion and ethics, I believe his point stands for all ontologies, even of the aesthetic.

    A long time ago, I read an interview with one of the Martin brothers (from Joy Electric and SF59), and they plainly defined “Christian” music as that which is created to the glory of God. Accepting that definition, I would have to say that Starflyer’s music is self-consciously “Christian” music. When I hear them, I don’t just hear the chords or the lyrics or the time signature: I hear the directedness as well. Yet very rarely do they write about things generally identified as Christian (like the Ascension or the Incarnation).

    I don’t bring that up because Starflyer’s opinion is normative, but because I think it’s a good case in point of how something that might not be readily defined as “Christian” based on its formal and material properties alone, could conceivably be very Christian. I’d also add that, comprehending the telos of their music, I read back into the material and formal properties, and I contemplate things like how a chord’s being major or minor has to do with what they’re trying to do.

    Likewise, knowing what you have shared about your father, I would understand his pottery in that context, “as the work of a believer” offered unto God.

    I guess an important question would be, Must one know things (such as authorial intent) about an art object in order to interpret it teleologically? Or if these things contributed significantly to the object itself, then wouldn’t they be apparent without supplementary information?

    I dunno.

  • camilla

    Hey..im so glad i stumbled upon your website! firstly i was getting a bit concerned Sufjan Stevens was not going to make it into your top 5s!you saved the best till last.

    im reading ‘Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts’ by Steve Turner . He’s a music Journalist, im pretty sure he used to write for the Rolling stones magazine, anyway the book covers this question around ‘christian art’ and the christian artists responsibility to make good art with integrity. a good read.

  • Hey Scott, those are interesting ideas. And I do like them. Because as you say, without teleology ontology because meaningless.

    The thing is, I think that unless that teleology is incorporated overtly into design, it will more than likely remain undetected. And will remain undetected until that teleology is unveiled.

    For instance, SF59 produces great music that I probably appreciate more because I appreciate the goal of the artist behind it, but if I were approaching it as one unaware (for instance if I heard them playing “Holiday Song” in the mall and I had never heard of the band before), then I can see no way in which I would be able to discern teleology.

    By the same token, a first glance at my father’s work wouldn’t reveal his intent either. It would not be until one turned a piece over to see on the bottoms of some of his works the business name Hallelujah Pottery immediately below his signature. At that point there are a number of things one could guess about teleology – but significantly fewer in number than previously available.

    I like the idea that we could just sense the work of a Christian heart even in art that does not overtly demonstrate its teleology, but I just don’t know how realistic it is. Still, it’s the non-overt Christian works that I tend to appreciate the most.

  • Beth

    i find it incredibly coincidental that i am listening to sufjan stevens as i read this article.

    sadly, there are few artists that even compare to him-musically, or otherwise, but thank God he exists.

    What is so incredible is how believers and non-believers alike appreciate his music. THAT is the best ministry a “christian” musician could hope to have, in my opinion.

  • David Dunham

    I don’t know if you knew Beth, but this “article” is actually a written summary of an actual audio podcast, where I and Rich Clark discuss the subject of Christian Art. Feel free to add us to your iTunes downloads

  • If you never have, please check out Danielson. http://www.danielson.info/
    Daniel Smith is amazing at producing God glorifying, scripture-filled music and art that is strange, beautiful, and unlike anything else you have ever heard. By the way, he does not claim that it is “Christian” music.

  • Yeah, I’ve been a big fan of Danielson since back when they were first with tooth and nail.