"Christian" Art: Seeking After A Better Way

I always find Kenneth R. Morefield’s film reviews to be thought-provoking and interesting — and right now, they also make me a little jealous. You see, Morefield has been attending the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, and he’s recently posted a review of a film that I’m very interesting in seeing.

The Way — written and directed by Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez) and starring Martin Sheen — is the story of a man coming to terms with the death of his son, who died while doing The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. In his review, Morefield describes the film as an incredibly true and realistic treatment of grief and mourning and gives especially high marks to Sheen’s performance as the grieving father. He even goes so far as to call it one of his favorite films of 2010 so far.

Suffice to say the movie is now on my “to watch” list, though I suspect that I’ll have to wait for an eventual DVD/Blu-ray release. But what I want to focus on right now is a point that Morefield brings up in the latter portion of his review:

In circles in which I sometimes converse, there have been, for as long as I can remember, discussions about Christians in the arts, about how to get more films that are faith friendly and about the corrosive moral effects of “Hollywood” or the “Hollywood culture.” Every now and then, though, I’ll run across a song like Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” or a film like The Way, that not only puts “Christian” films to shame but that makes me exasperated at the whole notion of “Christian” as an identity politics genre. If you want more great Christian art, go find great artists and support them in their desire to speak, write, and represent the truth. Hollywood is made up of people — many of whom, it turns out, are more complex, interesting, and thoughtful than we might guess based on nothing more than a quick glimpse of their IMDB filmography.

We Christians are awfully good at defining ourselves by what we’re against, especially when it comes aspects of the culture such as movies. We’re against filthy and obscene language. We’re against sex and nudity. We’re against violence (though, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not nearly as consistent with this one as we are the first two). We’re against humanism, materialism, secularism, and a whole host of other “isms”.

These stances may be rooted in noble ideals and goals. However, the end result of this negative way of thinking about and approaching culture is all too often a “circle the wagons” mindset marked by paranoia and fear of “moral contamination” rather than by confidence, conscience, and grace (not to mention the Fruits of the Spirit).

So here’s a question for you: what if we as Christians didn’t let ourselves become so easily marked by what we’re against — by what we fear and hate in the culture — but rather, by what we’re for — by that which we celebrate, affirm, and rightfully enjoy? That is, life, truth, peace, grace, love — all of which see their ultimate expression in the Gospel of Christ, and which are certainly present in the works of those who are not Christian, and may very well be hostile to the faith.

Marilynne Robinson touched on this in a recent Christianity Today interview:

Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess. And here I am referring to the Sermon on the Mount, to Matthew 25 — those hard teachings that run so strongly against the impulses toward judgmentalism and exclusivism that assert themselves whenever any group decides to feel threatened. If Christians believe what they claim to believe, that the church is the body of Christ, how can they think any “culture wars” are necessary to its survival? Its wars, past and present, are the most telling charge brought against it. And Christians should care for what is true in every sense of the word true.

Robinson was referring to Christians’ reaction to science writers such as Richard Dawkins, but her words are just as applicable when talking about Christians’ reactions to Hollywood and other aspects of the culture at large.

But here’s the rub, something that throws a curveball at the idea that such art will or must always be of a positive, upbeat, whitewashed variety: sometimes celebrating life, truth, etc. entails venturing through dark and difficult territory that can and should make us uncomfortable. After all, we find at the center of the Gospel of Christ the horrific torture and death of Christ himself.

What if “Christian” art — or, if you prefer, art created by Christians — wasn’t concerned primarily with being identified as “Christian” art, and therefore toeing the party line that such a term necessarily implies, but rather, with simply telling the Truth — e.g., the Truth about our humanity in all of its horror and glory, in all of its fallenness and splendor, in all of its contamination and redemption?

If Christians want to send Hollywood and our other supposed cultural “foes” a message — assuming that’s what Christians ought to be doing in the first place — might that not be a more effective method than our our usual tactics of protesting, boycotting, and fear?

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew

    Thanks for expressing more succinctly what I was trying to say in my article about “bad” language in art. I feel that for some reason–many influences have certainly helped to get us where we are–that many Christians haven’t been trained how to think critically about the world around them, especially in the realm of art and the result is a pretty sparse landscape in terms of Christian engagement of the arts. I think too many Christians have no idea how to interact with art other than to label it and consequently this affects both our growth and our witness. I am curious as to how we might seek to remedy this? I suppose posts like this one are a start.

    I would squabble with Marilynne Robinson in that the Sermon on the Mount oozes with exclusivity, but I think her point was a valid one. It is, in fact, unbiblical to wear our exclusivity as badge of honor–the exclusivity of the gospel and the gospels subsequent application to us ought to make us the humblest of all people.

  • http://www.pofgblog.com Joseph

    Great article, Jason! I think this idea is going to have to be a the center of whatever revival happens in our culture. We have allowed ourselves to be defined in media (news, film, music, etc.) almost completely by what we are against. It has gone to the point that I think we are going to have a lot of difficulty overcoming that image. It can happen, though…

    As for art, I have agreed with your position for a long time that art, music, film, etc., should be outpourings of what the artist/musician/filmmaker feels and believes. If Christ has truly changed our lives, truly transformed our minds, then our art should simply be an outgrowth of that. It shouldn’t need the label ‘Christian’, and the label ‘Christian’ definitely shouldn’t be synonymous with ’2nd rate’.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    I remember when I went through a phase where I only listened to Christian music. Now I think the label “Christian” before “music” is largely unhelpful and I am an avid music fan who listens to and interprets lyrics regularly. There is hope for us all.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    I’ll go you one further. What if “Christian” art wasn’t concerned with either toeing the party line or telling the Truth but was simply just an expression of the self? That would just be awesome.

    Okay, that was kind of a blind. Art of every kind is merely an expression of self. The problem is that we pretend its something other than that. Usually something, quote-unquote, better. We, as a culture, pretend that art is this thing that we should treat as capitalized: Art! This unique means of expressing things that is ultimately powerful and moving and dangerous and glorious. The fact of the matter is that art is merely expression, no better or worse than when you open your mouth and allow a planned and sequential order of phonemes creep out.

    As such, art is only as powerful as its expression. Just like with speech.

    Somewhere along the line though—and I’m not sure whether it was artists or critics or philosophers or who—art was mythologized into this grand Other. This transcendent thing. This vessel for greatness. There’s nothing sensible about this designation, but it exists all the same. The desperation with which fans of videogames claw at the chance to have videogames considered art is symptomatic.

    And with these presumptions, we find ourselves demanding art to be one thing or another. The idea that if Art is meant to be great then it must be used in particular ways. It should be used to promote Christian Values! It should be used to promote Truth!

    To all that I say Humbug. Just let art be as it is meant to be: expression of the ego and its multifarious facets. Those who excel at expression of worthwhile things will continue to do so. Those who don’t have the gift will continue to be boring. It’s exactly the same as with conversation.

    And if anything could use a little mythologizing these days it is the art of conversation.

  • http://www.davidhoos.com David

    I don’t think Christian art should be concerned with expressing the self. Self-expression is another narcissistic romantic individualistic idol of modernity. It’s why our public schools are failing. Americans have great self-esteem but are simply not educated. If Christians want to exceed the current culture in the arts, we need to develop more accurate technical skill (in a craft) combined with nuanced storytelling skill (by studying scripture and history). Art by Christians should be for the purpose of serving others, not just for emo catharsis. That reeks of the egalitarianism that we as a church need to repent of. Art is for Christians to try and express God in his great transcendence and gracious immanence, not express ourselves.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    But David, expression cannot help but be self-expression. That is its nature. It cannot not express the self. This is why I do not say it should be “concerned” with expression of the self. It is expression of the self and therefore is concerned only with what the self is concerned with.

    For example, you express your self and your self’s concerns when you say things like: “Self-expression is another narcissistic romantic individualistic idol of modernity.” What else did you express there beyond your self’s concerns? Use overly adjectival descriptions if you like, but the expression of self is not just a presence in modernity. It is present in mankind as far back as the dawn of human history. When Adam gave names to animals, he was expressing self. When Adam named the woman Eve he was expressing his self. God made us individuals and egos. We are not to be redeemed from our egos, form our selves; it is our selves that are to be redeemed.

    Art by Christians should be for the purpose of serving others, not just for emo catharsis.

    Who says that serving others is not an expression of self? When I serve others, it is out of my own self’s sense that serving others is right and good and what I wish to do because Christ did so for me. To slapdash a label like “emo catharsis” doesn’t seem entirely helpful. Or all that accurate.

    That reeks of the egalitarianism that we as a church need to repent of.

    Only if you misunderstand it. If one automatically presumes ego and narcissism occupy the same roost, then I can see the plausible connection. However, I would say that such an understanding of the self is mistaken and certainly at odds with the scriptural creation.

    Art is for Christians to try and express God in his great transcendence and gracious immanence, not express ourselves.

    Mythologization of art aside, says who? If you’re talking in that general sense by which all activities are meant for the glory of God, then certainly. However, if you’re saying that art has one singular purpose, to intentionally attempt to convey God in both his transcendence and immanence, I’d have to ask from where you draw this idea.

    It’s certainly not basely evident. People can’t even define art, so I have a feeling your definition of purpose here is based more on the arbitrary governance of your own subjective self-expression, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

  • http://pos51.org Charles

    Every time I get all worked up about something, you calm me down. I totally agree.

    We can’t even define “art”; we can barely describe it. How could we even start to say what it should and shouldn’t be about?

  • http://www.davidhoos.com David

    I think we’re talking past each other. When I mention self-expression, I’m talking about the type of self-expression that is popular in contemporary culture. That champions ‘diversity’ and holds to an essential moral relativism. That believes that there isn’t objective truth. You are right that in your definition, self-expression can apply to any number of things, but the problem is that me throwing up would also be self-expression so all “self-expression” is not created equal. Just as we can say that someone is a good speaker or a poor speaker, Christians should recognize that someone can be a good artist or a poor artist. That there is such a think as good expression and bad expression.

    I think the problem is treating self-expression as a neutral term. That it doesn’t carry with it any intrinsic meaning or history. That it only means what the dictionary literally defines it as. The problem is that such a literal definition doesn’t really engage with what it means in popular culture.

    When I say art should be for the purpose of serving others I’m relating it to the “expression” mentioned earlier. Art that doesn’t serve (or perhaps edify) the viewer is only edifying ones self and while that might be therapeutic for them, it’s not helping to build of the body of Christ. Am I saying that I don’t think people should be creative in order to heal? No, but I think that Christians need to ask themselves whether they are just emoting within their medium or actually trying to communicate something edifying. It’s like the power of the tongue. Even if we have the ability to say something, it doesn’t mean we should. Art that is “expressed” should seek to build others up in the same way that we should be careful and aware of what we say.

    The transcendence and immanence comes from the trinity. God is both transcendent (beyond us) and immanent (with us). God is not just spirit. He became a man and I believe we can begin to distill some principles for Christian aesthetics by studying the trinity. The more we study the character and nature of the ultimate artist, the author of creation and redemption, the more we can define what the Christian artist ought to look like.

    I don’t know who the people are who you say can’t define art, but I don’t think that it follows that it is undefinable. After all, it is probably secular nihilists who can’t define art which pretty much follows from their worldview. As Christians we believe that God created the world with certain principles built in and whose creative decisions and expression flowed out of his character. As a result, the more we study Him, via His story and book, the better equipped we become to define art and other principles for aesthetics. To be quite honest, Christians are the only ones who have a sound foundation to actually define art and its a shame that we have forgotten that in recent history.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    Every time, Charles? That’s not how I remember it :D

  • http://pos51.org Charles

    Yes, throwing up is, quite literally, self “expression” (to press out).

    “Art” is typically done for the sake of the creator…he has something to say that he can’t put into words, so he puts it in some other form. Expression that is therapeutic and self-edifying is just as valuable to its creator as expression that is edifying to others. As long as art is a personal enterprise, an artist can have any purpose for his art that he pleases. If he is commissioned, he’s beholden to the patron; aside from that, even Christians are free to “emote in their medium.”

    They’re also free to try to communicate, subtly or explicitly, the nature of God, the Gospel, or any other Christian theme. Art that is overtly Christian isn’t automatically “bad,” but neither is it automatically better than art that is mainly focused on expressing personal ideas or emotions.

    It seems like you’re suggesting that we should only say something if it seeks to build someone else up. Is that right? I can’t tell my wife that I had a bad day, or that my boss hates me, or that I was late to class, because it doesn’t build her up? Art that is “expressed” (the alternative being art that isn’t expressed, and is therefore non-existent) certainly doesn’t have to “seek to build others up.”

    This is where we run up against the problem of defining art. You allow for someone to “be creative in order to heal.” Is that art? I think so, and I’m pretty sure Seth and the others here would agree. Here’s a list of things that could or could not be considered art:

    Painting, Drawing, Sculpture
    Company logos, Product Packaging
    Websites
    Carpentry, Architecture
    Teaching, Speaking, Writing
    Any Sport, Dance
    Cooking
    Philosophy
    Fashion Design
    Photography

    That’s just a description, simultaneously over-inclusive and woefully incomplete. It’s not just “secular nihilists” who can’t define it, it’s pretty much anyone unwilling to limit it to chamber music and oil paintings. Christians may be better able to get a handle on the concept of “art”, but what we’ve realized in recent history is that there is art in a great many things that we had excluded from the category, and many of the things included were not art at all.

    If you have a definition of art, or even a promising lead, I think we’d all be appreciative if you shared.

  • http://www.davidhoos.com David

    are seeking to define art itself alone, while I am trying to define principles for peculiarly Christian art (and not in the CCM/Thomas Kinkade way).
    I personally have no problem defining art broadly to include everything from architecture, to graffiti, to dance, to graphic design, to filmmaking. I think art is capturing a piece of how you view the world and recapitulating it in a way that makes others look at it in a way they hadn’t noticed before within a particular medium. When you start there, you can then evaluate whether something is an effective recapitulation, whether it exhibits superior skill, and what worldview it reflects. All useful elements for Christians to pay attention to and to evaluate from.

    Regarding your comment, I guess my first question is, if a Christian “emotes in their medium” does it follow necessarily that whatever they emote will be Christian art? If we start with something like the broad definition I gave of what art is, then what does it mean to be a good Christian artist? I would argue that good Christian art is a fruit of good technical skill in a medium coupled with a sound Christian worldview. My concern with most Christian art is that it typically fits only one of these. Most of contemporary “Christian” art that has found success in the Christian ghettos falls short of the first standard, and most art done by Christians that has found secular success falls short of the second. You mention that it is lawful to emote and I agree, but 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 says that “all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.” Christians need to keep this in mind. They are not just creating for themselves. No man is an island, especially the Christian. Artists are teachers whether they like it or not. Should the Christian artist encourage people to turn inward? To express themselves? If we find our being in Christ, then we don’t need to express ourselves in self centered ways, to emote. If we find out being in Christian we should overflow with expression that should feed and bless others.

    Augustine is famous for saying “Love God and do as you please”. What he is saying is that if we are loving God as our first priority, our other priorities and vision will work themselves out. If we truly love God first, we will not hate our neighbor. If we truly love God first, we will not elevate other things as idols in our lives. This should be the Christian artists motto. Love God first and then do your art. If your art is truly the fruit of a love for God, then more selfless art, more excellent art will flow out of it. Art that is pursued out of love of self, love of money, or love of acclaim will leave them empty….which might make them want to emote. :)

  • http://www.davidhoos.com David

    Ack, my first line cut off. Here it is:
    There are a number of things going on here….Again, I think we are talking with different terms. I think you

    (if the editor wants to fix that comment and delete this one, please feel free)

  • matt

    Despite how you define it, doesn’t art fall into the category of “an overflow of the heart”, just the same as a generous gift or a racial epithet? I think David is simply saying that as long as a Christian pursues to glorify Christ, his art, regardless of its relative quality, will also glorify Christ either directly or indirectly.

    So does the best expression come from a heart that is most submitted to God? Christians need to pursue quality, which, in art, is relative, but not at the expense of their pursuit of God and Truth and Goodness. Obviously quality art and God-Glorifying truth are not mutually exclusive, so our view of what is sub-standard Christian art is more than likely just a lazy attempt at cashing in on a demographic.

    But let’s not pretend that the only sub-standard art out there is “Christian”. I’ve got some CDs I bought in high school that I’d put up against the Newsboys any day.

  • http://pos51.org Charles

    I think that’s a good description of art, but we could go round and round on what it necessarily includes and excludes (like including nonsensical rants, and excluding the performance of someone else’s work).

    As for your question about what makes something “Christian art,” that seems to be the whole point of the discussion. Is there such a thing? Or is there only art by Christians, or art that expresses truth? I choose “art by Christians.” If a Christian emotes in their medium, that’s what they’ve created…art by a Christian. It may have overt Christian themes, but it may not.

    1 Cor. 10 doesn’t apply here, but if you want to force it, you have to at least nod to the fact that food sacrificed to demons/idols is not equivalent to the self-focused expression of a Christian, and that verses 25-26 say, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” Paul instructs them to do the very thing they were concerned about, because “the earth is the Lord’s.” And don’t forget the end of verse 29: “for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?”

    Christians need to keep this in mind. They are not just creating for themselves. No man is an island, especially the Christian. Artists are teachers whether they like it or not. Should the Christian artist encourage people to turn inward? To express themselves? If we find our being in Christ, then we don’t need to express ourselves in self centered ways, to emote. If we find out being in Christian we should overflow with expression that should feed and bless others.

    Yes, sometimes Christians create for themselves. Some things that a Christians says, does, writes, or creates are for personal enjoyment, expression, or edification (the three E’s is a total accident, BTW). We should put aside our own desire when it conflicts with the well-being of another person or the will of God, but it doesn’t follow that we should never seek to express ourselves – particularly in private.

    Yes, Christian artists should encourage self-expression. Self-expression goes hand-in-hand with self-examination. It is nearly impossible to do one without the other. Evangelicals have a very bad habit of self-repression, which goes hand-in-hand with hypocrisy, emptiness, and an inability to offer self to God (because you don’t know what your self is).

    Romans 6-7 is a clear picture of the fact that faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit do not remove the flesh. They do not remove the pain that was present before conversion, they do not remove the pain of life. If we find our being in Christ we should feel more free to emote, because we are no longer afraid of our emotions, or our pain. We can share them, examine their causes, and the mistakes we have made because of them. We express, we examine, and we let Christ heal.

    Your last paragraph is fairly insulting (and I’m not even an artist). Are you suggesting that “if we are loving God as our first priority” that we won’t have any pain, or failure, or disappointment? Are you suggesting that if we experience those things we aren’t loving God enough? That’s ridiculous, and doesn’t square with the Bible or the personal experience of…well, anyone.

    You also indirectly encourage anyone who experiences hardship after accepting Christ to hold it in, and take on the practice of self-repression, needlessly endangering their emotional and spiritual health.

    As I said in my last reply, art is typically done for the sake of its creator. There’s a reason for that. We are the image of God, who created for his own sake. That creative nature was given to us. God’s creation is an outpouring of himself, and reveals his nature. Our art is the same, and if we are Christians – if the Spirit of God lives in us – our art will reveal his nature within us.

  • http://www.davidhoos.com David

    Is quality in art relative? I believe no. Yes, there are a lot of elements that are just regular ol’ choices, but just as a plumber should probably be familiar with the rules of plumbing before he tries to fix your sink, artisans should be familiar with the rules of their art medium. I think a lot of folks get bogged down comparing art between mediums and assume that its all relative.

    Frankly, I have no interest in extended criticism of old and current Christian “art”. I simply think that if art by Christians is ever going to get better, it is going to have to start accepting some of the criticism and not settle for producing within the evangelical ghettos. Do we think there are standards for good car mechanics? Then why do we have trouble with standards for art or artists? Encouraging inferior skill and quality art in the church by refusing to give honest critique is first being dishonest to them and second, it is setting them up to get the brutally honest truth from someone who doesn’t care for them.

  • http://www.davidhoos.com David

    Self-expression in the way that you are defining it seem to me to be a recipe for rebellion and depression. Christians needs to look to Christ for hope, to the Gospel for catharsis. Our hearts are naturally evil and desperately wicked. What good does navel gazing do for the Christian? It’s an opportunity for Satan to help us attack ourselves and take our focus away from the Gospel.

    Here’s a few good books on the subject:
    The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis
    The Mind of the Maker – Dorothy Sayers
    On Moral Fiction – John Gardner
    Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl – N.D. Wilson
    Imagine – Steve Turner
    Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves – Calvin Seerveld
    Plowing in Hope – Dave Hegeman


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