I have long believed that we (humans), being made in the image of God, are little creators. We all have outlets for this need to create. Artists, I think, are a proof of the Truth God spoke when He proclaimed this. In light of this belief, I’ve recently begun to think of art in a new way. Who am I and why should you care? I’m the brand new writer for Christ and Pop Culture, your favorite blog. Well, maybe I’m not actually thinking of art in a new way. Maybe I just started distilling how I was already thinking about the movies I was viewing, the books I was reading, the shows I was following, the music to which I was… jamming.
One day, while under the influence of Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water”, I put names to the sides which had been battling it out for my artistic allegiance for years: “composition” and “content”, or what is being said and how? Now, to some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer, but there are so many lenses through which art can be examined. I’ve been to college and I don’t remember anyone breaking it down like this. I suppose it is possible I wasn’t paying attention, but whatever the reason, previously I was never able to streamline my thinking to this extent. In trying to analyze literature or movies, my mind would get cloudy and I would pass out. No, not really, but many times I wanted to. This naming has helped to clarify and shape the otherwise vague ideas my mind toys with, enabling me to better understand them myself, and communicate them to other people. In finally seeing that the building blocks for every work of art are content and composition, I am well-armed to tackle more volatile ground: the place where Christianity and art meet.
As a Christian, an artist and a lover of great art, I have struggled over the years in experiencing artistic works while trying not to compromise my identity in Christ. I felt for so long that my faith and love of great art were clashing, yet I was rarely satisfied with the work coming out of the contemporary Christian creative world – art created for Christians by Christians. I’ve asked myself the questions most of us do at some point. What is art? What qualifies something as good art? Why is it that the work coming out of the “Christian culture” so often falls short?
Yes, I have thought about the answers to these questions, and thought, and thought some more. Then I washed my hands and thought some more. You see, in my day job, I work as a certified massage therapist, and that work allows me great amounts of quiet time to think, and think, and think some more, and then wash my hands and think some more when the next session starts.
There! You see what I did there? I used the last sentence to explain the cryptic, yet related, sentence before it. I had to explain it to you. Heaven forbid I let you think about it and reach a conclusion as to what it meant using your mind and imagination and spirit. And there is the problem with so much art labeled as “Christian” today. Granted, this is not the best example. But it hopefully illustrates my point: by looking at the building blocks of composition and content, it is plain that much (certainly not ALL, but MUCH) of the art typically made by Christians for Christians lacks skillful composition.
Why is this? Maybe it is because the Christian artist is often trying so hard to make sure the Gospel message is understood, they don’t trust their symbols and metaphors to communicate this for them, and in the process, remove the artistry from the piece. This could be one reason. Though this is a noble motive, I might refer them to a preferred teaching method of Christ, the use of the parable. There are likely multiple other reasons for why this happens, but it is a regular occurrence, and a problematic one. We lose the opportunity to share the message of the Gospel with non-believers who are looking to engage with great art. This is one reason “Christian art” is not taken seriously in the world of mainstream media.
Please don’t misunderstand me, here. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the best content imaginable, and trumps all else. The Bible tells the Gospel, obviously, and is full of skillful artistry. If you want symbolism and metaphor, all the feasts of Israel are exactly that – symbols of Christ and His work. You can see God’s love of metaphor throughout the Bible. But if you take that content and put it in the middle of a formulaic fiction book, for example, and that book is being published by a Christian house, sold in Christian stores, and shows good people doing good things and bad people doing bad things, and little character complexity, and then at the end, the Gospel is given and someone gets saved, who exactly is going to be reading this book except for other Christians who are, understandably, tired of the nasty, unexpected surprises which pop up 150 pages into a secular novel when you’re so engrossed you don’t want to put it down? (Sorry for the rant- I mean, we’ve just met.)
I do understand that safer stories have a place in our faith. Not everyone’s conscience allows them to engage as freely with the art of mainstream culture. (See Romans 14) This article is not meant to judge those brothers and sisters. Each believer must decide between God and themselves what is or is not acceptable for them in disputable matters, specifically. But even the safer stories can still be told better, I believe.
The Gospel of Christ does not need artistry. It IS Artistry, the great and true Story written across time and creation. It is both the Composition and the Content. So, if we little creators are going to use it as our content in our little stories which reflect THE Story (and an argument could be made that all content is about trying to get to redemption and to Christ, but that is another article), let’s make everything about that work as skillfully and wonderfully glorifying to God as possible, including its composition. We are to believe that all talents are God-given, and we also must face the fact that some of the most compositionally talented artists are professed non-believers. Going back to Ms. L’Engle, “We would like God’s ways to be like our ways, His judgments to be like our judgments. It is hard for us to understand that He lavishly gives enormous talents to people we would consider unworthy, that He chooses His artists with as calm a disregard of surface moral qualifications as He chooses His saints.” Composition, even void of worthy content, must be important to the Lord, because it is gifted from Him. If we strive to make composition as important as content, then maybe the secular artistic world would not be so anxious to segregate themselves from Christian-created art, and maybe then they would learn more of our Christ.
But wait a minute. Let’s turn the tables. How DOES the secular world do it? Where do they generally fall in the whole composition and content question? Let’s look at Hollywood. The main concern of Hollywood producers is money. But the directors, the ones who carry the artistic vision of the film they are crafting, are almost always going to be concerned primarily with composition. Even Hollywood writers, who may be traditionally more content-driven, are looking for unique ways to tell their story, whatever it may be about. This is why so many mainstream films and shows are problematic for the discerning viewer as well, and why some movies are boycotted by many Christians. I can go on about why I don’t believe boycotting works and how it actually alienates the people we should be trying to reach for Christ, but if the answer is not to boycott, alienate, or withdraw from the culture, what is?
Again, I believe the answer that best glorifies God is for artists who love Him to create art which shows His Truth both in excellence of content and composition. Two great examples of films which accomplish this are Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and the 2008 Sam Mendes film, “Revolutionary Road”. I would argue that both of these films are exceptional in their composition. In content, they are, uh, pretty different, but consider it from this angle: I love “Revolutionary Road”, because at its heart is Truth in content. The characters are outside of Christ, and there are no dreams which will fulfill, outside of Christ.
And for the discerning viewer, do not violate your conscience. Not all art is for everyone to enjoy freely. I have my own boundaries for what I will and won’t be involved in artistically. But I challenge each of us to strive for excellence in our artistic choices, whatever our particular boundaries are regarding content. We are in this world, not of it. We are a part of the culture whether we like it or not. Let us make the most powerful, excellent impact on it for Christ that we possibly can.