The Problem With Writing Off ‘Un-Christian’ Art

“It is in the mind of Christ that Christians possessing the indwelling Holy Spirit can search the riches of art, even art that doesn’t line up with our theology.”

Because of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, Christians have a great and oft-neglected ability to appreciate the wonderful aesthetics found in this world. There seems to be a divine imperative to find beauty in created things, and like all human longings, this artistic inclination finds fulfillment through life in Christ. The world, marred by sin’s ubiquitous destruction, is longing to be remade. This is the root of the longings for beauty, truth, pleasure, and joy that artists try to capture in their work, and Christ has brought about this restoration, “making peace by the blood of His cross”. This dynamic gives Christianity a unique view of art and culture as instruments that are fulfilled in Christ.

However, fear and ignorance of art and culture often keep us from enjoying the beauty of God that might be found outside of our subculture. There is something distinctly Christian about the enjoyment of “non-Christian” art. Whether it is a film from atheist Soviet Russia, an Enlightenment-influenced novel, or a song written by non-Christians, God is revealed through man’s creation of art because God’s creation of man is evident in the art.

Art and Evangelicalism have had strained relations over the years. In Dynamics of Spiritual Life, theologian Richard Lovelace describes the problems of Evangelical Protestantism’s aesthetic landscape as an overreaction to Catholic aesthetics:

I found that Evangelicalism has its roots in Puritan and Pietistic traditions which has fused the ascetic piety of the early church fathers with Protestant doctrine and which has also overreacted against the luxurious expression of Christian faith in symbolic liturgy graphic art, music and architecture. As a result of these forces, the evangelical stream moved away from the sacramental vision of life in Catholic tradition, in which the created world is not only celebrated as good but recognized as a constant symbolic message about spiritual reality. Evangelical moved in a Manichaean direction, toward a frame of mind in which the objects of sense and sigh could drag us away from what was “spiritual”.

This tension, brought about by the rise of 19th century pre-millennialism and early 20th century fundamentalism, created a barrier between Christian culture and “secular” culture. Because of this separation, Evangelicals have formed a subculture where aesthetics and beauty are valued much less than evangelism, conformity, and theology.

Art & Evangelicalism Today

Since the Second Great Awakening, American Christianity has shifted away from theological discipleship towards emotional captivation in what religion scholar Stephen Prothero calls “spiritual anti-intellectualism.” This caused art’s aesthetic role in church life to be exchanged for an instructional one. Art has now become one of, if not the, primary tools for teaching and discipleship for many American Evangelicals. For art, and music in particular, to gain wide popularity among today’s Evangelicals, it must have an overt message and be adaptable for a worship service. Because art is where many Christians go for religious instruction, it’s assumed that art without an explicit and safe manifestation of Christian thought will lead people astray. This leaves a lot of great music out of the Christian conversation.

I recently read about the band Citizens sitting down with their pastors to workshop their music to ensure that it was theologically correct. In the blog post, Zach Bolen says that the song “Made Alive” used to be about the Old Testament Law but that when his pastors got a hold of it they injected it with the Gospel. The result is a song made by astoundingly talented musicians that sounds much like the safe, flaccid CCM of the ‘90s.

I want to like “Made Alive,” I do. It’s catchy and I agree theologically with everything Citizens sing, but it seems like forced sentimentality, especially after the pastoral staff’s “tweaks.” While I can understand their desire to serve God through their art, it seems like they compromised their vision for conformity. I find a much truer sentiment in the music of non-orthodox musician Jim White, who describes his often weird and always honest music as “just looking for the gold tooth in God’s crooked smile”. The song in the beginning of this clip gives one more to consider than “Made Alive.”

Along the same lines as Citizens, I often wonder about the genuineness of a band like Hillsong United, one of the most popular bands among younger (16-35) Evangelicals. Though I can appreciate the musicianship, their songs are all optimistic, upbeat, and easily adaptable to a church service. I wonder if that’s because the members of Hillsong really feel that joy continuously or because of the social and industry pressures to fit a particular mold. Whatever the case, this art does a disservice to Christianity by representing Christians as lacking in emotional vibrancy and honesty.

Christians have the ability, in Christ, to behold theologically rich beauty in much more subtle ways. Great music made by non-Christians can give us a feast of biblical imagery and human longing. Consider Wilco, a band about as far outside of the Christian subculture as a band can possibly get. One of their most brilliant tracks is “At Least That’s What You Said.” The song’s guitar solo is an absolutely heart-wrenching musical feast — it’s moved me to tears more than once — that was written by lead singer Jeff Tweedy as an auditory manifestation of his panic attacks. For anyone who has wrestled with anxiety, it’s something to hear.

For Christians to enjoy art, it’s important that they know who God really is. For a disciple of Christ to find enough security in their identity to discern God’s presence in subtle,”non-Christian” art and culture is a sign of spiritual life and vitality. Furthermore, it’s a great exercise in the pursuit of truth. Art can sharpen, confront, and comfort the soul, but not unless the ultimate comfort of Christ is already there. Having a robust theology will allow us to see God’s glory in “unorthodox art.”

Don’t Fear ‘Un-Christian’ Art

Christ’s death and resurrection did not mark the separation of Christianity from everything non-Christian but rather, the restoration of all things. Christ is the perfect restorative agent and we are His ambassadors. To believe in Christ is to believe that “in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).

This includes art, and even the most offensive, non-Christian expressions of art can qualify. There is redemption to behold in all of God’s creation and according to Evangelical and art historian Dan Siedell:

This frees us from the cultural burdens we so often carry in order to love our artistic neighbors by loving their art, poetry, music, and film. We are free to make ourselves vulnerable to it, allowing it to work on us as art (not as moral messages or threats to our morality). And we are free to mobilize our faith in loving service to that work of art, that painting, that film, that novel, or that poem in order to deepen our understanding of it and to open its depth for others, even (and especially) those who do not share our faith.

Psalm 24:1 declares that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,” and therefore nothing is “off limits” — especially to those who have been fully reconciled with their Creator and His purposes. Siedell continues:

The Christian is the ideal audience for all art, for all aesthetic artifacts of the imagination — even (or especially) the most scandalous and offensive. It is often the most scandalous and offensive works that reveal the pain, suffering, and desperation of the human condition in the most compelling of ways. And it is the Christian who can receive all things — including poems and paintings — as gifts.

I have taken a deeper interest in fiction this year and I’ve found that my soul has been strengthened and enlightened by several great works of art that are not theologically airtight. In January, I read The Brothers Karamazov, and the aesthetic beauty of Zossima and Alyosha’s lives captivated me; I still think about it daily. The characters were not Evangelicals and I probably disagree with their views on justification, but experiencing these two characters reminded me of grace, salvation, and God’s love. My Evangelical worldview did not falter, but rather, was nourished. Dostoyevsky’s symbolic literary art challenged me in my sin and helped me behold a Divine beauty. I find it disheartening that so many Evangelical brothers and sisters might miss out on such experiences because they perceive the art to be theologically unsafe.

Art is a mysterious, divine overflow of beauty from the soul of man. To make art is to search the soul’s depths for truth, and to behold art is to do much the same. Art does not need to be a method of indoctrination. Furthermore, when we dig for truth where it is not obvious, the rewards are that much sweeter. In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, art “will be comprehensible to a mind that is harmoniously formed and developed, one that, according to its capacities, will seek out what is perfect and complete within itself” (“On Truth and Probability in Works of Art”, 1798). And it is in the mind of Christ that Christians possessing the indwelling Holy Spirit can search the riches of art, even art that doesn’t line up with our theology.

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Great stuff. It reminds of those sections where Calvin basically said that to despise the wisdom of the pagan artists and philosophers was to blaspheme the Holy Spirit who gives out common grace gives in liberality.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Some things are beautiful. It is madness (peculiar, it seems, to American Christianity) to refuse a thing’s beauty for wholly unaesthetic reasons. That isn’t how thinking is supposed to happen.

  • Pingback: The Relationship Between Art & Church | Gospel Community Culture

  • Pingback: New Sleeping Dogs DLC Lets You Be a Ticket-Writing, Ass-Kicking Cop Again - Roxy Articles

  • http://southerngospelyankeewordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

    Interesting. I agree with this approach to a point, but I believe it can be exaggerated. Can we really say that “the MOST offensive” art still exhibits truth or beauty, or even qualifies as art? For my part, “Piss Christ” does not equal art.

    Incidentally, Hillsong does have songs that acknowledge Christian suffering. For example, Brooke Fraser’s “Desert Song” is a powerful anthem of hope through tribulation.

  • Matt Purdum

    Firstly, it’s got nothing to do with the Enlightenment or the Puritans. Americans are just ignoramuses whose idea of art is watching 4 hillbillies stand around a pawn shop. Secondly, almost no “Christian” music of film can ever be good art because the destination is a given. A true artist just creates honestly and sees where it takes him/her.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    “…even the most offensive, non-Christian expressions of art can qualify.”

    I think this goes too far; some things can in fact be thrown out as unworthy of consideration. What redemption is there to behold in “Hostel?” Or “Human Centipede?” Or “Jackass,” or “Captivity,” the “Dukes of Hazzard” remake, “The Jersey Shore,” or Flo Rida’s “Whistle,” and so on. We can say that they don’t really qualify as art (I wouldn’t disagree), but that only moves the goalposts.

    Could God’s power redeem these works? Sure. But I suspect that the post-redeemed visions of these and many others would simply be silence. Could there be diamonds in this manure? Again, sure. But I’m likelier to find the diamonds in a jewelry store, and smell better afterwards.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    I think that many Christians have been come engrossed with always being making sure to communicate the message of the gospel clearly in art. However, I think it is much more powerful to show this in the narrative through the characters than in wrapping everything up in once nice neat package at the end. You can move people in that direction without explicitly stating that is what you are after. I think art in general has been suspect by Christians for a long time because it is unclear and nuanced but this type of art seems to express life more closely then ending a story with the gospel in a deus ex machina fashion. To me that seems dishonest.

  • http://www.amusingmaralee.com Maralee

    We must be hanging out with different Christians. My hipster peers scoff at things that are openly Christian and run to embrace the more socially acceptable vaguely “spiritual” stuff. I don’t think we should write off “un Christian” art, but I’m also troubled by this tendency in our community to express such judgement towards those who are trying to intentionally use their artistic gifts for ministry. I can’t say Hillsong is my favorite variety of music, but I think it would be great for you to watch this video of the experiences that surrounded the recording of “Desert Song”. It directly answers the question you asked about their authenticity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEE4gvyFN2s Really, I’m no defender of their talent or style, but as a woman who has lost a baby, I can’t listen to this song without weeping knowing what was behind this song.
    So I won’t throw away the “un Christian” art, but I hope we’re not being too quick to judge Christian art as shallow merely because it’s Christian.

  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    Hey Maralee. Thanks for your thoughts. I totally agree with what you are saying. Totally. I agree that Christian art is valuable and historically has been some of the most aesthetically stunning art ever made. I don’t want to discount what you are saying. I agree with you. However, maybe we are hanging out with different Christians. How Chrisians interact with culture and what can be seen as edifying is still an area that still an area that needs to be addressed with some, if not a lot of Christians. I don’t think I know too many hipster Christians in my real life, so it could definitely be a valid thing in different circles.

    I think you make great points and I often find myself helped by explicitly Christian art from old hymns to new Christian rap. I think both ideas could and should coexist. :)

  • http://www.amusingmaralee.com Maralee

    Thanks for the dialogue, Nick. If you’re ever in Nebraska, I’d be happy to have you visit my church. You’d feel right at home with the Christians I’m hanging out with. Just bring your skinny jeans and ironic nerdy glasses.

  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    Oh gosh, I do not have the figure to rock skinny jeans….!

  • Pingback: Why You Should Be Wary of Christian Music for Kids

  • Byron

    Very interesting. As a christian who has been involved in the arts longer then Christ (as in following art, being an artist, longer then being a follower of Christ) I understand fully where this chap is coming from. However I feel he is lacking some balance here. I know what he is saying but I feel he is remiss in his synopsis. Yes we as Christians must view art as a part of being image bearers of Christ. We must create and not suppress creativity in the church. And to view non christian art is not a sin either. (I took a art class in bible college where we studied very secular works and discussed the history of art and these men’s work in the context of a creative God. )
    However I think this writer is going to far the one way. For many of us we lack the constancy to be critical enough on the secular art we view. The songs we listen to, the films we watch can be damaging to our faith. Remember that satan was a angel of music, and music is always worship. What are the artists worshiping in their songs? Many Christians are un-knowingly worshiping something besides God when they sing theses songs. And the same goes with film and television, the media has a influence on us when we watch it and is preaching something to us. I think this writer is missing something important, we need discernment in what we watch and listen to. Also I feel he is being unfair with his critique with worship such as hillsong. Is not worship, worthy art to be expressed? and deep worship such as some of hillsongs works should not be thrown away as sentimental hogwash. (This is something I was once did) for example “healer” is a song of deep pain expressed to The Lord.

    Also, He forgets how many Christians express what he credits secular artists for doing so well. Bringing forth honest music.
    Johnny Cash was never shy to tell a tale or two that would be considered risqué in the church circles. With songs he wrote himself dealing with crimes of passion (Deliah) along side songs about the end times (when the man comes around)
    And how about Sufjan Strevens. Who, though he is a Christian, produced an album that was to express the feelings of physical pain with “Age of Ads”. Which don’t shy away from how being trapped in a constant pain will cause one to cry out with frustration. The list goes on and on.

    What this writer is missing is balance. He talks about The Brothers Karamazov as if it were a secular book. Well it’s not, Dostoyevsky was a christian man. Many of the classics were written by christian men about subjects that were to challenge the church as well as the general public.
    The church has lost the arts. Where we were once at the forefront (Michelangelo, Di Vince, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, John Bunyan etc etc) we now are trying to keep up. The church should be allowing artists to express like we once did, not censoring their works.
    My point is we shouldn’t even need to go to the “secular” as we feel we do. The church should be so expressive that the best music, films, paintings are all done by those who express Christ as lord.
    I am not saying don’t listen to M. Ward or Death Cab For cutie. Or don’t watch Donnie Darko or the mentalist. But maybe avoid American Pie and Rihanna and don’t throw out the voice of the creative Christians because your in a stage in your life where you can’t stand worship music.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X