Bad Christian Art: “Excuse me while I go throw up and rock myself in a corner.”

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold writes about the dangers of bad religious artwork. Jeremy lends his expertise as a Christian art historian and adds his voice as a Millennial to our continuing discussion on what attracts or repels young people about church.  

By Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold

“The Worth of a Soul” by Liz Lemon Swindle.

A pastor friend of mine asked me the other day if I knew of any good examples of art that depicted God as not an old white dude. Just going off the top of my head, I found it a surprisingly difficult task. While I may admit to knowing a thing or two about art history, my visual memory has been permanently imprinted with that aged white man that my friend wanted to avoid. Thankfully, there’s Google Images to help jog my aesthetic memory.

Yet I was distracted when Google gave me a depiction not of God, butof Jesus. My jaw dropped straight to the floor. I know there are some bad Christian art images out there, but this one takes the cake.

There’s Jesus—white, of course—holding a black baby in the child’s natural habitat: the Serengeti. Jesus presses his lips to the infant’s head as he looks out, perhaps eyeing a pack of rabid hyenas that could’ve eaten the poor thing if it weren’t for Jesus. The baby’s gaze meets our eyes. And we melt as we say, “Awww. Jesus sure does love the little children, don’t he? Even the black babies in Africa.”

…excuse me while I go throw up and rock myself in a corner.

Here’s where it gets worse: The paragraph to the side of this glorious example states, “The Savior holds a young African child, protecting him from the problems of a difficult world. This image was inspired by the artist’s time in Africa as she assisted in a great humanitarian effort to help the children of that troubled continent. This is a work filled with the Charity that the Savior asks all of us to have.”

There are clearly more problems here than the work just being kitsch (that is, being aesthetically saccharine, unoriginal, and sentimental, along with being easily reproducible and largely commercial). As a Christian who is passionate about including good art in our sacred spaces, I am irritated at another representation of a white Jesus that an artist asks us accept, buy, and hang on a wall to be admired. Clearly, the artist believes Jesus to be a white man because of her emphasis on contrasting skin tones and naturalistic style. Clearly, the artist thinks the people of Africa, or at least the babies of that continent, need to be saved–in both senses of the word. Clearly, the artist is ignorant of her white privilege that is expressed in her making Jesus white and “saving” an African infant “in situ.”

“Undefeated” by Stephen Sawyer.

There are countless other examples out there of bad Christian art like this, which I firmly believe is another reason why Millennials are leaving the church. It’s not just because of outdated and judgmental theologies preached from pulpits, but also from the image-lined walls down the hall. It’s because of the adoration many Christians have for Thomas Kinkade, Warner Sallman, and Precious Moments, and other easily digestible gauzy artworks that feature idealistic figures doing “nice” things. No, Christians don’t need to change their love for paintings with Jesus as a steroid-pumped boxer (a la Stephen Sawyer) because the subject and aesthetic are tacky. Christians need to back away from these artworks because they promote bad theology.

Every work of Christian art has a message. The one in Swindle’s artwork above reinforces a white savior industrial complex. By placing a work like this up in your home, or worse, at your church, you are not merely decorating a blank wall. Whether you know it or not, you are putting up a billboard for a neo-colonialist brand of Christianity.

Forgive me for reducing all art to highway advertising, but I do so to make this point: all art has a message. Some works are straightforward; others are more mysterious. Some have a message that promotes privilege; others have a message that promotes social justice. Some artworks push at the boundaries of aesthetic assumptions and break molds. God doesn’t always have to be the white bearded “Father God.” Jesus doesn’t always have to be a sexy long-haired white dude. There can be other depictions, other guises. There can even be other subjects that are still relevant and spiritually moving in ways new and profound. And for subjects that are directly inspired from the Bible, there are more interesting ways to aesthetically re-envision them.

“The Good Shepherd’s Cottage” by Thomas Kinkade.

 

There certainly are artists out there doing so while (re)claiming the title ‘Christian artist.’ Take CIVA for example, which stands for Christians in the Visual Arts. Many of the artists involved are making art worth showing, sharing, and talking about.

Or take the folks creating the St. John’s Bible, a Bible made entirely through medieval methods of calligraphy and hand-painted illumination. They’re radically re-envisioning how scriptural narratives can be illustrated for today’s viewers in astounding ways

Yet you may argue, “What makes ‘good’ Christian art and ‘bad’ Christian art is wildly subjective­–purely a matter of taste!” In a sense, such comments are warranted. People are entitled to like what they like!

But taste here goes beyond “I find the abstract expressionism of Pollock more profound than Warholian pop.” Christian art is different because it is representative of Christianity. When an artwork emanates harmful theological messages, that artwork is bad, and the effects of simply having bad taste can reverberate bad theology…loudly.

Christians must not simply reject bad art for good, however, but also explain why a work is bad, beyond just providing blanket statements like, “It’s tacky.” Further, Christians must also promote good Christian art with sound words for why it is good.

Who knows? One day, Googling Christian Art may actually yield results more compelling than cliché.

 

“Resurrection” by Sarah Rehfeldt, listed on CIVA.com.

Opening text of the St. John’s Bible.

 

Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold has a Master of Arts in Art & Religion from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is an instructor at First Street Gallery Art Center,  an exhibition resource and arts management center for adults with developmental disabilities in Claremont, California.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Sam

    Why look at redeeming qualities when it is so much easier to tear down? Why create when it is so much easier to critique what others have created? I wonder if God knew how cliche all of the beautiful landscapes He created would be… I don’t like the “white, ripped-abs Jesus”, but I think its fine if other people do.

    • Monimonika

      “I wonder if God knew how cliche all of the beautiful landscapes He created would be…”

      ..what are you trying to convey with this sentence? Seriously, this sentence confuses me. The following three questions flitted through my mind as I tried to process your comment:

      1) How can an omniscient God NOT know anything?
      2) Who called God’s beautiful landscapes cliche? Didn’t see it even implied in the post, so am wondering where Sam got this idea from.
      3) Did God make ugly landscapes? If so, what would Sam’s example of a God-made ugly landscape be?

      Questions #2 and #3 are the big ones that I most want answered, but I have a feeling I will be denied the satisfaction of proper answers.

      • Sam

        My point was perspective. There are those who would look at a picture of a landscape and say “great, another landscape”. If you don’t like the pictures of white Jesus with the African boy, don’t buy it.

        • Monimonika

          So, the whole point about the white-superiority message in these works is ignored in favor of making the artists equivalent to God. I really had no issue with your comment other than that one sentence. People like and dislike different things, and that’s fine. Criticizing is easier to do than creating something original/fantastic/stunning/nice. But elevating artists to God-status and thus implying they’re above criticism…?

          Oh, and thanks for partially confirming my feelings of dissatisfaction. #2 was kinda-sorta answered, in that it shows where the idea came from (source: Sam).

  • Worthless Beast

    But… sexy boxer Jesus is hilarious! (I saw that one before in a Cracked article). Sometimes an artwork that’s bad is so bad, it transcends its terribleness and comes out on the other side as something awesome in ways the artist probably did not intend (though in this case, it’s hard to believe that the comedy wasn’t on purpose in some way). If I came into your house and saw that piece on your wall, I’d less likely assume a colonial Christian attitude on your part and be more likely to think that you are a funny person who loves bad art for comedy. It’s like having a velvet Elvis…

    Then again, with my strange mind, I saw the Kinkade piece displayed here and looked to the smoke curling in the chimney and thought along the lines of “I’ve got the fire’s goin’! Who wants to become a nice lamb roast?”

    As an artist, I agree that Christian artists need to be encouraged to more freedom to do more expressive and intelligent art . (I find a lot of non-artists, in general, not just “church types” tend to think of art as both magical and weird, and they don’t like it when creativity gets “too weird”) – which may be the problem with all the kitch. Kitch becomes encouraged because kitch is “safe.” (I used to do a lot of non-religious “Southwest” kitch when I lived where I grew up, it’s what people liked). Maybe some of the kitch-religion artists are afraid that they won’t be able to sell anything or even get their message out there unless they go kitch?

  • Ricky

    But wouldn’t Jesus have been pale-skinned in real life? The people of palestine nowadays are certainly not black or asian-looking. They are closer to white than any other race.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_people

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_citizens_of_Israel

    I understand that a blond, blue-eyed Jesus would be incredibly unlikely, but what’s wrong with giving him beige/golden brown skin when that’s most likely what he had in reality?

    There have been non-traditional portrayals of god in the movies, like in Dogma where she’s a young woman, or Bruce Almighty where he’s a black dude. not sure they count as art…and of course on South Park, god was a hippopotamus.

    • Alice

      Also, he was outdoors all the time, so he would have been more golden brown than lily-white.

      In “The Shack,” God is a large black woman, the holy spirit is a small Asian woman, and Jesus remains an Jewish man. Not that the book is great literature or anything. I don’t mind non-traditional portrayals since every human is made in the image of God.

  • TheAngoraRabbit

    It’s not even a matter of being bad Christian art. It’s just bad art.

  • jimburklo

    In Madeleine L’Engle’s awesome book, WALKING ON WATER, she joins you in
    decrying the horrors of “Christian” art. She was a devout Christian who
    found at least as much, or more, spiritual inspiration in art by
    non-Christians as in art that was self-consciously Christian. The book
    is a wonderful expansion on your thesis here… required reading for
    anybody involved in the liturgical arts.

  • kerry57

    I think mr kinkaid was such an awsome artist..just amazing..and at the same time..no matter what one proffesses and their belief..he died a horrible death because if his own personal issues emotionally and drugs and alcohol..even tho he strongly proffessed christ and his love for christ etc.

  • kerry57

    the child jesus is holding in this pic..is not a true depiction of this..so called saviour..at all..it’s hopeful and wishful thinking..because how many children throughout history..have been sacrificed to pagan idols and idolatry and how many are sacrificed today in the name of angry ..adults ..and yet there are those..i don’t know how many..who are genuinely loved by their parents.

  • Tyson Cargill

    lol typical art major pretentious to the core, and a lover of “modern art”. you should also know god/jesus is depicted differently in different cultures. should we depict god as black as the coptics do? or what about asian as the Byzantine tradition did?

  • Mike Wood

    As Christians we are called to spread the Good News – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My aspiration is to do so through my art, yes, my Christian art! Good design induces curiosity, speaks intelligence, is inspirational, encouraging, thought provoking, that stimulates your mind, & encourages consideration of the most essential questions and answers pertaining to life, salvation, and God.

    A board covered with various strips of colors and patterns titled “resurrection” for example, does not in my opinion speak intelligence, it does not project thought provoking questions pertaining to the Gospel, however is attractive in a artistic observable way. Yes, I do get the whole concept from the above art, but the average on-looker will not.

    The average attention span is approx. 1.6 seconds at a glance of a designed graphic message. If Christian art is intended to portray a visual message with the intent to induce questions pertaining to Christianity, then does a board of colors, nails, and patterns effectively work? Maybe for some, but I believe a strong visual message with accompanied text for example is much more effective of glorifying God, and to express the intended message.

    Christian art, for the most part should glorify God, or induce questions pertaining to our Savior! etc.. otherwise your left with a pretty arrangement of colors & patterns, that is no different from any other secular art. After all, it’s supposed to be Christian art, isn’t it?

    What defines “Christian Art”? The artist? or the art itself? Just because a Christian paints a beautiful landscape, does not make it “Christian art.”

    It is pathetically dishonorable to see any Christian depict Jesus Christ as having long hair, like it is supposed to be a fact, yet so many artists renditions are depicted that way, what a disgrace!
    1 Corinthians 11:14 says; “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him,”

    Based on 1 Cor. 11:14, do you really think Jesus had long hair? Absolutely not! Do you think it dishonors Jesus to depict Him this way? I think so! Yet so many “Christian artists” depict Jesus as having long hair. I don’t think they know the Bible.

    There is much more to being a ‘Christian artist’ than what is explained in this article, but that’s my two cents worth.

    I absolutely love art of all kinds, but being a ‘Christian artist’ certainly entails much more than just simply art, it should be Art with Intent!

    Thanks,

  • Robert Davidson

    Wow, the word “cliché” really seems to be turning into an adjective in the US. Hard to read without pain.


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