Is It Christian Art, or Good Art?

Earlier this week, the trailer for the film adaptation of Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz was released online. I've watched it many times with the intention of discerning, from the brief collection of clips, whether the film would be yet another example of sub-par "Christian Art," or whether it could break out of this mold and into the realm of good art.

To me, the crux of the issue revolves around one crucial question: is Blue Like Jazz a "Christian movie"? To some this might be a no-brainer. "Of course it is," they might say, "since it's based on a book by a Christian." To others this might be a non-issue, but hear me out.

What we call "Christian art" isn't simply art made by Christians, but the byproduct of an American evangelical culture that feels the need to make "Christian" versions of everything. The reason why so much art created by and for evangelicals is bad is because it's little more than an imitation of its "secular" counterpart; it is created in the name of cleansing and purifying what, to Christians, is unpalatable. Thus repackaged, we label it—Christian music, Christian movies, Christian books—Christian art.

This labeling so offends because it is the clearest example of the evangelical tendency to reinvent the wheel, to forget church history and then proceed to recreate it, often falling into many of the same pitfalls that a measure of historical perspective could have helped avoid.

The reality is that art has always been a part of Christianity; for much of church and art history, churches have been the chief patrons of artists. But the Reformation, in an earnest effort to rid Christianity of the failings of the Catholic Church, planted a seed of distrust of art.

Now, in the 21st century, evangelical churches of all stripes are desperate to bring art back to the church. But this is a messy and complicated process, not only because of the state of evangelicalism, but also because of the state of contemporary art. Modern art was not friendly to Christian themes, or, more generally, themes of morality, beauty, goodness . . . you get the point.

John Gardner, in his brilliant and controversial book On Moral Fiction, describes artists of the mid to late 20th century thusly, "Either they pointlessly waste our time, saying and doing nothing, or they celebrate ugliness and futility, scoffing at good." This characterization is in service of the thesis of his book, namely that good art is moral.

Yet this 20th-century art is exactly the art that evangelicals want to bring into the church, except it cannot be accepted in its current state. Therefore, things that are pointless, ugly, or futile must be cleansed and Christianized before they are acceptable. Where modern secular art attempts to say and do nothing, Christian art must say something—a very particular something. Hence, most Christian art is marked by being didactic—considering the message first, and the artistic merit second.

Gardner has some thoughts on this as well. "As a general rule," he writes, "the artist who begins with a doctrine to promulgate, instead of a rabble multitude of ideas and emotions, is beaten before he starts."

Christian art, as a purely durative form, cannot be good art. But Christians have been making good art for thousands of years. Clearly, art needn't be cleansed, nor does it need to be didactic. This is because good art, as Gardner says, is inherently moral. He doesn't align the morality of art with a particular religion or tradition, but says, "Morality means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted." Thus, if a work of art is good, though it may contain explicit language or graphic content, it needn't be Christianized; it will be moral.

This brings us back to the Blue Like Jazz movie and the question of whether or not it is a "Christian movie." Matthew Paul Turner posted the trailer on his blog and invited comments. He received a variety, but at least a few people share my fear that the film is, in fact, another shameless example of Christianization. A commenter identified as "mattmewhorter" writes, "I loved the book, but the trailer makes it look like a Christian-ized film-school indie flick." This may be because the book on which it is based was a kind of Christianized spiritual memoir—a less offensive version of Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies.

If I'm honest, I don't have high hopes for the film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz. The Rob Bell debacle should have taught us all to not judge a work by its trailer, but it seems unlikely that a work of genuinely good art can spring from a clear work of derivative "Christian Art." I fear, in the end, Blue Like Jazz will assume its place among the likes of Soul Surfer, Fireproof, and Left Behind.