The Problem With Writing Off ‘Un-Christian’ Art

The Problem With Writing Off ‘Un-Christian’ Art March 12, 2013

“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.

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