Is Christian Art Impossible?

E arlier, I wrote that the difference between art and design is that design solves problems, but art raises questions.

Art accomplishes this by naming the human condition. Jack London wrote,

That man of us who seizes upon the salient facts of our life, who tells us what we thought, what we were, and for what we stood— that man shall be the mouthpiece to the centuries, and so long as they listen he shall endure.”  Labor, Earle (2013-12-24). Jack London: An American Life (Kindle Locations 2274-2275). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. 

Art names what is salient. It gives us scaffolding for our soul. Art reveals knowing in the life we’re living. This only happens when we are unsettled by questions and possibilities, when we’re forced to compare or to consider something against our own conventional wisdom.

But can art do this when it is “Christian”?

For starters, it depends on what I mean by “Christian.” To ask such a question begs a deeper question of identity.

 

Identity #1: Christian = Doing

Maybe it’s from growing up in a conservative/evangelical type home and being in proximity with conservative/evangelical type people, but when I think of something being “Christian,” I still hear a set of values and ethical principles. In this kind of thinking, “Christian” is a philosophy of life, a set of practices and principles. It’s a way of living, a culture. In other words, it’s something I participate in. Something I do. Further, built into this worldview is a sense of propagation.

The problem is, if I do Christianity, then when I create art, I find myself trying to do Christianity in my art – to inject my art with the same ethical principles that shape my life. Being bound by this obligation is self-defeating to the artist, or at least to me, because anytime I find myself trying to say something specific and directed, then I am not free to allow what is truly honest to peek out from my soul. The timid expressions of my soul are constantly trampled under the domineering ideas in my head. I move from artist to teacher.

This inability to shake the do may be at the root of why most Christian art stinks. Usually, when we label art as Christian, we’re embedding within it a sense of do. We’re not telling stories, we’re teaching, and often pedantically.

As Christians, we often feel a burden to help others. We hope that by knowing Christ they will know life. And, if we’re Protestants, we believe the best way to do this is through teaching Scripture. With this mindset, when we make art, we unintentionally end up using art to service Scripture, the way one person might use another – not respecting art or giving art its rightful reason for being, but making it serve other, specific purposes.

Not that art can’t serve Scripture, of course, but the problem is that we don’t let art form its own connections and meaning. We create an agenda whose goal is to deliver a specific belief or outcome. We want to answer questions, not raise them. If the goal of our art is to answer questions, then it is no longer art, no matter how well done, but design.

 

Identity #2: Christian = Being

If what I described above sounds a lot like what we in the church call “works righteousness,” then you and I are on the same page, my friend. Grace is a radical concept, difficult to accept without reciprocation, so we gussy up the deal with conditions of our own making.

But if we drop all of the shoulds from the ownership of faith, we’re left with a different philosophy on life that doesn’t require works. In the be philosophy of life, a work of art can be Christian just as it can be Randian or socialist or nihilistic. It is what it is, not because we use it to teach anything in particular, but simply because it is a true expression of the artist who makes it. Prerequisite to art, in fact, is the agenda-free expression of the artist.

It takes courage to just be, both as an artist and as a Christian. It requires a sense of spiritual confidence. It suggests that when I create art I don’t have to worry about whether it’s Christian or not, or what values or ethical principles might emerge from my work, because I am Christian, and if I’m creating art that is true and authentic, as all art must be, then my creations will naturally reflect me, and therefore they will be Christian.

 

Christian Artists / Artists Who Are Christian

Bob Dylan accepted Christ in 1978, took five months off to study the Bible at a Vineyard school in California, then made a really good album called Slow Train Coming. Wikipedia shares an anecdote from the period:

Slow Train Coming (1979) featured the guitar accompaniment of Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) and was produced by veteran R&B producer Jerry Wexler. Wexler recalled that when Dylan had tried to evangelize him during the recording, he replied: “Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year-old Jewish atheist. Let’s just make an album.”

Bob, who of course is an artist, felt compelled to share the story of his transformation with his fellow artists. And while his producer wasn’t interested, Bob was still able to make art.

What’s interesting is what happens next. Wiki says,

The second evangelical album, Saved (1980), received mixed reviews, and was described by Dylan critic Michael Gray as “the nearest thing to a follow-up album Dylan has ever made, Slow Train Coming II and inferior.”

Perhaps in his follow up album, Dylan stopped asking questions. After these two albums, none others were explicitly Christian.

As Christians, we sometimes believe we have found the answers to our questions – not some of them, but all of them. This is both false and destructive to making art. It’s the questions that serve art, not the answers.  U2, for example, admits that while they believe in the cross, they still haven’t found what they’re looking for. This is a beautiful place for a Christian artist to be. They may have answers, but they’re still asking questions.

Therein lay the rub. U2 are Christians, or most of them, but are they making “Christian art”?  Or, are they Christians who are making art? Because there’s a big difference.

So, I wonder- is “Christian art” impossible?

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Writer. Story lover. Believer. Branding philosopher. Breakfast chef. Tickle monster. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Creative Director. Occasional public speaker.

  • Tim Coombs

    My experience with Christian visual art is somewhat limited, but most of
    what I have seen makes me groan no matter if it is from the liberal or
    conservative end of the theological spectrum. Both sides tend to impose
    their political/religious biases on the subject matter, which makes me
    feel like the artist is using the Bible for their own agendas. This is
    most evident when they seek to portray biblical scenes, or in
    particular, when they try to impose Jesus in a contemporary setting. I
    know artists in medieval times did the same thing, but at least now
    their statements are so alien to us that most people don’t understand or
    appreciate their perspectives. The danger is that the visual medium is
    so powerful. For instance, many people today can only picture God as an old, white bearded white guy, Moses will forever be pictured as
    Charlton Heston, and Jesus, or course, is anglo-saxon. I often felt the
    John Calvin was a little too harsh when in his Institutes he stated
    that all art that attempts to depict God was breaking the second
    commandment. Lately, I’m not sure that he was wrong.

    • http://lenwilson.us/ Len Wilson

      Tim, this comment is really interesting to me, given our shared research and history and your years of work to interpret the Gospel visually. I agree that it’s almost impossible to separate the artist’s point of view (even if not really an “agenda” per se) from the art. Which I guess makes us postmodern. But if this is the case, short of abandoning visual art altogether, then is the solution in variety of expression? Not one depiction but many?

      • Tim Coombs

        I guess I’m not so much advocating the cessation of visual art depictions of biblical accounts as I would like artists to be very aware and honest about what they are putting on the “canvas.” Frankly, I feel the same way about songs I’ve heard that condemn the Christianity, because the artist had a bad experience with a pushy, TV evangelist. Artists of all brands can wield incredible influence and it should not be taken lightly. Unfortunately, there is no way to monitor it without infringing on the first amendment, so I guess variation and open discussion is the only way to deal with it.

  • Ricky-Bobbie

    Great article. Cultural access points, personal expression, worldview, doing, being… the need to create is what pushes me. I’ve lost track of whether or not I’m an artist???

    • http://lenwilson.us/ Len Wilson

      Ricky-Bobbie, nice name. In my view, if you need to create, then you’re an artist.

  • http://www.garymo.com/ Gary Molander

    “It’s the questions that serve the art, not the answers.” Yes. Yes. And Yes again. Questions in the grace. Questions in the pain. Questions in the mystery. Even questions in the questions. All of it. Great thoughts, my friend.

    • http://lenwilson.us/ Len Wilson

      Thanks, Gary!