I’m taking a quick break from my series of posts on religious pluralism to look at something that has been on my mind for several months now but I have not attempted to articulate until responding to a blog post over at ComeReason.org.
That “something” is the state of the relationship between the church and the arts.
Now, I won’t pretend to have anything particularly original to say here. This has been a topic of discussion within certain circles for years now, but it continues to be ignored by the church at large. I hope that my own contribution can at least serve as one more voice that may help get the attention of mainstream Christianity.
Before I get into this, I want to admit a few things. I don’t wear “Christian” clothing, I don’t listen to “Christian” music, I don’t watch “Christian” movies and I don’t read “Christian” novels. There are one or two exceptions to almost all of these statements – a song or a book here or there – but they are accurate truisms of my own life. This is not out of principle. I don’t have a problem with the general concept of Christian books, movies, music or clothing. Rather just because it’s very rare to find any of these things that are any good.
For a long time the Christian music industry has been the butt of many jokes for reasons that are well known. Songs are recycled, artists are manufactured, lyrics are weak and cliché. If anything is released that is even remotely worth listening to, it’s because it sounds a suspicious amount like what was playing on secular radio stations 3-5 years ago.
That’s not to say everything is recycled garbage. People who follow my personal Twitter account will know I’m a huge fan of the progressive metal band Theocracy and, I believe, with good reason. Rather than the vague, metaphor laden lyrics from the Christian Top 40, Theocracy’s lyrics are introspective and God-glorifying while maintaining an authenticity that is hard to find. You may or may not be a fan of progressive the genre, but I ask that you check out a few prime examples. Don't just listen to the music (which is excellent), but read the lyrics as well:
One of the things I appreciate most about Theocracy is, if you inspect their tour schedule, you don’t see them circling around the Bible Belt. Instead, you’ll see dates in countries that are deeply secular like Switzerland, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. At the same time, they aren’t creating songs with watered down pseudo-Christian lyrics that might have some sort of spiritual application if you’re looking for it. There’s no question about what’s going on in any of these songs. In their genre and the countries they frequent it would be incredibly easy to give in to secularization, but they continue to be a bold witness for Christ.
I don't doubt that there are other Christian artists out there who are making great music, but the problem is that the mainstream church isn't paying any attention to them. We continue to support shallow and repetitive songs or vaguely Christian content like Chris Tomlin and Switchfoot, respectively.
As a side note, I know that “Good, Good Father” is really popular these days and everyone loves that song but I have to admit that I really don’t like it. Not only do I find it repetitive to the point of annoyance, but it also reflects some questionable theology.
This seems to have gotten better in recent years, but there was a point when it was really, really bad and we still haven’t shed it entirely. I don’t know if it’s even necessary to say anything about this. Just look at the evidence for yourself:
A simple internet search for “Christian T-Shirt” brings up more examples of this sort of thing than I want or need to include. Isn’t this just sad? Can’t we come up with an original design or do we always have to be ripping off trademarked material? If there's any consolation in this, it's that it's not just a Christian thing, apparently.
Christian book publishing? Two words: “Amish romance.”
The one area where all of this seems to be changing is in Christian filmmaking. Even though there have been a couple misfires (Noah and Exodus), there have been more films in recent years that appeal to a Christian audience. It all started with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, followed by depictions of Esther, the birth of Christ, two God’s Not Dead movies, Woodlawn, Son of God, War Room and the upcoming Hacksaw Ridge as well as a few I’m probably forgetting. The movie industry has realized that Christians enjoy movies as much as anyone else (imagine that!) and are willing to buy tickets to something aimed directly at them.
The church has mishandled artists. For too long, artists, regardless of their medium, have been held hostage by an artificial tension between being true to the art itself and glorifying God. Many of us have come to believe that, if it’s not a painting of a bible scene, or a statue of Jesus, or a story about someone coming to Christ, then it’s not glorifying to God and, quite frankly, that’s a lie. Consider the fact that the book of Esther – which is scripture, mind you – is completely devoid of any mention of God.
As a result, too many Christian artists fall into the trap of sacrificing the work for the lesson and end up creating awkward characters in blatantly manufactured situations, inorganic songs, and boring illustrations in an attempt to make sure they’re including a “message”. If the message comes across at all, it comes across so heavily that the reader/viewer just feels preached at. It's not real, the characters aren't compelling or relatable, the painting doesn’t inspire and we end up with another pile of "Christian comic books" in the discount section.
That's not to say that it can't be done. I think Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are great examples of two different approaches to telling Christian stories that are brilliantly executed and appealing to a large audience even outside of the "Christian fiction" subgenres. The Chronicles of Narnia are blatant allegory and it's clear that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe was written with the intent of retelling the biblical narrative. Aslan is an obvious Christ figure, his death is a clear picture of penal substitution, Edmund's time with the witch are blatant metaphors of temptation or the bondage of sin, etc. On the other hand, Tolkien's work is rife with pictures of the death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus (Gandalf), the incarnation and earthly mission of the atonement (Frodo voluntarily taking the ring to Mt. Doom), the second coming (Aragorn), yet all of these images are fluid and don't align as perfectly with the Christian narrative as Lewis's do. Aragorn is reluctant to take up his rightful throne, Gandalf is not all powerful, Frodo starts to look more and more like Gollum as the story progresses. The images are there, you just have to do a little more digging to find them. In the end, both are timeless classics of western literature.
Likewise, Christian history is filled with great artists, musicians and writers who sought to use their talents and skills to glorify the God they loved. Johann Sebastian Bach stated outright that he saw his composing music as a form of worship. The Vatican is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures are iconic.
But modern examples of works like these are disgracefully few and far between. The church needs to get behind its artists and support them without trying to lasso them into a preconceived notion of what “Christian art” looks like.
I'll be honest, as an armchair theologian, a beginner artist and hobbyist fiction writer, I would love to be "that guy" who can actually provide the church with a Christian comic book worth reading, (or a novel worth reading) but sometimes I feel like the training and skill requirements of doing so are beyond what I may ever be able to achieve in my lifetime. Most artists who focus on even a single field will spend years or decades honing their craft, and to do what I would like to do would require mastering or at least becoming proficient at three. The greatest secular comic book artists often create characters that are flat and cliché with awkward dialogue for the simple fact that all their skill is in the artwork. They don't know how to structure a story or create dynamic characters. In short, they don't know how to write. The result becomes “pretty fluff”, something that looks good but lacks content. I demand too much of myself to allow that.
Someone that can create a story worth reading that delivers accurate theology, wrap it in eye-pleasing artwork and not make the reader feel like they're being "preached at"... that's a tall order. Worth aiming for, but tall. And when someone steps up to try, the church needs to be getting behind them and supporting them, not making them feel bad about not doing something “more important”.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.