Art and the Christian

1411705_mary_joseph_jesusThree different online venues have discussed the topic of art and the Christian, in one way or another. The first one, the Gospel Coalition, presented an article entitled “How to Discourage Artists in the Church” by Philip G. Ryken, the president of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. In addressing the topic, however, Dr. Ryken left writers off the list of artists. I pointed out to him how discouraging that was. 😉

The next one was an article to which one of the commenters to Dr. Ryken’s article linked: “The Cruciform Heart of the Arts” by Toby Sumpter, one of the pastors at Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho. This is the one I wish I had written. It is filled with gems.

The third was a Facebook conversation started by Mike Duran about the Christian writing/reading community. The question was this: “Am I the only one who feels that the Christian fiction writing/reading community is drifting further out of touch with culture?”

Put it all together, and I’m mulling the whole topic of Art, Christians, the Church, and culture.

I grew up in the era of the liberal arts education–school was intended to help you become a better person as much as it was to teach you facts and figures. Whether or not it led to a job after you graduated was almost an after-thought. My college was weak in the sciences and math. The business department was almost non-existent. Foreign languages were thin. But music, literature, history, Bible–those were the flourishing majors.

Clearly things have changed. Today most students go to college to get the prerequisites they need for the career they want. The last I checked, business is the largest department at my Alma Mater.

The point of this being, there’s been a shift in Western culture away from art. We are more concerned now with pop culture, defined as commercial “art” based on what is popular (the “pop” part of the equation).

Some decry pop culture as a shabby imitation of real art, and to some degree, those folks might be right. When we stopped teaching music and art and when we started worrying more about politically correct themes and multiculturalism in literature, we forgot what true art looked like; we forgot that it is universal and transcends differences.

I think another turning point came in our culture with Stephen King. As shocking as it may be, I haven’t read any of his novels or even any of his writing books, but I’ve heard any number of authors talk about his ability–as a storyteller and as a wordsmith. In other words, he wrote stories that sold to the everyday person, which put his books on best-seller lists, but were made of timeless ingredients.

Christians, it would seem, have been slower to come around to the idea that we can write stories with true quality and with saleability. Instead, the first Christian fiction of the contemporary era was more inclined toward establishing an alternative to the culture—stories that were wholesome and had happy endings. They were the long version of Hallmark cards. Of course, Frank Peretti offered a different type of story–a truly Christian story, with a Christian explanation of the way the world worked.

As the demand for fiction grew, so did the demand for stories of substance. The problem was, Christian fiction became the exclusive property of a handful of evangelical publishers beholden to a large number of Christian bookstores which had the power to prevent books from ever seeing a customer. Consequently, Christian fiction took the shape the booksellers wished it to take.

Times have changed. First the big bookstore chains and box stores like Wal-Mart began to include Christian fiction. Then Amazon took over, and lately there’s been an explosion of small print-on-demand presses, ebooks, and self-publishing.

The traditional Christian publishers have not been untouched by these changes. Some of the most prominent have been bought by general market presses, though they retain their Christian imprint. Others have narrowed their sights with the intention of fulfilling their mission statement. In those cases, it seems they desire to sell primarily to the market carved out in earlier days by the booksellers. Still others are making money putting out the books that they’re putting out, though they’ve begun, slowly, to expand in order to widen their audience.

Still, these are businesses, and the bottom line is, they will only continue to operate if they make money.

Where did art go in this discussion?

The same place it went when it fled the Christian liberal arts colleges, I guess.

So, is it important to bring it back? Should we worry about encouraging the artists in our churches? Does it matter if our books are artistic as well as truthful?

I think art is important for one particular reason—by it we show God. I’m not one who thinks all good writing glorifies God. There are some well-written stories that defame God’s name. But how we as believers write, matters. If I say, I am a Christian, then knowingly do a poor job at work or clock out early day after day or complain all the time, I don’t think God is glorified. In the same way, a novelist who doesn’t do his homework, who puts in half an effort, or any number of other “less than best” actions, isn’t glorifying God–though He may still use their work for His kingdom.

That’s the amazing thing about God–He uses His people but is not limited by our weaknesses.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t rest on the fact that God will fix our messes. We should be diligent because we love Him and want to serve Him as good stewards of His manifold grace, and aim for excellence in our art.

Which looks like what?

Not like a re-working of the latest popular general market story. No more “Christian Harry Potter’s” or “Christian Twilight’s.”

Not like another in the line of other general market successes–the next Hunger Games or the next Scorpio Races.

Christian art must take on the culture, not sanitize it nor excuse it. But the culture doesn’t need to shape up. Rather, people who make up the society that creates culture need to be redeemed. Christian art, then, should be stories of redemption, one person at a time. But those stories may look different from conversion stories. And conversion stories may look different from happily-ever-after stories.

In short, Christians who want their fiction to be artistic must write the hard truth and the divine end–death and resurrection, suffering and glory, the cross and the throne.

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3 Comments

  1. You’re right. Both Christian and secular media is guilty of producing cheap, commercialized “pop art.” The cheap “pop art” looks different in Christian publishing, but it’s the same in both cases. This brings to mind E. Stephen Burnett’s review of Star Trek: Into Darkness on Speculative Faith yesterday.

    I also agree that Christian art should take on the culture. “The culture” includes mainstream culture and its assumptions and irreverencies, but I think it also includes the same Christian culture that the Christian artist is a part of. I think all artists and writers need to honestly critique their own culture. That has always been one of the fundamental purposes of literature, I think. A Christian artist is a part of both cultures, and neither should be exempt from scrutiny.

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    • I read Stephen’s article, Bainespal, but I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’m not in a position to respond (frankly, I was left in the dark a lot).

      I think you make a great point about the Christian having a responsibility to critique our own culture–which is kind of layered. There’s the particular Christian culture and then the greater culture in which our Christianity exists. We sometimes need to focus on the particular culture of Christianity–which is why I think Christian fiction written for Christians is necessary (and is something general market publishers probably won’t produce in their general market lines).

      At the same time, we should be reaching beyond “navel gazing” (tongue in cheek to say, self-analysis has its place and purpose but shouldn’t be our entire focus).

      Becky

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  2. I had long experience with Christian artists and churches. In the later part of last century there were a number of Christian theology/arts colleges in Australia. I don’t know how many are still around. They were always very big on music and drama, because these skills could be integrated into church programs. Writers and craftspeople were usually well behind, although one college did have a silversmith.

    Artists have a difficult relationship with local churches. They need the support of an audience, but churches are made up of all sorts of ordinary people. Churches are based on people relating to other people. Craftspeople may have their main relationships in the transformation of the material world. Performers may have to spend time performing. I knew of many music groups who were in trouble with their churches for “not attending services” on Sunday, when they were actually attending and performing at services in other places.

    Artists are rare. They are often more questioning and less docile than the average pew-sitter. They are more likely to get recognition from larger denominational organisations. I recall that Madeleine L’Engle was writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York.

    When churches support an artist it can be a trap. They expect something in return, something they can recognise. So instead of reaching out into the culture, artists have often been reduced to producing what their in-group financial supporters want to hear and see.

    I think writers may be in a better position here. Writing is a lonely occupation anyway. It has a smaller audience than film. Performers need an audience in front of them (unless they spend all their time in a studio). Writers can be quite separated from their audience and still cope quite well.

    That’s why I’m happy to be a writer and not, for example, a dancer. All who have seen me dance agree.

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