Does a Christian Artist Have to Make “Christian” Art?

Do Christians have to paint pictures of crosses, shepherds, and slain lambs?  Is a band selling out when it chooses to write less “Christian” lyrics on their newest album?  Does every movie produced by Christians have to have an evangelistic/apologetic bent?

Alex Medina writes at The Gospel Coalition, “Out of our zeal we have only given merit and value to things that are evangelistic or seeking to communicate Christian doctrine.” What is the purpose of art for Christians in the world, anyways? And why is so much Christian art…terrible?

Our Priorities Are Wack.

Let’s perform an experiment.  Consider these two paintings.  Which is better?  Which artist would you say is a Christian?

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How many of us were impulsively drawn to the first painting Crucifixion (1937)?  Why?  Because the scene is familiar, because it is brighter, because it feels more Christian at first glance.  What about the second painting Jeu de Massacre (1905)?  It’s grotesque, dark, and unfamiliar.  How could it be painted by a Christian?

I’ve been unfair.  Both paintings were painted by Rouault, a Fauvist painter–a Christian.  The second painting is actually an amazing commentary on the struggle between the social classes in France.  The painting depicts a side street amusement game, in which the peasants throw balls at cardboard bourgeois faces to make them flip.  In the top corner, the game is tongue-in-cheekily called “Nini Patte-en-l’air”–a famous cabaret performer who flaunted her feminine features for the upper classes.  The peasant class must settle to watch her cardboard replica as it kicks its legs after an accurate throw.

How many of us would argue that Crucifixion is more glorifying to God than Jeu de Massacre?

Here’s another comparison: “Who Am I?” by Casting Crowns or Noctrune No. 1 in B Flat Minor by Fredrick Chopin.  Which is better?  Many Christians would argue that Casting Crowns is more appropriate for a Christian because it has words that express Christian truth.  I would take Chopin over Casting Crowns any day of the week.

My point is not to make us decide better or worse, but to encourage us to stop praising bad art and to start recognizing good art.  Our priorities are wack.  Just because a song has Christian words, a painting depicts a Christian scene, or a movie has an evangelistic message does not make it excellent art.  And that’s what we should value in the Kingdom of Heaven, right?  Excellent art?

Consider these four priorities that I believe we should use to evaluate art–whether created by a Christian or a non-Christian.

Art must be excellent.

In his album Excellent (2012), hip-hop artist Propaganda tackles this very issue.  In the final song “Lofty”, he sums up his objective as a Christian artist:

So we make lofty art
See the presence of good art will unconsciously refine a community
And poor art will do an incalculable harm
Only accomplished in the light of His excellency

According to Propaganda, poor art actually pulls apart a community, while good art is part of the promotion of God’s glory in society.  So often, the Christian community elevates poor art and celebrates the trite and mundane as if it were excellent.

In Philippians 1:9-10, Paul describes the Christian’s objective to grow in knowledge and discernment so that we “may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”  It is our job as Christians to seek out art that excels, surpasses, and goes beyond the plain, dull, and banal.  Our God excels all other gods.  His glory, his creativity, and his excellency are infinitely beyond.  As his children, we should seek to produce excellent art, and we should cultivate a taste for the excellent.

Art must communicate truth.

I almost wrote “Art must be true,” but the honest truth is that art is an imaginative expression, and most of what we create–whether it be a novel, a painting, or a song–is not literally true.  However, excellent art will communicate the truth.  That truth might be the depths of human depravity.  That truth might be about human emotion.  That truth might be about the mixing of colors or the interplay of the notes of dissonant scales.

To the extent that a non-believer’s painting, play, song, or sculpture communicates the truth about reality, that piece of art belongs to God.  Truth, whether it comes from the mouth of believers, the fingers of heathens, or the leaves of trees is God’s.  When Christians see truth in the world of art, we should celebrate it as God’s truth.

In Romans 1:20, Paul puts it this way: “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So [artists] are without excuse” (theological insertion mine).

Pastors themselves ought to cultivate this kind of appreciation for truthful art, as we are called to be “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Art must be creative.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  This statement comes in the midst of the most creative event this time and space has ever witnessed: The Creation.  In seven days God made the world–giraffes, zebras, expansive cosmos, strawberry bushes, tendons, roots, minerals, mountains, oceans, octopuses, and all.

As men and women created in the image of God, we are creative beings.  Art is a distinctly creative outlet for us as God’s creatures.  When we pen a novel, when we paint, and when we write a song, we are creating something out of nothing.  We are using our God-given creative imagination to imitate God.

Therefore, our art must be creative.  God was not content to create 1,000 species of brown animals.  He didn’t make all trees to look alike.  God did all kinds of creative things in creation just for the purpose of relishing his creative excellence.  As creatures made in his image, we have a duty to God to pursue this same extravagant creativity.

Art must bring glory to God.

As Christians, I would argue that rather than making evangelism the standard purpose of our art, I believe God’s glory provides a more comprehensive and appropriate objective.  Can Christian art communicate the beautifully excellent truth of the cross?  Of course.  However, God’s glory is seen in many more places than the cross. God has given us general and special revelation.  They both reveal his glory, and we ought to use both as inspiration for our artistic expression.  It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

For thousands of years, God’s people could not even conceive of the cross of Christ, and yet they produces art that proclaimed God’s glory–just go read the description of the Temple (2 Chronicles 2-7).  The temple was not a merely utilitarian warehouse to house cult worship.  It was the height of artistic expression.  Like Solomon’s temple, may our art seek to proclaim the loftiness of our glorious God: “The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods!” (2 Chronicles 2:5)

(photo credit; photo credit)