Relevant Magazine on What Makes Art Christian

Relevant Magazine columnist Dawn Xiana Moon lays down a challenge to Christians about relevance, faith and art:

Many contemporary Christians tend to make one of three errors when dealing with art: One, we declare anything that doesn’t explicitly proselytize, anything that depicts brokenness without redemption to be depraved or unworthy of Christian notice. Or two, we decide that the secular world really does have better art, so we copy it, boldly and without apology or thought into our own creativity. Or three, we try so hard to be relevant that we adopt the attitude and worldview of the culture that surrounds us—instead of being the proverbial salt and light, we end up as dust with nothing to offer in the way of hope, because there is only a perfunctory difference between those of us who claim to follow Christ and those who don’t….

Don’t misunderstand—there is a place for explicitly Christian art and age-appropriate material, and many of the masterpieces do focus on biblical themes. But to assume that all art must conform to this model is frustrating to artists who have an allegiance to Christ yet want to produce work that speaks to the entirety of the human experience. And it deadens the critical thinking capacity of people in the Church, deadens their ability to see and experience part of the nature of God. It also leaves many hurting, unable to ask for help or even admit their failings—what they see in the Church is happy music and people with seemingly perfect lives. Once a new creation in Christ, suffering and pain disappear, right? Wrong. Let’s be honest and admit it….

The last position is born out of frustration with the first (and sometimes the second). Tired of being marginalized in the Church and afraid they won’t be accepted in either a secular or religious world, artists disassociate themselves from the label and praxis of Christianity because their work is unacceptable by church standards—and in the mainstream, “Christian art” translates into “bad art.” Few empathize with this position on the fringe of two worlds, so they drift. Cynical from their past experiences with hierarchy and legalism, followers of Christ become reluctant to define their beliefs at all, leaving only spirituality with a vaguely Christian twist. In an effort to sound intelligent in a world that mocks supernatural belief, Christians downplay doctrine and theology….

Thomas Hallstrom writes, “Jesus told stories. Some were good and some were dark. Some ended with redemption and some ended with confusing questions. But He wasn’t afraid to tell stories that might turn people away. Many times people walked away after hearing the story, never to return (the rich young ruler who was told to sell all he owned). Other times, the story led the listener to an experience with the living God.” Art does not need to be didactic to be effective. In fact, as soon as it becomes didactic it often loses its effectiveness. It fails to communicate. The purpose of art is not necessarily to provide the answers—it’s much more powerful to ask the questions and allow an audience to seek the answers themselves. Jesus promised that those who seek will find, and we should trust him. He meant it when he said it.

If our art isn’t relevant to the entirety of our experience, the fullness of our lives—good, bad, scared, profane—then it cannot be relevant to the people around us. It will not be relevant to our culture. We need this art, need it desperately. In expressing our creativity, this piece of us that is also a piece of the character of God, we share in His nature. And that can only draw us closer to the One in whom our hope remains.
I’m reminded of my visit to Wheaton College last week, where the main exhibit at their Billy Graham Museum was a selection of Warner Sallman‘s portraits of Christ. I found them sentimental and crude in a mass-culture, over-processed way, lacking both the subtlety and majesty of fine art and the unsettling individuality of “outsider” or folk art. The exhibit made me feel out of place there; was the church big enough for me and my novel? Reminding myself to be charitable, I reflected that millions of Christians had found Sallman’s work deeply meaningful. Were they wrong — was I the one with a prideful intellect and hardened heart? And still the paintings entirely failed to move me. Their power, perhaps, resides only in this: When you love someone, you cherish any picture of them, even one that doesn’t do them justice. Imagine being surrounded by people who love Christ that much. If only they had better taste…

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