Have you ever experienced the sadness of going to the Christian Fiction section of Barnes and Noble, searching for an enjoyable, quality weekend read, and finding, to your dismay, only Amish romance novels? Or perhaps, in a similar case, you want to see a movie with your friends this weekend. You’re not pleased with the current box office hits, so instead you try to find a wholesome movie to rent online. All you find when you search for Christian Movies are films trying to convince you to convert to Christianity.
Why is this?
Sadly, our culture has made a distinction between “Christian art” and art produced by Christians.
“Christian art,” according to our culture, is only that which explicitly preaches the Gospel. Some argue that art which does not directly proclaim God’s word is secular and can be misleading. It blurs the lines between good and evil, doesn’t it? And Isaiah 5:20 specifically says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” Secular art could lead us to confusion in our own beliefs and could confuse unbelievers as well, since enjoying not-explicitly-Christian art could communicate that we are not called to abide by higher standards. Often it is tempting to shut ourselves off from any art that does not clearly and directly preach the gospel.
However, others realize that the term “Christian art” should encompass a much wider range. As Francis Schaeffer says in Art and the Bible,
“Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person as a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.”
Christians need not fear the secular world, nor need we fear subtlety and symbolism. Using these in a secular setting may not as loudly scream “Christian!!!” but the messages and worldviews will be the same.
Christian art is any art that is produced by a Christian and exemplifies Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
This wider definition is perhaps more valuable to us than a restricted definition.
Christian artists are often urged to explicitly proclaim the Gospel in every work of art they produce, but isn’t this unfair to the artist? In what other profession does this happen? This extra burden on artists is like ordering the doctor to tell every patient about Jesus. That would be an excellent thing, but it should not be what defines a doctor as Christian. The call to honor God in all we do is a call to be an example in this world. It is a call to work with a cheerful attitude, uphold Godly morals, to “be imitators of God,” as Ephesians 5:1 says.
For a painter, this could mean producing his best work with the intent to glorify God rather than himself. For an author this could mean providing examples of Godly men and women in his stories. We can fulfill the call to honor God and proclaim his truth through our lives and our art, not simply through direct evangelism. By interacting with the world around us, we can use our lives as an example to nonbelievers.
Thus, when we as Christian artists create only art that will end up in the Christian fiction section, this forms a problem: we are preaching to the choir. Typically, the only people who seek out art marketed as “Christian” are already Christians themselves. Unbelievers look up the current best-sellers; they do not browse the Christian isle for a good book.
Christian artists often focus on the messages in their works rather than the quality of their works; this should be reversed. As a Christian, underlying Gospel messages and worldviews should come naturally; talent in the art is what can always be improved. This is why great authors who are Christian are not banished to the Christian section- they are great by secular standards too.
For example, let’s take the band Twenty-One Pilots. Every member in this group is Christian, and this is overwhelmingly clear through their song lyrics. We hear them calling out to God, “Can you save my heavy, dirty soul?” We hear them pleading with their listeners: “Faith is to be awake, and to be awake is for us to think, and for us to think is to be alive.”
And yet, they never sing hymns or directly mention the name of Jesus. They insist on not being labelled as a “Christian band.” Because of this, their music is played on secular pop and rock radio stations all the time; they’ve broken records and had numerous songs on top charts. They realize that without the label “Christian,” they can get the same messages out to a much larger audience.
Lastly, humans are created in the image of God, so because he is the ultimate Creator, we are sub-creators. We must follow his example and imitate his masterpiece. However, God created the entire Universe as his masterpiece, not only the Gospel story. If he thought roaring waves, mysterious forests, vast heavenly expanses, and the depth of human emotion were worth creating, should we not think them worth reflecting? He poured his abundance of beauty out for us to feast on it all.
“Art is gratuitous. Art is extravagant. But so is our God.”
And God didn’t stop there- he also gifted us with huge imaginations that go even beyond what we see around us. He gave us the capacity to understand depth. We can understand symbolism, pick up on subtlety and implications, and understand through example.
Works that directly give us the gospel story can be beautiful and beneficial. However, these are only one type of Christian art. We should not exclude all the others.
“What makes art Christian art? Is it simply Christian artists painting biblical subjects like Jeremiah? Or, by attaching a halo, does that suddenly make something Christian art? Must the artist’s subject be religious to be Christian? I don’t think so. There is a certain sense in which art is its own justification. If art is good art, if it is true art, if it is beautiful art, then it is bearing witness to the Author of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”
~R. C. Sproul