There’s a lot of talk these days about “Faith-Based Content.” Many Christians agree that we need more of it, but there’s seemingly no consensus about what it actually is. How should we define Christian Art? My grandfather is famous for saying, “if you ask the wrong questions, you’ll get the wrong answers.” My answer to the question is simple: We shouldn’t.
In fact, we should do away with “Christian Art” all together. Why? Because I don’t think Christian art even exists. To explain, let’s look at the three main ways people typically define Christian art.
1. Defining Christian Art by its Content
“Christian Art” is that which depicts biblical events, themes or truth. Let’s call this the textbook definition. Now consider these two famous paintings by Rembrandt—one depicting the parable of the prodigal son and the other a slab of meat
Was Rembrandt a Christian artist…only sometimes? Is this type of compartmentalization consistent with how we otherwise understand the Christian faith? Would we say, for example, that Tim Tebow was a Christian athlete when prayerfully kneeling on the field but a secular athlete when throwing the football to his receivers? Doubtful.
The situation becomes more perplexing when you add to the mix the 2014 film Noah, directed by the outspoken atheist Darren Aronofsky. We’re now left with an atheist making Christian art and a Christian making secular art!
Defining “Christian Art” by its content also severely limits the scope of artistic expression to just representational art. Are Christian musicians who write instrumental music excluded from making “Christian Art”? Besides, what even constitutes as Christian content? Is a beautiful sunset, as a reflection of God’s wonderful creation, included? If so, is every painted sunset now Christian art?
In the end, this approach boils down to what we might call Religious Art. A helpful, but far too limited classification. Christian Art is far broader than merely Religious Art, the same way that the Christian faith is far broader than just religious ritual or activity.
2. Defining Christian Art By Its Creator
Christian Art is Art created by Christians. Let’s call this the biographical definition. This avoids some of the earlier pitfalls (it saves musicians from making the often-proclaimed nonsense that “we’re not a Christian band, we’re Christians in a band!”). Yet, when we follow this path to its conclusion, we end up in an equally tangled mess.
I’ve often said that the only real difference between these beautifully-bearded wizards is that J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and J.K. Rowling is a (self-proclaimed) lapsed Catholic. Both characters fall under the same wise-mentor archetype in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth framework, and both use magic for the purpose of good. Yet, one is near-universally revered by Christians, the other widely rejected and protested. The real issue, it would seem, is not truly over the magical abilities of the characters, but over the spiritual condition of their respective authors. If, however, Rowling were to rediscover her religious roots, boldly profess Jesus as Lord, and then pen Harry Potter 8 (a boy can dream…), would Christians be forced to retroactively baptize Dumbledore? Would we draw a line between books 7 and 8? Can an artwork change from Secular to Christian (or Christian to Secular) behind-the-scenes without any alteration to the actual artwork?
Here are a few more quirks:
- Much of the greatest Religious art in history was created on commission from the Church by artists who themselves were not Christians. Can an exquisite painting of Jesus displayed on the roof of a cathedral be secular art?
- In the rock bands Korn and Cute Is What We Aim For, some of the members are Christians and some are atheists. Are their songs 1/5 or 2/6 Christian?
- The Lord of the Rings books were written by a Christian (Tolkien), but the movie adaptations weren’t directed by one (Peter Jackson). Is one version Christian but not the other, even if the story is relatively unchanged?
- Lastly, this is an artistic photograph of an elephant.
Is this picture “Christian Art” if taken by a Christian, “Secular Art” if take by an atheist, or “Buddhist Art” if taken by a Buddhist? And can we ever even know for certain? Are we forced to reserve all judgment on a work of art until we’ve completed a thorough investigation into the religious faith of the artist?
We almost all act as though the content does matter, in one way or another. Any approach that demands us to make firm judgments about another person’s spiritual condition in order to enjoy and celebrate their art is, in my mind, deeply flawed.
3. Defining Christian Art by Motive
It is neither the art nor the artist that matters, but the spiritual process and purpose by which the art is made. Christian Art is art created “in a Christian manner.” We can call this the spiritual definition.
While perhaps attractive on the surface, there is something too idealistic and cute about this view. It works well with It Is Well With My Soul, a hymn beautifully penned by Horatio Spafford in the wake of unfathomable personal tragedy. I suspect, however, that few worship songs and hymns are written in so poetic a manner. Some great songs sung in church were likely written with a motivation of a paycheck to pay off a mortgage or to put a child through college. As already mentioned, much of the greatest cathedral art was done as contracted labor, not as sincere worship. Is there anything inherently wrong with this? Does it deter from the ability of the song to be offered to God in worship by a congregation?
In reality, much “Christian” art is made by sleep-deprived artists who are thinking more about their hungry belly or the need for a second cup of coffee, than consumed in some spiritual trance of divine inspiration. During the creation of an artwork such as a novel, which can take years to complete, the creator will experience the full range of spiritual ups and downs.
Whereas the previous approach left us always unclear about an artwork until we’ve uncovered the faith of the creator, with this approach even that is not enough. Now we must also know their precise spiritual condition as they created it. But would we really declare that a Christian hymn written by a devout Christian was not Christian art, because their heart may or may not have been in a worshipful place? Where do we draw the line? How spiritual is spiritual enough?
Final Food For Thought
If none of these three typical possibilities work—and I don’t believe they do—then how do we define Christian Art? We shouldn’t. As Christians, we aren’t charged with cataloging all art into a neat and tidy classification system of Christian and Secular. Rather, we’re told to affirm everything good, pure and lovely (Philippians 4:8). Rather than asking, “is this art Christian or not”, we should be asking, “how or in what ways does this Art bring glory to God?”
After all, inanimate objects don’t have a personal relationship with Christ. Things are not Christian. There’s no such thing as a Christian minivan, a Christian sandwich, or a Christian reading lamp—and there’s no such thing as Christian art. So let’s do away with unnecessary labels. Rather then focus on whether or not an artwork properly conforms to some regulated standard, let’s instead discern and celebrate all Art that glorifies and bears witness to God.