Why is Christian Art So Bad?

    You’ve heard it asked a million times. Especially, I might add, from those of us who aren’t artists. So rather than heaping more negativity onto the canvass of Christian criticism, I’d like to offer some positive tutorials the Bible offers on “art”. The Bible is an art masterpiece, created by a Master Artist. Here some of its pearls:

1. Characters are complex. Was King David good or bad? King Solomon? The prophet Balaam? There’s no simple answer, because there are no simple people. Christian art must look shades of grey square on and inscribe humanity using every color on the palette – not just black and white. Scripture attests that people are exceedingly complex; we are good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust. Christian art must reflect this profound reality.

2. Nothing is happily ever after. Until King Jesus descends, all endings will linger. So unless you’re penning “Left Behind XXII” I’d suggest leaving some strings loose in your art. As a rule, art is adept at presenting problems, not calculating solutions.  Let art do what it’s good at. People die. Things don’t always work out. Jesus redeems it all…later.

3. Sin is gruesome and leaves room for questioning. Last week I preached on a couple who whored with one another in God’s temple, and then were speared through the genitals by a high priest while Jewish leaders hung in the sun to die. Perhaps we’re shy of sin, but God is not. Rape, murder, pillage – scripture doesn’t descend to gory details, but acknowledges gruesome realities. Force it as we might, scripture gives no one-off, tidy answer to explain away sin (Job, anyone?). Scripture deals honestly with our questions, without tidying it all up. Art mustn’t be a series of literary Kinkadian knock-offs. If we want a hearing, we must live in reality with everyone else. We must also dismiss cheap, easy answers to life’s most profound questions.

4. Meaning need not be obvious from the outset. What goes for the art goes for the artist. It’s better to create, I think, without meaning in mind. Meaning is born; it becomes obvious. Beginning with meaning, then proceeding to art, is a left-brained experience. We’re being engineers, not creatives. Let loose your subconscious, and when it’s all finished look back and say: “What did I mean by that?” When you find out, don’t advertise it on a billboard. Let it be as subtle as the story of Rachel and Jacob, as profound as the picture of Abraham and Isaac, as slick as the parable of the prodigal. Let the reader/onlooker work for meaning. If there’s no work for the spectator, there’s no art; just a sermon with an overzealous illustration.

5. God’s ordination doesn’t eliminate human work. All artists feel ordained by God or the gods, but Christians are the worst. In the name of holy-writ inspiration, we provide ourselves a convenient excuse to refuse critique and much-needed learning of the trade; its an excuse to settle for mediocrity. If God “told” me to write; well, you haven’t any room to criticize, have you? Art takes work. Forgive me, but all first drafts are fit for Gehenna, whether God wants you to create or no. With all the resources of the world, it took seven years to build Solomon’s temple. Thousands of years to write the Bible. How long do you think it took to write the script for “Fireproof”? Art is torturously hard and laboriously long and sometimes monopolizingly expensive. Learn from the best creatives (not the best Christian creatives, I might add); Labor with blood, sweat and tears; throw away your first draft. And please don’t peg your poor work on God when you fail to do these things. Oh, and did I tell you to burn your first draft? And your second. And your third. Seven years down the road, you might come close to something artistic.

6. Details matter. Well, depending on your point of view. I like to think God is a wise enough Artist to plan every biblical moment with purpose. Like the end of a great novel, we look over the stretch of time since Creation, and gasp: “Aha!” Now we may read the detective novel at a furiously fast-pace, for the puzzle pieces align in one person: Jesus. All the obscurity and gory detail of the novel climaxes in these words: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” Luke 24:27. Folks who chop the Bible into segments and dismiss Christ’s words miss the beauty of the book: every story, in hindsight, means something miraculous: God is a master Artist, and Jesus is His masterpiece. Would that Christian artists reflected the care of their Creator.

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  • Jeannie P

    Funny you should mention Christian art because I am currently reading (for the first time) Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.” He shows a painting of people walking over hell toward heaven on a giant cross, and I thought, wow, that IS pretty bad — not so much technically but because it’s really a sermon/advertisement in artistic form. (Thomas Kinkade meets Dante, as he puts it.) But I do like how you emphasize the positive here, because I have a feeling that a lot of the things we (okay, I) pooh-pooh as bad Christian music or writing or whatever may not bother Jesus nearly so much — He might even say like He did about the woman who anointed Him, “Leave her alone, she’s done a beautiful thing for me.” Not the cross picture, though — that’s really bad. :-)

    • nmcdonal

      I cracked up reading this, Jeannie. No, not the cross picture. And to be fair, art is very, very hard work – if we knew the time and energy and resources it took to put bad art together, we’d be shocked.

  • http://twitter.com/alangolson Alan Olson

    #5 resonates loudly. Henri Cartier-Bresson summed it up well:

    “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

    • nmcdonal

      I like.

  • http://twitter.com/timbriggshere timbriggshere

    Excellent, excellent article! Really enjoyed it. I see that you are a student at Gordon-Conwell, are you at the Hamilton campus? I’m a part-time student at the Charlotte campus.

    • nmcdonal

      Indeed, Tim – I’m in South Hamilton. Glad you enjoyed.

  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com/ Aimee Byrd

    I love this! Christians shouldn’t settle for mediocrity just because something has a Christian label on it. Great insight on good art, Nick.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    #4 has really come home to me over the years, Nick. A lot of time I have no idea where what I’m working on will end up!

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  • http://twitter.com/BradleyWoodrum Bradley Woodrum

    *standing applause*

    Now please, let us forward this to whatever tragic company has been making Christian movies for the last decade.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dbenson2 Dan Benson


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