A Digression: Art in the Evangelical Church

I begin with a caveat: I’m about to make a horrible, blanket statement, a sweeping generality, which means of course that it cannot be applied to everything, but it does to many things.

I hate contemporary Christian art.

Paintings, film, music, whatever. It’s bad. It’s bad art.

My wife and I have discussed this phenomenon a number of times. The conversation tends to work its way down to the fact that art that comes out of the Evangelical church is, one way or another, heavy handed. Somewhere in the midst of all that’s going on, the medium must convey a message of some sort, and it always happens in a fairly blunt, clunky fashion. Someone evangelizes quite directly in a movie or the chorus explains something about God.

Of course, not all Christian art is heavy-handed. Some is commercial and pandering, though not all manages to become popular enough to make such an intention viable.

Image copyright Joan MitchellEither way, it’s unsatisfying, and the rest of the world turns to the church and says, “Why do you keep making that crap?” thereby giving yet one more reason for people to turn away from God on account of His rather silly people.

I realize I’m being rather harsh here. You could probably accuse me of being heavy-handed myself at this point, but I’m not trying to make art. That’s rarely what a blog is for, though I have blogs turned into art, just not very often.

I was reading Merton for class again, and he sort of swept by something that resonated with me. My wife likes to ponder the connection between art and spirituality. She’s probably said some things very close to what Merton was saying, and I think the very thing Merton was saying was roiling around in my mind, just not quite formulated in words. But Merton said quite directly that the artistic experience is akin to being in the presence of God.

When you’re in the presence of God, many in the Evangelical world, and perhaps this is where bad art comes from, immediately turn to ask questions or imagine themselves praising Him with their hands raised or make requests. While none of these are bad, and there are certainly times for the, the difficulty is that they actually pull us away from God rather than drawing us further into His presence. To ask a question means that you must formulate it or at least verbalize it, and you must end up in your head or focused on the words, which means that God is not the only focus. Being in the presence of God is an experience that can be interrupted or lessened by anything that is not the presence itself.

Not every time one is in the presence of God must one be utterly focused in this fashion. Most of our interactions with good friends and husbands and wives and so forth is spent talking or accomplishing things or focusing on something else together, but some of the most meaningful times are ones wherein we are simply with each other. I recall one afternoon reading a book in the same room as my flatmate who was also reading, and something struck me as oddly profound about it. We were completely comfortable with each others’ presence and were glad to have it. We didn’t need to do anything. We just were.

The creation of art should be the same. Creation is something that is done for creation itself. There are times when a message may come out of it or others may enjoy it or purchase it, and development of skill requires that one focus on details and techniques rather than the process and experience of creation itself, yet the artistic experience is primarily one that is “a kind of intuitive perception of reality through a sort of affective identification with the object contemplated.” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 202) There is a sort of union of person with art that works on intuitive and emotional planes. The thinking plane with its messages and plans gets in the way. It’s necessary, of course, but it sort of becomes the servant of the creation rather than the other way around. If Evangelicals want to create good art, it must be art for the sake of the art and the subject, not for the sake of trying to say something.

And for the record, I’ve been guilty of creating bad art of both heavy-handed and intended-commercial sorts, so I don’t absolve myself of this any more than any other Evangelical.

So the Christian should be creating better art than the pagan, not because we’re imbued with the Spirit or because we’re gifted or any such thing, but because the experience of creating art is akin to being with God. Our life with God should show us what making art is like, and our creating should show us what it is like to be with God. They should flow into one another and elevate one another. Being artistic and being with God are of the same warp and woof. Christian artists should weave this into their lives and work, not yet more blunt or pandering messages to all those people who need to be converted.


One response

  1. Dave

    The work of Thomas Kincade has always inspired me but personally I think his best work is yet to come. Just kidding. The collection of artsy Christian kitsch in Christian bookstores makes me nauseous, while I was really impressed with the fantasy and sci-fi art I saw at World-Con in Reno last August.

    I also recall, with much embarrassment, my attempt to like Christian music. It was painful. I cannot recall actually having seen a Christian movie.

    The state of contemporary Christian art is just awful. My persona thought is that part of this state of affairs is due to the fundamentalist/evangelical rejection of culture and attempt to create a sub-culture that ended up in a split-personality of rejection while trying to imitate at the same time (I remember the King of Kings imitation t-shirt of the Budweiser King of Beers t-shirt).

    I share your sentiments about Christians and art, but have not seen a lot of progress there.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm

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