In Defense of “Crappy” Christian Art

On September 30, the film “Courageous” will be released.  This is the latest film produced by Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia, the same church that produced the films, “Flywheel”, “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof”.  And right on cue, it seems, I have noticed a few articles and blog posts decrying the sad state of Christian art.  It seems that according to these writers, it is just awful that almost all Christian television, movie-making and music is of such poor quality as to make it a laughingstock to those outside the Christian fold.  It is shallow, two-dimensional and prone to formulaic happy endings or derivative, transparent copycatting of whatever is big in pop culture at the moment.  What we need, they say, is fewer Christian artists and more great artists who just happen to be Christian.  To which I would say with firm conviction and all the Christian charity that I can muster – bullshit.

In the early part of the 2oth century, the great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton wrote a strange essay (though when considered in the context of everything else he wrote – not so strange at all).  The essay was titled “In Defense of the Penny Dreadfuls”.  The term “Penny Dreadful” referred to the many cheap, straightforward adventure stories produced for a juvenile audience in Chesterton’s day.  They were known for fantastical plots, overly heroic heroes (and dastardly villains), damsels in distress and the predictable outcome of the good guy winning, the bad guy losing and British values being upheld and vindicated in all instances.  It seemed that many in his day thought that this kind of literature was bad for the youth.  They thought that its poor quality and easy confirmation of bourgeoisie values kept young people from appreciating true art and from thinking critically about the shortcomings of British life.  Chesterton contended that these criticisms entirely missed the point.  He pointed out that the audience that read this kind of literature was typically not under the illusion in their daily lives that the good guys always won and that British values were always right.  Most of the avid readers of this kind of literature were well aware in the circumstances of their daily lives that life was not always (in fact downright seldom) fair and that British life had more than its share of injustice and hardship.  So why did they read these books?  They read them not because they needed their “British values” reinforced or their prejudices confirmed.  They read them because the books, however flawed they might be, touched something very basic in human nature.  Most of us are aware that life is hard and that things don’t seem to work out very often in the ways that we have hoped.  But something within us longs for a world where things are put to right, where justice is done.  We long for a world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose and where that which we know in our hearts to be true is proven out.  It is no accident that many of the stories that have the longest life in the human story have something of the “and they lived happily ever after” flavor to them.  The human heart has a deep longing for the happy ending.

So what does this have to do with “Christian art”?  I think it has everything to do with it.  Somewhere along the line our culture (and by this I mean American culture) has bought into the line that unless something is dark, complicated and has more than a slice of nihilism in it, then it isn’t real art.  We are willing to make some small concessions to this in the case of children’s art (is it any wonder that Pixar’s films tend to be some of the most popular AND critically acclaimed out there?).  There has also always been an element of criticism in culture that wants to be the arbiter of what really is and isn’t art.  (Humorously, many of the contemporary reviews of Handel’s Messiah criticized it as being shallow and repetitive, after all how many times CAN you say Hallelujah in one song?)  So who gets to say what is “real art” and what isn’t?  Who gets to say what is “Christian” art and what isn’t?  I saw one Christian writer, in criticizing what he saw as overly sentimental Christian art (from the painting of Thomas Kinkade to the film “Facing the Giants), compare it to pornography.  So, wow, “Facing the Giants” = “Debbie Does Dallas” – who knew?  I think it is official.  Christian criticism of Christian art has officially jumped the shark.

So let me defend “crappy” Christian art with one simple recommendation.  If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.  Don’t watch it, don’t listen to it, leave it alone.  If those outside of Christian fold want to make fun of it and laugh at it, let them.  They have a right to their opinion and if it hurts your feelings as a Christian, grow a thicker skin.  I am not in a position to judge the hearts of those who make Christian movies, Christian television programming, Christian art or Christian music.  It’s not my job to decide what they should or shouldn’t be doing.  If some of them have less than pure motives, God’s big enough to handle that.  It’s my job to decide what I like and want to buy and what I don’t.  I also have a great big say over what my children see and hear as well.  Beyond that, I have learned that God has given me permission to not have an opinion about it.  The world will be just fine not knowing what my view is on everything that comes down the pike.  Frankly, I think the world is better off without some of the opinions I have read recently as well.

One last thought.  Let’s give some credit to people for being a bit smarter than we think.  I don’t think the person who reads Jeanette Oke’s latest page turner is pretending in their heart that Jeanette Oke is a modern day Jane Austen.  I think he or she just likes the book.  I don’t think the evangelical community has mistaken Kirk Cameron for Sir Laurence Olivier or the Kendrick brothers for Peter Jackson or Christopher Nolan.  I think they just like the movies.  It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.  I don’t think God needs His people being ashamed on other peoples’ behalf or embarrassed by the likes and dislikes of some of their brothers and sisters in Christ.  If I am embarrassed by what someone else likes it is really a not-so-subtle way of putting myself in a superior position, of thinking that I am better than they are.  And in my heart I know full well that I’m not.  And you should too.  And to those who think that Christian art is so bad I have one question.  Have you seen what the world is producing these days?  By and large, is it really all that much better? (Did we really need a remake of Charlie’s Angels?) Great art is hard to come by – no matter who is producing it.  Just sayin.

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3 thoughts on “In Defense of “Crappy” Christian Art

  1. Since I’m “in the mix” and delaying doing some tedious errands…

    I think I agree with Steve’s point here. As a bona-fide snob I have found myself growing tiresome to myself. God knows I’m late to that particular party.

    When I denigrate other peoples art, the majority of the time it seems to come from a place of insecurity. That took a while to figure out. Certainly, some things are indeed just crap. But I’ve come to believe that my personal stamp of approval on ANY art is quite unnecessary.

    This must be ever more true for the community of believers. Of course, if you say you have the way, the truth and the life, then certainly the bar should be raised. But… taking pot shots at things you don’t like is not the correct response. Just make better art. Period. If you don’t like the game, play a different one.

    The fact is, it’s far easier to critique than it is to create. And as a man who has suffered some at the hands of record companies, music critics and an indifferent public, I’d sure like to see the complainers canvas. Because they seem to have it all figured out.

  2. So if this is the case, what is the criteria for “art”? Is there one? This is why we won’t allow (at least in theory) our kids a steady diet of vapid cartoons, even the ones where there is nothing “dark.” There is a point at which it becomes nothing more than brain candy. I’m a fan of the occasional brain candy; I just finished the latest Grisham (no danger of a Pulitzer), and I thoroughly enjoy movies like “The Expendables,” where I got to check my brain at the door for two delightful hours. But I wouldn’t feed my body a steady diet of McDonald’s, nor would I counsel anyone else to; why should my brain–or my soul, which art directly feeds–be different?

    I see nothing wrong with calling Christians to a higher standard of creativity. We should be the leading edge of the arts; most of the time what we see in Christian “art” is in response to what’s already been happening in the cultural world (makes me think of F. Schaeffer’s “How Shall We Then Live”). If we are indeed created in the image of the most creative being, shouldn’t we be some of the most creative beings? If well-written, well-acted indie movies can be made on a low budget, why can’t we Christians do the same?

    Some mediocrity is necessary, I suppose. But why shouldn’t we go deeper? Further? Write a happy book. But do it well. I recently read a very light-hearted non-Christian novel. No sex, no profanity, just a good story with a happy ending. But it was just plain good writing. Why should we settle for less?

    My issue with most “Christian” art/music/novels is the simple fact that they are cookie cutter versions of something else. I’ve read that story/heard that song/seen that painting. It’s sort of like (here we go) years ago, when we had literally (literally!) 20 versions of “Shout to the Lord” playing all the time. Now, I love that song. But can we please do something else? And don’t remind me of the “Hallelujah Chorus;” there’s only one version of that. 😉

    I suppose my issue with this is it doesn’t push for more. As I said, the occasional brain candy or fluff is fine, but should we really propose a steady diet of it?

    • There is criteria for “art” but it certainly isn’t as simple as the criteria for a math problem or a cookie recipe. Art is also viewed (or listened to or read, etc.) and the viewpoint of the viewer has to be taken into account as well. My issue isn’t with calling Christians to a higher level per se – it’s the manner in which it’s done. Criticism (and by that I mean the evaluation of art, not tearing someone down) can very easily degenerate into mere snobbery and very often does. And most (not all, but most) of the criticism I have seen and read of Christian art has crossed that line and doesn’t just criticize the art – it makes not-so-subtle swipes at the “rubes” who consume and like it. It is less about art than about categorizing people and trying to establish oneself as being “right”. When it comes to publicly criticizing others (particularly those in the household of faith) my bar is extremely high as to what is appropriate and what is not. You know me and know I am about as opinionated as they come about just about everything. But in my opinion much of what I have read regarding the “state of Christian art” paints in way too broad of brushes and is done in entirely the wrong spirit. Is it being done to encourage the best out of the producers of this art or is it done just to build the platform of the critic and establish them as an “edgy, prophetic voice”?

      And I’ve seen in the evangelical community a tendency to try way too hard to be liked and accepted, to be seen as “not one of those kinds of Christians”. We all want to be liked and we all tend to cringe when we see other Christians act in ways that are not Christ-like. But most of the time it just isn’t my place to be the critic. It’s my place to encourage and bring out the best in others. And I think that applies in this area as well. We get the platform we get for a reason and that influence is a precious commodity to be spent very carefully.

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