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.