I was listening to a Connected Kingdom podcast on Challies.com in which Tim Challies and David Murray were interviewing Steve DeWitt on his latest book, Eyes Wide Open. Challies describes the book as “a book about beauty, about learning to enjoy God in everything.” Some of the questions addressed in the podcast include, “How beauty is meant to motivate worship,” and “Whether beautiful art is objectively good or whether there needs to be an explicit gospel message.” It is an interesting conversation about a subject that many Christians seldom address today, beauty. You should give it a listen when you get some time. Here’s a download link to the audio file.
It is a question that I’ve entertained in my mind now and then over the years, but I’ve never really put serious thought into it. I always kept pushing it further and further to the bottom of my to-think-about list. Why is so much of contemporary Christian art and music second rate? It was only the other day that the thought suddenly managed to muscle and bully it’s way to the top of the list, and I had no choice but to wrestle with it. The trigger was a question that David Murray asks towards the end of the interview. He wonders, “Why do you think is it that Christians or Christianity is not associated with beauty today? Why do you think the Church has sort of lost the pursuit and enjoyment of beauty?” The three men grapple with the question for a few minutes and give some ideas about what could be the problem, but none seems to come up with a satisfactory response.
So today I’ve decided that I, too, will give it a shot…
1. The Need to Christianize Art
I’ll pick up from where Tim Challies leaves off in his thoughts about what has gone wrong with Christian art. He suggests that as Christians, perhaps where we have gone wrong is that “we feel the need to Christianize art. Instead of being able to appreciate beauty for the sake of beauty, we have to smash all these messages into it. So, we can’t just have a good movie and say ‘that’s a good movie’. It has to be… by the end if there is not a Gospel presentation, then we think it has fallen short. And Christians also can’t just right a good book, there has to be some explicit call to faith in the book. I think a lot of our art has been lost that way. Beauty isn’t enough, we need the explicit presentation of the Gospel.”
The following are more ideas that I jotted down on my phone as I thought about the issue, and why so much of Christian art is second rate:
2. Despairing at God’s High Standard
Perhaps the answer may lie in the connection between beauty and worship. Our inability to see God as He really is clouds our appreciation for beauty. In eating the apple, man’s eyes were open to worldly beauty and closed to spiritual beauty. Our inability to clearly and fully behold Christ’s beauty makes us inadequate and lame imitators and appreciators of true beauty. Apostle Paul best explains this deficiency in every Christian, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” [1 Cor 13:12] What happens is that our art (the bad Christian art) gives us away. If the world was our standard, it is possible to meet its standard of success, and that encourages us to excel. But now, knowing that our standard is much higher, we despair and do not even give it a try.
3. A Puritan Mindset
I recall that when I first came across Reformed Theology and began to learn about the doctrines of Grace, the Supremacy of Christ and His Word, I suddenly found myself becoming less poetic and musical in my writings. A Puritan mindset began to develop in me, prompting me to exercise too much caution and restraint upon what I wrote and taught. I slowly became the logician that G.K. Chesterton ridicules in his book Orthodoxy. I had become the logician who “wanted to put the whole universe in his head, instead of the poet who was simply happy to have his head in the universe.” I became obsessed with truth as a set of propositions rather than truth as the multidimensional and multifaceted person of Jesus Christ. I have to admit that I am still in that journey towards reclaiming the wonder, awe and joyful abandon with which true artists craft beautiful works of art.
4. Immaturity in the Faith
When you become a Christian, you are born again. That means you’re like a child now – a child artist. You are drawing, painting and writing like a child. You are learning your ABCs about the faith, getting used to a whole new worldview and trying to figure out how a theology of art and beauty fits into the whole Christian lifestyle. So, your artworks will mostly be like doodles as you try to figure out how to articulate your worship through art. It is crude art. This can be likened to morality. It is easy to come up with excellent moral codes for reform without having to deal with the Cross. However, what God calls us is a natural familiarization of ourselves with, and a total dependency upon, His grace. We are expected to marinate in it until it becomes natural. Therefore, the poor beauty in most Christian art could also be a picture of the true state of our departure from God, our sinfulness. The Christian feels and knows how much more sinful he is, and this is reflected in his art. The unbeliever thinks he is okay, and this is reflected in his art.
5. The Insufficiency of Art for Salvation
As Tim Challies suggested, Christians feel like beauty isn’t enough and feel the need to add an explicit call of the Gospel. Perhaps this feeling is good. Perhaps we feel that beauty isn’t enough because there isn’t enough beauty to lead us to the true knowledge of God without the Gospel. I guess this is the same feeling a Christian feels when he sees an unbeliever pursuing morality without the Gospel. He admires the effort and even the outcome, but he is not willing to just let the unbeliever be. He cannot truly admire his morality. His morality is not enough because it is not enough morality. God’s standard is infinitely higher. There’s more needed. He needs the Gospel. And since the Christian knows that the Gospel is primary, he ends up focusing more on getting it in rather than working it out. There’s a way in which the second rate nature of Christian art is parallel to the second rate moral conduct of many orthodox Christians. They want to get it right before they do it right because they are afraid of being legalistic in their sanctification.
6. Why “Liberal” Christian Artists Seem To Do It Better
I’ve noticed that second-rate art tends to be more of a problem with reformed/conservative artists than with liberal artists. The conservative artist believes that feelings are not equal, but subject, to the mind. Even though he knows that he is supposed to love God with both all of his heart and all of his mind, he is vividly aware that understanding must precede and validate feeling. So, he cannot enjoy before he understands. He fears letting his heart go lose. He cannot dare follow his heart. Joyful abandon is an unfamiliar and dangerous concept to him. So he hesitates. He is a minimalist and a Puritan. The liberal artist on the other hand is less concerned about doctrine and orthodoxy. It is easy for him to let go and express himself without restraint. This is why you will often find conservatives accusing liberals for compromising doctrine for the feelies when engaging the culture. It is not that the conservative doesn’t love or appreciate art, it is just that he is afraid of being condemned by what he approves. [Romans 14:22]
There you go. Those are some of the few ideas that I came up with in an attempt to understand why so much of Christian art appears to be second rate. Of course there are other general factors such as laziness, the missiological mindset of redeeming and “cleaning up” secular cover songs rather than doing original music, a theology that draws a dichotomy between secular and spiritual things, and many others…. But I mainly wanted to focus on some of the deeper theological reasons that many of us have maybe never bothered to consider. Please feel free to add to the list of other possible explanations…
Also, my list above is subject to correction. So, feel free to point out where you think I have really forced the explanation and stretched the thought too far (I don’t know why I feel like that’s exactly what I’ve done 🙂 ).
In His service and for His glory,