Hate the Christian Art ... Love the Artist?

How to respond when Christians make art that's just bad.

“Do you think we’re going to make it?” I asked Brad from the backseat. We had just dropped a porn star off at her family’s trailer and were now driving a rented minivan through the back alley maze of downtown Los Angeles on a rainy January night, trying to find a place to eat. Brad, the only one of us who had any experience in managing LA traffic, was in the front seat with my friend Jon. Jon’s wife and I were in the backseat, and we were all interested in Brad’s answer. Because he was also the only one of us with any experience in making television.

“I don’t know,” he said, while the wipers squeaked. “I really don’t. The show is good, but so many Christians …” Here he paused for a second to look at the map. We were lost.

“So many Christians are just addicted to the same old crap.”

        *

Before Los Angeles and the television show, I was just another artsy Christian in a cool Chicago church, blogging furiously about the desperate state of faith-based art in America. I was newly graduated and as well-versed in Rob Bell as I was in Radiohead. I had gone to a Bible college just conservative enough to make me a cynic by senior year, and I had seen just enough interesting films to give me an insufferably “unique” perspective on religious art.

Christian art was too simplistic, too willfully ignorant of the world’s suffering. It was too eager for happy endings and warm sentiment, too ready to resolve any conflict with a Bible verse and a Sinner’s Prayer. Christian art was clichéd and airbrushed, afraid to show sin in all its distressing aesthetic glory. It was black and white. It was intolerant. It was ethnocentric. It was one-dimensional. It was cheesy. It was prone to misguided attempts at being vaguely “edgy.” It was childish. It was boring. And, above all, a lot of it was just plain stupid

Now, although I stand by a lot of those criticisms, I’m no longer convinced that having them makes me any sort of Christian art prodigy. But a few years ago, when I and a group of my friends were given the chance to make some faith-based art of our own—specifically, to create a spiritually in-tune television show—didn’t think it’d be too hard.

As the show’s writer, I figured all I would have to be is real and authentic and relevant, and from there, it would virtually write itself. That was actually the plan: travel the country finding interesting stories and tell them honestly. It was the opposite of the canned religious format. We wouldn’t be afraid of messy endings; we’d make nothing off limits; and we’d just see where God showed up in the thing. We called it Footnote, bought a few cameras and took to the streets, confident that the revolution had begun and we were its George Washington.

It’s nothing new for the generation with the freshest diplomas to think it has some secret wisdom on how to fix the world’s problems. And it may not be new for them to do it with my brash arrogance either, although I don’t know about that. But I do know (now) that jumping in with all the answers means making a lot of mistakes.

I’m starting to think that my snarky disregard for the art that came before me wasn’t much better than those Christian Summer Camp bonfires they used to have for Slipknot and Wu-Tang Clan CDs. I was trashing somebody else’s work simply because it didn’t square with my idea of spirituality. It’s not like I don’t have good reasons to do so (those camp leaders may have had some of their own) but scathing blogs about the sad state of religious programming and late-night dorm room chats about what a disaster the Left Behind movie was don’t take into account that idle criticism is at least as trite and simplistic as bad art, not to mention much lazier.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t criticize bad art when we see it. On the contrary, I wish more people would do so. What I’m trying to do is put an end to the backseat driving: the imagining that we could fix all this if someone would just listen to us. I might have some good ideas, but if all I ever do is wonder why the people behind Fireproof can’t get it right, then I’m like an overweight Colts fan screaming at Peyton Manning to throw the ball harder. The only thing easier than doing a bad job is criticizing it.

And that’s what I found out when we went to make a television show—our raw, honest television show that presented spirituality in an authentic way. It wasn’t easy at all. At times, it was impossible.

In fact, the first time we sat down to watch the first cut of our pilot episode, we hated it so much that we cried. And although we eventually created something that we’re very proud of, it took a lot more than we thought it would. Frankly, it took more than we thought we had. More money, more time, more talent, more energy, more creativity and more patience. And there were times when I looked back over all the old Christian movies and television shows that used to so unfailingly trigger my gag reflex and found myself wondering, “How on earth did they do it?”

And I won’t say that there aren’t still certain books or television shows that don’t make my eyes roll so hard they’re in actual danger of popping out from my head. But I no longer see them as the enemy. My enemy is despair, boredom and cruelty. My enemy is apathy. And the enemy of my enemy is my friend, however out of touch or clichéd I might find them to be. And together, we’ll get this Christian Art thing to work. Somehow.

Tyler Huckabee is the head writer for Footnote, which will be airing on WGN this fall. He’s also a regular contributor to Stereo Subversion, Tandem and tinkers around on a blog.

93 Comments

84,856

Caradeo commented…

Real artists ship. - Seth Godin

Everything can be criticized but everything can be used by God as well. I've been working on a blog (cara-deo dot com) where I'm doing a visual response to the daily reading of Streams in the Desert. Not your typical happy ending devotional book. It forces me to ship everyday. I'm not kidding myself that I'm producing masterpieces with the limited time I have each day, but I am conquering fear of rejection and overcoming perfection in order to ship. The world needs our art and what it conveys even if it's cliche or trite, even if it isn't as polished as we like, because God can and does use anythingjust look at his art (us).

Hal Moran

7

Hal Moran commented…

God's call is to be excellent in all things, whatever your calling, including art.
There are great artists of faith producing world class art. Makoto Fujimura and Mary McCleary for example. You've witnessed it many times, just not as overt as you may think.
Christians need to get out more and experience great art - whoever makes it.

84,856

deholiveira commented…

Hi, Tyler!
I found your text in a Brazilian blog, and now I'm really interested about Relevant magazine.
I'm from Brazil and I dance, and I believe that my art can be elevant and relevant. That's what I deeply believe. Even if I don't know how to put it forth yet.
I don't believe that there's bad art or good art, you know. Art is art, but we can work hard to improve language. If some language doesn't talk to you, it can talk to someone else. So, if you say that you don't like a movie, it's ok, there's a lot of people loving it. It's art, it's multiple. If some movie's language isn't talking to you, I'm sure that you have a lot of tips to give to the director/writer about how to make it more reachable to people who think like you think. But it's his art, he is talking his language. Maybe you can't read Portuguese. If I start to write in Portuguese, you won't understand a word! But you can't say that what I'm talking about is bullshit, that it's crap. There's another language that you undersand, that's why I'm writing in English (or trying to!).
I agree with you when you say that we are addicted to something that is old. Christian art is clichd in Brazil too. But most of us didn't find a way to refresh it. Some did.
But how could we do something honest about life, fears, sins, hope? It's ours responsability to find our own way, OUR contemporary art, our own "modus operandi".
If I am Christian, He lives with me, in me. I can't take God out of my art.
Engaged artists don't have to do engaged art all the time. We don't need to worry about it. It comes naturally in everything we do. He talks through us.
And I deeply believe that faith comes from hearing the Word, watching the Word in a movie, watching the Word being danced, seeing the Word in a painting. I don't believe that "art will lead someone to a place where they can hear the Word" (Michael Schutz comment). Jesus teached the Word everywhere, in the streets, in people's houses, in temple. I can talk about Him and about His Word everywhere, using whatever I have in my hands.
You know, I love Christian art. Christian art points to Christ. But I hate this "ONLY WAY" of doing it. That's what I see in Brazil. There's only one way of talking about weakness, there's only one way of talking inside the church, there's only one way of hearing God, there's only one way of dancing what I need to dance. Other ways are not allowed.
I really would like to know your answer. Blogging is an interesting way of sharing opinions and hearing what people from worldwide have to say as well.
Feel free to visit my blog and to add a new comment!
http://deh-oliveira.tumblr.com
God bless you!

84,856

Ricardo_alleyne commented…

I appreciated this article, but I think there are two points that haven't really been dealt with here.

The first is that not everyone who wants to be an artist can be. It's not a matter of talent, it's a matter of gifting and purpose. God gifted certain people to be musicians and artisans, the put the purpose in their hearts. Our secular society worships people who make movies and music, so our church does too, and we wind up with a lot of people who want to be artists for the wrong reasons. And that leads to a lot of cliched, cookie-cutter, just plain bad art, that Christians are supposed to like because it says 'Jesus' in it somewhere. Can God speak through even this? Sure, if anyone is listening to it.

The second is that the art most Christians create does tend to be overly positive, as the article itself attests. When you read the Psalms, its shocking how many of them are filled with declarations of sorrow, pain, despair, depression and anger--nearly a third of them. And this was Israel's hymn book. What percentage of our Christian music today deals with these themes? How many Christian movies or TV shows dare to have an unhappy or ambiguous ending. How much Christian art deals with the reality of the world? Not a lot. And that's a big reason why so much of it is so horrible. People have a pretty good radar for authenticity, and if something doesn't pass the sniff test it really doesn't matter if the artist's heart is in the right place. Secular art is more willing to explore the complexities of life in all of their messiness which is why it attracts even Christians. But worse still, by painting an unrealistically happy picture we fail to tell the story of God being good all the time, even through trials, challenges and difficulties.

So in summary, the reason there is so much bad Christian art is that 1) in many cases the wrong people are making it, and 2) too much of it isn't honest and authentic.

Samiul Sheikh Jahid

1

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