I grew up in the 1980s, when the Christian music industry was still in its infancy, and when—in most cases—the measure of an album or a song was not the quality of the product as a whole, but rather its Jesus-per-minute rate. The main goal was to share the Gospel of Jesus, and the quality or originality of the musical form was an afterthought at best.
To its credit, the quality of Christian music has massively improved over the last 30 years, but there are still many corners of Christianity in which careful design of the form of a work doesn’t really matter all that much. For instance, in each of the last three years, I have helped select The Worst Christian Book Covers of the Year.
In compiling this list and in conversations about why it was necessary, I have become convinced that design should matter more to Christians. (And if you think Christians have cornered the market on bad design, you should check out the Lousy Book Covers blog, which features bad design from all genres of the publishing industry.)
Beyond the Basics
Why, you ask, should design matter more to Christians?
First of all, I firmly agree that the Gospel of Jesus should be central, but in contrast to much of the Christian Music (and most of the evangelical culture) of the 1980s, that doesn’t mean that the Gospel can, or should, be reduced to a few basic convictions about Jesus. If we are to believe the New Testament, that through Christ, God is reconciling all creation, things on earth as well as things in heaven (see, for instance, Colossians 1:19-20), there is nothing that can be taken for granted. The design and form of our work bears witness to what we believe, just as much as the content of the work.
It is striking that Jesus referred to himself as “the way” (John 14:6). As followers of “the way,” it is not enough to believe certain things about Jesus, or to do the things He taught us to do, but we must also be seeking to do them in the way that He did. We cannot separate our means from our ends.
The Value of Sacrifice
If these convictions about the Gospel of Jesus are true, then good, hard work should be a top priority for us as followers of Jesus. The way of Jesus is marked, above all, by sacrifice. Not only did Jesus give His life on the Cross for humanity, His whole life was a sacrifice. He gave up the comforts of heaven—He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” writes the Apostle Paul (Philippians)—and became human, entering fully into all the suffering and joy of the human experience.
If the way of Christ is marked by sacrifice, should not we also be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to do good work, especially when we are creating something we explicitly intend to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ?
Good work indeed will require sacrifices of us: hundreds, if not thousands, of hours learning a craft, studying the masters, practicing, training our eyes and ears to discern what good work is and why it is good.
And maybe if there are areas in which we have not been trained, we need to make sacrifices to collaborate with someone who has, paying them at least a fair price for their labor. A songwriter might need accompanying musicians; an author might need a designer to do good work in designing a book cover; a playwright will need actors and a theater to bring her play to life. Good and careful work bears faithful witness to the costly discipleship to which we have been called. And the converse is also true. “Bad Christian art that reflects a lack of investment of time, commitment, craft, or skill, presents the illusion that the Christian life is not worthy or requiring of the same,” writes author and literature professor Karen Swallow Prior.
Of course, that does not mean that art is not worth doing if you have not mastered your medium. Few of us will ever be recognized as masters of our particular craft. The way of Jesus is not only marked by sacrifice, but also by humility. To be a disciple is to be one who is always learning.
At whatever stage of learning we are at, we should be willing to exhibit our art with the expectation that it will generate conversation, and likely criticism. Critique is part of the learning process, and good critique fosters mutual conversation that not only helps the artist learn and grow, but also helps the critic understand the artist and the context within which the work was done.
Critics may sometimes be mistaken, but such error will not be known without conversation. An even worse problem than bad art is bad art that is above scrutiny, or artists who refuse to enter into conversation about their work. If we are not willing to follow in the humility of Jesus, then what kind of witness does that bear about us and about our art?
The Gospel of Jesus is much more than a few Scripture verses or a few ideas about God; it is a way of being in the world and living our everyday lives.
As creative Christians, we need to be especially attentive to all facets of our work: design, form, content, function. Does our work bear witness to the goodness of Jesus, and particularly to the sacrifice and humility He embodied for us?
Yes, this is a high bar, and yes, we will repeatedly fail, but more important than succeeding or failing is our willingness to be disciples, always to be learning, growing and maturing.
C. Christopher Smith lives and writes as part of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, where he is the Senior Editor of The Englewood Review of Books. Chris is co-author of the award-winning book Slow Church (2014), author of Reading for the Common Good (2016), and is presently finishing a book manuscript with the working title, Conversational Bodies: A Field Guide for the Journey Toward Belonging.