When I was a kid, McDonald’s released a record—a bona fide vinyl record.
They had come out with this song that listed out all of the items on their menu. The song was fun and catchy, and I can still sing most of it to this day. Plus, it helped you memorize the McDonald’s menu—you know, just in case that was something high up on your priority list.
But as catchy and clever as the song was, it wasn’t necessarily a great piece of art. It didn’t mean much to anyone. Girls didn’t walk down the aisle at their wedding to it. It didn’t garner critical acclaim or win Grammy awards. After all, it was a jingle. How good can a song be if its primary purpose is selling Chicken McNuggets?
If art’s primary purpose is to sell something, it moves away from art and becomes primarily a marketing tool. Similarly, if art’s primary purpose is to convince someone of an idea by manipulating his or her emotions, then that art becomes mere propaganda.
What if there were a “fast food” section in your record store, where all the music was assumed to have some sort of “fast food” message? That’s ridiculous, of course. But then again, we do this with other things all the time—we create labels and genres where they aren’t really necessary.
“Christian” art is one example of this. Sure, “Christian” art might not be totally analogous to “fast food” art, but viewed through the lens above—where art exists to sell something or convince someone of a certain idea—there’s something eerily similar between the two.
Whether you’re into creating, innovating, writing or making music or visual art, I happen to think this verse holds the key to a healthy view of Christian art: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV).
If “Christian” is simply another label for how people separate themselves from each other, then the bulk of art created under that label will likely miss its mark. It will hold the potential to degenerate into marginally effective marketing material at best and manipulative propaganda at worst.
Yet to Paul, the author of this verse, faith in Christ was not another category to add to a list of pre-existing categories. It was a way of living that transcended even our most basic tribal, political, sexual or religious affiliations and divisions. This kind of life, according to Paul, produces not more divisions and categories but boundless faith, hope and love.
So, what does this mean for Christian art? What qualifies as good Christian art, anyway?
First of all, the phrase “good Christian art” is redundant. Good Christian art is simply good art—art that explores and expresses our deepest and truest humanity, art that speaks to us, prods us, inspires us.
This is not to demean art that is created with deliberate theological themes or purposes. On the contrary, theological reflection is part of what it means to be human. It is a very good and Christian thing to do to use art—through song, writing, painting, dance—as a means of prayer, wrestling and reflection. This sort of spiritual art-making is important.
Still, when Christianity becomes a way of embracing life to the fullest—not just a genre on the back shelf—the idea of “Christian art” flings wide the door for creativity. It need not be limited to an audience of huddled Christians afraid of the world and in need of an alternative art of their own.
Of course, this idea will be scary to some. There is a lot of bad and destructive art out there, and for a lot of people, the “Christian” label helps them know they can at least push “play” on the car stereo and their kids won’t hear all sorts of perversion and negativity. This is a legitimate concern, accounting in part for the genre labels that help people find art that accomplishes those purposes.
But we can’t forget the heart of the matter. “Christian” cannot be made into a marketing term. If you want to glorify God with your work, I don’t recommend trying to be a “Christian artist.” Instead, be a good Christian. And be a good artist.
Michael Gungor is the lead singer and co-founder of groundbreaking worship band Gungor.