When looking at the art created by Christians over the last century, I see two trends: cheesiness and copycat imitation. The cheese comes from direct translations of biblical themes to “glorify God and get people saved” through art. The copycats, on the other hand, try hard not to look Christian, but not knowing where else to go, copy what’s around them. I believe there are two ageless demons here plaguing Christian artists—the spirits of Control and Confusion.
For centuries in Europe, Christian artists were not allowed to paint “ordinary things.” The arts of the day were largely religious icons, a powerful tool in the Church’s hand to inspire worship and maybe encourage a little income on the side via the sale of indulgences. Art was a controlled practice, based largely on the power mongering of its patrons and the ignorance (and financial needs) of its creators.
It wasn’t until the Reformation that Luther, Calvin and others freed up Christian artists (mostly in Northern Europe) to paint outside of iconography. Artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt created astounding renditions of everyday life around them. These fast became the good old days, however. As the Enlightenment, Romantic and Nihilistic movements progressed through 1700 to 1900, the arts took all kinds of experimental turns based on various philosophies from Kant to Nietzsche to B.F. Skinner. Artists like Francisco de Goya, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso created a range of painfully beautiful pieces rooted in these movements, but the Church fell relatively silent, not quite knowing what to think or say. Our second demon, the spirit of Confusion, took root by secularizing art, making it seem ugly and “useless” to the Church.
Finally, waking to some sense of calling in the mid-1800s with Finney, Moody and others moving to a form of mass evangelism, the Protestant Church grasped its sense of “mission” for the next 150 years: Get people off this burning rock and into heaven. Our entire Christian endeavor was relegated to this simple agenda, and for the next century Christian artists largely reverted back to the Middle Ages by primarily creating religious imagery. Art quickly turned to cheese under this pragmatic agenda: doves, lions, crosses, etc. This too bore the influence of our demon Control, via a Church that only seemed to accept the overt mark of Christian symbolism on its art. So, in cyclical fashion, we were back to square one.
OK, but it’s 2005 now. Christians are much more hip, educated and spiritual. Right? We agree with Calvin (on most things) and have Adobe at our side. We approach the canvas, keyboard and camera with an artistic nature swept clean because, well, we don’t want to live in the past. The downside of a house swept clean is that it gets filled with demons worse than Control and Confusion unless that house, mind and heart get filled with a worldview that can sustain the attack.
We have inherited these two demons in our art today. From Confusion, our experimentation in music and film tries hard to not look Christian and ends up looking like everything else. From Control, we create “on the nose” art as simplistic direct translations void of the gritty reality around us. We’re in a vacuum caused by centuries of control and confusion, and it poses a great challenge for the Christian artist.
There are three things I believe will help us out of this vacuum and fill the void with a worldview substantial enough to not only cast out the demons, but truly glorify God.
1. The arts exist because God is beautiful.
Art is not a didactic tool to be wielded as propaganda. All of the arts (music, poetry, painting, theater) exist because they are rooted in the nature of God, and we are created to be like Him. God does not justify the existence of edelweiss or aurora borealis; they are expressions of who He is. Beauty, integrity and reality are enough for Him, and so it should be for us. It is a defense of the artist’s integrity: don’t be controlled and don’t try to control others with your art.
2. All of creation is an expression of God’s creativity.
Somewhere in the last century we lost the true value of the created world. I guess the theory is that if it’s all gonna burn, then it’s not important. So instead of learning from the incredible design around us, we focus on the otherworldly imagery of lions, lambs, crosses and doves. Nature speaks of God, it speaks to us, and those who can listen well learn from it, enabling them to create like their Father in heaven. Re-establish your value for and connection with the created world around you. Look at the details of intelligent design theory and find a way to hear the “speech poured forth.”
3. Purposeful experimentation creates honest innovation.
Rather than copying styles and artists of the past, get in touch with the real issues of our day and experiment with a clear reflection of what those issues do to you. Don’t preach; just learn and express. Eventually, threads will develop. Van Gogh originally wanted to follow in the steps of his pastor father by ministering to the poor and those in pain. In the end, he found his real gift, which was to personify and express pain through his paintings. It’s honest, beautiful and powerful. Experiment to find your voice, and a symphony may develop around you.