Cottages and Vegetables

Leaving the Christian Art Ghetto

Rating: 4.00

Christians shaped the arts as we now know them: music, theater, sculpting, literature, you name it. So what happened? I’ll paint a picture for you, next on BreakPoint.

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John Stonestreet

When I say the words “Christian art,” most of you probably think of a tranquil cottage, windows alight and chimney smoking, with a snippet of a Psalm scrawled on the frame. Or you may just recall novels oozing with stilted dialogue about Jesus in every chapter. This stuff can’t really compete with what the world offers, you might say, but that’s okay, because it’s “Christian.”

But what if these things radically miss the mark of true Christian art? What if our art should be the envy of the world?

Yesterday Eric Metaxas talked about the recent successful campaign to remove the film “The Blind Side” from a major Christian bookstore chain because it realistically depicted inner-city life.

This is a case-study in something I talk about at Summit frequently: As Christians, we too often dismiss good art and accept mediocre substitutes just because they’re labeled Christian. We’ve created for ourselves a kind of “artistic ghetto,” and are willing to preserve it even at the cost of quality.

In many ways, “Christian art” has become a synonym for anything that’s charming, quaint, or makes us feel good. It often portrays a one-sided world where evil doesn’t exist and only “positive” and “uplifting” messages are allowed.

You may be thinking by now of the late Christian painter Thomas Kinkade. Whatever you think of his work, too few of us are asking “What makes his paintings uniquely “Christian?” Daniel Siedell at Patheos.com argues that Kinkade’s work is what happens when we reduce the meaning of “Christian” to “a world in which all we need is home and hearth, a weekend retreat, [and] a cozy night with the family to put us right with God.” But that’s not the world we actually live in, which is described in Scripture as being desperately broken and in need of redemption and hope.

In fact, says one hugely influential Christian filmmaker, even though we insist on calling our art “Christian,” we’ve watered down its core message to a kind of facile moralism that says “behave and be nice,” but nothing more.

Phil Vischer, the creator of Big Ideas Productions’ “Veggie Tales” lost ownership of his company after it went bankrupt in 2003. In a recent interview with World magazine, Phil says he regrets the direction he took his famous children’s show.

“I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity,” he said. You can say “hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so. But that isn’t Christianity.”

In his book, “Bad Religion,” Ross Douthat quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict): “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” Reflecting on Ratzinger’s words, Douthat added, “Today, we have too few of both.”

So how do we reclaim Christianity’s place in the world of art? How do we move beyond naïve idealism and begin making excellent art that serves its real purpose of paraphrasing reality as it really is?

For starters, we could take a cue from Peter Docter, award-winning writer and director for Pixar, who brought us movies like “Toy Story,” “Wall-E,” “Monsters, Inc” and “Up,” and who just happens to be a devout Presbyterian.

Docter’s art is shaping an entire generation. The values and lessons of his animated stories have been praised by both Christian and non-Christian critics alike. These movies are about family, courage, friendship, loving your neighbor, and they’re the gold standard of the industry. And most importantly, they’re not stuck in the Christian ghetto, but bringing wholesome entertainment to eager audiences.

It was C. S. Lewis, an artist whose work shook the church and the world, who said that what we need is not more Christian books, but more books by Christians. What if we accept this challenge? What if the distinction between “Christian art” and “real art” disappears? What if the world one day looks at Christian art, and starts to feel like a ghetto, itself?

Further Reading and Information

'Wall-E': What it Means to be Human
Chuck Colson | BreakPoint.org | December 18, 2008

‘Up’-lifting: Pixar Reminds Us of What Matters
Mark Earley | BreakPoint.org | June 12, 2009

It's not about the dream
Megan Basham| World magazine | September 24, 2011

The Dark Light of Thomas Kinkade
Daniel A. Siedell| Patheos.com | May 22, 2012



Iknow how you feel, Leonard; I have two unpublished manuscripts myself (one fiction, one non). On the subject of another writer, I'm almost finished with Douthat's book and it's terrific; it makes me want to read more from him. Sadly though, too often much of "Christian art" leaves the world embracing the sentiment of Frank Schaeffer's caustic summation years ago, that Christians' brains are like soup in a bad restaurant; better left unstirred.
Part two of my comments...Art Patrons Wanted!
Reading Leonard Pellman's comment above, I remember working at a Christian book publisher years back.

They did get some good manuscripts they would not publish...because they didn't "fit" the market...not because of any lack of quality.

Hoping that the digital world will help Leonard Pellman get his book out there!!!
Replay...redraw the almost Forgotten Message
What we all know -- Christians ROCKED the art world "...the teachings of Jesus and his followers led to the establishment of the Christian religion, whose impact on Western art after the fall of Rome cannot be overestimated..." P153 A HISTORY OF WESTERN ART by Laurie Schneider Adams...fifth ed.
so what happened?
One thing...much of the early art was paid for by christian leaders...so large and long projects were possible.

....Fast forward to now. Maybe local Christian groups need to sponsor some art shows...A local large church in Northwest Indiana has rented some space in two nearby towns (some realty is cheap here esp. because of the bad economy) I have been to an artist event at one town and to an art show at the other town.
Another church I was in...asked me to scan in lots of childrens' art about some Bible events...Then it was shown as a slide show...
My daughter (a graphic arts major) is currently searching for an internship and some Christian agencies are on the possible intern list (as well as many secular ones).
We will not have the budget of, say, a Pope...but surely some local groups of Christians can get involved somehow in their communities...preferably where all kinds of artists (of all different beliefs or nonbeliefs) can mingle and see each others' work!
Aim for Art!
I agree, and worry. Christian art is more than the smoke curling from the cottage smokestack, but sometimes it IS the cottage. Sometimes that is EXACTLY what I need. You quoted Phil Vischer, who worried about the direction of Big Ideas, and he should know; he has the front-row seat. But the messages he gave are the same messages of Pete Docter, and they have their place in the world of art. Become more than who you are; aim higher; fight for something. I am thrilled that Pete is informed by his faith, and it does not surprise me.

I really don't know what I'm trying to say. Maybe I don't want Phil to beat himself up so much; maybe it's kudos to all of them; maybe it's a thank you for quoting CS Lewis. Whatever it is, don't give up on the quest of creating good art, but after you have done what you have tried to do, give yourself the freedom to experience God's grace. I have enjoyed every single one of the artists mentioned here.
"Christian" Books
One of the great impediments to Christians getting books published is that mainstream publishers don't want them. I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Artifact. It was an action-adventure novel about a mercenary hired by a team of Christian archaeologists to protect them while they sought and obtained an artifact that had the potential to prove the divinity of Christ. In many ways, it was the "Christian" version of The DaVinci Code, but with much more action, more realism, and of course better written!

When I submitted sample chapters to numerous agents and publishers the result was a stack of rejection slips. Secular publishers all panned it because it was "too Christian". Christian publishers rejected it as "too secular". And literary agents all told me they couldn't sell it for the same reasons.

I am now preparing to self-publish it through Amazon's CreateSpace, but with no marketing to back it up, it is certain to be read by few outside my immediate friends and family. Until Christian publishers are willing to take risks with "mixed" literature, the type of art you speak of will never see the light of day!