I suppose my earliest thoughts on the topic of Christian art begin with a music festival. When I was fifteen the Christian music festival Parachute was in its heyday. When you're young there is an added thrill attending music festivals, but you don't normally know any better music when you're brought up in a Christianese fish bowl.
However, as I transitioned into adulthood there seemed to be this point, for myself, and many others, at which Parachute was no longer interesting anymore. I started broadening my horizons musically, and after listening to a lot of Christian music and radio much of it began to sound derivate and samely. At this point I think I lot of us young Christians started to wonder if we were perhaps becoming a bit less spiritual. Was it wrong to dislike a lot of Christian music? The message could be about the greatest thing, but there is something about that rift… It's, well, uninspiring, uninteresting. The question was hanging in the air, what is it about some Christian music that makes it appear lame sometimes?
At this point we can also throw other forms of Christian art into the mix, such as film. Over the last few weeks I've watched two explicitly Christian films. Some may have heard of the film 'God's not dead', this evangelical American Christian film was made on a budget of two million and has gone on to gross sixty two million at the box office. For various mostly vague reasons it's been panned by critics. But I have to say I enjoyed it.
What I enjoyed most was the way in which it presented a number of different characters and their lives and faith, in a way that was relatable and authentic to real life struggles of Christians in different walks of life. Maybe some find this foreign, or the whole thing comes across as so explicitly Christian. Or they expect it to be corny like so many other Christian films of the past, like in music and film, we borrow without originating, or contributing anything new artistically, this seems to be our M.O.
The second film I watched just a few days ago was called 'How to Save a Life' essentially about a teen that takes his own life and the character arch follows a popular high school kid who realizes the effect one persons actions can have and begins to reach out to others and make a difference. Some very moving and noble themes about bullying and inclusion. I wish more movies could attempt to change lives for the better and have a message as positive and thought provoking as this one.
The Christian Box
But I'm getting off track a little here. The fact remains that although I liked both of the movies I just mentioned, the modus operandi known to general culture of almost all, actually essentially all, Christian film is that it is artistically lame. Not in content understand, but in form. And the same goes for Christian music. There is something about labelling something and placing it in the Christian box that seems to inhibit the art.
Recently, I was listening to an interview with the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, he declares passionately a good filmmaker must not separate their work from their own life, what is required is a filmmaker to contribute their own self. If you want to make bad art just pick a topic and exploit your profession. But I imagine most bad Christian films start with a meeting like this: 'We are going to make a film and it's going to be about someone finding God and Jesus' or something to that effect. It's about the evangelical message.
The particular form of art I most relate to myself is poetry, since it's one I occasionally write in. I read a quote by a Japanese poetry critic Makoto Ueda the other day:
A good poet does not 'make' a poem; he keeps contemplating his subject until it 'becomes' a poem. A poem forms itself spontaneously. If the poet labours to compose a poem out of his own self, it will impair the 'soul' of his subject. He should enter into the external object (the subject of the poem), instead of forcing it to come to him.
This quote carries with it the same sense the art should not be forced first by the message, but by the authentic contemplation of the subject. If we want to talk about Christianity I feel we should be talking out of a place in our own life, not trying to turn art to proselytise and spread Christianity above being authentic in our own self.
As human beings we are multifaceted, and creativity and good art thrives on having the freedom to express ourselves without limits, boxes, or messages coming before the expression. There will always be a place for Christian morals and a Christian message to encourage. And it's interesting to see the way Christian film from what I have seen is being acted better and trying to be more real to issues and individual situations. But could a Christian musical artist write a song expressing God's abandonment, or asking where he is in moment of suffering? Would they be dropping fans from a Christian audience? Yet open your Bible, David did this in the Psalms all the time.
There appears to be something wrong when the fullness of a person's life can't make it into their art. Are we only meant to write songs when we are happy? Or makes movies with an explicit gospel message? It's no wonder in a public way Christian musicians have always struggled with the label Christian. Art is not meant to replace or substitute for the word preached. I can see the great virtue of worship music, the hymns and praise songs we sing in church, Third Day and the like. The NOMA videos and Alpha videos etc but other than this I feel sometimes we are perhaps making unoriginal or bad art when we try to make music or film in this Christian box we have made for ourselves with it's culturally imposed limits.
The best way I can see for individuals to overcome this is to create art with an authenticity that includes their faith but doesn't limit what they can say or their content. At least for me some of the most powerful music with a Christian message is what we would umbrella under secular, U2's The Joshua Tree album, Sufjan Stevens, Anberlin etc
Art from the Heart
So where does this leave us I wonder? After looking at some of the pitfalls of bad Christian art as compared to good, as I perceive it, I would want to say: go forth and make authentic art from the heart. Be in the world but not of it. Be real about your struggles and life, let your faith overflow naturally into your art, don't place proselytisation above authentic self expression.
First published August 29, 2014
Peter Rope is a Financial Economics and Theology graduate from Auckland.
Peter Rope's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/peter-rope.html