Christian Art, No Such Thing

You see, the problem with “Christian art”… is that there is no such thing.

My dad would beg to differ with that assertion.

In his mind there are three different varieties of artistic expression: that which explicitly references Christian belief, that which contains images or reflections of the gospel story, and that which is devoid of all hope of salvation from above. This is why he hates Hunger Games, and claims that Interstellar is an analogy of humanity’s reliance on God for salvation. He claims that Hunger Games is devoid of value because it is devoid of hope, and that Interstellar is worth the time of day due to the desperate hope that undergirds the main character’s drive to save the human race.

While the conclusion he comes to in this situation is probably correct- Interstellar is probably a better use of your time than Hunger Games- the logic used, by him and countless others, is flawed.

And to be honest, my dad is a bit more generous with his metrics than many Conservative Christians I have known. There are folks who won’t watch a film made within the last few decades if it isn’t produced by a Christian film studio or contains an explicitly Christianity centric plot-line.

But to be honest, film isn’t the area where this tendency is most apparent. No. The best example of this paradigm’s effects is in music.

Christian Contemporary Music. Or CCM, as the the abbreviators would abbreviate it.

This is a genre of music that is not dictated by the type of instrumentation, the style of the arrangement, or even the tone and attitude of the lyrics. CCM is defined by the topic of the lyrics. Christianity. In one form or another. By that I mean that it may be about doctrinal Christianity, or cultural Christianity. The distinction between those two being that one is about Jesus, and the other is about how nice it is to live in America and have Jesus as your friend who fixes all your problems and ensures your standard of living.

Snark intended on that last one.

The reason I highlight CCM is that it is the area where the double-edged sword of Christian artistic blindness becomes most apparent. When Christians only listen to art that is billed as “Christian”, artists who identify as Christians or wish to create art that includes/is inspired by Christian elements are forced to choose. They can enter CCM and make music about Jesus, or go secular and write songs about sex and heartbreak.

If all the Christians are listening to CCM, then the only audience that would support songs about the things of Christ has been removed from the general music listening public. Forcing Christian artists to gravitate to CCM and making secular music even more soulless in their absence- which in turn drives more Christians to listen to CCM exclusively.

A self propelling cycle.

But here is the real kicker: it’s an objectively terrible genre. And it couldn’t ever be anything but that. It’s a market without market forces, ya’ll.

When you have an audience who believe that they have a moral duty to only listen to a specific genre of music, which is supplied to them by music labels that have a fundamental incentive to sell the lowest risk product they can, product which is supplied to them by artists who need to be signed to a label to make a living… the artists are going to make music that they know the label will approve of, and the label is only going to distribute music that they know their audience will consume.

The safest bet is to keep selling people what they are already buying from you. When you have a captive market, there is no incentive to innovate. That’s how monopolies work. CCM is a monopoly that has, bizarrely, been voluntarily created by consumer choice.

Self-imposed slavery to bad music.

And it is bad music. In part because music labels have the above mentioned incentive to avoid innovation, but also because the artists have no real competition from other genres and a broader range of artistic perspectives. Christian bands find themselves competing to be the most CCM of the CCM bands.

This is why CCM always sounds like bad, forgettable, pop from two years ago.

Of course, these criticisms apply on some level to the modern music, film, and television industries as a whole. But the issues are exponentially worse in the “Christian” subsets of the entertainment industry.

You may be wondering at this juncture, if there is a point to my ranting. You may fear that this tirade has no direction. You may, like my dad, be fearing that you just consumed a piece of media devoid of hope and therefore devoid of usefulness.

Ye of little faith.

I have no use for “Christian Art”. But I believe deeply in the value of Christian artists. The band Switchfoot and their frontman Jon Forman’s solo work is half of what I listen to. Excellent examples of Christians who are artists. But I also listen to Macklemore, and Chance the Rapper, and Ed Sheeran, and the Lumineers, and Lorde.

That is because I believe that all excellent art is glorifying to God. Not that art is made excellent by referencing God, but that all art that is well executed is reflective of some aspect of God’s character. Of course there is some cost benefit analysis that must come into play when lyrics are calling for violence and antisocial behavior, but at its core, excellence is holy.

And holiness is just a word for the beautiful nexus of truth and hope.

The value that lies within the Christian faith has nothing to do with the trappings of religion. Nothing to do with the cliches of belief, or the recitation of words from a two thousand year old book. The value comes from the truth and the hope that lie within it and spring out from it.

Christian principles are effective not because they bear the label “Christian”, but because they are true.

Christian teaching does not inspire selflessness because the name of Jesus was invoked a dozen times, but because it gives hope.

Do not mishear me: I am not implying that I dismiss the tenants or truth of Christianity. I am a follower of Christ- first, last, and forevermore. My point is that I do not follow Christ because he is the central figure of the Christian religion- I follow him because I believe he is the brightest beacon of truth and hope that the world could ever hope to have.

I believe in the truth because it is true.

And I believe we should approach art in the same fashion.

The art we should be supporting, and craving, and producing, should be art that is honest. Painfully honest. Shuddering and bursting at the seams with precisely rendered snapshots of human emotion. Joy should be there in full display. But pain must likewise be acknowledged. And depression, that often ignored, often hidden demon of the Christian experience… depression and desperation must be acknowledged without the filter of tired cliches.

Sometimes life sucks. No matter how much you love Jesus.

But, and here is the key: hope must never, ever be lost.

That is the whole point of Christ. He saw pain and acknowledged it. He grieved with those who were suffering. But he did not leave it at that. He was not merely a fellow traveler. He was a guide out of the darkness. He gave hope.

The truth of human suffering acknowledged, and the hope that it did not need to continue indefinitely. Hope of a purpose. Hope of peace in the storm.

Art that hews to those principles is art that has the potential to be holy.

Holiness, being that which is reflective of the character of God. The very definition of truth and hope.

And any art that lacks those things, is not holy. No matter how many times it repeats the name of Jesus or what scripture verse it repurposes. Much of CCM is not holy. Most of it is not well executed art.

The same goes for most “Christian” films. They suck. And art that is subpar in ways that are avoidable, is not glorifying to God.

Talented actors are hard to find on a small budget, the same is true for the quality of cinematography and effects: they are to a great extent slaves to financing.

But there is no such excuse for the writing. And that is the most glaring flaw in most “Christian” films, a lack of borderline decent plot structure and character development. Filmmaking is storytelling. If you do not have a good story, do not make a film. And definitely do not associate Christ with art that is sloppy and perfunctory.

I could go on and on about how this plays out in different artistic and entertainment focused disciplines (and there is an important discussion to be had about the difference between the two), but repetition has limited utility. You get my point: “Sympathy for the Devil” is probably a better window into the heart of God than the latest “Fill in the blank with Jesus” song on “Christian Radio”.

All good and beautiful things are tiny reflections of portions of God’s perfect character. There is a beauty in honest desperation- a sad, terrifying beauty. But beauty nonetheless.

There is a place for “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” songs, and films about spiritual awakening. But it is a small place.

This is where my dad and I may disagree.

This is why I say that there is no such thing as “Christian Art”. There is art, and there are Christians.

I pray that they may converge more and more with each passing day.

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