Last night my wife and I went and saw Andrew Adamson’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis‘s epic fantasy, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe .” The colors were beautiful, the landscape awe inspiring, the music was ethereal, the evil was apparent yet not obscene, and the good was pure and redeemed. As a child I, like many others I know, read the Narnia novels countless times, so I was looking forward to seeing the fantasy displayed on the big screen. The build up to this movie has been quite significant as it is essentially the first movie to appeal to the “Christian” audience that was revealed through “The Passion.” As with Gibson’s film, Wardrobe was marketed specifically to churches and the Christian demographic. Lewis’s tale, however, will have a much wider appeal since so many nonbelievers have read the books as kids. The release of this movie is an important event in Christian Art: a book from perhaps the greatest apologist of the last century, filled with allegory, symbolism, meaning, and Biblical truth is remade for a whole new generation to experience in a new way.
On the cover of WORLD magazine this week is Makoto-Fujimura, a New York painter and a Christian. WORLD has made Fujimura “Daniel of the Year,” an honor given to those who challenge the worldly culture around them. What is surprising about the painter is that he does not follow the realist aesthetic that is commonly held by Christians. Fujimura’s style is abstract and influenced by ancient Japanese techniques and literature. His recent series, “Water Flames” is a clear example of abstract art: the subject of each painting is flames, which are painted in brilliantly sharp colors. According to the artist, the horror of 9/11, Dante, T.S. Eliot, and Jeremiah all influenced his works through the theme of refining fires. I regret that I am not able to physically see Fujimura’s “Water and Flames” paintings myself as I am thousands of miles away from New York; however reading the WORLD article/interview on Fujimura was quite moving in itself. Fujimura speaks of making art that can “grieve with the world but also serve the world that needs love.” Before this article, I had only heard one person mention Fujimura, and that was in passing.
So which is the Christian artist? Adamson’s direction of Wardrobe clearly appeals to all the established Christian aesthetics: it does not offend, it is beautiful, it is skillfully made, it is realistic even in its fantasy, there is no ambiguity, and the message and themes are apparent to everyone. Fujimura meanwhile focuses upon the horrible power of fire, his paintings are beautiful but only within their awful truth, the subject is completely abstract (there is only symbol in the paintings), and while the painter explains the themes, their depths are hardly fathomable.
I am frightened for the future of Christian art. We sit at a fork between the complete commercialization of Christian art and a new awakening to redeeming art for God; between the Adamsons and the Fujimuras. For years Christians have struggled with commercial art, but mostly in music and paintings, and even those were primarily commodified by other Christians. With The Passion, secular “artists” were shown the profit to be made from Christians and they have no intention of allowing this demographic to slip-by. Many Christians have been rejoicing over this new attention from Hollywood, but this joy is not founded on godly discernment. Even though Lewis’s book was an example of good (not great, but good) Christian art, the movie adaptation is not. All of Lewis’s profound themes and images have been stripped down, leaving us with a sacrifice from a hero-like (but not God-like) lion, who does not evoke fear except in his enemies and does not teach anyone except the truly rebellious (Edmund). Where Lewis’s book is filled with a compelling and intricate representation of God and man’s relationship to Him, the movie is about doing the right thing and loving about others. A nonchristian can hardly make a work of Christian art that truthfully proclaims the profound love of God and our state in the world, even if he is given a godly source to work from. But we can only expect more attempts at appeasing Christians with faux art from Hollywood (and soon from commercial “art” makers as well). In these times, we must be discerning and understand that just because a character sacrifices himself for someone that doesn’t mean it is “Christian art.”
Instead of embracing the world’s attempt at commodifing the Gospel and supporting the ungodly aesthetic of hyper-realism, sinless beauty, inoffensive messages, and clearly articulated and finite themes, we as followers of Christ need to understand what it truly means to serve Christ through art and through the appreciation of art. While I am very concerned over the increased commercialization of Christian art, I am also hopeful that doors are being opened for artists like Fujimura to change minds and glorify God. There are many great Christian artists making art that is good, but not safe. Unfortunately, it has been hard for believers to hear of these artists because of distance and rarity. The hope I have lies upon the ability of technology to bring Christian artist together, to support each other, and to teach other believers about the importance of rejoicing over redeemed art. Fujimura takes risks, he works with themes that are both Christian and ambiguous, and forms that are abstract but not relative. The WORLD article points out that Fujimura has received criticism from both secular and Christian circles, from the former for being too religious and from the latter for being too abstract. Fujimura reply to this is a challenge to Christians to “be more discerning as we are called by the Apostle Paul to learn the signs of the times.” We have a choice to embrace the world’s perception of our beliefs through unredeemed aesthetics and dumbed-down themes all for the benefit of being recognized as a wealthy American culture; or to support risky, challenging, offensive (to the world and perhaps to our perception of “art”), allusive, complex, obscure art for the sake of glorifying God and edifying man through redeemed aesthetics, and perhaps even surrender our reign at the box office.