Friday, December 14, 2007

Ten Issues All Christian Artists Should Consider: #1-5

Over the next few weeks I will be writing a series of posts which present the essential issues each Christian artist should consider in their medium. I hope to do a post on Painting (and drawing and graphic design), Photography, Film, Poetry, Writing, and Music.

In this post I'm going to lay out the basic ideas that all Christian artists should consider. In later posts I will expand to talk about specific mediums.

The Top Ten Ideas All Christian Artists Should Consider:

1. Remember that everything you do should be to God's glory.

This means that whatever create or do should be an act of worship to Him. The very act of creating is a work, a service that reflects our manishness (our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness) and mirrors God's own love of aesthetic creation.

2. Have a purpose in mind.

I use the word "purpose" as opposed to "message" because not all art has a distinct and readily communicable message to be discovered. A wonderfully made vase might not contain the Gospel message, but its existence, its purpose can give evidence to a beauty, a loveliness that is found in the Christian worldview. What is imperative is that the artists consider what they are doing.

Purpose can mean a lot of things. It could be the purpose of the work to explore beauty, or merely cause the viewer/reader/audience to explore an idea themselves. Be careful not to confuse "purpose" with "message"; sometimes a work of art has a very clear, specific thing to communicate, but often the purpose is to revel in the complexity of life itself.

Ask yourself, "Why should I create this thing?", "Why is it better that I make this, or do this than not?", "What is said or done or communicated or meant or alluded to by this work?", "Am I contributing to a conversation, or merely restating what some other work has already expressed?". Often, the worst works of art by believers are those which are simply not considered. Expression is good. Creation is good. But the goodness of these do not give us license for unexamined artistry.

3. Know that whether you mean to or not, you are expressing a worldview.

Art reveals worldviews. It just does. Whatever a person fundamentally believes about the most essential issues in life--eternity, truth, goodness, beauty, evil, humanity, redemption, love, death, life, etc--will be exposed in their creation.

If at your core you believe that humans are corrupt and selfish beasts, then when you paint your figures will be bestial. Or if you write, your characters will be narcissistic hypocrites.

The frightening fact about art is that it does not reveal the worldview we claim to hold (except in truly bad art), but what we actually believe.

As a Christian artist you might claim to believe that God came to save the sins of the world, but perhaps in your true worldview, you (much like Jonah) believe that God would not bother to save some people--child molesters lets say. If this is your true belief, it will come out in your works of art. So what does this mean for us as artists? Three tasks lay before us:

First we must know the Word of God. We must be grounded in what God has revealed about humanity, the universe, and Himself. If we fail to do this then we risk presenting a work of art which could be identified as Christian but which distorts the Truth. (See Thomas Kincade's worlds without need of redemption for examples of this).

Second, we must know the universe. The Word of God only makes sense in relation to the universe He created. We cannot make excellent works of art about our universe if we know nothing about it and the people that inhabit it. All great artists must become students of the universe and humans. Failure to do this usually results in works of art that feature unrealistic characters or situations. They tend to be didactic morality tales in which sinners are immediately punished for their sins and believers are immediately blessed for their righteousness. The universe is complex, thanks to God, so understand and reflect the complexity.

Third, we must know ourselves. We cannot create excellent works of art which accurately express the Christian worldview unless we know ourselves in the world. We cannot know that all men are fallen unless we know that we are fallen. Likewise, we cannot know that all love comes from Christ unless we know how we love and are loved. Failure to do this means works which lack mercy and intimacy.

4. It is not the job of your work of art to spread the Gospel.

Consider the Temple artwork commissioned by God. Palm Trees and Flower Blossoms do not express the need all men have before God for repentance and sacrifice, and yet that's what you would have found in the walls of the Temple that Solomon built.

For some reason, the Christian culture has decided that all art must be held to higher evangelistic standard than the objects created by any other occupation. A car mechanic is not pressured by his church to etch John 3:16 on every muffler he fixes. A computer technician is not pressured to turn every computer virus into an object lesson about sin related to an unsuspecting costumer. And yet our painters are often looked down upon if they don't work a verse or a distinctly Biblical message into a painting. And our musicians are discouraged if they sing about anything other than Jesus.

As an artist working for the glory of God, your task is much broader than didactically retelling the Gospel.

5. It is the job of your life to glorify God, which means spreading the Gospel.

Just as problematic as it is when Christians use arts as bait to sucker people into hearing the Gospel, is when they believe that their task as artists is wholly separate from the Great Commission.

Art tends to work slowly, good art at least. It takes time for the viewer/audience to digest the ideas, to consider their weight in the real world, and to judge their veracity. As a result of this, some Christian artists have taken the view that their job is merely to express stuff about life and then sit back and see what happens. They become more concerned about how they will be perceived as "artists" than with the very pressing issue of sharing the Gospel. Often, these same artists feel extremely comfortable in openly and aggressively addressing social issues, but not spiritual ones. We must never, ever lose an urgency to share the Truth in love.

It is not the goal of art to share the Gospel, it is the goal of our lives to glorify God, and one act in that glorification is the command to spread the Gospel. How do you actively seek to tell people the Good News in all areas of your life? Do the same thing in your art.

With some people and in some situations I share the Gospel by loving them, really loving them as people made in the image of God; not so that I can secretly get them on my good side or to learn some dirt about them that I can later use to "convert them," but because I genuinely love them. With other people I try to address theological or philosophical questions they might have. With others I try to allow my marriage and life be a testament to God's loving kindnesses. With others I discuss the fallenness of this world. With others I discuss the beauty and love to be found in this world. With still others I speak very plainly and openly about Christ's work on the cross in space, time, and history.

Our art should reflect the same variety of approaches and views to the Gospel as we find ourselves using in all aspects of our lives.

It is my hope, and prayer, that artists who are believers would use these ideas to create greater works for God's glory. These lists are not intended to be comprehensive, and as such I would love to hear how you would expand them.

Next week (or in a few days) I will post the second half of the list.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Hmm....I'm feeling particularly impish today.

How do you justify your idea (#2) that we should "have a purpose *in mind*," with the apparent purposelessness of much of say, the Old Testament.


(I use the phrase "apparent" very intentionally--I certainly do not believe that either OT stories nor good art is purposeless. However, I also do not believe that either the OT scribes God chose to pen stories nor many of the greatest artists fully understood what the purpose of their art was. They felt something, it was important, they had to express it. If you ask them what it means, they might very well go--"I dunno, you read it and tell me.")

noneuclidean said...

I guess I wasn't clear. I do not believe that artists should expect to have the fully purpose of their work planed out in advance. But neither should they throw up their hands and say, "well I'll just do some of this and see what happens" (although undoubtedly some great works have been produce by such a method).

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Why not?

It seems that in point (3), you are claiming that if we are truly living the Christian life, our attitudes will be revealed in our fiction (and if we're false, the falseness will be revealed.) Yet it seems that Hamlet has more to say about life, though built scene-upon-scene (i.e. let's start with this ghost and indecision and see what happens), than Thomas Kinkade, who above all has a purpose of depicting serenity and bringing people simple joy.

noneuclidean said...

Always with the hard questions! :-)

Again, I would not say that all great works were perfectly planned out by their creator. But we do not have to choose between considering our purpose completely and not considering it at all. There are many degrees of consideration separating these two extremes. While there are examples of bad art made with purpose and good art made (to some extent) without purpose, I firmly believe meditating and reflecting on what you seek to create is a good principle for artists to work under (principle, not law).

I say that because I think there are more dangers to be found in purposelessly creating than purposefully--if rightly understood.

Purpose allows us to use the tools of our craft with direction. One way we can know when to use a certain color, or play a certain chord, or use a certain word is by asking ourselves how the specific element works to accomplish our end--even if that end is fairly vague.

The alternative to this is exclusively going with your gut feeling--a method that has spawned no end of tacky, po-mo, pseudo-art.

The best method, I believe, involves conscious reflection and gut-feelings. I take a cue from Wordsworth here:
"poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

I'm not certain if I agree with that definition of "poetry," but the combination of both "powerful feelings" and recollection in tranquility as the proper way to approach artistic creation seems right to me.

In addition, purpose reminds us that when we create it is not a self-centered act. It is not just about us expressing ourselves to ourselves. Purposeless art is often
(but not always) an exercise in reveling in our emotions and thoughts and experiences irregardless of their communicability or how others will receive them. Purpose foregrounds communication, the idea that there are really people "out there" and they, as humans, are capable of understanding, and that it is good to communicate. To love our neighbor with our art, we should consider (not fully which is impossible, but consider nevertheless) our purpose in creating.

The greatest Creator, God, created with purpose.

Why not create with purpose? How would it hurt to at least consider what you reasons might be to write? How could it harm the creation to meditate on the effect of a word or the purpose of a character? How could it be wrong to question what you are expressing?

I can think of many ways not considering purpose could be harmful to art: Discontinuity between form and theme, unintended and even contradictory ideas expressed, distracting elements which don't further the plot.

One example that comes to mind would be Christian musicians that write worship or praise songs in genres (like heavy metal, or grind core, or hard core) that have sounds which function contrary to the lyrics they write. Or modern worship songs which sing of Christ's excruciating work on the cross over pop music-y, saccharine melodies.

Many Christian artists have been taught that as long as the "message" is good, they need not consider (reflect) on how that message is relayed (or if it is at all). In many ways, it is this problem I am seeking to address with my idea of "purpose."

Perhaps you can suggest a better way to address this problem?

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Okay, I think I see a bit more what you are getting at.

One thing that I completely agree with: if you see a meaning to your work, form should be matched to function--and in fact not considering the interrelations can mar the function (or "purpose.")

(I am here obligated to loosely quote Chesterton: "Nothing says less truth than a truism, particularly if the truism is true." That is, irresponsible attempts to communicate the truth of Christ may bring to a reader/hearer/viewer a lie about Christ.)

I guess I'm just coming at this as an author, and particularly as an author published in the anthology Coach's Midnight Diner. My story certainly had a single point, and everything was directed to that one moment, a moment rife with specific theological concerns that I can explain in the language of theology. Everything wasn't closed off, exactly, or tied up in a bow, but no one could doubt the intent that drove the work.

But some of my other favorite stories from that same anthology were quite a different matter. One involves a girl wandering into (essentially) the fantasy diner of the painting "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Another depicts the crew of a ship who we know, from page one, are all destined for senseless slaughter. Reading both those stories, I was drawn into the world and wanted to explore it, think about it, &c.; but they felt like dreamscapes, atmosphere and contemplation far more than statement.

(Or to put it in terms of your art, I was moved and intrigued more by "The Cat" than some of the other songs simply because it told a new and interesting story, and left me to make a bit of the song's sense myself--so I learned by doing.)

If you haven't read it, I really encourage you to check out the current entry at
It's a post that really got me thinking lately about the ways art works as "play" and doesn't have to always be "real." It also reminded me of one of the many things of my fascinating "Language of Poetry" class--the view that great poetry is always or at least often "dangerous" because in reaching for meaning it opens itself up to misinterpretation. Not all art needs to be ambivalent, of course, but I think your current formulation overly promotes one variety of art (teleological) over another equally valid (exploratory) variety.

I'll close with the following quip: for every bit of tacky, po-mo pseudo art, I bet there's an equally tacky bit of attempted and failed propaganda.

noneuclidean said...

Ha, well spoken quip.

The reason I used "purpose" over "meaning" is that it can be the purpose of a work to be exploratory and/or teleological, whereas meaning suggest only teleological types.

I'll definitely read the post.

noneuclidean said...

I think when I post the second half of the list I'll revise #2 to include a few words on how "purpose" can include play and exploration as well as "meaning." Thanks for the sharping.