From Bach to God’s Not Dead: The Downfall of Christian Art

This past weekend God’s Not Dead 2 premiered. Youth group kids and homeschoolers all across the country packed into white vans – seriously it is always those white vans with the little church decal on the side – and visited their local cinema to watch the second installment in the series of “culture-war thrillers” (that is my new name for the genre of films such as this), in which a high school teacher fought for her right to talk about Jesus in the big bad public schools. I was really hoping since the movie came out on April 1 that it was all just an elaborate April Fools joke, but unfortunately it wasn’t, and critics once again found a good reason to tear apart a work of Christian “art.” (I use the word art very loosely in this case.)

I, on the other hand spent my Saturday night at home watching the Final Four and eating a terrible grilled cheese sandwich. Since both games were lopsided, I had time to reflect upon why much recent Christian art is terrible, like my grilled cheese sandwich. I’m no art critic and my taste in art is not the most refined, but I was able to come up with the following reasons.

1.  We try to make art a gospel tract.

I have only watched one full Christian movie in my life that I know of, Christian Mingle The Movie, which was given to me by a friend for my birthday as a gag gift, but by reading reviews and watching trailers, every Christian movie looks like a glorified evangelism prop. Both of the God’s Not Dead movies try to implement apologetic into into them. In Fireproof, perhaps the mot well known “Christian movie”, starring Kirk Cameron, perhaps the most noted “Christian actor” shows how Jesus can save a marriage through a 40 day devotional. Seriously, that’s what it’s about. Then there is his Saving Christmas, which has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and was rated the worst movie of all time on IMDB, Cameron tries to “put the Christ back in Christmas.” This is probably the worst premise for a movie I have ever heard of. In Facing the Giants,   another “popular” Christian movie, a disastrous high school football team (SPOILER ALERT) starts focusing on their faith, which  magically turns their season around.  The problem is the cookie-cutter model that all of these movies use. They have this feel good, Jesus makes everything better theme, and then they try to fit a story around it, because we feel that art must be excessively spiritual and evangelistic to justify it.  As Francis Schaeffer writes in Art and the Bible,

“I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.”

But gospel tracts are not what art is meant to look like. Again from Schaeffer,

“Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person as a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.”

In literature and film this involves the telling of unique and original stories that encapsulate the complexity of human nature as both made in the image of God and sinful, and the complexity of a beautiful but fallen world. To quote Art Needs no Justification, by Hans Rookmaaker,

“What is Christian in art does not lie in the theme but in the spirit of it, in its wisdom and the understanding of reality it reflects.”

While art can change people’s minds, and it certainly should present people with difficult ideas, art is not a propaganda tool. In an article for The Gospel Coalition, Andrew Barber writes:

“The problem is the sense of bait-and-switch. We are saying, on the one hand, “Hey, we know you love art; here is our art over here!” and then “P.S. Now that we have you in the theater, we would like to convert you.” While the scenes can be powerful in presentation, they are more akin to interventions than filmmaking.”

When films or any other form of art become an evangelistic tool, they do not stay true to their craft. Do we expect Steph Curry to preach during a game because he is a Christian? No, we expect him to shoot a basketball well. Well, then I expect Christian  filmmakers to film  good movies. Now, this doesn’t mean that a Christian worldview is not incorporated into a film, but doing this is a far cry from what God’s Nat Dead tries to do.

Since I have been bashing Christian film, it is probably appropriate to say that the same is true with most Christian music, especially anything classified as CCM and Christian rock. Take the Newsboys for example, who wrote the song “God’s Not Dead”, that inspired the movie. (This is probably the time that I should confess that I actually have that song on my iPod. But I promise that I haven’t listened to it in at least a year.) There music, and bands like them, have this very campy (as in the real meaning of campy and church summer camp campy), cliche, Jesus hype lyrics and overproduced instrumentation. It is the same basic principle that applies to the movies. A song does not have to be explicitly spiritual to be a Christian song.

When I think of the great Christian artists of the past, none approached art as simply an evangelistic tool or simple gospel presentation. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote compelling stories (not that I have read any of them), as did Flannery O’Connor (some of which I have read). W. H. Auden and John Donne’s poems were not always spiritual. Rembrandt’s paintings weren’t either. Heck, neither Bach nor Coltrane’s music even has words, but their music was still glorifying to God.

A quick caveat before I move on. There is definitely a time for explicitly “sacred” music. Hymns are fantastic. William Cowper and Charles Wesley were wonderful artists. This however does not excuse poor art for the sake of making it “sacred.”

2. The audience

I think this is an important aspect to take into consideration. Christian movies and CCM albums are largely aimed at teenagers involved in youth groups. When you look at the secular media and art that they consume, it is not exactly the highest of quality. They are watching terrible actions movies and High School Musical, and listening to terrible top 40 music. There is a place for all of this – actually there is no place for High School Musical – but let’s not call it good art. Let’s call it what it really is: mediocre entertainment geared at a specific audience. So when Kirk Cameron says that the bad reviews for Saving Christmas were due to the “haters and atheists”, we must remind him that secular art in the same vein gets awful reviews as well.

3. Low Expectations (Everyone Gets a Trophy)

There is this weird “everybody gets a trophy” (seriously watch this 15 minute analysis of Christian music) mentality in Christian art and entertainment. We have such low expectations that we will reward anything. It is like when you watch a bunch of six-year-olds play soccer and you take them all out to Chuck E. Cheese’s afterwards and tell them all that they make you proud even though they have no athletic ability at all and know they have no future playing soccer. That is what the Dove Awards and Stella’s feel like. You wouldn’t want your child’s rec league soccer team playing against a select club team, and we do not want our Christian artists to be up against great secular art. We expect mediocre art from Christians, so we reward it. As a result Christians continue to think making mediocre art is okay.  Christian journalist and frequent movie reviewer Brett McCracken gets it exactly right:

“We should support certainly support Christian filmmakers [and musicians]. But we shouldn’t coddle them and shouldn’t encourage low-quality work. We should hold them to a higher standard, spurring them on to excellence so what they produce opens viewers’ eyes to the magnificence of our gracious God. And as Christian consumers concerned about honoring God through the arts, we should simply support the best – the most truthful, beautiful, God-glorifying – whether is is made by a Christian or a pagan.”

I for one would love to see Christian’s succeeding in the arts, but as of now I find Breaking Bad more edifying than any Christian film and Bob Dylan and Lupe Fiasco’s music more beautiful than most Christian music.

When we do get an artist who can compete against the big boys – i.e. Lecrae – there is this weird trend in which we rally around them some how trying to justify Christian art as good. I call this the Tebow effect. Tebow was not a good NFL quarterback, but every conservative Christian thought he was. I love Lecrae as much as anybody and think he is a great artist, but he is no Kendrick.

(Seriously this was meant in no way to disrespect Lecrae, but rather point out a weird trend among Christian consumers of art. It also was  not meant to disrespect Tim Tebow. He is probably the best college athlete I have ever seen, but he was a well below average backup quarterback in the NFL.)

4. It is too safe and PG

Like I said earlier, most Christian art has this “feel-good” Disneyesque ethos attached to it. This is a problem because it does not properly reflect the world that we live in. Rarely does a CCM song or Christian movie deal with mature and complicated themes well . In his song “Jim Crow”, Sho Baraka raps:

“instead of truth, they’d rather be duped/

I guess they want me to do more songs for youth groups”

I want to see more Christian movies that are geared towards adults and that are simply too heavy for a four-year-old to watch. Movies do not have to be “family friendly” to be God glorifying. Read the Bible. There is  lot of dark content in their. Breaking Bad does an excellent job at displaying the complexity of human nature and the corruption of power in a truthful manner, but it is not appropriate for young kids.  Maybe a main character could die at the end of one of the movies or a main character could wrestle with tough theological questions and end up denying God. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is not a Christian to my knowledge, makes an excellent point about hope and despair in art:

“But hope for hope’s sake, hope as tautology, hope because hope, hope because “I said so,” is the enemy of intelligence. One can say the same about the opposing pole of despair. Neither of these—hope or despair—are “wrong.” They each reflect human sentiment, much like anger, sadness, love, and joy. Art that uses any of these to say something larger interests me. Art that takes any of these as its aim does not.”

5. We don’t support good secular art

I will just let Brett McCracken explain this:

“In order to be a good creator of culture, one must be a good consumer. We will never make great films if we don’t know and love the greatest films and understand why they are great. The best chefs are the ones who love food and take the time to consume it well—paying attention to flavor profiles, savoring tastes that go well together, understanding what cooking methods work and don’t work, etc. The great artists in history didn’t just make their masterpieces from some innate mastery of technique. They studied the masters first. They were good consumers before they were good creators.

Christians have often skipped the whole “being good consumers” part in their rush to create culture. There is a lot of talk about how the worlds of film, literature, music, etc. desperately need Christian voices of influence. But Christians will not make any real difference in any of these cultural areas if they aren’t first informed and engaged consumers, able to discern quality, knowledgeable of what has and hasn’t been said, and who has said it best. If we skip that part, it’s very unlikely we will create anything of any significance.

Furthermore, from the creator’s point of view, the consumer is essential. Unless a musician has a supportive fanbase of good consumers who buy music, attend concerts and enthusiastically spread the word about quality music, it will be hard for them to keep creating. Great art needs great interpreters, passionate appreciators, and willing patrons. An environment where quality artists and culture-makers flourish is one where there is no scarcity of quality consumption.”

6. Most art is bad

I think it is unfair to criticize Christian art without criticizing art in general.  Sure, most Christian art s bad, but so to is most secular art. Turn on your TV, watch some movie trailers, go to your local bookstore, and turn on the radio. Most of what you will see and hear is not exactly great art. We must not expect that Christian’s will on average be better than secular artists. We must at the same time not praise art as good simply because it is Christian.

Conclusion

While I have criticized greatly Christian art, I think it is important to note that the past several years have offered a lot of hope for Christians who care about the arts. There is much good Christian music being made. Below I have a list of albums that I would consider to be great art that are made by Christians. (Note I am not including any Switchfoot because I have a huge man crush on Jon Foreman and do not believe that I can analyze his music accurately.)

Talented 10Th – Sho Baraka (my favorite CHH album of all time)

The Burning Edge of Dawn – Andrew Peterson

The Mocker and the Monarch – Taelor Gray

Carry the Fire – Dustin Kensure 

My Own Worst Enemy – Tragic Hero

The Complete Traveler’s Series – Future of Forestry (I have no idea how this band is not more popular.)

Soul Rebel  – John Givez

Brokenness Aside – All Son’s and Daughters

Uncomfortable – Andy Mineo

The Glory Album – Christon Gray

Clouds – Hunter G. K. Thompson

Wake Up – Swoope

Take the World, but Give Me Jesus– Ascend The Hill

Church Clothes 1 – Lecrae

Bloodlines – Alex Faith

Mali Is – Mali Music

Excellent – Propaganda

Circa MMXI – The Collective – High Society Collective

I also recommend reading thisthis and this, all of which are great articles on Christian film.

 

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