Cottages and Vegetables: Leaving the Christian Art Ghetto

John Stonestreet | BreakPoint | Friday, July 06, 2012

Cottages and Vegetables: Leaving the Christian Art Ghetto


When I say the words “Christian art,” most of you probably think of a tranquil cottage, windows alight and chimney smoking, with a snippet of a Psalm scrawled on the frame. Or you may just recall novels oozing with stilted dialogue about Jesus in every chapter. This stuff can’t really compete with what the world offers, you might say, but that’s okay, because it’s “Christian.”

But what if these things radically miss the mark of true Christian art? What if our art should be the envy of the world? 

Yesterday Eric Metaxas talked about the recent successful campaign to remove the film The Blind Side from a major Christian bookstore chain because it realistically depicted inner-city life.

This is a case study in something I talk about at Summit frequently: As Christians, we too often dismiss good art and accept mediocre substitutes just because they’re labeled Christian. We’ve created for ourselves a kind of “artistic ghetto,” and are willing to preserve it even at the cost of quality.

In many ways, “Christian art” has become a synonym for anything that’s charming, quaint, or makes us feel good. It often portrays a one-sided world where evil doesn’t exist and only “positive” and “uplifting” messages are allowed.

You may be thinking by now of the late Christian painter Thomas Kinkade. Whatever you think of his work, too few of us are asking, “What makes his paintings uniquely 'Christian'?” Daniel Siedell at Patheos.com argues that Kinkade’s work is what happens when we reduce the meaning of “Christian” to “a world in which all we need is home and hearth, a weekend retreat, [and] a cozy night with the family to put us right with God.” But that’s not the world we actually live in, which is described in Scripture as being desperately broken and in need of redemption and hope.

In fact, says one hugely influential Christian filmmaker, even though we insist on calling our art “Christian,” we’ve watered down its core message to a kind of facile moralism that says “behave and be nice,” but nothing more.

Phil Vischer, the creator of Big Ideas Productions’ Veggie Tales, lost ownership of his company after it went bankrupt in 2003. In a recent interview with WORLD magazine, Phil says he regrets the direction he took his famous children’s show: “I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity,” he said. "You can say, 'Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so.' But that isn’t Christianity.”

In his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict): “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments: namely, the saints the church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” Reflecting on Ratzinger’s words, Douthat added, “Today, we have too few of both.”

So how do we reclaim Christianity’s place in the world of art? How do we move beyond naïve idealism and begin making excellent art that serves its real purpose of paraphrasing reality as it really is?

For starters, we could take a cue from Peter Docter, award-winning writer and director for Pixar, who brought us movies like Toy Story, Wall-E, Monsters, Inc. and Up, and who just happens to be a devout Presbyterian.

Docter’s art is shaping an entire generation. The values and lessons of his animated stories have been praised by both Christian and non-Christian critics alike. These movies are about family, courage, friendship, loving your neighbor, and they’re the gold standard of the industry. And most importantly, they’re not stuck in the Christian ghetto, but bringing wholesome entertainment to eager audiences.

It was C.S. Lewis, an artist whose work shook the church and the world, who said that what we need is not more Christian books, but more books by Christians. What if we accept this challenge? What if the distinction between “Christian art” and “real art” disappears? What if the world one day looks at Christian art, and starts to feel like a ghetto itself?

As the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, John Stonestreet provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: July 6, 2012

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