Not too long ago, I got into a conversation with a friend regarding the quality of Christian art. I sat in the low lamplight of a living room, and listened to this guy rant on and on with tired complaints about the subpar quality of Christian music, the bad acting in ‘inspirational’ movies, and the lackluster writing in Christian market fiction. The only thought that ran through my head was a Britney Spears line, “WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING?”
The fact is, I am no stranger to this debate. In fact, ten years ago, I was its most avid supporter. I was so passionate about it, that I made it the topic of my undergraduate thesis, and spent an entire year researching the historical reasons why Christian art lagged so behind its counterpart.
In short, it had to do with the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic church was so FULL of art, that the Reformers found it sickeningly ostentatious, and wanted nothing that remotely even smacked of Catholicism in this new brand of Christianity they were creating. They burned art and statues and forbade it any churches and Christian homes. (To modernize it, think of how most Christians feel about televangelism. There is nothing wrong with televangelism, other than our cultural connotation of it). These were the very people that sailed across the pond and founded the United States, and their philosophy of Christian art would largely remain that way until the 1960’s. Spurned by the much documented upheaval of America’s most turbulent decade, newly saved hippies wanted to speak in a language that was so relevant to their generation—rock music. But, by this time, the church was so firmly wary of art, these musicians had to fight tooth and nail for every instrument, lyric, photo and later music video. (Think, Amy Grant, Heart in Motion). Many were bloodied and wounded in the fight, some were excommunicated from their churches, other had their records/tapes burned, their concerts boycotted. This continued until probably the mid 1990’s, when Toby McKeehan came along at just the right time, and proved that you could sound like Nirvana, even if your “best friend was born in a manger.” Now most Christians believe art is of God, and we can explore art in any form.
Ten years ago, I was sure this research would be my life’s work and I even tried to write a book on it. But, now, as I sat and listened to this cliché debate, it resonated from a different chord. I started to more think about my own journey as an artist. I found, being on the receiving end of this debate, much more disconcerting and uncomfortable. My art is far from perfect. It has flaws and I could probably tell you what they are. But, I do the best I can, and I am constantly growing as an artist.
While, yes, those that want to criticize Christian art, can certainly find places to do so. But, here’s the thing, it’s a LOT harder to create great art than it looks. Artists have great taste in art, because we love our art form. We study the masters—from Van Gogh, to Hemingway, to Jimi Hendrix and Quentin Tarantino. We deify these masters and we try to learn from them.
But this doesn’t always mean that our skill level matches our taste, or even our vision. We can dream like Tarantino, but we create like…well, ourselves. Rich Mullins wrote, “I could play these song until I was dead, and never once approach the sound that I once heard.” As artists, we have amazing visions about what a piece should sound like, or like, or the territory it will cover. But, when it comes down to it, it is usually only a fraction of what the artist envisioned. But, you know what? They did it. Which is more than half their critics can say.
So, that’s my answer to this debate. If you think Christian art sucks, get out there and make better art. Maybe your art will be better. Maybe it won’t. But, it’s better than sitting around criticizing those that bust their tails to create the best art they can. In other words, shut up and do something.