Thursday, October 04, 2012

No Such Thing as Christian Art

Because "Christian" isn't an adjective. It's a noun.

Yes, I know. The word has evolved to function grammatically as an adjective, much like "American." But we're off target when we use it this way. A Christian is a "little Christ;" an American is not a little Amerigo. (And I say this as a person who definitely leans toward linguistic description and away from linguistic prescription.) So, for me in part, it's a language issue.

But the real beef I have with using Christian as an adjective to define art is that it doesn't do a very good job at it. It's a nonsensical term. What exactly is Christian art? Christian music? a Christian novel? Much of what passes as "Christian" is simply, and only mildly, religious (and fairly saccharine) and isn't at all kerygmatic*. And if the kerygma isn't present, how can something be defined as Christian?

I don't mean to drag this leader in the "Christian Speculative Fiction" movement (ie, Rebecca LuElla Miller, whom I respect) into a hot debate, but I did read this post recently (I don't have her original source at this point, but will link to it later) and found I simply disagreed with her. The specific issue at hand is what qualifies as Christian speculative fiction, but the principle is broader:
The term speculative includes the various forms of fantasy (urban, epic, dystopian, etc.), science fiction (space opera, techno, cyberpunk, etc.), and supernatural suspense or thriller (terms for types of horror). Christian speculative fiction is written by a Christian, but not everything written by Christians qualifies as “Christian.” Rather some element of the story needs to be distinctly connected with what it means to be Christian. Perhaps the characters are predominantly Christian. The plot might revolve around something distinctly Christian. Or the themes may relate in a specific way to the Christian faith. And here is the point that separates Christian fiction, I believe, from all other fiction. Christian fiction speaks the truth about God. Other fiction can speak the truth about morals or the way the world works or what makes a person love or hate or live on the edge. Other fiction might be silent about God. Other fiction might speak a lie (though undoubtedly the author believes that what he’s written is true) about any of these things. Only Christian fiction speaks the truth about God. - Rebecca LuElla Miller
On the surface, this makes sense. But a novel, or song, or piece of art could meet these qualifications and still not be kerygmatic. And, something could be kerygmatic and break each of these "rules" above. NonChristian fiction, music, art, etc., speaks the truth about God all the time. I'm thinking specifically of Andres Serrano's 1987 photograph, "Immersion (Piss Christ)." I think this piece is ultimately, and essentially, Christian. (If Christ on a cross in a glass of urine isn't the gospel, I don't know what is.)

Now, I don't know if Andres Serrano is a follower of Christ or not. To me it doesn't matter; that piece expresses truth. But here's the thing. NonChristian artists may not want us going around calling their works "Christian." That may not be their intent. So I'm really more comfortable dropping that label and simply using the term religious or faith-inspired or, here's an idea...truthful. Because this will cut through a lot of the crap that passes as Christian but really isn't - it's not truthful.

That's where I'm at at this point anyway. If something is truthful, then I don't care if it's "Christian" or not. That's why I don't use the word as an adjective. There is no such thing as Christian art; there is only truth and falsity. The closer art moves toward truth, the more "Christian" it becomes.

Am I totally consistent here? Do I eliminate all adjectival uses of the word Christian? No. I sometimes use the term Christian faith to specify a religious perspective. And, I think one can have a Christian worldview (as opposed to an atheist, monistic, or even generally theistic worldview). But maybe I should rethink those uses of Christian as an adjective as well. Maybe I should simply let truth speak plainly.

*Update: A friend noted that "kerygma" might need a link and definition. So here's a link to wiki, which works for a basic understanding of the term. My take: If something is kerygmatic, then it speaks to the essential nature of the gospel. The gospel, in turn, is the life/ministry/proclamation of Jesus Christ. So anything that points to God's reign initiated, enacted, and consummated in Christ's life, death, resurrection, Spirit-bestowing, and triumphant returning is gospel (the "good news") and thus kerygmatic (what is preached and proclaimed).


  1. Lyn,

    Check out Sue Dent's guest post at Speculative Faith this morning...her experience touches on some of the ideas you present here.

    I'm not sure if I agree with your assessment of Mr. Serrano's work. I'd have to know more about him and his intent. If good art needs to provoke the viewer, then mission accomplished, but it seems more like vandalism to me, profane graffiti scrawled across a stained-glass window, at about the same level of effort and artistic mastery.

    And, dude, you may want to link a definition of "kerygmatic" for your readers. I had to google it, and I'm a PK. :)


  2. Thanks for the heads up - on both points. I'll visit Sue's blog and link to a definition. As for Serrano, although I think intent matter (and I believe an artist can have a meaning in mind when creating art), there is something about the straight forward impact of that image that always struck me as "true" - profane, yes; graffiti/vandalism, likely. Which reminds me of 2 Cor 5.21.

  3. And that's not just my experiences either Fred (and thank you soooo much for the shout out. ;)

    And Lyn, I do believe it's important to use the "best" words to define one's art/writing. When Baptist Bookstores decided in 1950 to name the gatekeeper association, designed to sanitize and sanction books from participating publishers, the "Christian Booksellers Association," they clearly could've use a more applicable term. Christian is a broad label and shouldn't define one specific group of believers only. Some of those publishers must've agreed because they branched off on their own to create the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Well. There ya go! But the Baptist Books stores presently called Christian Bookstores, never got the message or never cared enough to worry about it. No big deal but again, they could certainly use another label that would be more descriptive. Many of those publishers are but they aren't getting any closer to the mark if you ask me. Here are a few up an coming label choices: Speculative Christian Fiction, Edgy Christian Fiction, Family-Friendly Fiction and the icing on the cake Faith-Based Fiction. Oh for the love of all that is good! Whose FAITH! It's as if every reader is evangelical now. *Sue shakes her head and realizes that she is most likely the only one disturbed by this while she replays in her mind what it must've looked like when Jesus walked into the temple to flip the tables of the money-changers. Sue smiles at that.*

  4. Thanks for commenting, Sue. These are interesting times in publishing and everything is in flux, thus the content grab by Apple and Amazon, the label grab by the CBA, the indie grab by just about everybody, lol.

  5. Lyn, your notion of truthful art sounds quite close to those of John Gardner and even Tolstoy. Tolstoy might have used the term "Christian," but I doubt Gardner would have. Both subscribed to the idea that art, at least "high" art or "true" art, works best as a mirror of higher, natural or God's morality (depending upon one's view), and that lesser works of art were simply that, lesser. Tolstoy detested Shakespeare, for example, in no small part because he felt Shakespeare's plots and characters only showed humanity at their worst.

    If you're interested and/or aren't already familiar with the material, you might check out On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, and What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy.

  6. Ty, thanks for the resources. I'm vaguely familiar with both but definitely need to shore up my philosophical underpinnings. Gardner and Tolstoy sound like just the two I need two turn to. I don't know enough about Tolstoy and Shakespeare, but I think Macbeth is a powerful setup for the kerygma (hard to beat 'out, damned spot' for theologic/poetic truth). At any rate, appreciate your comments.

  7. "There is no such thing as Christian art; there is only truth and falsity. The closer art moves toward truth, the more 'Christian' it becomes."

    My thoughts seem to be moving in this direction. I'm at a point in life where I'm distrusting everything from the get-go (and then allowing it to prove itself) even if it has the adjective Christian attached to it, and lately especially so. Not that I'm down on Christians, but, the honeymoon is over.


Keep it clean and positive. (And sorry about the word verification, but the spmb*ts are out in full force!)