Monday, February 24, 2014

Problems with Labeling Something 'Christian'

If we aren't friends on Facebook, here's my weekly rant, er, reflection on various things cultural-theological ... for those interested in such things. :)

We Christians have a propensity to label things. I think it’s because we want to lay claim to whatever it is we’re discussing: Our country was founded as a Christian nation; Harvard and Yale started out as Christian universities. Et cetera. If the discussion centers on the arts, we’ll lay claim there too. We love it when our Christian singers crossover or when our Christian novelists write best sellers. We applaud when our Christian movies best what comes out of Hollywood.

But before we label something as ours, we want to know if it truly is. When it comes to music, we want to know if Mumford & Sons - whose 2012 album Babel laced with biblical imagery and spiritual themes - is a Christian band. (We wondered the same thing about U2 in the 80s, btw, and the answer for both is a resounding ambiguity – and this from the band members themselves.) We want to know if Flannery O’Conner wrote Christian stories, or if, speaking of Hollywood, ‘The Book of Eli’ is a Christian film.

See, if we label it Christian, then we can own it. We can find satisfaction and security in it. We can stop doing the hard work of discerning what’s truthful or not and simply accept what is being fed to us. Safe in our haven of rest. And in some arrogant fashion, we can even say to the world: this is ours and what you have is an inferior Xerox of the original. So there. But the problem with such labeling (and its attendant attitudes of lazy acceptance or arrogant boasting) is three-fold, imo. Each of these points could lead to a full blown discussion in itself – and if this is of interest, feel free to comment, add to, challenge, or politely disagree below.

First – and this admittedly does sound arrogant from an outsider’s perspective – we don’t need a label. It’s redundant. Everything already belongs to the Christian. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (James 1.17) To label something Christian is like inviting friends over and pointing out that this is my couch, this is my table, this is my chair. Hello. They’re in MY house, of course all the belongings are mine. “This is my Father’s world” and we are co-heirs with Christ.

Second, I believe labeling things as Christian ghettoizes believers. Instead of being in the world but not of it, we can easily drop out of the world altogether. Retreat to everything Christian so we don’t have to interact with those around us. We go the Amish route, but keep our modern conveniences. We have our own radio and television stations, our own schools and colleges, our own music, books, games, and movies. Want to buy something safe? Look for it in the Christian category at Amazon.

But this is exactly what’s wrong with this thinking – Christian is not a category! It’s not a sub-genre. Labeling something as Christian relegates it to the periphery and thus minimizes its impact. Pasting a label on something, far from laying claim to it, stereotypes it and allows those who have no interest in it to simply dismiss it. (This may be one reason why Bono and Marcus Mumford eschew the title, though I don’t know for certain as I know neither of them.)

Finally, labeling something as Christian is simply nonsensical, imo. The word Christian is not an adjective. There is no such thing as Christian music, Christian books, Christian games, Christian film. There is no such thing as Christian art. Art is an act of creativity that is neither Christian or nonChristian.

Now I do affirm that art reflects and/or engages truth to a greater or lesser degree. In that a work of art expresses God's truth (however imperfectly or unconsciously) I believe Christians can accept it – not in an ownership way, but as something that might both build up the body and serve as a witness to the lost. Thus ‘The Book of Eli’ (or a song by U2 or even a crucifix in a jar of urine) might be an engaging work of art that could further God’s kingdom. Or not. It depends on the recipient of the art, not the art itself. It’s in how we handle it as Christians, not whether or not the piece is Christian.

Because there is no such thing as Christian art.
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