What Makes Art Christian?
by guest blogger Kelsey Alexander
Picture an oppressively hot July day in the middle of the Colorado Rockies. A Christian youth conference is underway on a local college campus, and its basketball stadium is steadily filling with teenagers. In walks a frizzy thirteen year-old redhead with a mouth full of braces and a fanatical love for the Backstreet Boys. Bible in hand, the frizzy redhead navigates the sea of jorts and WWJD bracelets and finds a seat next to her friends. Moments later, the speaker takes his place at the podium, adjusts his headset mic, and launches into a passionate discourse on the harmful influences of secular art on Christian culture. How the consumption of secular music, books, and movies can distract Christians from God’s will for their lives and drive a wedge between the Lord and His children. How it condones underage drinking, wild parties, premarital sex, and worst of all—dancing. The speaker continues, saying “We’re to be in this world and yet not of it,” and he implores the crowd to rid themselves of temptation and turn to “Christian” art for entertainment.
Filled with conviction, the frizzy redhead returned home, promptly gathered up her extensive CD collection of secular music, and asked her mother to take her to the secondhand music store, where she exchanged the CDs for cold, hard cash. Had she been truly faithful, she would have foregone the cash and burned the CDs ceremoniously in her backyard, so no one’s salvation would be jeopardized by the controversial lyrics of “I Want It That Way.” Unfortunately, the American entrepreneurial spirit won out.
Why do I share this story? To pose a question, a question this no-longer-frizzy-having-discovered-Moroccan-Oil-redhead still wrestles with today: What makes art “Christian?”
Some might say it’s the number of times a lyricist injects “Lord” in a song or how often an author cites Scripture in a novel. Others might disagree, saying it’s not defined by the content of the art but rather the intent of the artist behind the creative work. For example, I once heard a youth pastor say that if spiritual parallels can be drawn from an artist’s creation, then that work falls under the Christian genre. If that’s true, then a novel featuring a character who sacrifices his life to save those he loves could be categorized as Christian. However, would there still be room for that novel in the Christian genre if the character was say…a young wizard who attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and wields a magic wand?
It’s a slippery slope, this labeling of what’s Christian art and what’s not. And it’s made even more so by art’s subjective nature. In theory, two people can listen to the same song and walk away with two completely different opinions, and neither would be wrong. I’d like to think the same subjectivity applies to Christian art; just because a song isn’t sung by a Christian artist or isn’t explicitly Christian, it in no way limits God’s ability to use that song and that artist for His ultimate purpose.
Bottom line, I don’t have a clear and fast definition for what constitutes Christian art. However, I’d like to think that God’s all-pursuing love and the depth of Christ’s sacrifice can’t be confined to a particular genre. Regardless of an artist’s intent, I believe that our Creator has the ability to use all forms and genres of art for His Glory and to draw people nearer to Him. After all, He used Pharaoh to work His will. Who knows, He might even use a Backstreet Boys song.
About the guest blogger: I met Kelsey soon after moving to Nashville. We’re a part of the same small group at our church (Fellowship Bible Church). She was actually the first person I met in the group, assigned to greet me “the new girl” as I pulled in so I knew which apartment door to walk into. Right away I knew I’d like Kelsey. She was funny, kind and had awesome hair. Since our friendship, Kelsey as begun blogging herself at Kelsey to be Determined. And if you’re lucky, she might agree to cater your next event with her oh-so-yummy desserts.
Yh I rili like dis question cos its smtin we christians argue over a lot of times, but personally its not like I’m trying to justify myself but I ask, r these “backstreet boy” songs going to stop us from making heaven? Or fulfilling purpose. I would really like to find an answer
As a writer, I’ve greatly pondered the role God should play in my writing. I have a very hard time making Him a “character,” but I also can’t “write Him out.” Does Jesus’ name need to be spoken in a novel in order for Him to be glorified and honored? It’s something I mull over and I’ve never reached a conclusion or even a feeling/ tendancy. (Thoughts welcome).
As a reader, I was an English major who studied under a Beat scholar (sex, drugs, and rock and roll… minus the rock and roll), so I’ve definitely read my share of non-Christian material. But, like you pointed out, that doesn’t mean God can’t/doesn’t speak through them or use them for His glory. I’ve drawn plenty of Christian-parallels and themes from secular books.
Musically… I tend to stick to those artists under the label “Christian.”
Thanks for this post, Kelsey and Andrea. I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now and “Christian art” has been on my mind a lot lately thinking about what makes the distinction. I think this compliments my post today pretty well, too, trying to challenge Christian creatives to produce quality, instead of just cultural knock-offs. Again, thanks.
I know art is so much bigger than music, but that’s what I’m going to pick up on in this comment.
I still remember the moment when I became totally disenchanted with (much) Christian music. I was in late high school when Avalon became a band: hearing their music on the radio, I was overwhelmed by how formulaic it sounded. I obsessed over the question of whether they were genuine, or whether someone just found four pretty people willing to sing about Jesus, and was now making money off our inability to discern quality music from mindless pop. (Kind of like *NSync or Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys, none of whom ever who never won me over, either.)
I’m annoyed by “Christian” bands who come across as formulaic because it’s one thing for Sheryl Crow to spit out meaningless tripe about soaking up the sun (my least favourite song EVER), but when that kind of thoughtless pop and trite lyricism is under the banner of Christianity seems like it should be an insult to a Holy God. (But then again, we wear tacky tee-shirts and drink from cheesy mugs and seem perfectly content to commodify God in our Christian bookstores and such.)
These days, I still love MWS and Amy Grant. I will always have a soft spot for dcTalk circa 1993 and the Newsboys. I sometimes listen to Chris Tomlin, Caedmon’s Call, Jars of Clay, Switchfoot, Jon Foreman and Kari Jobe … but I mostly listen to so-called secular music. And, I’ve had moments at “secular” concerts when I can feel the Spirit of God moving in the beauty of a song or a voice. (Martin Sexton’s voice … oh my word. Or the moment at a Sarah Harmer show when the band stops playing and they sing “How Deep in the Valley” a capella … it’s amazing. Or how everyone actually feels like family at a folk festival. These are good things.)
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Andrea, thanks for your post, but I can’t agree when it’s against what is said in the Bible. When talking about non-believers, the method for reaching then is Matthew 28:19-20….there is no Backstreet Boys helping here…or nothing from this world. And about we, believers, God draw us nearer using His word, through Jesus and Holy Spirit…. so, why i would want the “old things” from the world when I have much better (and efficient) in Jesus?
God can use anything to reach people because even though this world is a fallen world, it is still originally created by God so all beauty, goodness and truth originally started in God. So believe it or not God CAN speak through someone who doesn’t claim to be a christian or who is saved because that person was originally made in God’s image and any artistic work produced by them still has the mark of God on it even though the person might be saying something contrary to what God is due to still being in a sinful state.
It is like finding gold nuggets in mud sometimes this is why you can still find beauty, goodness and intrinsic goodness in this world and even in something not overtly religious like errrrr ummm so called “secular” art and just like God can speak in the beauty of creation, believe it or not you can “hear” the echo of God sometimes even in art or music from fallen people because good music is good music and that ability came from God!
Ultimately God in Christ came to redeem us and creation which though is fallen due to the sin of man, still has a lot beauty in it because God created it in the first place!