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Killing Becky #2: What Makes “Christian” Art Christian?

Becky is one problem. The church has to deal with our fear of Becky, but her existence reveals a much deeper problem: We don’t know what makes Christian art Christian.

A Quick Story:

April 1, 2012 was the launch of my congregation, The Vine. A friend of mine once told me, “If you ever start or re-launch a church do everything you may do someday on the first day.” That’s precisely what we did.

We had women speak and pray, used lots of multimedia, and our band, 31st and Vine, played a feature song, U2’sWhere The Streets Have No Name.” In our view, the message is central in every worship service. Everything we do is focused on that week’s big idea. The particular elements of a service are simply illustrations and we’ll do whatever we need to – or can think of – in order to connect. If a preacher can speak words from a song as a sermon illustration, how much better is the actual song?

Our philosophy notwithstanding, some folks were upset that we played a U2 song. We haven’t seen them at worship since. I expected that and it’s fine. There are plenty of churches in central Texas and no one’s soul is in jeopardy.

The objection was that the music wasn’t Christian. I disagreed. Again, that’s okay. I disagree with many people I love and respect and they disagree with me. But the existence of the disagreement highlights an emerging issue in Christian culture: We don’t know what makes Christian art Christian – if anything, in fact does.

Our instinct is to say, “Yes we do.” And I get that. Because we have Christian radio and musicians, Christian painters, comedians, sand artists, speakers, jugglers, wrestlers, and bookstores; it’s easy to believe their existence means we have a definition of it.

But we really don’t know what makes Christian art Christian.

There are – to my thinking – three primary ways Christians define Christian art. None, however, can be accurate.

Option #1: Content. Here the lyrics of a song or poem; the subject of the artwork are Christian-themed or Biblical in nature. Years ago I heard Michael W. Smith bemoan the fact that “only Christian music is segregated by lyrical content.” He said it like he was being left out. I understand that. It sounds like a sound argument. Due to subject matter, Christian musicians are left out of the mainstream listening party. That is, it sounds good until you think about it.
Three years ago, I preached a sermon using U2’s song “Magnificent.” Here – in part – are the lyrics: “I was born, I was born to sing for you, I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up; And sing whatever song you wanted me to, I give you back my voice from the womb. My first cry, it was a joyful noise…”

Sounds pretty Biblical, right? If your preacher told you those words were from a Psalm, you likely wouldn’t question it. It sounds like it might be. But according to Michael W. Smith, this song should be on Christian radio and segregated out of secular radio. But it’s not. The opposite is true. And it’s not just U2. Think Creed’s, “One Last Breath,” Collective Soul’s “Shine,” or any number of songs from Mumford & Sons. These songs and artists won’t be found on Christian radio, regardless of content. Clearly, then, content cannot be the standard of what makes art Christian.

Option #2: The System of Production. In music, this would refer chiefly to the record label, in publishing, the publisher, etc…. Perhaps if the system producing the product is populated entirely or predominantly  by Christians with Christian intent, then that makes the product Christian. But a closer look reveals that this emperor has no clothes. Recording labels and publishers, even the ones who produce products exclusively for the Christian market, are owned by non-Christians.

Thomas Nelson is a wonderful, traditional Christian publisher, and publisher of The Voice Bible, but is owned by HarperCollins. Jericho Books, the new maverick in Christian Publishing, is owned by Hachette Publishing.

The same ownership structure is pervasive in Christian music. For example, Word Records, which is part owner of *independent* Christian label, Rocketown Records, is owned by the Warner Group, which is owned by Warner Bros. and Atlantic Records. Atlantic Records may sound familiar. Atlantic owns and runs American Idol and the lion’s share of the songs performed on the show. Winners of American Idol are signed – by precondition of appearing on Idol – to Atlantic Records. So yeah, when you shop your local Christian bookstore and buy that CD from the band you heard on the Christian radio station, your money goes into the same pot as the folks who bought the latest CD from Kid Rock or Mariah Carey.

There is clearly nothing wrong with this, but it does dismiss the notion that the system of production makes something more or less Christian. Christian music is made for the same reason Jewish performers like Harry Connick Jr. and Kenny G. make Christmas albums.

Option #3: The Faith Commitments of The Artist(s). This option suggests that Christian art is the art created by Christian people. Christianity holding myriad doctrines and beliefs, for the sake of argument, let’s agree that a “Christian” is someone holding an Orthodox confession of faith: Jesus is Lord.

This being the case, we have to address two obvious issues: (1) We have no idea what the actual faith commitments of artists are. While true, let’s not lean too heavily here. We have less knowledge than we’d like about many people of faith – including those who share the pew with us. What is of concern is that for years, some have suggested that a few Christian recording artists are not Christians. They have not or do not hold to an orthodox confession of faith. Rather, they are performers in the Christian industry (it’s not like being a pornstar wherein simply being in the film defines one’s identity and profession).

There’s not enough evidence to indict anyone or really even be very suspicious of particular artists in terms of their faith, but it is a reminder to us that watch we’re consuming is a product. And people can produce the product without beliefs, commitments, or convictions. The creatives we consume – bloggers, writers, musicians, painters, comedians, and even celebrity pastors – are popular because they are talented, not necessarily because they are faithful.

And (2), many “secular” artists hold orthodox confessions of faith. Just as stated under Option #1, much of what is heard on secular radio is produced by Christians – people holding an orthodox confession. Just turn on your local Country or R&B stations for a sampling. I don’t listen to much Country music (read: none), but I’ve heard tale that more than a few think highly of Jesus. Therefore, faith commitments don’t determine what you hear on Christian radio. What’s more, “The Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade, is heralded by Christians and reportedly held loose Christian commitments and tragically died from a drug and alcohol overdose.

So what makes Christian art Christian? Perhaps more art is Christian than Becky suspects. I think that’s a good thing.

What does it mean when we say something is and something isn’t Christian? How can we tell? Tell me what you think.

  • sherry

    My concern is that for the sake of art some family members decided not to return and that’s ok? I am all for different types of art in worship but never is it ok for members to leave. Love is our first example and not being ok with people leaving without seriously trying to reconcile the differences. Let people be offended by the message, the same way Christ offended, but not because we want to push our opinions on them.

    • I understand your perspective, Sherry, but there are a few things to take note of. First, it wasn’t for the sake of art, it was for the sake of the message. We use – whatever we use a particular week – to drive a message, as I said in the post.

      Second, there’s not anything you can do about it, of someone choose to make decisions based on aesthetics. Folks leave and join churches based on song style, preaching style etc…all the time. It has nothing to do with love and no one is kicking them out. It’s not, at least on my end, a problem with people being loved or not. It has something to do with the person’s consumerism: I’ll go to the place that serve what I like – which, within reason, is okay, I guess.

      Third, you can never predict what people will leave over. Some people leave churches because of hymns, some because the too few hymns. Some people like conversational preaching, others want high manuscripts, etc…. There’s never accounting for style. What we can do is reorient what people thinks is “Christian,” because as far as I can tell, it seems fairly arbitrary.

      Mainly though, it not about art….but in a way it is. Jesus and Paul both taught in amazingly creative and artistic ways. Paul draws and metaphors, hymns, popular philosophy, and songs of his day to make his points. Jesus draws on story and popular wisdom teaching. Plus, all the healing and miracles Jesus performs are living object lessons. They used creative means to draw people’s attention to their message. That’s the point. It’s only about art insofar as the art points to the message.

      Does that make sense? I want the message to be impactful, not the art. I think we’re on the same page.

  • It would be interesting to ask what would make music (or film, dance, graphic arts, for that matter) “Buddhist,” “Muslim,” etc. Just because the artist is Christian doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for a worship service.

    • That would be a great question, Jenny. It’s the one I’m asking; What makes “it” it? And would the inverse be true as well? For instance, do you think most people would be interested to know that some of the songs we (churches) sing on Sunday morning were written by non-Christians – people who are talented song writers, but hold no belief? I think folks would fine that interesting?

      How might that sit in most congregations? I really am asking.

      • I don’t think most people think about the people responsible for the songs they sing. Not the lyric writers. Not the lyricist’s spiritual life. Not the original purpose of the tune. Not the composer’s spiritual life. Etc.

        I think the biggest controversy is over the style. People are generally more open when it comes to their own generation’s music. “Oh, but things were different back then.” Whereas, the styles popular in later generations are perceived as inherently evil. Most Christians who don’t like U2 don’t like it because it sound different from Tommy Dorsey or the Beatles.

  • Allen Carr

    I’ve really appreciated both this and your first “Becky” post, Sean. It’s been an issue that has been bothering me for years. I think Rob Bell was right when he said “Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective” (Velvet Elvis) So much of the Christian culture rubs me the wrong way because I feel like I’m being marketed to or manipulated. As if everything in the Christian bookstore is the “approved” art or books or music.

    I find it interesting that followers of Christ were first labeled “Christian” at Antioch. I’ve always understood that this label was applied from outside the faith community. (That could be a wrong assumption, but that’s how I’ve always perceived it) The followers said they were part of “the way”, a label that applied to action and lifestyle rather than produced materials. Probably a much more appropriate way of speaking.

    And I’ll add this – the greatest influence in my prayer life and private devotional time over the last few years has been the music of Mumford & Sons. While not a “Christian” band (just like U2 before them), their honest lyrics have led me to be more honest and open in my own conversations with God and others.

    Because of that influence, I even lead a week-long leadership trip for juniors & seniors in high school around the songs on Mumford’s “Sigh No More” album. It may be the single most effective thing I’ve done in youth ministry. Much of that was due to the way this “secular” band communicated their “Christian” thoughts through their music.

    • Thanks, Allen. I love the way God works. I think one of our fundamental thoughts, which is a misunderstanding, is that God is only working through structures ordained by the church.

      When I ask what makes Christian music Christian, I’m wondering if there can be any such thing as an objective standard for such.

      • Allen Carr

        “I think one of our fundamental thoughts, which is a misunderstanding, is that God is only working through structures ordained by the church.”

        I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. I think you’re hitting on some fundamental assumptions we make that need to be reassessed. I don’t think the answer is apply the “Christian” label more widely or more effectively. Perhaps it’s just a label that shouldn’t be used at all. Maybe we just need better language.

  • kraig

    We don’t merely not know what Christian art is; we don’t know what art is. Maybe it’s like what the judge said about porn: I can’t say what it is, but I know it when I see it.

    There was a president of a large Methodist research university who was speaking to a group of people about his school and the things that made it a Methodist school. During Q&A, he was asked about what made his school a Christian university. He didn’t like the baggage that calling a school a Christian school carried, and so he said that he would not call the school a Christian school. It dawned on him that he had called his university Methodist, but not Christian.

  • Sean, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Through A Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet. He’s a Christian film critic who takes a lot of flak for giving good reviews to films that aren’t “Christian enough.”

    The first chapter is online: http://lookingcloser.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Through-a-Screen-Darkly-Chapter-One.pdf

    Grace and peace,

  • Terry Cagle

    The problem is using Christian as an adjective.

  • Great stuff Sean. As a former Christian music artist myself, I felt this all too much. Thanks for a thoughtful perspective!



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  • SimmyN

    So, perhaps we should tear out Acts 17:28 from our Bibles? Why is it OK for Paul to quote with approval two pagan poet-philosophers, Epimenides and Aratus – who would doubtless NOT pass the lifestyle/commitment test – and in the process get their words incorporated in Holy Writ? I’d say that, so long as it’s with discretion, we use whatever is helpful for us to reflect upon and/or make our point.

  • Rick Sorenson

    I appreciated the article. As a visual artist, my perspective has almost always been different than what the average Christian holds towards the arts. In my formative years, as a teenager, Frances Schaeffer, H. Rookmaaker, and Franky Schaeffer influenced me. The point of view that all of life is to God and the creative products we call art is not separate from the whole, shaped me almost from the first. The majority of Christians have as their normal preferences, tastes that are often not even close to Philippians 4 (whatsoever things are..). When I was younger, after I graduated from art school, such religious preferences often made me angry and I could not go into a Christian bookstore without being angry at the sentimental junk pushed in the name of being “Christian.”
    You made good points how most people do not question what is around them. But, for the Christian, who represents Jesus and is His witness, the question I think becomes, “what kind of witness are we? A true witness or a false witness?” I think this question applies to the products we make as Christians, and to how we Christians interact with the non-Christian. I went to art school with several people who were once open to God, but because of the Christians they encountered, turned from Christ to open themselves to anything else. I heard several people tell me this. They received the usual judgmental condemnation given out by many Christians. It is this responsibility, where we represent Christ, and His agape (love being kind…) to artists and the art world/culture.
    There is more that I could write, but I did enjoy the article.

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