What is “Christian” Art?

Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (1495-1498)

Editors preface: For quite some time, I have wanted to showcase the work of erudite friends of mine for a wider audience than those who are typically exposed to their scholarship. Anticipating that I would have little time to devote to writing during the months of March and April due to a trip I had planned to Israel, I asked my friend, James Beal, whether he would be interested in sharing any of his work here. James graciously obliged, and I am happy to say that there is no one else’s thought for which I would rather use this website as a platform for broader discovery.

James is an attorney in Chicago with an expansive interest in a variety of subjects, including philosophical theology. He adapted the following essay from a dialog he conducted on the topic of aesthetics which I further edited for a more general audience. While James’s subject matter might seem a bit abstract on first blush, let’s be honest: A lot of ostensibly Christian art is really, really terrible. In fact, it is so egregiously poor that multiple different theologians have taken to analyzing why this could possibly be the case, from Scott Nehring’s medium-specific prognosis in “Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?” to Tony Woodlief’s more general yet scholarly “Bad Christian Art.” Nathan Kennedy’s blog went so far as to devote a two part series exploring the “suckage of Christian art,” and even the Gospel Coalition has taken to mounting discussions between various church leaders on the topic.

James’s essay intentionally leaves some questions unanswered, e.g. How are Christians supposed to promote good art, let alone nurture budding artists? Is there an assertive, one might even say missiological purpose behind Christian art as such? Are some contexts more and less appropriate venues for the production, distribution, or consumption of Christian art? Nevertheless, I believe his perspective advances the discussion instructively, and it is my privilege to recommend it for your reflection and edification.

The guest author author himself, James Beal

I have listened to Bach’s cello suites. And I have listened to some of his overtly religious works, such as St. Matthew’s Passion. They are both beautiful. Are they both “Christian?”

It is difficult to describe religious experience compared to, say, religious exercise. An experience is inherently subjective while an exercise is objective. An exercise can be observed. It can be prescribed and followed. What happens in the mind or heart of the adherent during the course of the exercise is different from the exercise itself, and that happening is experience.

Art may not only be produced, it may be experienced. In fact, most art is meant to be experienced; it is meant to evoke thoughts and feelings of one sort or another. Can art be distinctly Christian in this evocative capacity? I believe it can.

Christian art is defined by a representation of at least two key elements: sacrifice and fealty. Thus, experiencing fealty and sacrifice in the context of something like an artistic element of Christian worship is different than experiencing the beauty of nature. Bach’s cello suites are like experiencing nature.

Don’t misunderstand me; I am not degrading natural beauty. I have been to the beach at night in coastal South Carolina and Florida. The combination of sensations—smelling the ocean breeze, seeing the stars glimmer, hearing the waves crash—is a powerful experience. One wonders if this is the sort of beauty that Adam and Eve encountered each moment before they were banished from the Garden of Eden.

A section of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew's Passion (1727), written in the composer's own hand

But whatever our most distant ancestors experienced in antediluvian paradise, on the plains of Africa, or wherever, many of us know the Christian story, and we know it well. And that story is set apart from our daily life as animals on a physical planet. Human introspection, human ideas about how to organize and effect both our own lives and society, human thoughts about the physical nature of the universe and all that is in it—these concepts help define us as specifically human creatures. So, too, do vice and sensual experience, which are not always the same.

But, think about all of these things and then compare them to Christ’s words in Luke 9.23:

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Where does that come from? That is totally different from a person’s typical experience with nature, with ideas, with another human, or with another human’s creation, such as art. What Christ articulated in this short passage is a glimpse of another layer of existence, an existence not dedicated solely to our physical and societal needs.

This is not to say that humans do not create things that remind us of, even engulf us in the fundamental basis of the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ: sacrifice and fealty. We do create things that specifically attempt to evoke this response, that attempt to raise our awareness of fealty and sacrifice. And those are the sorts of created things that are “Christian.” Everything else is something different. That is not to say that everything else is bad—hardly. But it is different from a distinctly Christian creation.

There is another key element of the representation of the Christian ethos in art, and that is love, or charity when understood in the old way as an altruistic, concrete, sincere expression of compassion. Sacrifice, fealty, love–these three things define Christ’s existence. He sacrificed his life in fealty to God the Father and for the love of us. This is the Christian story. And art, which is accurately called “Christian” is defined by these three elements.

Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1852-1853)

From this perspective, I would call Bleak House by Charles Dickens a Christian novel. Dickens’ representation of uncompromising love in the character of John Jarndyce vis-à-vis the love he shows his wards and even to rotten Mr. Skimpole is a fundamentally Christian portrayal of a character. In fact, Dickens is perhaps most “Christian” in his representation of prideful, dishonest, cruel, and folly-ridden villains. Dickens’ concept of evil embodied by these characters is fundamentally Christian because it purposefully represents the opposite of sacrifice, fealty and love. By doing so, Dickens’ villains reinforce the importance of those elements through impactful, negative counterexample.

In contrast, purely or simply beautiful art like Bach’s cello suites may be understood as “primitive” in the philosophical sense of the term. When Rousseau idolized infancy and simple-ness in works like Emile, or On Education, he expressly longed for the primitive. But if one accepts that humanity has left the Garden and tried to erect for ourselves some firm and steadfast structure reaching beyond the primitive with profoundly deleterious results—a process the Bible discusses in the story of the Tower of Babel—then the strictly simple, primitive nature of humanity is presently lost to us.

This fundamental fact of the loss of wholesale, social innocence or primitiveness is why we talk about “duty” and “sacrifice” and “striving for the greater good” even in secular contexts. What separates the secular version of these things from the Christian version is that they are tied to a man’s or a group’s imagined sense of right, virtue, or glory instead of being tied to those first relationships we found ourselves a part of from the beginning of time, like family or community. When we promote some sort of altruism or durable significance beyond whatever we would normally do by a sort of God-given default, we are acknowledging that we have moved beyond the primitive.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Tower of Babel (1563).

Eden and Babel are not the same. They are opposites. Eden is permanent even if its full recovery is lost to us right now; Babel is “happening” right now but frustratingly never finished. Put more philosophically, Babel is the idea of one person’s or one group’s action against another person or even against nature itself as a whole. Eden is the idea of “permanence” as true home, as perpetuity and peace and situated place.

So what does this have to do with art? Purely aesthetic experience—say, of a cello suite by Bach or a beautiful lyric poem—is not Babel. But neither is it the whole of Eden. It is more like a constituent element of Eden. Because of the distorting effect of sin, we do not experience the whole of Eden absent sacrifice, fealty and love. These are the keys that unlock for us a glimpse of the serenity from which we came and towards which God desires to ultimately locate us in eternity.

Returning to the illustration of English literature, these three elements converge powerfully and beautifully in Dickens’ Bleak House when Nemo, the law writer, interacts with the poor sweeper boy, Joe. Even though both characters have their problems, Nemo eventually dying of an opium overdose and Joe dying consumption, there are brief moments of distinctly Christian representation, e.g. when Nemo gives Joe a portion of his meager earnings with no strings attached or when Joe sincerely thanks Nemo for his kindness without any pretense or expectation but also without false humility.

Penguin Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847)

A similar thing obtains in Charlotte Brontë’s magnum opus, Jane Eyre, through the juxtaposition of its eponymous protagonist with the character of her cousin, St. John Rivers. Both are ostensibly “Christian” figures, but it is Jane who achieves something closer to the unlocking of Eden while John remains counter-intuitively trapped in Babel. St. John expresses a single-minded obsession with working as a missionary; he implores Jane to marry him so as to be his helper, so as to partake in this all-important mission. But Jane refuses, desiring instead to experience her life in the company of those she loves and who love her. Late in the novel, she realizes a large inheritance and decides to divide it evenly between herself, St. John, and St. John’s two sisters—much to St. John’s chagrin. He would prefer that the whole of the inheritance be devoted to his missionary work. Jane persists in her course of action and eventually departs the company of her family for that of Mr. Rochester, a former suitor who has been struck blind since his last encounter with Jane. Despite his state of relative debilitation given the early 19th century setting of the narrative, Rochester is still deeply in love with Jane, who concludes that her true aspiration is to be nothing more than his wife in the countryside at Thornfield Manor.

Bronte’s representation of Jane is the that of a character whose central desire is for the “permanent” rather than something that is “happening” yet never finished, and her irrevocable divestment of financial resource to the benefit of her extended family coupled with her devotion to Mr. Rochester despite his functional decline in station fortifies this. Similarly, Nemo’s gift to Joe was a pure gift, given only for love and met by Joe’s sincere but not unduly humble thanks in Dicken’s Bleak House. These represent the story of Christ more compellingly than a thousand missions of Bronte’s St. John to the farthest flung corners of the world, let alone the construction of an indestructibly prosperous, healthy, secured state that Jane could have pursued had she kept the whole of her fortune and “married up” as far as possible instead of choosing Mr. Rochester.

These are “Christian” moments in Bleak House and Jane Eyre because they fundamentally represent sacrifice, fealty and love with a trajectory towards the permanent, with an eschewal of building some grandiose, unfinishable, always happening Babel. They represent the example of Christ, emphasizing Eden’s quiet to Babel’s clamor. As Jesus said to his disciples:

Original poster for Lilies of the Field (1963), a film adaption of William Edmund Barrett's novel by the same name for which the lead, Sidney Portier, won the Academy Award for Best Actor

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33 NRSV)

Christian art is that which distinctly represents sacrifice, fealty, and love unlocking the permanence of our true home. Put another way, Christian art provides a representation in music, a literary character, and so forth of Christ.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Renee Traipoom
    Apr 14, 2012 @ 07:38:07

    So helpful a framework! My paintings address the errors of human limitation without focusing on Redemption and I would argue they are a contraexample given their underlying philosophical assumptions about human depravity. I realize I am addressing a very specific aspect of human experience and this article gives me more ways to think about how that fits into the context of "Christian" art – or whether it does at all.


    • jacobheiss
      Apr 14, 2012 @ 12:46:39

      I cannot speak for James here, but this is a good point. One area where the framework would also need to be expanded to have a shot at being exhaustive is the prophetic potential of art.

      For example, how can art speak truth to power in an appropriately confrontational way? It's a fact that some art does this; so, how does that fit with the stated framework of sacrifice, fealty, and love oriented towards the permanent? Can Christian art be anything other than a critique of Babel in its prophetic capacity, or is there a visioning of the alternative social state–which is to say, can Christian art also accurately represent the kingdom Christ heralded and over which he reigns according to the Christian story?


      • jacobheiss
        Apr 15, 2012 @ 12:30:00

        An instructive response sent to me from the author, James Beal:

        Jacob, the way you phrase the question that ends your comment is insightful. And I think something that can, say, "confuse" people (can't think of a better word right now) is this interplay between Sacrific, Fealty, Love and Permanence, with Heaven. We think of our lives on earth as preliminary to Heaven, and of course they are. And we don't know what Heaven will be like, nor do we know what Eden was like. But sacrifice and fealty to Christ are like small glimpses of the permanence of Paradis, which is just another way of saying God's Love, even if to experience this requires action on our part.

        Consider the example of the Good Thief on the cross. So, picture this man's last day. He was probably locked up some where. At some point he is dragged to the place of his execution, nailed to the cross and hanging their, dying. All around, activity. By people. By the wind. By birds and insects. And by his own body — his heart beating; he was probably sweating, bleeding. And this is all "happening" — but he releases himself and he says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom."

        But what did the bad thief say? He said, basically, Hey Jesus, get us out of here! But why did he want to get out? To go on living as he had been living. To go on sinning, which is just another way to say to go on putting oneself before God. And every day, not a 24 hour period for any of us passes without in some way putting our own will ahead of God's. And our lives in those moments are like the workers building Babel, or the sentiment of the bad thief.

        But if we try to pray every day — I try to say the Rosary every day, for example — even though that's a small part of the day — in these moments of our expressions of fealty and love for Christ, we are acting, but we are entering, if not existing, in Heaven right at that very moment — no matter how rotten, selfish, or lazy we are in the rest of the day. And that is why Jesus said to the Good Thief, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Not tomorrow, not a week from now — today.

        Now, of course, that is because the Good Thief was dying. But Christ's instructs us all to die every day, to pick up our Cross and follow him, every day — not once a week, not once a year. And we do it through prayer. And in those moments of prayer and devotion, we experience Eden, Heaven, God.


        • Janet
          Apr 16, 2012 @ 16:47:01

          This post, and this most recent reply by James, reminds me of my favorite poem (although it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I read the internet solely to find opportunities to quote this poem) – Angel by Lermontov:

          An angel flew along the midnight sky
          And he sang a quiet song;
          And the moon, and the stars, and the clouds in a throng
          Listened to this holy song.

          He sang of the bliss of sinless spirits
          Under the covers of heavenly gardens;
          He sang about great God, and his praise
          Was not feigned

          He carried in his arms an infant soul
          Bound for the world of sadness and tears;
          And in the young soul the sounds of his song
          Remained, wordless, but alive.

          And for a long time it languished in the world,
          Full of a wondrous desire;
          And the dull songs of earth
          Could not replace for it the sounds of the heavens.

          I love this image — that this person went about his life with a constant, nameless desire for a perfect world he couldn't remember. I think your distinction between the permanent and the happening ties into this same idea – that Christian art is distinguished by focus rather than content. Like Jacob's proxy comment points out below, some nominally Christian art feels earthly with a clunk, while so much secular art has this sense of the permanent divine that Lermontov and James are talking about (Shawshank Redemption springs predictably to mind).

          My favorite example of art that is Christian both in name and in execution is Les Miserables. I've never read anything that was so simultaneously about human deprivation and the hope of eternity without making either seem implausible.


  2. jacobheiss
    Apr 14, 2012 @ 18:04:25

    Excellent comment posted from a facebook thread that I just had to copy here, with permission:

    "Christian art has had a bad name for as long as I can remember. Certainly during [my] youth I remember not being able to listen to music without there having some kind of Christian theme throughout it to give it some kind of spiritual validation.

    "This wasn't simply a [way of life at the church where I grew up], this was and continues to be a Christian way of of life, or way of living. As a child it never made sense, as an adult that lives outside of the rose colored, diffused, and sanitized bubble of Christianity it's beyond any comprehension, with an exception being that I believe the root of it goes back to a fear of not being 'Christ centered.'

    "This 'Christ-centerdness' desperation reaches into many aspects of the formal Christian experience….the need to pray about every choice, every decision, every meal, every thought, good or bad. The effects of such anxiety-ridden hyper-spiritual paralytic life tends to stifle any kind of freedom in Christ and certainly creative freedom when you're so preoccupied with the message instead of the canvass.

    "I remember hearing 'non-Christian' music as a kid and it broke right through the religious bubble and it grabbed me by the heart and by the throat in such a beautiful way. It wasn't leaning on a message, it was relying on the form as opposed to the function. These artists cried their trials and triumphs, untouched by the need to incorporate a corporate religious message. It was profound.

    "Largely, art is about form, not function. There are things in life that serve as function first, and are designed so well, the form qualifies itself as art by chance and nature of the craftsmanship. This is where Christian art has gone so wrong, and tends to piss off so many people…..those behind the art (that ends up ultimately failing) are so hung up on the function of using the music as a tool, rather then believing that their love and commitment to their faith will shine through whatever they do wherever they go, whatever decisions they make, and importantly what kind of art they choose to create. There is no need to say the name Jesus to convey a sense of love for him and his work. That will come through.

    "Christ's followers must not be bound by a sense of fear that because the function of their art isn't self evident in the words/lyrics /content, that it's somehow not pleasing to god. The very use of our gifts as artists/writers/creators, in my belief, glorifies the perfect design.

    "St. Francis said it best….and it's one of my favorite quotes…"Preach the gospel at all times, if you must, use words."

    "That works for me. :) "


  3. Rebecca
    Jul 07, 2012 @ 14:36:44

    I really appreciate this post, thank you. Art that is faithful to Christ doesn't always scream His name. Anything made within God's world will tell us something about Him because nothing can exist apart from Him. Or as James said, Babel is a frustrated attempt at making something apart from God.

    I do have some questions about the contrast between Eden and Babel. I've written up a response on my blog here: http://artandtheeveryday.wordpress.com/2012/07/06

    Thank you again for sharing this!


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