Why Christian Art is Often Awful (and what we can do about it)

Is contemporary Christian art mediocre, or worse? Many people think so, and they have a point. It used to be that the best art glorified God, and we sought His inspiration. Now we look to commercials, corporate logos, TV, and movies—and produce tacky knock-offs.

shirts-001baptist church bandOr consider this appallingly awful video showing a Christianized version of a once-popular song (with apologies to the Monkees): “I’m a Believer.”

Even much of the original art created by believers is, let’s face it, atrocious.

Most of those pointing out this deplorable state of affairs are quick to complain, but solutions are scarce. “Be more creative” is easy to say, but how many of us are Michelangelos or DaVincis? I do my best to create quality photographs but I doubt I’ll ever see my work on the inside of National Geographic, much less the cover.

Why is so much Christian art so awful? How did we get to this point?

Consider the differences in culture between then and now:

  • Then, the bulk of the resources were collected in the church—they were the ones with money to hire artists. Who do you think paid Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling? And should he have picked a nonreligious subject to paint there?
  • Then, everybody professed to be a Christian, even if they weren’t. It wasn’t acceptable to be anything else. So it follows that Christian-themed art would be created and supported.

We don’t live in that world anymore.

  • Now, the patrons of the arts are corporations wanting to promote their products, wealthy individuals of varying persuasions, and the masses who consume popular music, inexpensive paintings, and watch TV and movies.
  • Now, not everyone claims to be a Christian, and secular artists outnumber those who believe. Even many Christians don’t produce just Christian art. (Neither did the Christian artists of the Renaissance.)

I don’t think that the lack of great contemporary Christian art is the artists’ fault. Rather, we now live in a society that, for the most part, doesn’t value religious art, and doesn’t mind saying so. We put our dollars where our values lie, and our values include materialism, comfort, and freedom from responsibility and commitment. It’s no surprise that our art reflects these principles.

As an example, consider architecture. The great buildings of the past were most often cathedrals, paid for by the faithful donations of the parishioners. We still ask for donations to the building fund, but most impressive buildings in town all seem to be banks. If today’s church isn’t willing to pay for great Christian art, who is?.

It’s not an easy question. Should a church pay money for a highly respected architect to design an elaborate worship center? Or would the money be better spent providing shelter for homeless families? Should the church act as a patron of the arts, or should we focus on, say, evangelism? I don’t know what Da Vinci’s wages were, but I doubt he came cheap.

On the other hand, we seek excellence because our failure or success reflects back on God’s character. We want to be attractive, winsome. We certainly don’t want to be viewed as stale, trite, second best, always trying to be cool but never catching up or catching on. Do we value excellence in the arts enough to support excellent artists?

Or perhaps we expect them to work for free? After all, most artists I know are compelled to create, whether or not they get paid, and they often donate their work. I also know builders, cooks, child care workers, doctors and nurses, etc., who donate their skills. Should we assume they’re all working for God and expect free houses, meals, babysitting, and health care?

In an ideal world, we could both feed the hungry and support the arts. Is that possible today?Would God want us to do that?

Of course we should pray and ask God how He would like us to steward His money—but we also need to ask how to treat the gifts He has placed in His body. God has unlimited resources. Some of them are people.

One thought on “Why Christian Art is Often Awful (and what we can do about it)

  1. Sometimes I think it is entirely reasonable to ask for artists to volunteer with their time to create beautiful art! We should all use the gifts God gave us to further His kingdom, including our artistic gifts. God doesn’t just value teaching and cooking and singing… He gave us lots of different talents. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be getting paid for those talents outside the church (gotta make a living!) but sometimes it IS appropriate to donate our time and skills to the church. It’s a great way to love one another (commandment!) and serve. You never know… maybe someone will see that beautiful photo or painting hanging in the nursing room and feel inspired to worship. 🙂

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