Cameraderie and Criticism

When judging the quality of a work of art, the artist’s faith should not be at the forefront of our minds. Sure, an artist’s faith is something you cannot ignore if you plan on analyzing their work, but to determine if the work itself is good or bad simply based on the author’s faith is a misstep. For some, this is a no-brainer. I doubt many would argue, “Only Christians can make good art,” or, “non-believers cannot make good art,” but perhaps unconsciously we do have a tendency to say, “this artist is a Christian; I am a Christian; I identify with this; therefore this is good.” Take for instance Wendell Berry, an incredible poet who freely writes about his Christian beliefs. I have noticed that the mention of Wendell Berry amongst a group of Christians usually results in a low, “Mm” sound of agreement. I have also noticed in a group of non-Christians, nobody tends to bat an eye. I love Wendell Berry, and I am not setting out to criticize him or suggest that if you are a fan, that you aren’t really a fan. Instead, I simply ask, why? Why do we like his work? If our first response is, “His Christian beliefs,” we are approaching the question incorrectly.

For example, when I learned that David Foster Wallace may or may not have been a Mennonite, I got excited. As if his potentially being a believer said, “Look, someone whose art you admire can believe the same thing you do!” The danger here is that the thought of camaraderie slips into a thought on the quality of the author’s work. We imagine the artist sharing our beliefs and then think, “their art would be better if they were Christian.” This concern we have with an author’s beliefs can turn into a hunt of sorts. We look around and wonder who is and is not a Christian. This feeling is absurd; being a Christian doesn’t make a person’s art good, but we tend to possess this thought process more than we realize. If Christians are to reasonably judge the quality of a work of art, the individual beliefs of an artist cannot play a major role. The danger lies in letting beliefs somehow alter overall quality of a work.

Because of this danger, some may have a tendency to shy away from works by non-Christians. However, as scripture and church history show, there is a need for Christians to utilize non-Christian influences. For example, Paul quotes the Greek poet Aratus while debating stoic philosophers in Athens. We also have examples of Augustine utilizing Plotinus’ philosophy, and Aquinas using Aristotle as a source for theological influence. If we begin to let ourselves say, “This artist is a Christian, therefore, they make better art,” we run the risk of losing wonderful insights like the ones Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and many others found.

We should never say Christian artists are inherently bad, some of the best art ever created was created by Christians. But it’s odd, isn’t it? When we think of Michelangelo, we think of his art first, then his beliefs. But when we think of Wendell Berry or Sufjan Stevens, we tend to think Christian poet/singer/songwriter first, then their art. It’s sort of like when you hear people say, “Bob Dylan’s Christian period was his best.” No it wasn’t. Nothing Bob Dylan did during his Christian period even comes near to the music he composed throughout the sixties and early seventies. You would be hard-pressed to find a non-Christian say Bob Dylan’s Christian period was his best. It wasn’t a bad period, but just because he was singing Christian songs didn’t make his work any better.

Christians need to be conscious of this issue. I am not arguing that we need to only indulge in non-Christian artwork, but I am suggesting that we need to be aware of why we like certain art. Next time you find yourself enjoying the work of a Christian artist, it might be worthwhile to ask yourself, “Why do I like this?”