Give Christian Art a Chance

 Photo by Abby Whisler

Photo by Abby Whisler

Last week, the Bagpipe published an article by Kristie Jaya which argued that we should support “Christian entertainment” despite its flaws, because if we “give it a chance,” it might improve. This is actually an argument I’ve heard many times before, and I’m starting to get tired of it. Here’s why.

This argument operates under a very narrow definition of “Christian entertainment”  – that is, mainstream contemporary Christian movies, novels, music, etc. These are the sort of squeaky-clean products endorsed by Focus on the Family and sold at your local Christian book store.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with these things (I grew up with Veggie Tales, too!), but it’s hardly the only art that’s being produced by Christians right now. And honestly, if somebody has the time and money to make a poor film, they don’t need “support;” they need training, which need not be acquired by making another film. There are plenty of Christian artists who are already producing good art, but could potentially produce more and better art if they had the same kind of support. So if you like a Christian artist, feel free to give them your money, but you should never feel obligated to fund a thing just because it’s made by a Christian.

“But what other Christian entertainment is there?” you may ask. Lots, actually. Christianity is two millennia old – there hasn’t exactly been a dearth of Christian artists since the days of Christ. Just pick up a hymnal and you’ll find 800 or so wonderful Christian songs. Strangely enough, if you were to flip through one of those (and had an encyclopedic knowledge of composers), it’s quite possible that you would run into the names of a few non-Christians credited with some of the music. This attests to a strange sort of paradox: Good Christian art can actually be made (completely or in part) by non-Christian artists. Because if non-Christians can write beautiful music for Christian lyrics, creating a hymn, why couldn’t a non-Christian artist point to Christ in other ways or forms? This is the “common grace” that God bestows upon the artist.

As for contemporary Christian entertainment, I think Madeline L’Engle identifies one of its main problems in her book on faith and art, Walking on Water: “We see that wisdom and that awful grace [of God] in the silence of the Pièta; in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems; in Poulenc’s organ concerto; but we do not find it in many places where we would naturally expect to find it. This confusion comes about because much so-called religious art is in fact bad art, and therefore bad religion.” This is not to say that a Christian who produces bad art is a “bad Christian” (God knows we have enough people bandying that term about already), only that the art lacks the truth and authenticity that is typically expected of a professional artist (which is probably what Amanda Marcotte was so struck by).

Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for Christianity Today, has some great insights on the subject, particularly in her article “Toward a Definition of 'Religious' Cinema” (which should be required reading if Covenant ever offers a film criticism class). She distinguishes between “big R” and “little r” religious movies, “Religious” movies being movies which are explicitly about a particular religion, and little r “religious” movies being movies that explore religious questions, provoking the viewer to contemplate religious ideas, without necessarily offering answers. “The reason I like this is that ‘Christian movies,’ then, become movies that give Christian answers to these questions,” Wilkinson writes. “And similarly, a movie would not be Christian if it weren’t first religious.”

Film in particular is a relatively new medium, and an extremely complex one at that, requiring many different skill sets. This is why not many people set out to create a movie with only confessing Christians to draw from, especially since so few of them actually go to (secular) film school. To that extent, I have to hand it to the people who managed to make three films that way. But as for my Christian entertainment, I’ll stick to Tolkien and Lewis for now.