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By In Culture

Why Incarnational Art is Not Enough

Incarnational Art Image Michael Minkoff over at Renew The Arts kindly commented on my previous article and he shared two articles that he had written (here and here) and I wanted to respond to those. While Minkoff makes some good points and I would agree with him generally, I want to push back a little and add some details that I think are important.

The primary point I want to make is that it is not the goal of art to incarnate the gospel. To suggest that goal for art is to misunderstand the role of art in culture and it is to steal from the Church her primary mission. Christians living in community are charged with incarnating the gospel; art is not given that job.

What is art?

I want to start with a definition of art. Art is an imaginative human work that must submit to Jesus and be for the edification of others. There is a lot here to unpack but I will focus on the imaginative side of art and argue that art works on the imagination by offering an invitation to the audience to consider an imaginative scenario or situation. For example, fiction invites the reader to imagine that specific characters and situations exist and then asks the reader to follow them to the end of the story. (This is only one example so it is important to acknowledge that different media present themselves to our imaginations in different ways, e.g. music)

Given this definition of art, it is important to note what art cannot incarnate: art cannot incarnate something directly into our reality. This is true because our creations are sub-creations, to borrow an idea from J.R.R. Tolkien. I would grant that art becomes a thing in the world when it is created—fiction becomes a story and characters—but the nature of art is still one step removed from our reality and it would be unhelpful to confuse the nature of the two. For example, if we think that Frodo is a real historical person then things will become very strange.

This is not to say that art fails to shape our world. On the contrary, art, as a human work, impacts our imagination and has a great power to shape how we see the world and understand it, but the point is that we need to be careful that we see the difference between art and life. When we speak about incarnating the gospel, we need to understand that as something which Christians do in their lives as they obey Jesus. Art does something else.

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By In Culture

Why Good Christian Art is Not Enough

A common charge against Christian art (especially Protestant art) is that it fails to be good art. The infamous movies of recent years – God’s Not Dead, etc. – support this claim. We even make these claims about ourselves (see Leithart here and here). Christians are apparently just plain bad at art. And this is a problem because it means that nobody will read or watch our stuff, and that means we will fail to impact the larger culture. We respond to this problem by making loud laments and asking for good Christian artists. If only we had Christians creating good art then we would have a real impact on the culture. People would actually watch our movies and read our books.

Or at least, that is the story we tell ourselves. But is bad art really the problem?

On the contrary, I would argue we have a bigger problem. We have slipped so far in our understanding of culture we think the solution is we need better Christian art. But that is just another symptom of the real disease that has taken hold of us. We have made an idol out of art and we think we just need to clean the idol a little more. The real problem for Christians is that we need to understand the proper place of art in relation to the gospel and not elevate art beyond its true position.

The first step in recovering this proper relationship is to see the gospel as the spring from which all other cultural work comes forth. It does no good to try to get fresh water two hundred yards downstream; you have to go to the source. The gospel is the source. The church in its work and ministry is proclaiming that good news and that is where true cultural change is happening. If we mess up the message and content there, then everything else downstream will be a wreck. This is why we have lame Christian art: we have lame churches preaching a lame gospel. A restoration of the preaching of the gospel is the first step in making good Christian artists. (more…)

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