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.
From this, we see that the call of the hour is not good Christian art. The call of the hour is faithful preaching of the word. And we need artists who love Jesus and are faithful to his word. That is the place to start. And the artist should be the first to encourage and support the church’s ministry because this is where true art comes from. It comes from the work of Jesus in our lives which restores us to true beauty so that we can make beautiful things like He does. If we don’t understand how He works then we won’t know how to do our work.
The second step in regaining a true understanding of art is rejecting the temptation to look good in the world’s eyes. This is a temptation for Christian artists. We want the world to notice us and we will follow them around wherever they go trying to get handouts from them. They scoff at our work and we cringe. They laugh at our movies and we nod our heads sadly and look away.
But we have to understand the difference between how the world operates and how Christians operate. The world has elevated art above God. The world has made art into an idol and this idol demands that the artist sacrifice everything to it. Ars gratia artis is a curse in our land. And Christians need to reject this curse. The Christian is called to give everything to God, not to art.
The solution here is also to go to the gospel. If we do not have a clear understanding of our place before God, we will seek for affirmation in all sorts of wrong places. We will look for commendations from Hollywood or from the New York Times. But that applause, while fun and exciting, does nothing for us. We first need to know God’s affirmation for us and our work; that is the word of confirmation that Christian artists need to hear. So don’t skip church to do art; the artist needs the gospel every week just like everyone else.
The third step in understanding art properly is to realize that art is not enough. If we misplace the gospel we will also misplace art. There is a saying that some appeal to: “Preach the gospel always; use words when necessary.” This is an attempt to remind us that we are to live out the gospel in our lives and actions. And that encouragement is good and true to a point, but when it comes to art, we should be careful that we do not use this line to make art do something that it cannot do. Art is not made to preach the gospel.
Throughout history Christians have had a hard time with this idea. Many have claimed that art is called to preach the gospel. In the medieval world, some claimed that art was an illiterate man’s book. If a man couldn’t read about Jesus, at least he could look at pictures of Jesus. Christians often talk about art in a similar way today. We will say things like, “If we can tell a good and beautiful story, then more people will come to the gospel.” Or we might even think that beauty will draw people to Jesus and make them Christians.
While there is nothing wrong with having beautiful art or beautiful buildings (and in fact we should be better at this one too!), we need to be careful that we don’t start talking as if these things will save people. Only Jesus saves people and if we try to elevate art to the place of savior then we are hurting the gospel and not spreading it at all. Christian art should spring from the gospel; it should not replace the gospel.
This means that artists don’t have to worry about preaching the gospel all the time. And that should be freeing for artists. They are called to make art and they should focus on that task. This is one reason why Christians have been bad at making art. They have thought that their art needs to be preaching the gospel but the reality is that the church and her ministry is called to preach the gospel. Each has a different job and to mix them up will hurt both. Of course, the Christian’s art should align with the gospel and the Christian should be ready to share the gospel at any moment. But Christian art doesn’t need to be preaching all the time. Art flows from the gospel; it doesn’t replace the gospel.
In calling Christians to be good artists, we need to regain a proper understanding of art’s relationship to the gospel. In the Protestant tradition, the phrase Soli Deo Gloria is a call to remember the point of art and many artists have used this phrase (Bach being a key example). This phrase reminds Christians how to view their art: it is primarily for God’s glory. That is the real test of good art. Does it please Jesus?
As we think about this question we can see two temptations that we need to resist. The first temptation is to think that our art needs to be recognized at large by the world. The second temptation is to think that our art needs to take the place of the gospel. When both of these errors have been rejected, we can see that art has the ability to fill all sorts of places in our lives. It doesn’t have to be incredibly famous or overtly religious. Jesus has set us free, and now art can be mundane and earthy. In the true Protestant understanding of art, as long as it pleases Jesus, art can be whatever we put our hands to. This means art can be blankets and dresses, harmonicas and banjos, honey and peanut butter.
Jesse Sumpter is a new contributor to Kuyperian Commentary. He teaches several courses online with Veritas Scholars Academy. He graduated from New Saint Andrews College with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s degree in Classical and Christian Education. He also earned a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Jesse and his wife, Kate, have a daughter and they live in Potlatch, Idaho on a beautiful farm where they grow vegetables, take walks, and enjoy the occasional bonfire.