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.

The Problem with Incarnational Art

At one point, Minkoff writes, “Consequently, most ‘Christian art’ has become redundant, ornamental, and useless. Based on the testimony of Scriptures alone, it seems the church’s unbalanced partiality toward explaining the Gospel rather than incarnating it may be at the heart of our current backsliding and irrelevance. We need to return to a view of the Gospel that is first incarnational and then explanatory.”

This at first seems to be a good point: Christian art should incarnate the gospel. But this point doesn’t fix the problem that Minkoff sees in Christian art. The problem in Christian art is not that it fails to be incarnational enough. The problem is that Christian art fails to be good art. If we encourage art to be more incarnational, then we are falling into the problem that Minkoff is trying to avoid: making art into a kind of delivery system which is no more important than a UPS box.

Tolkien is a helpful example. His work is good art not because it is more incarnational than other art but because it is good art. Which is to say, Tolkien wasn’t trying to tell the gospel through his stories. He was primarily focusing on telling a good story. A key way he made a good story was by going to incredible lengths to convince his audience of the reality of his imaginary world. He wanted his audience to be fully convinced that his characters were real people. However, readers are still tempted to take his characters and treat them as if they are just masks for different aspects of the gospel, e.g. Frodo is like Jesus, etc. The temptation here is to think that Tolkien wrote a story that basically boils down to a fantasy version of the gospel, but that is to abuse his work.

While Tolkien’s work reflects the gospel and he gives us characters that act in ways that are consistent with the gospel, his story is not the gospel message. But we don’t have to lament that Tolkien’s stories fail because they are not the gospel message. It is not like Tolkien messed up. He didn’t fail at all. His purpose was to create good art, not to incarnate the gospel. And he succeeded at the goal of creating good art in a way that many of us can only dream.

The danger that I am concerned about with Minkoff’s idea is that we will think that good art has to be incarnational art and then require Christian artists to hide the gospel message deep inside their work. This kind of thinking doesn’t just hurt art, it also hurts the gospel and how we are called to proclaim it.

Who Incarnates the Gospel?

The simple answer is the body of Christ. At the front of this community would be pastors and evangelists who speak the gospel to the congregation and to the world. But it doesn’t stop there. The gospel message changes everything for Christians. And every Christian (including artists) must live in that good news and be ready to tell people that good news. However, not every member of the body has the same job. If the hand thinks it is a mouth then things will get really weird really fast. The same is true for pastors and artists. Both the pastor and the artist need to know their respective jobs and how each is important to the body of Christ because they offer different services to the body.

Following Luther and the Reformers, everyone has a calling from God and that means every job is sacred. The artist has a high vocation that he must fulfill but he doesn’t have to be doing the same thing as the pastor. We recognize this is true in other vocations so an example would be helpful.

A car mechanic repairs cars for the glory of God. Does he live out the gospel in his work? Yes, by being a good mechanic. We could suggest that he should do “Christiany” things with the cars–baptize them or put fish on them—but that would misunderstand how he is to live out the gospel. He incarnates the gospel by being a good car mechanic: making good repairs and not cheating people. The same thing should be said for artists. Artists live out the gospel by making good art, not by doing “Christiany” things with art.

The Christian Community

Minkoff correctly says that “God was so concerned to show us who he is that he presented himself on earth as the incarnate Word in Jesus. It’s important for us to remember this. The Word of God is not just a book. It’s a person.” I heartily agree with him on this point. I would just redirect this comment and point out that Christian people are called to imitate this person.

I think the call for good art is important. However the call for good incarnational gospel presentations should not be made to Christian art but to all Christians. The Church as the body of Christ needs to incarnate the Gospel. If we think that art can make the gospel real to people, then we are sadly mistaken. That is a step in the wrong direction.

We need robust Christian communities where the gospel is preached and lived faithfully. Artists are part of this community but they are not the center of the community. Artists need to make sure they don’t confuse the role of their art in the body of Christ. Art helps to beautify the Christian community; it does not replace the Christian community.

One Response to Why Incarnational Art is Not Enough

  1. michaelminkoff says:

    Hi, thanks for taking the time to reply.

    You wrote:
    “The problem in Christian art is not that it fails to be incarnational enough. The problem is that Christian art fails to be good art.”

    This is kind of like saying, “The problem with the mechanic is not that he is incompetent, untrustworthy, churlish, and expensive. The problem is that he fails to be a good mechanic.” To declare, “Christian art is not good” is to say generally (and unhelpfully) what “Christian art is not incarnational” says specifically. Christian art is not good most particularly because it is not incarnational: it tells rather than shows. All good art is incarnational. All bad art is not. To show a truth is to incarnate it. Your reference to Tolkien merely fleshes this reality out. His art was good simply because it was incarnational: its granular particularity makes you feel like you are reading of the real—as if Tolkien has _shown_ you Middle Earth and not merely _told_ you of it.

    Art need not incarnate the Gospel in some narrow sense, however. There are truths that need to be shown/manifested/incarnated because they cannot be communicated without being shown/manifested/incarnated. This is not repackaging the same information in another package. It is _not_ the same information, exactly. It is a different angle/perspective on the truth, and therefore communicates different information, even if it communicates of and from the same truth. There are manifest truths that cannot be properly communicated propositionally/abstractly, and these things are lost or obscured without incarnation.

    That Christians have the duty to incarnate the Gospel in their lives should be obvious from even a cursory reading of Jesus’ basic teachings. In other words, I do not think that art is the _only_ place where humans incarnate the truth. But let’s not forget that God calls us his poem (Eph. 2:10, where “handiwork” is literally “poiema”)! We are God’s art. So, again, your purported shift of emphasis merely becomes a reinforcement of my original point. By doing the good works prepared for us in Christ (in other words, by incarnating in immanent good works the transcendent reality of Christ’s righteousness), we are God’s art. Like God’s Word, we, being people of His Word, deliver both propositional (abstract) and incarnational (representational) truths, and we deliver them propositionally (with words) and incarnationally (with deeds/good works).

    But art cannot be abandoned or set aside in all this, clearly. I agree with you that art is _not enough_. But propositions are _not enough_ either. The fact that the Reformed emphasis on propositions over incarnation has resulted in an ivory tower irrelevance devoid of good works should not be surprising given the connection you yourself pointed out between good works and incarnational truths. Incarnational art is not sufficient for delivering the whole counsel of God, but that does not mean it isn’t necessary. Incarnation and proposition are _both_ necessary, or God would not have seen fit to use both of them to reveal Himself. As I said, and as you did not address, God included art—not just artfulness mind you, but art itself—in his revelation of Himself in the Bible and creation. Art is therefore indispensable to deliver His whole counsel. Again, this is not repackaging the same counsel artfully. And it is not merely a retelling of the narrow Gospel message. It is actually the delivery of distinct and otherwise undeliverable truths about God’s expansive character.

    As for your definition of art, I agree that it involves the creative faculty, but creativity/imagination is not exclusively for the representation of the fictional in proportions that honor fact. The imagination is also necessary to understand the truth (not merely the fact) of reality as it is. Art is representational, in that it re-presents things real or imagined in order to communicate new insights or clarify old ones.

    Anyway, I appreciate the tone of your response article, but in its substance you never address the central question at issue here—namely, if the whole counsel of God can be delivered without art, why did God choose to use art to deliver the majority of His whole counsel?

    Thanks again for your willingness to dialogue,


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