We Need a Renaissance of Christian Artists
Christians desire to change the world. Art is one of the most effective ways to shape culture. But, over the last one hundred years, Christian art has become known as derivative, dismissible, and uninspired. Is there any hope for a renaissance of faith-based art?
Art is one of the most powerful mediums to inspire, shape, and change both the individual and society at large. Many of the most important ideas, thoughts, and concepts in humanity’s story came through the creation and distribution of stories, words, songs, and visual art. From the creation myths told by tribes around campfires, to the grandeur of the Renaissance art that brought a world out of a dark age, to the ideas written down during the Enlightenment that shaped our understanding of reality, to the movies we watch today that inform our morals and beliefs, we see that art is an effective tool to mold generations and change the world.
Art is powerful, which is why every noteworthy movement throughout history has sought to utilize it to spread their message. Film actor and activist Ossie Davis, who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights era, once said,
“Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change — it can not only move us, it makes us move”
The most powerful movement history has seen thus far is Christianity — the belief that there is a good God who created us in his image and ultimately revealed himself to redeem our broken world. As Christians, we believe God has tasked us with spreading this message known as the gospel (literally translated as “the good news”) “to the ends of the earth.” Christians utilizing art to fulfill this calling is nothing new; we see throughout church history that Jesus’ followers have used creative mediums to share God’s goodness with the masses. From Michelangelo’s mural in the Sistine Chapel to Handel’s Messiah to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Christians have created some of the greatest pieces of art ever seen in an effort to usher people into a greater connection with the divine, and they have done so for thousands of years.
But more recent Christian art lacks the efficacy it once had. In my lifetime, the art produced by the faith-based community has become known not for its culture-shaping brilliance but for its low quality, predictable execution, formulaic mimicry, and worse, its boring and uninspired presence that does little to connect a lost and hurting world with a beautiful and loving God.
Since the 90s, the music on Christian radio has, in large part, sounded like poor covers of better secular songs, the Christian bookstore shelves have been stocked with shallow, self-help guides, and faith-based films are average, Hallmark quality, and preachy.
There are many reasons why Christian art ended up where it is today, but the question I want to answer isn’t so much one of diagnostics but of treatment, an answer that will hopefully help us create art that doesn’t just entertain or make a few bucks but inspires imaginations and touches souls.
We need a renaissance of Christian art, and I believe there are a few core practices Christian artists can employ to create art that reflects God’s beauty and truth in a way that ultimately has a greater chance of redeeming lives and shaping culture.
1. Hone Your Craft
I’ve heard many young (and old) Christian artists declare that God has told them to make/write/produce a movie/book/song, and I believe God calls his followers to create art. But too often this “calling” is used to justify creating low-quality art, as the creator believes the only thing that matters is the message. Yet what we often fail to realize is that the quality of the art is part of the message. Justification for making low-quality art is typically rooted in a philosophy that says, “God (only) looks at the heart,” so the quality takes a backseat to the messaging. But I think this philosophy is destructive and based on bad theology that will ultimately push a lost world away from God, not toward him. Scripture tells us, “They will know you by your fruits,” and if the fruits of our work are low quality, it will affect our ability to reflect our beautiful, high-quality God.
Scripture reveals a God of excellence. Each day we are surrounded by his immaculate artwork, which is displayed brilliantly throughout nature. It is a mistake to assume our perfect and beautiful God, who himself is a master artist, is content with being reflected in low-quality art. We wouldn’t excuse an architect for building a poorly made home just because he is a Christian; neither should we exempt artists.
Nothing we make will be perfect, but we should make every effort to reflect in our creations the infinite beauty, high quality, and majestic image God has revealed to us. Doing so takes time, dedication, and perseverance to learn and hone our skills.
If you are a writer, learn how to become the best writer you can be, read the great books that changed the world, and become a wordsmith so you can articulately describe God’s person. If you are a musician, become the best musician you can be so you can more beautifully compose and play the notes God designed. If you are a filmmaker, study color, composition, story structure, and light to more beautifully display tales of redemption.
Our creations are works of praise, and if we allow ourselves to make shoddy art, we are offering God poor praise. Low-quality art doesn’t honor God, and it doesn’t shape culture. Humans (Christians and non-believers alike) were created by God to respond to beauty and excellence, which means we must dedicate ourselves to becoming the best artists we can be.
2. Be Truthful
Any group tends to exaggerate the good and hide the difficulties. Christians are no different. In recent years, the art that has come from the faith-based community has too often resembled polished commercials selling a product rather than honest stories revealing truth. Our movies tell narratives void of authenticity and reality, avoiding the uncomfortable (non “family-friendly”) parts of life and promising that every problem can be solved with a prayer or conversion. Our books often promise easy formulas in which prayer and religious life become magic spells that take all our troubles away. Our music lyrics have become a seemingly endless loop of major chords and shallow phrases that gloss over deep emotions with an upbeat chorus (x8).
The art that has left the greatest mark on this world and on the hearts of those who have encountered it is honest — sometimes brutally so. The art that makes a difference is that which most accurately reflects the reality of life. When we honestly discuss our doubts, fears, regrets, pain, and longings, Christian artists can offer the hope of redemption. If we shy away from the hard parts of life, our art won’t connect with people living in a broken world.
Scripture provides a model for our art. The Bible is filled with uncensored stories of broken people and deep darkness, but its power is how it demonstrates God’s presence in those less-than-family-friendly places. We must do the same. While I understand the tendency to show only upbeat depictions of life in an attempt to sell our faith to unbelievers, we won’t reach the world in any lasting or substantive way until we are honest about the realities people face.
3. Break the Mold
Every artist, especially those who rely on art to fund their lives, must make a difficult choice: Create art that has a proven track record (especially for making money) or explore new ways to create that doesn’t follow the well-worn path of derivativeness. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an old-fashioned, formulaic rom-com, airport novel, or catchy pop song. But the art that shapes culture and has lasting power is the art that breaks the molds and brings a fresh presence to the monotonous artistic landscape.
In nature, we see the amazingly vast creativity and diversity of God’s design. His creation didn’t stay within the bounds of utilitarian expectations. Rather, its unique splendor displays his eternal creative spirit. To make lasting and effective art, we must follow God’s example.
Making something original is a difficult undertaking. In fact, this type of creation requires sacrifice. It can be hard to watch the subpar, derivative art make all the money and get all the attention. But the hopeful reality is that by making something new, while it might be seen by fewer eyes (and make less money), it will have a much greater chance of influencing those who encounter it.
If our goal isn’t merely to make a living (which is a fine goal) but to change hearts, inspire imaginations, and touch souls, then we simply cannot rely on replicating overused formulas. Instead, we must be brave enough to attempt something new and unique, something that doesn’t add to the forgettable noise and fade into the nondescript cultural background. Something that brings new perspectives, inspirations, and concepts that will actually have the opportunity to catch the eyes and hearts of those “who have eyes to see and ears to hear.”
If we believe that we Christians have THE good news that can truly, positively, and eternally change people’s lives, it is our duty to share it with the world. To be effective in our mission, we must become the best at what we do so we can make more truthful, beautiful art that reflects the splendor of the God we follow.