The premier entertainment electronics show in the world is going on as I write this and one of the feelings coming out of this year’s E3 is that it’s decidedly underwhelming. Dig this quote from a Wired article:

“As the E3 Expo, the videogame industry’s annual bombastic show of force, begins anew Tuesday, it’s getting harder and harder to tell one game from another. This is not simply because of the unceasing epileptic blasts of light and deafening cacophony of sound that fill the darkened halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center all week — although those help. It’s because as gamemakers come to grips with the ever-riskier business of building big-budget entertainment, more and more of them are playing it safe just to survive, feeding in the same narrowing pool of game genres.

The article goes on to make some observations about why gaming finds itself in a creative rut and the most persuasive idea seems to revolve around simple economics. Gaming has become a riskier and riskier industry (the AAA space anyway – more to that point in a moment) and studios thinking about investing $50M tend to play it safe. I can understand that.

But this observation of E3 makes me think about something else that has been scratching at the back of my mind for years, something that’s been hard to put words to but it comes to something like this. As Christians we claim to be in contact with, indeed to be individually lead by, the Creator of Creation. How is it that the state of Christian art has suffered so much diminution that with precious few exceptions Christian creativity has become almost entirely an enterprise of copying secular art and then pasting a fish over the top?

The majority of Christian history has included a strong impulse to truly and universally excellent artwork in every discipline. Paint, architecture, music, playwriting, literature. I’d bet that a majority of the truly great western artists of the last 2000 years were either Christians themselves or they were largely creating Christian art. But somewhere, perhaps around the time of the Reformation, that vein started to run dry in the church. There’s probably a great and fruitful conversation about why that happened but it’s beside the point for me today.

In “On Moral Fiction” John Gardner states that all true art is moral. That its function in a civilization is to beat back the trolls of chaos and darkness and futility that constantly threaten to unravel society. He also suggests that in the relatively recent past we, as a culture, have forgotten what art is for and therefore resort to portraying the simply entertaining or the plainly trivial. To build on Gardner’s thesis I say that art can be, at its best, one of the Truest and most Spiritual things we can do as human beings.

By virtue of our identity in Christ, Christians ought to be the most creative, innovative people in the world.
To be less is to live beneath our station.

It’s been said that the way in which we are most made in the image of God is in our ability to be creative. That creative capacity is endowed in all humanity, Christian or not, as the place we can most invest our hearts and souls; perhaps more than any enterprise beside having children. What’s more, beauty has always been one of the core virtues that the church has understood as a pure revelation of God’s nature.

For this to happen, it’s critical that we stop looking to the secular world as our primary source of inspiration. We need to look to God and His Spirit.
We can’t be only reacting to what is new or cool or successful in the world. We need to be learning from the creator of everything from planets to petunias and leading innovation in every medium.
We (on the Protestant side of the equation anyway) must regain our appreciation of mystery and the simply lovely and loosen up the exclusive value on factual truth. Art cannot be seen as nothing more than a pretty teaching aid.
And we must give up that silent, nagging fear of the world that keeps us from celebrating excellence regardless of the artists faith or lack thereof.

Let’s reclaim this part of our identity as Sons and Daughters of the Living God and pursue creativity and innovation in such a way that the world comes to us not because we are believers, not in spite of our belief, but simply because our work is demonstrably the most creative, the most unique, the most powerful. Every man and woman is graced with this profound ability to create and it is in no way limited to those who call themselves Christians, but as those who sit at the throne in regular contact with the source of all creativity ti seems reasonable that a believer may have a certain creative edge. In this way, as we create and innovate and explore with the wind of the Spirit in our sails, we do more to show God’s love and life to the world than in most any other enterprise – when we enrich the hearts and feed the souls of all who see.

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10 Comments
  1. Fantastic thoughts. It’s a conversation that is stirring and has been I’d say across denominations and in the younger generations. I know for myself as a performer and writer, I struggled like Jonah did when God said His church was the mission field I needed to be in. And the amazing thing is, it still is so much a struggle. I’ve enjoyed countless conversations and meetings with individuals who desire to create EXCELLENT work, because too often what is presented “for God’s glory” is hardly befitting Him. It’s lazy, plagarized, gimmicky, and lacks heart. I write a blog about these thoughts as well.

    http://in-the-beginning-god-created.blogspot.com/

    Great article. I’d love to hear more thoughts on this.

  2. Hey thanks for the insight Lamar, and the chapter/verse !

    So was Jesus talking about his people in this verse? That their hearts were hardened because they knew the law and the prophets and still missed His message?

    I think in terms of art, I am trying to say that to someone without the Spirit, spiritual things are foolishness to them.

    1 Corinthians 2:14 – The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

    So if we spend all of our time burying symbolism into our art in order to deliver our Gospel message in a “good art” package, or rip-off the latest slogan on fast food packaging to be relevant, it is all foolishness to one who is perishing.

    We’re wasting our effort if the Spirit doesn’t move in it and on the viewer.

    I think maybe we want our Art to do too much, either teach for us, or testify for us, or explain everything for us so the message doesn’t get confused.

    I think we treat Art as the Sunday sermon rather than the expression of God in every aspect of our lives and so my “christian art” will never strike as true or be as powerful as my testimony of what God has done for me. And maybe that’s ok, because maybe my art is a well painted picture of a mountain peak and it is simply beautiful and nothing more.

  3. Yikes Nathan – that comment strikes really close to the bone but I have to admin that you’re totally on to something.
    Ryan and I were just talking about how we seem to have come to this place where it’s not enough for a thing to be simply beautiful. Aristotle says that a creation’s virtue lies in its ability to simply do its job. A hammer that pounds nails well is a “virtuous” hammer.

    I think you’re also tapping on another deep and critical concept – when we do something “for God” is there that thing in our hearts that is really thinking we’re somehow supplementing His capacity, as if He couldn’t do it without us? There’s a word for that = pride.

  4. Nathan

    Good thoughts, especially regarding the necessity that Christians’ connection to the Creator power/inspire their own work.

    And yet what I find sad is that a major contributor to the stagnation of Christian art seems to be the idea that “I’m doing it for God” is enough to make your output a worthy contribution to the world.

    Sure, the reasons and goals behind what you’re doing are very important. But, because Christians have a higher purpose in mind, the art itself often takes a back seat to the intent. And thanks to this thinking we end up with stuff like inspirational bracelet charms, half-baked attempts at Bible action figures, and ten zillion versions of the Glowing House in the Woods™ painting. But it’s all for God’s glory, so that’s okay. Isn’t it?

    Or is it?

  5. What I would say Ryan is that when we mention the purpose of parables, we gotta try and remember that there was a timeline when Jesus started speaking to parables to the people and this happened after they didn’t receive what He spoke clearly first(Matt 13:12-15). To whom much is given, much is required, and God didn’t intentionally hide the truth about Him and His kingdom from people so they wouldn’t be saved, but they rejected what He clearly spoke about first and as a result He spoke to them in parables and revealed the true meaning of the parables to His disciples. It applies to us today, when we reject things God reveals to us clearly, there’s no way we can receive deeper things He wants to show us when we’re more intimate with Him.

    You read earlier chapters in Matthew, and you see where he clearly explains things from deliverance to why He came and what His ministry was, etc.

  6. Ryan – that feels spot on. I certainly know that fear that somehow my ‘message’ will be misunderstood but I realize that in my deep heart what is really bugging me is a tacit assumption that God can’t explain himself and its up to me to interpret for him.
    When I frame it like that I realize that I’m actually full of pride ad not full of faith.

  7. I must admit that you pricked my good protestant skin on the “we must regain our appreciation of mystery and the simply lovely, and loosen up the excessive value on factual truth.” But, In meditating on it, I think I see your point. Well maybe it’s my point, I don’t know…

    As Christians in our culture, I think that we see entertainment, art and media as primarily TEACHING tools. They are the visual aid to illustrate the spiritual, biblical truth of the matter.

    For a piece of art to be messy; to not have the truth, yet, and express the emotional place between, or to simply be an expression of beauty, or ugliness is to us at best, juvenile and at worst, reckless.

    On the one hand, we take our message seriously and we don’t want to lead people astray with false or incorrect views of God. Thus, our messages become too tidy, derivative and shallow because we fear misinterpretation. Our parables shove the deep spiritual values down the throat of the listener. Half of us gag at the taste of it.

    On the other hand, biblical parables were never meant to be understood by the masses.

    Luke 8:10
    “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'”

    What is revelatory about this to me is that parables were not teaching tools for the unbeliever but for the believer.

    The secrets of the kingdom of God including understanding of salvation come through the revelation of the Holy Spirit, not through our words.

    At best, our stories point the listener to God, and our art reveals His beauty, but as good American Protestants, perhaps we should rediscover the rest that comes when we stop working so hard to control and instead, make art by His Spirit and let His Spirit reveal the truth of the matter.

  8. well said rebekah. That wasn’t exactly what I meant but it was – true enough – what wound up on the page. I think I need to edit that part…

  9. rebekah

    i absolutely agree with most of your post… especially the importance of beauty as revelation of God’s character, and the sanctity of our own role as creators. however, ought christians truly be the “most” creative? i would be careful not to pose it as a competition; God endows every person with divine creativity, regardless of faith status, and God’s face is reflected in all beauty, regardless of the hands that produce it.

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