I was in a Christian bookstore today to pick up a copy of Bradley Wright's new book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media.
While I was in the store I took some pictures of some of the artwork and home decor for sale. Look at these pictures and tell me what they have in common?
Did you notice it?
All of them have words on them. I was alerted to this phenomenon by my colleague and partner in crime Dan McGregor. Just about every bit of Christian art or decor I saw in the store had some text involved.
What's going on with this?
My take is that the need for proclamation has so overwhelmed Christian aesthetics that text has become integral to Christian artwork. Words dominate Christian aesthetics. Words (e.g., "Be strong in the Lord") make something neutral (e.g., a picture of a horse) into something "Christian." What we see in this is the need for the artwork to explicitly teach, preach, edify or evangelize.
Now, this trend is somewhat understandable. It is no crime to surround oneself with Biblical quotations. In fact, it might be a great idea. But there are some consequences regarding this trend we might want to think about.
First, this reliance upon text and words can lead to a Gnostic rather than Incarnational faith. For example, as seen above, the horse, by itself, cannot point you to God. Some words are needed for this. As a single example this isn't too worrisome, but as a trend it can cause us, over time, to overemphasize words. To privilege words over the creation we find around us.
As a related example, think about what goes on in Christian communities when they gather for meals, retreats, fellowship, or recreational activities outside of church services. There is a compulsion during these occasions to add a devotional or a prayer to "Christianize" the event. Unless their are words added the event is considered to be "secular." So a perfunctory prayer is said. This makes the whole thing "Christian." Again, in this we see movement away from the life of the body. Mere recreation isn't Christian. Only recreation plus a prayer counts as being "spiritual."
The ultimate worry in all this is that we can completely abandon the world for words. Christianity starts to reduce to mastery of the words. Being a "Christian" means becoming good at "God talk." Faith as Scrabble.
Beyond this Gnostic tendency there is another reason to worry about all this. An overreliance upon text impoverishes the Christian aesthetic. It does this in two related ways. First, the added text is explicit. The words tell you what the picture is supposed to mean. So you look at the horse and the text proclaims: "Be strong in the Lord." There is no subtlety here. It's clear that the power of the horse is supposed to be a metaphor for being strong in your spiritual life. No guesswork is involved. The added text tells me what I should take away from the picture.
(What is hilarous is that text is even added, see above, to the picture of the praying hands. This image isn't explicit enough? Like I'm sitting there going, "Hmmm. Wonder what these praying hands are supposed to mean?")
This obviousness makes the artwork excellent for teaching, but it dooms the piece as an attempt at art. This is the second way text gets in the way of art: Good art isn't obvious. Good art is subtle and multilayered. It might take a lifetime to plumb good art, with new meanings bubbling up over the years. Good art can't be reduced to a PowerPoint bullet point. Unfortunately, much of the art and decor you find in Christian bookstores is reducible in just this way, making the "point" of the artwork explicit and digestible. The goal is to convey cognitive content, not to prompt the searching of your soul.
I think this is a part of the problem with a lot of Christian music. Christian lyrics tend to be too overt and obvious, they don't leave room for exploration. They tell you, like the artwork in the bookstore, exactly what they want you to know. This obviousness hurts the music, artistically speaking. The best Christian lyrics are those that aren't explicitly "Christian." Consider these lyrics from Over the Rhine's song Drunkard's Prayer (click here for a YouTube clip of OTR performing this song live):
You're my waterWho is being addressed in this song? God? A lover? Both? The song says it is a prayer. So let's assume the words are sung to God. If so, the title is startling, a drunkard's prayer? Christians aren't supposed to get drunk, right? But the idea of being "God intoxicated" runs deep in the Christian mystical tradition. Jesus was accused of being a drunk. So were the apostles at Pentecost. God is intoxicating. If so, we can push deeper into this image, exploring it a bit. God is "my wine" and "my whiskey from time to time." These images are fresh, counter-intuitive (for some), and spiritually evocative. Nothing is obvious here and the associations are surprising. So your mind gets to dance with the images, exploring the associations and uncoiling deeper and deeper truths. You start thinking about God and your relationship with God in new and profound ways. The lyrics are art-full.
You're my wine
You're my whiskey
From time to time
You're the hunger
On my bones
All the nights
I sleep alone
When your words
Wash over me
Whether or not
Your lips move
You speak to me
Like an ocean
You're the movement
That I crave
And in that motion
I long to drown
And be lost not to be found
You're my water
You're my wine
You're my whiskey
From time to time
But my sense is that the Christian aesthetic has become overwhelmed (in some quarters) by the need for catechisis and evangelism. It is pedagogy at the expense of art. Which is fine as far as that goes. But left uncriticized we end up with an aesthetic that can be overly "preachy," too reliant upon text and too obvious to be artful. Our spirits can't be long sustained in such an environment and outsiders will be repelled by the sales-pitchiness of our art, culture and the horse painting on the wall.