Bad Christian Art

Given my research into Christian aesthetic judgments (my recent article in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity about what I call "The Thomas Kinkade Effect" can be found online here) I was interested in this post by Tony Woodlief at Image entitled Bad Christian Art.

Woodlief's main argument:

I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.
My take about Woodlief's observation is that he's being more descriptive than explanatory. Yes, we know that the theology is bad. But why? In my published work I attempt to provide an answer. From the conclusion of Beck et al. (2010):
The question of the present study was less concerned with the motives of Christian artists than it was with the psychology of Christian aesthetic judgments. Specifically, why might some Christian art be preferred over others? Recent research (Landau et al., 2006) has suggested that aesthetic preferences might be influenced by existential needs. That is, artwork might help us confront a reality we find distressing and incoherent. Thus, some Christian art might be sought out because it provides existential comfort or solace. This is a wholly legitimate impulse to bring to art, but it may have impacts upon aesthetic choices and judgments.
Woodlief goes on to list various aspects of Christian art and discusses the theology behind each. The final aspect is Cleanliness:
Cleanliness: I confess that the best way to deter me from watching a movie is to tell me it’s “wholesome.” This is because that word applied to art is a lie on its face, because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.

This seems to be a failing—on the part of artist and consumer alike—in what my Orthodox friends call theosis, or walk, as my evangelical friends say. In short, if Christian novels and movies and blogs and speeches must be stripped of profanity and sensuality and critical questions, all for the sake of sparing us scandal, then we have to wonder what has happened that such a wide swath of Christendom has failed to graduate from milk to meat.
Again, this analysis is of interest to me as I've done research into the psychology of profanity in Christian populations which I've blogged about before (an online version of my 2009 Journal of Psychology and Theology article about profanity is here). More, Chapter 10 of Unclean--Sex and Privy--gets into these issues. The goal of all this work has been to get past a surface-level description to shed light on the underlying psychology behind the Christian impulse toward "cleanliness" and "wholesomeness."

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17 thoughts on “Bad Christian Art”

  1. Oh-boy-oh-boy, have I thought about this topic a lot. It prompted me, in 2006, to re-paint a Kinkade painting ( and throw a bunch of demons and violence into the shadows. I titled it "Isaiah 30:10&11," which reads (with verse 9): For they are a rebellious people,
       lying children,
    children unwilling to hear
       the instruction of the LORD;
    10(R) who say to(S) the seers, "Do not see,"
       and to the prophets, "Do not prophesy to us what is right;
    speak to us(T) smooth things,
       prophesy illusions,
    11leave the way, turn aside from the path,
       let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel."

    I did this not because I hate Kinkade, or don't like pleasant things, but because it bothers me that there is this entire "Christian" subculture that elevates un-creative, repetitive, pastel cottages, holding them up as an example of what art ought to be. 

  2. Woodlief, by the way, was possibly quoting Madeleine L'Engle's book, "Walking on Water," in which she says just that: that bad art is bad theology. 

    As I see it, the source of this problem is that these lovers of crappy art do so because they are afraid of reality, and think that by pretending that the more unpleasant aspects of it are not there, they can make it go away. This is, of course, delusional, and so they are forced to construct a vast network of lies that, taken together, amount to a sort of massive, corporate, self-induced hallucination. 

    And the rest of the world, looking on, raises an eyebrow and then looks the other way, finding it better to just ignore the wreck that Christian "culture" has become. It's embarrassing as an artist, really, to have to identify myself with a bunch of insane liars. 

  3. This is only very tangentially related, but I read this post earlier today, which reminded me of your interest in disgust, and then I came across this fascinating blogpost:

    Thought you'd be interested!

  4. Oh, and on a more immediately relevant note, I spent some time thinking about this last time that you blogged about Christian art. It occurred to me (and I blogged it here: that Christian art isn't just bad or - as you suggested - reliant on text, it's also about assertions or statements rather than narrative. Contemporary Christian art says things like "God is good" or "Trust in Jesus", whereas earlier religious art tells stories. I wonder if this static, assertoric character is partly responsible for its insipidity: if you're telling a story, you can afford to keep the bad bits or the ugly bits in because that's not the end of it; if you're making a statement, you want to make sure everything you say is entirely true.

  5. I've seen a lot of this disgust/shockability-equals-virtue mindset, as if the ability to be shocked or disgusted makes one clean/superior. Bad theology leads to poor quality-of-love in relating to real people.

  6. Sorry for taking a tangential trail again, but regarding clean/unclean,
    reality vs. unrealistic Christian idealism in art/entertainment, etc, I find it very interesting/challenging to observe my son/daughter-in-law (SDL) battle censorship boundaries while raising my very young grandchildren.   Individually, we learn of our actual personal convictions when attempting to manage the exposure of clean/unclean material with our children/grandchildren. 

    I can surely understand the apprehension of sharing ... unclean reality to young children.  But at what point in a child's development (what age if there is such a clear-cut line) do we graduate our children beyond Thomas Kinkade paintings, Veggie-Tales, and "Jesus Loves Me for the Bible Tells Me So" music only?
    My SDL apply strict censorship regarding movies/art/music for the kids.

    On the other hand, my SDL read the Bible every evening to my grandchildren as they put them to bed.  Here, they don't skip the difficult passages.  There are many passages that would be given an "R" rating if made into a movie. Frankly, some passages would make for a hideous snuff film.    My SDL have managed to share concepts of possible future calamity, civil unrest, war, and even persecution/death with my grandchildren.  My grandchildren seem to be able to speak about such horrific prospects without batting an eye - to the point of acknowledging that they might face death themselves.   As a clueless overprotective grandfather, I cringe that they are burdened with such prospects at such a young age, but find their courage and level-headedness fascinating/profound at the same time.

    I guess my ongoing personal question is - how, what pace, and what stages of development do we disclose evil existential realities with children?   The Bible doesn't appear to give a G, PG, R rating. If the Bible in its entirety was a painting, have we (as a church) unconsciously censored it or at least grossly edited it?  

    Gary Y.

  7. Hi Gary,
    I can certainly appreciate parental/grandparental concerns about age-appropriate exposure to themes and images, as a mom to two teen-aged boys. Our youngest was about 5 when the first Lord of the Rings movie was released, and he jumped into my lap when the ugly attacking orcs filled the screen. Nevertheless, he knew he was safe. We'd read the books together prior to the movies. And the use of books and movies helped my boys to process, first in fiction and later in news reports of 9/11 and issues of war/terrorism. The same was true with the Bible, reading through with our boys. My oldest, in dual-credit history, interviewed a dear friend of ours who had never before shared the stories he experienced in Vietnam, but for our son, he opened up and told stories of what he lived through that are truly terrifying experiences, and allowed him to write about them. Our son also wrote a dual-credit English research paper on the use of torture, inspired first by Richard's post on the subject. My youngest is now fascinated by Youtube History Channel videos of WWII aerial dogfights, and the interviews with the pilots and historians who document them.

    All that to say that as parents, we have to be attuned to what each child is ready to handle. And since pain, suffering, and terrible realities are a part of real life, we'd do our children a disservice to lead them into expectations of a life with even mostly happy endings. That, I think, is where movies, Bible, books, news, etc become great tools of preparing our children to face the adult world. Contrast that, however, with an elderly Christian woman who takes umbrage at Brad Paisley's video "Online" as scandalously "risque'." Laughable, I know, but judiciously serious to her.

    Just some thoughts.

  8. I'd like to read your blog post but the link doesn't seem to be correct. Does it have a typo?

  9. This dovetails nicely with the recent "news" that some TV executives have admitted that Hollywood has a liberal bias.  It is quite likely that one reason for this is that conservatives in the film business have abandoned Hollywood because of the lack of wholesomeness.  (This is not to weigh in on whether there is anything wrong with a liberal bias in the first place.)

  10. ...although there isn't, unless it is self-delusionally denied, ignored, etc...which is to say, of course, that there IS something deeply wrong with it that is only now, at last, acknowledged.

    cheerful qb

  11. All I can say that anyone who associates with World Magazine and is also featured in the National Review would not know the difference between art of any kind and a hole in the ground.

  12. Perhaps these words can explain why most Christian arbad.

    True religion is based on on the psychic connection to Reality. There can be no true religion without profound psychic activity. True religion expresses the inherent disposition and motive of the psyche, of the intuitive, feeling core of Man - male and female.

    The psyche is the deep disposition of Union with That which is Radiant and Alive. Only the unitary and self-transcending disposition of the psyche, rather than the separative and self-defining disposition of the conventional left-brained mind, can provide the foundation for True Religion and a true humanity, and the well-springs for Sacred Art.

    Put in another way any religious or Sacred Art that is any sense worthwhile is necessarily informed, at the very least, by the right-side of the brain. And even more so by the feeling-heart.

    Conventional religion in our time and place is almost entirely a religion of the left-brained spirit and psyche killing WORD. It is religion that has lost its deep psychic connection to Reality and even prides itself on creating strong Christian left-brained minds - the Fortress Press.
    With reference to PAUL, the left-brained WORD always kills the spirit or the right-brained psyche.

    Plus ALL visual art is  always essentially a self-description, or autobiographical sketch of the artist who creates it - regardless of the otherwise or seeming content/subject of the art. 

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