Thoughts on Christian Art

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 water
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

Sweet intoxication
When your words
Wash over me

Whether or not
Your lips move
You speak to me

Like an ocean
Without waves
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
Who 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.

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.

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32 thoughts on “Thoughts on Christian Art”

  1. In Walking on Water, Madeline L'Engle says there is no "Christian" art. There is good art and bad art... if it has to be explained, it's bad art.

  2. Good stuff here, Richard. One of the problems with art in Christian shops is that art that isn't focused in some way towards the 'Christian' tends to get this question asked about it - "But is that really Christian art?" You can't just blame those who make/sell the stuff; many Christians think that pictures with words is what "Christian Art" is. I managed a Christian bookshop for 17 years, so this is familiar territory. If we put up 'ordinary' art in our shop, people would ignore it for the most part. It didn't have a 'message.'
    The problem isn't entirely a Christian one - the art world itself likes to categorise: I've seen 'Gay Art' exhibitions advertised, Maori Art (even though some of it has a distinctly European look about it), modern art as opposed to traditional art; abstract art; every kind of art under the sun, listed and catalogued. Okay most of these won't have words on them - although some do - but I've never seen the need to put art in boxes in the first place. If it's any good it'll find its own way in the world.
    I suspect that the people who buy 'Christian art' also buy ordinary pictures/paintings of various sorts - they just separate them off in their heads as being two different kinds of things.

  3. Excellent thoughts, and these pictures in particular are definitely guilty-as-charged. A few thoughts:

    - Does the verse Christianize the art, or does the art enliven the text? I put a verse on the front of our church bulletin every week, and I try to find a picture that illustrates that verse. The picture is sometimes overtly Christian, and sometimes not...but the point is the verse. (I'd respond that if the art is forefront, as in most of the examples, then the verse is attempting to Christianize the art.) The word-only example is indicative of this: "The LORD your GOD is with you WHEREVER you go." Note that the scripted words (in caps here) are the ones the designer (artist?) thinks are most important.

    - Is the artist responsible for the "Christianizing" of his art? In most cases, it looks like someone (trying to make a profit) went through and said, "that looks nice, put a verse on it and we can sell it at Mardel."

    - By that same token, I'm afraid much of the stuff we hear on Christian radio is so evangelistic and over-the-top precisely because that's what the Christian labels think will sell best.

    - Finally, this is a store...but what kind of art do people usually have up in their homes? What famous Christian artwork is out there? And do those famous pieces teach, or are they more often artistic statements? The enduring (read: popular) classics are probably a better indicator of the extent to which we "Christianize" art.

  4. I like any man who dares warn against Gnostism. Gnostics in todays Church are sort of like Socialists in mainstream American politics. "Who, us?"

  5. One more thought: does all of this have something to do with our obsession with foundational truth? Art is about perspective, interpretation, subjectivity. Generally speaking, western evangelicals tend to devalue, and even avoid these things. Without text to tell us what the art "means," we might miss the "correct" interpretation.

  6. Thanks for this Richard, so true. One of the consequences of what you're saying for songs is that poetry and musicality can be sacrificed for "correct" theology. There are so many worship songs where the words are crammed into the tune so that the writer can retain a precise theological point. This serves to engage our brains but switches off our emotions, and music at its best is an emotional language. We can't really engage with the music - the song becomes another sermon instead of an act of worship.

  7. What a thought-provoking article!
    Without trying to be cynical I had thought that the thing all of the pieces had in common was that they were old-fashioned, naff and kitsch!! My bad...
    Once again, you have succinctly articulated ideas that I have had for some time now.
    I am currently in the process of joining a new Church and my wife and I had the deacons round this week for them to 'interview' us to 'prove' that we are Christians!!!

    It was a fascinating meeting and it turned into me being grilled on various points because I didn't answer in exactly the prescribed way. Is this really what our ancient and yet vibrant faith has been reduced to? The ability to synthesise our yearnings for God into the agreed/acceptable propositional statements?

    I LOVE words - really I do, but I LOVE God a lot more and so, while I fully acknowledge that when trying to explicate this love to others I absolutely HAVE to use words, I also want to acknowledge and regale in the mystic beauty and enigma of saying that there is more to the truth than words can ever truly convey...

    Oh dear, I am rather going on now aren't I?

    Suffice to say that your article was hugely interesting to read and that it has provoked a whole load of thoughts in me.

    Thank you for it...

  8. Very interesting, Richard--thanks for this! I've linked to this post from the blog of the student arts group at Duke Divinity School ( I'm sure some of our followers will find it interesting. Thanks again!

  9. Couldn't agree more on your critique. I believe it is primarily rooted in fear, that we will have missed an opportunity for evangelism and will be held accountable for missing someone. We have also lost all respect for the idea of the mystery of God. Much better to have everything solved for us so we don't have to wrestle with God.

    I do disagree with your association of Gnosticism (with a capital "G") in this "artwork". My several friends who consider themselves "Gnostic" are much more influenced by hidden meaning and symbolism. They would not have much regard for this as art, nor as tool of catechism.

  10. I've always dreamed of walking in a church or Christian bookstore and finding that all the images (in those verse+idealic scene pictures) are switched out with less than idealic scenes. A nice verse on top of a tiger tearing open its prey, maybe some maggots, or kids with leprosy.

  11. What you have identified seems, to me, to be a residual effect of modernism in the Christian realm. Our modern brothers and sisters thought (and still think) that salvation is completely knowledge-based. The Restoration Movement began in that world, and was heavily influenced by the concept of teaching people the right stuff in the right way in order to make them based almost entirely on reason and logic (e.g., five-finger steps of salvation). And, while knowledge and reason are certainly vital aspects of Biblical faith, there is much more to it in the emotional, experiential, and existential realms. Art is intended to touch these other realms where logic can't always go, but "Christian art" is often stuck in the modernist paradigm of knowledge, words, and reason.

    Interestingly, Jesus used parables to paint pictures of Kingdom truths. But, He often left them unexplained, expecting the listener to make the proper interpretations and applications. Perhaps we should follow His lead in the art realm, understanding that often a person who discovers a truth is better off than one who is told.

  12. And from the lone thespian in the crowd— Christian theatre!! The worst example of pedagogy taking the place of art. At my private Christian college I was taught that agenda-oriented theatre (christian, protest, gay, environmental, etc) was almost always bad theatre. So we were encouraged to be Christians IN theatre, which not only allows for better art, but also evangelism.

    Side note: Christians are not just attached to words in general or specific ones, but also how they appear. Is it wrong or blasphemous to write 'christian' or 'god' or even 'he' in reference to Jesus? In the hymnal my dad will be getting published thru ACU hopefully in the next few months they are determined to have a proper grammatical use of pronouns, which they will undoubtably get flack for.

  13. Great blog! I so get this. It is to the point that I can hardly stand to go to our local Christian bookstore...for me its like going into the Met and on display are astoundingly beautiful original pieces with spray paint covering them. Thanks for articulating!

  14. I avoid most Christian art but I never could voice the reasons for the dislike. This article voices that dicontent

  15. These textual additions create a new layer of reference for the audience, like a sort of riff. They direct the viewer to a specific chain of references. Controlling, perhaps, for us, but a form of religious training for the viewer. I wrote about the aesthetics of the Christian Bookstore in "Evangelical Eschatology Gets a Make-Over," in CrossCurrents

  16. I tend to agree with a lot of what your saying; however, what I if I am inspired like David or the old poets to write of the God who loves me or paint a picture of the same - then what? I don't know - do we let the pendulum swing too far some times? Believing more in the words or the pictures is a huge problem of course; but not believing them is worse - no?

  17. Did not Paul tell us that the letter (always) kills the Spirit.

    How much art of any kind was (or is) found in old time Calvinist and/or Puritan churches?

    They were of course essentially court-houses or places of judgment--definitely not places of ecstatic celebration. Places where both the Spirit and the body were crushed.

    Fortress Press or building strong Christian minds anyone!

    We "live" in a culture wherein we immediately objectify everything including art, and The Divine too. God has been reduced to the entirely objectified "other".

    We therefore cut off even the possibility of any kind of felt psychic or Spiritual resonance with whatever is thus objectified, including The Divine Reality.

    At another level, with very rare exception, all of Western art since the time of the Renaissance, including religious art, was and is about the gross level human meat-body only.

    The Divine Light and thus even the possibility of Divine Life was effectively eliminated from the Western cultural landscape by the simultaneous rise of scientism, and the Protestant religion. Religion based on the book, or the word.

    We now "live" entirely in a "culture" made of brain-created language games.

    The recent Matrix Trilogy was about this. The question is where does one find the Red Pill, or a Neo like character capable of breaking the collective trance, and its body shredding machine culture.

    All of the usual Christian word-smiths and their books are working for Agent Smith, to keep the techno-trance in place.

    Grace or Prayers of thankfulness are a universal cultural practice.
    And perhaps the prayers they offer at their events do invoke the Divine Presence, at least momentarily.

    I belong to a non-Christian Spiritual group that does a collective Invocation of the Divine Presence at all of our collective gatherings.

  18. Thats not art thats Kitsch. Fully "Christian" art should look more like Geurnica in my opinion.

  19. Great article. I typed a lot more but the page refreshed and now I forgot what I was talking about! You have a new fan. Bookmarked!

  20. Though I've been deeply involved in various "worship"/music mininstries for 16+ years, I eventually left church altogether and am doing what I've always wanted to do - writing, arranging, and performing instrumental contemporary/smooth jazz. I have run into a few Christians (a young assistant pastor for example) who wondered what the point of the music was, being that it lacked lyrics. When I first met my wife,
    she appreciated the music for what it was, but had a tendency to suggest song titles that would explicitly include Book/Chapter/Verse. She also tried to add lyrics to a few songs and I had to kindly push back. The latest material will address dark existential conflicts of faith head-on, with no obligation or hurry to conjure up pretentious resolutions. Therefore, I expect Chrisitians and the church at large to be least receptive of the work, and perhaps most antagonistic, but that's OK.

    Gary Y.

  21. I just wanted to say how glad I am to see you back again, Gary Y. I've missed reading your comments. You articulate so well for the dechurched and those wrestling within the Christian framework.

  22. I used to work in a furniture store and would always do my best to discourage people from buying art in a retail store. Unless you're outfitting a motel or a doctor's waiting room or some other innocuous space what's the point of mass produced art?

    There are so many great, affordable artists out there. And many of them are Christians. Find something that appeals to you and leave the schlocky art to doctor's offices of the world.
    Check out for some thought provoking, affordable art as well as some thought provoking words.

  23. My first thought was that they were all brown (drab, masculine). I appreciate your insightful analysis and agree for the most part, except that I think great art can be either symbolic or literal. Even though I attract to metaphors and impressionism, I also love realism (in art) and theology/scripture set to music (especially if I'm singing it in a worship service or my car). I even think words interspersed with illustration can be beautiful, if done creatively or whimsically (Christian artist Karla Dornacher comes to mind).

  24. I have long been frustrated with the Christian community and their lack of originality. It seems that we love to "Christianize" media in general. As a youth minister, I am aware of the temptation to use popular slogans and art and turn them into christian t-shirts or event themes; e.g. Faithbook for Facebook or Spirit for Sprite. Our art and music lack creativity...they use recycled theology.

    We have somehow lost our creativity or will to create. Are the art prints even Christian pieces of art or have we slapped christian sayings and scriptures on other artist's work? Why can't we create original pieces? What does this say about our creator?

  25. This is exactly true. Christians think art must have scripture on it in order to be approved by God. I think this makes our culture miss out on great opportunities. For example, instead of watching "American Beauty" and learning that there is beauty in places we wouldn't expect, Christians opt for "Facing The Giants" and learn that God will help you win football games. A chance to look closer (pun intended) at what it means to live and have life is traded for an overt message that was written by Christians, so it must be pleasing in God's sight. I think you are accurate in saying that spelling out the message degrades art into something less.

  26. Actually, the very first painting is by Albrecht Durer (1471 - 1528), regarded largely as the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance and a fascinating Christian man. That his "Praying Hands" have been turned into tacky Christian art with a "text" for you to understand is of course not his fault. Of all the artwork you have pictured, his drawing is the most beautiful.

  27. Quick follow-up, the winners of the Australian Blake Prize for religious art have just been announced.

    I've just posted about it here - some odd resonances with your post!

    Thanks once again.

  28. As a Christian who also considers "artist" as part of her identity, I am overjoyed to see that there are critical minds who value the quality and depth of art over its "didache." I struggle with the feeling that my art is not ministry enough, or glory enough to God because I am not including a message, or putting crosses on everything. I was additionally relieved to hear a succinct explanation for why some Christian music makes me weep and some makes me gag a little. I don't like to be sung a Sunday School lesson, I want to think and intuit. For band whose music is much more subtle and poetic, try Switchfoot, especially their older CDs. For a painting that will move you and keep you looking and thinking, try Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son."

  29. Also, for a serious initiative in art and theology, see Duke Divinity School's DITA program at this link

  30. I overheard this exchange before worship on Sunday and thought of this post.

    Man 1: "What is this, 'N Sync?"

    Man 2: (turns music in sanctuary up louder)  "No! DON'T WORRY! This is Christian!!"

    Man 1: "That wasn't my concern."

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