Oh, So Subtle: Defending a Certain Kind of Christian Art

Copyright 2016 by Gabriel Connor Salter (feel free to share, but don’t plagiarize. I’m a writer, you have no idea what I can do to your reputation).

I just finished reading a book called The Agony and the Ecstasy – no, it’s not about drugs. It’s a biographical novel about Michelangelo Buonarroti, the artist who painted the Sistine Chapel, sculpted a statue of David, and designed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

This book is dense, 660 pages of history, character development, and sweeping descriptions; but I really enjoyed it. Mainly because it show Michelangelo dealing with an ethereal issue that’s still relevant today: Christianity’s place in Christian art.

Michelangelo grows as an artist, but he keeps running into opposition. He paints pictures in which Jesus looks human, his mentor tells him that’s improper; Christ should look delicate, otherworldly. He strives to be an expert on anatomy, to know not how human bodies work so he can sculpt better; but the Roman Catholic Church forbids dissection because they believe people shouldn’t know the secrets of how God designed life. He paints and sculpts naked figures to show God designed the human body to be beautiful; people tell him humans are evil and nude art is sacrilegious.

The question’s never whether Michelangelo’s art is well-made (it obviously is), the question is, “is it morally right for Christians to make this kind of art?” This is probably a question which Christians debate in every generation, and every group has their own answer.

As I pointed out in my last post, the current stance for most American evangelicals is that morally good Christian art should be obviously, even brutally, Christian. Pastor Skye Jethani sums this attitude up very well in his book Futureville:
“To find acceptance by the church, let alone affirmation, many artists feel their creations must carry an explicitly Christian message. It isn’t enough to compose a beautiful song – it must be a Christian song. It’s not acceptable to create an inspiring film –it must have an evangelistic message. It isn’t sufficient to write a brilliant novel – it must champion biblical values.”

While I respect artists who can make explicitly Christian art and do it well, not all of us can aspire to be like them. Learn from them, yes. Respect them, absolutely. But not everyone has been gifted or called to be C.S. Lewis or Chris Tomlin. Some of us have been gifted and called to be more like Bono or J.R.R. Tolkien.

I could prove this in several ways, but I think the most compelling is to point out holes in the opposing argument. As well-intentioned as people are who argue Christian art should be explicitly Christian, that’s just not a consistent argument. It’s a contradiction in terms.

Let me explain. As stated earlier, this argument says “Christian art must be explicitly Christian.” But why? Why must Christian art be so obviously religious? The logical answer is because when art is explicitly making a point, people can be convinced to believe that point. We’re hoping that Christian music and books and movies will draw people closer to Jesus (either by making them stronger Christians or converting them into Christians). So, it follows that Christian art is a ministry – that is, a means by which we tell people the Gospel.

So what this argument is really saying is “Christian art must be explicitly because Christian art is a form of ministry.” But that’s a contradiction; it says Christian art is a ministry, and then limits it to only a few arenas of ministry. It’s like saying “Everyone who has a heart for ministry must become a pastor, because only pastoring is true ministry.” Yes, pastoring is a great example of ministry, but it is not the only form of ministry.

History shows that Christian heroes have used all kinds of jobs and strategies to tell people about Jesus. Gladys Aylward started her ministry in China by running an inn. George Müller pastored a church, but his most famous work for God was starting orphanages. Australian evangelist Frank Jenner built his entire ministry around walking up to 10 people every day and asking, “If you died within 24 hours, where would you be in eternity? Heaven or hell?” Moving to the 21st century, I’ve listened to accounts about people who use running rec centers for homeless people and even sword-making to communicate the Gospel.

Obviously, there are some common sense limits to what is valid ministry. It’s self-evident you can’t have an inherently sinful job (ex: porn photographer) and call that ministry. You can’t behave in a way that contradicts Scripture (being unloving, legalistic, or selfish) and call your work valid ministry either. Those actions violate Biblical teaching.

It’s also important to note some ministry work (full-time preaching, missions) require more monetary support than other forms. But that does not mean only those people are doing “real ministry” and the rest of us are just riffraff. It means different forms of ministry have different needs.

If we’re going to be effective followers and witnesses for Christ, we need to recognize that beyond the parameters of common sense we can’t put ministry in a box. God is simply too big and too creative for that.

This is especially important when it comes to artists, because art influences and changes our culture and reverberates in ways we cannot expect. Simply put, the church cannot afford to alienate artists.


Erler, Zoe. “Weapons of Life.” ByFaith Magazine, 16 December 2015. Print.

Jethani, Skye. Futureville: Discover You Purpose For Today By Reimagining Tomorrow. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2013. Ebook.

Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Oh, So Subtle: Defending a Certain Kind of Christian Art

  1. Laurelee Salter

    Art and the Bible by Francis A. Schaeffer. Very interesting commentary on worldview, medium and what he calls major and minor themes. Let me know if you need a copy.


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