I’ve mentioned in a few previous blogs that there’s an imbalance in Protestant evangelical culture. Artists who produce art for other Christians – CCM music, Christian fiction, Christian films – are well regarded while artists who want to work in the mainstream tend to be criticized or condemned. I’ve written a lot about how this isolates artists who want to be in the mainstream, but I haven’t talked about how it hurts artists in the Christian art world. Quite simply, this imbalance pushes artists to enter fields like worship music or Christian fiction if they want to be accepted by the church. These are fields which no one should be pushed into because they place unique pressures on artists.
Phil Vischer, who created the massively successful VeggieTales series, talks about this a little in his memoir Me, Myself and Bob. As he was developing VeggieTales he talked with his mother, who had a doctorate in Christian education and consulted with churches on how to run children’s ministries. She gave him some guidelines to follow:
“‘First rule,’ she said, taking a somewhat parental tone, ‘you will not portray Jesus as a vegetable.’ Good point, I thought, not quite grasping that this guideline would eliminate much of the New Testament as source material for VeggieTales. ‘Second rule,’ she continued, ‘try not to imply that vegetables can have redemptive relationships with God. Don’t show vegetables praying unless they’re playing the role of a historical or biblical figure.’ Yikes, I thought. This is going to be tricky.
‘Finally,’ she continued, ‘try to communicate to kids how God made each one of them unique and how much he loves them. That’s your most important message.”
The last guideline was fairly easy to follow, but the first two put unusual pressures on Vischer’s work. They were religious pressures, boundaries which artists have to follow not because those boundaries help them make better art but because those boundaries keep artists from making heretical art.
These boundaries are very important, and they tend to make what is already a difficult job (making good art) even harder. Making worship music sounds great until you realize that a worship musician’s job is to create an atmosphere where churchgoers feel ready to worship God, and then step back and let God take all the attention. As Lecrae put it, you have to play the background and ignore those artistic impulses to explore your life through your art or reach out to your audience.
Similarly, making paintings for churches sounds like a wonderful profession until you realize that painters can make amazing works which miss the point entirely. Renowned Christian painter Makoto Fujimura commented in one of his essays that while Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel are beautiful, they don’t create a sense of awe for God. They may be good tools for teaching the Bible or showing certain theological ideas, but they don’t qualify as good worship art.
In addition to these unique pressures, there’s also the fact that most explicitly Christian art requires a strong background in the Bible. People may not explicitly say that, but it doesn’t take much attention to know that most explicitly Christian is restating Biblical ideas in a new form. Contemporary Christian Music songs usually contain verses directly from or heavily based on Biblical passages. Christian films usually involve taking a theological idea (how to have a Godly marriage, how to trust God) and examining it through the plot. And of course, Sunday school cartoons that retell Bible stories should be based on the actual Bible stories.
The problem is that artists can’t simply read the Bible occasionally or know church traditions or denominational opinions to make solid Biblically-based art. They have to be what some Christians call “students of the Word,” reading the Bible perpetually and studying it deeply.
There are really two reasons why artists in the Christian art world have to be such theologians. One is simply that as Christian musician Steve Camp noted, “The Word of God is the most holy thing we will ever hold in our hands in this lifetime.” There is very little reason not to study it. The second reason is that many church traditions and denominational opinions aren’t as Biblically accurate as we like to believe. Several writers have noted that one reason so many Protestant evangelicals don’t understand art is opinions left over from the Puritan and Calvinist movements – opinions which may have been well-intentioned but are simply not Biblical. The more we read the Bible, the closer we get to God; the more we rely on tradition, the further we tend to drift away from him.
So if being a professional artists wasn’t gut-wrenching work in the first place, artists making explicitly Christian art also have to deal with religious pressures and be lay theologians on top of other responsibilities.
We are left with this position: artists who want to work in the mainstream are discouraged from doing so, which pushes them to try and make explicitly Christian art, even though those fields exert pressures which many artists cannot handle. Then people wonder why the Barna Group discovered young artistic/creative people are leaving the church in droves.
Vischer, Phil. Me, Myself & Bob: A True Story about God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables. 2007, Nelson Books. Print.
Kinnaman, David and Hawkins, Aly. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith. 2011, Grand Rapids: Baker Books. Ebook.