Thursday, March 26, 2009


Breaking the Boundaries of Christian Art

On a forum yesterday I made a comment about how Seventh-day Adventists, Latter Day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses have a lot of very similar art which requires great skill in painting realism, but is often kind of dead otherwise. A brother replied and shared a quote:
This is so true, I have noticed the stiff realism in their art. Remember the illustrated Bible Story by Maxwell? There's a study: everybody looks so clean, controlled, and completely sanitized from any kind of healthy sensuality. The cover art on this Sabbath School Quarterly also comes to mind. But not to just pick on Adventists, Mormons, and JW's. This is my opinion, but there is a surprising lack of good art in the Christian world in general. Why is this so, if it is so?

Francis Schaeffer discussed this in his 1973 book, "Art and the Bible." Here's a sample quote:

"The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, including true to the ultimate environment -- the infinite, personal God who is really there -- then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Such an attitude will give our Christianity a strength that it often does not seem to have at the present time."
(Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, Ch. 1)
I replied that I'd first realized the dryness of "Christian art" when a friend ran a blog series that compared similarities in Christian art with propagandic art (such as seen in Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and in Nazi Germany). The realism style is the same, and also the very "pious" looks of upstanding, clean figures and near-utopic scenes. The implications of this are very frightening -- well, at least they ought to be sobering, I think.

At the first it would indicate that there is a lack of imagination --- but that itself is a fruit, not the root. The root of that would be that there is a strict communal "vision" and everyone--including foremost the artists--must bend to set their sights on that same vision. People cannot envision things beyond what the communal vision has dictated. The bar is set, paradise defined, "God" defined.

By the way, I guess you'd noted that I said "Christian art" above instead of just the specific cultic groups... because generally, it is true of most "Christian" art as well. The art of the "Christian cults" (SDA, LDS, JW) is generally drier than regular Christian, but regular Christian is also commonly dry as well. The "Christian Cult" art has an added element, though: it tries to depict the apocalyptic and it's interpretations of the apocalyptic... and it usually comes across very dry, 1950ish, and crazed-looking. This, by the way, is perhaps the one common trait in the three "Christian Cults" that just screams "CULT!" the loudest.

In general Christian art, however, the bar is still set and the product still dry. It's a sort of industry that demands a regular product -- Biblical scenes in oil-painting realism, generally brightly lit, with soft green grass and light blue colors. Occasionally people are still clad in 1950s formal wear. Sometimes people look more modern, but an odd thing happens then... they often look like 1950s people wearing modern clothes! It's a mystery to me... but I think this means that there is a sort of "rut" that Christian art got stuck in somewhere along the line.

I spoke of it being like an industry or factory, and that's true for Catholic art as well, which once used to produce beautiful, stunning works of art, but today churns out things equally dry as that in 1950s American protestantism. I think one of the reasons that Catholic art had been so great in the past was simply because it grew in an age where the arts were still experimental, and artists were really pushing the envelope -- even though today their works look "classic" and "standard", in fact in their day they were pushing the boundaries. That, and it should be noted that many of the artists simply painted biblical scenes so as to not lose the approval of the state churches. They painted and experimented with technique, style and realism, but made it "Christian art" sometimes simply because they wanted to (1) make a living, and (2) not get in trouble for what their paintings depicted.

This in turn highlights one of the problems that limits expression & imagination -- the fear of getting something theologically wrong or getting judged for it by the rest of the church. Whereas in the art of the Catholic church's heyday you had an actual church authority looming over you & your works should they step out of line with the institution's vision, today you have (in evangelical Protestantism) a sort of theological standard of judgment. People habitually look with eyes of judgment, especially at the arts ("music" gets this ungraceful treatment the worst). It's strange... I didn't realize this when I started writing, but the lack of grace in the church seems to have a direct affect on the amount of creative art produced (this, in turn, reflects the degree to which people feel comfortable expressing their true selves and being themselves "in church").

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Vincent van Gogh, who had a soul that wanted to be a minister and identify with common people, but who was rebuked by the church establishment for not looking dignified enough. He would paint later on and portray common people, and would put in subtle things of his faith here and there. But at other times, there would be subtle hints of the ungrace that the church exuded... an open Bible with a candle next to it that's flame had been snuffed out... a beautiful starry night and lit-up town with a darkened church at its center. While Van Gogh's run-in with the church's ungrace happened before he made his great paintings, nonetheless it still shows that he was one of many who have not found the environment of the church to be supportive of artistic expression. (One good article here, and another good one here).

Of course, in saying all these things, the obvious irony is that I am a "Christian artist" too and it might look like I'm criticizing others' work and trumpeting my own. Hah! No. I don't have a lot of skill as far as artists go, and I'm still looking for my stride, so to speak. I am not yet as disciplined as many artists are and as an artist should be. And more important than these things about me, there really are a lot of very good Christian artists out there who don't paint dry, lifeless Biblical scenes. And there are even a few who paint Biblical scenes that have life in them. However on the whole, these kinds of quality artists' works are not the rule, but the exception. And of course, a lot of "art" is subjective. But nonetheless, it's good to soberly recognize that when Christian art resembles the propagandic art of dictators, something is indeed wrong.

The thing that turned my "art" world upside down was meeting the Holy Spirit. Prior to that, I couldn't see any way of painting anything other than dry Biblical scenes. (I wrote about this a bit here). And I think that might be kind of a sort of key to this... that our degree of expression and creativity is often proportional to our degree of comfortability with the moving of the Holy Spirit in us and among us. I think this is why some of the most beautiful Christian art in modern times comes out of charismatic churches -- not only art, but also music, dance, and other forms of expression. Christians with artistic desires are often unable to see beyond the common "vision" of the "Christian life" that is set before them in church. And then the environment of suspicion towards the arts and the environment of ungrace that lashes out at people who slip... this keeps people down, not only in the arts, but regular people who can't be themselves. They are told to aim to "be like Christ", but the image of Christ is not the living Christ -- it's precisely that, an image that was painted somewhere between the late 1700s, nurtured in the 1800s, and painted in the 1950s.

The kind of art that is allowable -- art that can be "endorsed", seen as being "right", or suitable to "be a blessing" -- is often as narrowed and constrictive as the theology of cessationism itself (mind you, sometimes I really want to say "the heresy of cessationism"), which limits God's talking to Bible study. I think we'll see art & artists & church members comfortable with creativity & expression only as we get in touch with the living God Himself -- not in touch with a theology, but with the living, communicating God Himself. And when we begin to suck up His grace a lot more for one another, for ourselves, and for the world.


Some more thoughts have been posted on
the Former Adventist Forum thread here:
"Cultic Christian Art"

I fully agree, Ramone, with your comments about the cults and the "controlled" realism in their art. This can be easily seen in the materials they use.

The freedom Jesus imparts is reflected in the way we as believers express ourselves in the world. Christ-centered artistic expression is as free and beautiful as the relationship we have with Jesus.

Your art, by the way, clearly has the element Holy Spirit inspiration. It speaks to my soul. Thank you for sharing it.

Dear Ramone,

God realy is an example for us in all ways! Just take a little time and study His creativity! He is expressing things like: hard as solid rock, fluid as crystal clear water, structures as in minerals, the shine of pearls, the many fluorescent colors of coral reefs. The softness of a spiders web, the feel of wool, the cold and toughness of ice and at the same time the delicacy of a snowflake. Nature holds so many beautiful shapes: how about the seed of a dandelion, a 3-dimensional piece of art, built of very light material so it flows in the wind. It balances in the air. God is awesomely creative. We still have a lot to learn. But at this moment I sense the Holy Spirit is pushing our borders and breaking down our frames of thinking! He is expanding our views on art. I am very excited to see 30 artists coming together next week in Amsterdam for the first time to see what can be done with christian prophetic art! Artist must make an impact to the world. We cannot do this through dull 1950's art. He will inspire us!
Love and blessings,
Marion, Amsterdam
Why realism is challenging and can be distracting:

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