Culture At Large

On Art, and the Message

Andy Rau

Michael Spencer has some thoughts for young artists who have been injured by the church. It's a good piece, and his three points of advice for aspiring Christian artists are right on target.

Like most of his essays, this one is getting some attention from the wide world of blogs. Messy Christian follows up with the story of personal experience with the Church's attitude towards art: the end, Christian artists have a strange status of sorts in church. They either can't contribute their talents at all, or have their talents restricted to acceptable levels. Quite an odd predicament.

I don't think too many people would dispute the observation that the Christian church as a whole (but especially its Protestant branch, I think) has a troubled and often counterproductive relationship with the Arts. I'm sure there are all sorts of historical, social, and cultural reasons for this attitude, but I think that much responsibility rests on Christians' tendency to interpret and judge any given piece of artistic expression not on the basis of aesthetics or creativity, but rather by its message.

The idea that we are messengers is an important part of our Christian identity. One of our highest callings is to communicate the message of Christ to the world around us; we're (in theory, at least) always aware of our responsibility to share by words or action the Good News that we've received. We know that Art has great potential to communicate Ideas to its audience; it's logical then that our understanding of all artistic endeavours tends to fixate first and foremost on its potential to communicate the greatest of ideas--the Gospel.

And so when we set our minds to the producing art--whether it's a book, a painting, a dance, a movie, or anything else--we appreciate the result not so much as an act of human creation, but as a tool with which to communicate a specific message to the audience. Our hyper-awareness of (or obsession with) this message-bearing aspect of Art colors the way we understand almost every piece of art we see, whether it's created by a Christian or non-Christian. It's why a Christian review of, say, Apocalypse Now will make much of the film's vulgarity while scarcely mentioning its cinematic achievements; it's why we spend time writing books earnestly debunking the claims of an artistically insignificant novel like The Da Vinci Code. It's why, in the lead-up to Christian-friendly films like Left Behind and The Passion of the Christ, nobody was talking about whether or not those films would actually be good films--it was enough that they'd communciate the message loudly and clearly.

Not that this tendency is, at its heart, a bad thing. In fact, I think that Christian hyper-sensitivity to Message can give us a deeper understanding of art's power and potential. If Christians are too sensitive to the worldviews communicated by art, it can also be said that the non-Christian world tends to recklessly ignore this aspect of art entirely, preferring to focus on artistic prowess without moral context.

However, I do think that our focus on Message, and our resulting fear of Art that communicates non-Christian Messages, contributes to our general confusion when it comes to Christians who create art. We can appreciate art that communicates obvious and specific Christian ideas, and we can recognize art that communicates non-Christian ideas. But what to do with Christians whose creations don't fit neatly into our preconceptions of "Gospel-communicating art"? We might appreciate the effort they put into their work, but we wonder if that effort wouldn't be even better spent creating something of more immediate usefulness in spreading the Gospel. Art without a safe and clear message is somewhere between "useless" (because it's not contributing to evangelism) and "dangerous" (because an unclear message could lead people away from the Truth). Given the power of art to influence people, we usually find it easier to play it safe by pushing our artists into safely-defined channels of expression.

Are we missing out on something with our near-exclusive focus on art's message? Do we ascribe too much power, for good or ill, to art? Does art have worth in and of itself, or is its value based entirely on the message it communicates? Given the importance of the Gospel we're trying to spread, is it reasonable to restrict our artistic expression to that Message alone?

I don't know the answer to that question. What do you think?

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