Art is everywhere. That may sound like something an elementary art teacher would say on the first day of class, but it’s true. We are surrounded by and participate with art every day in the movies and TV shows we watch, the books we read, the music we listen to, the architecture of our buildings, the pictures on our walls and the frames we choose to display them in, even our clothes and the advertisements we see. These are all artistic, designed expressions.
As a society, we are inundated with art. But as Christians, we often choose not to be involved with art. We tend to either dismiss art rejecting everything outside of our preferences or become passive consumers of art taking it all in without concern. The former causes us to hide ourselves in our own holy huddles, avoiding the culture we remain a part of. The latter makes no delineation between that which is true and that which is a result of our own sinfulness.
When I go to an art gallery, I look for something that “speaks to me.” I expect to be communicated with, even if subconsciously. That instinct is right. Art is brought into existence by people, so all art communicates something. We aren’t surrounded by benign expressions of art, but the declaration of what a person esteemed to be truth.
Their messages become a part of us. Films tell us what sort of romance we should expect and hope for. Music, for example, can hide its messages in our minds for years. Go play the first album you ever bought—I bet you remember every word, even if you haven’t heard it in the last decade. I remember more lyrics from the Smash Mouth hit “All Star” than I am comfortable to admit.
Because Christians are a people called to be ambassadors for Christ, firmly planted in the world but with a different message, we must then be active evaluators of art. If we can evaluate art, we can evaluate our culture and begin to engage the culture with the message and beauty of Christ.
To a degree, we are already doing this. Modern Christians excel in criticism, though it trends toward calloused dismissiveness—we are more likely to demonize and dismiss art than to consider its message. We are also great celebrators of art, primarily if the work is made by, for, and about Christians. I am not saying this kind of art is evil or even substandard to other art, only that we rarely venture out beyond the confines of our holy galleries. But that’s not engagement, it’s reclusive.
If we are to be active with art we must become right evaluators of art. That requires learning and understanding, it requires asking questions and thoughtfully interacting with the answers, especially if we disagree with them. Right evaluation creates conversation, beneficial criticism, and celebration of beauty to God’s glory.
Separate and Certainly Not Equal
A major reason we often fail to rightly evaluate the art (and therefore culture) around us is that Western Christianity is success-oriented. We like big, fast, and influential movements and even track which ministries are growing fastest like Wall Street tracks hedge funds. Yet the Bible never defines success in this way; capitalistic culture does, and when we define success as “bigger, faster stronger,” we become intolerant of any kind of failure.
If success, as cultural Christianity defines it, is the goal, then failure and weakness are for the unfaithful. Christianity that adorns itself with the values of Western culture breeds isolation, callousness to the weaknesses of others, and dismissiveness toward the claims and questions of the world around us. It might not sound like it, but that has everything to do with our interaction with art.
In our hostile climate, art ceases to create conversation and serves only as propaganda. There are only winners and losers—us and them. You broken/sinful/unspiritual people have your art with your ideas and we perfect/whole/faithful people have ours. This may be why collectively we campaign against movies we’ve never seen, books we’ve never read, and write off artists of all stripes if they do not present their work as we would have them do so. That may be why it’s easier to find a culturally outraged Christian than a culturally engaged Christian.
Remember Harry Potter?
Take the Harry Potter series for example. Today, the series is beloved by many Christians and church leaders, but when it was released, there was outrage within the church. Christian leaders definitively claimed that J. K. Rowling was willfully drawing America’s children into witchcraft and demon worship. The claim was patently nonsensical and so far off-base that it could be dispelled by even a cursory reading of the books. Beyond that, Rowling repeatedly proclaimed her faith in the God of the Bible, publicly denied the witchcraft claims, and said that even a basic knowledge of her Christian faith would give away the ending of her series. But that didn’t stop some churches from hosting book burnings and countless other congregations strongly counseling their families to reject Harry Potter.
American Christians did, however, enjoy and celebrate the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia films, which released concurrently with the Harry Potter books and films. Both series prominently feature magic and wizardry, but neither was ever vilified as demonic witchcraft. By what logic could we praise one and vilify the other? To simply say, “One is good magic and the other bad magic,” is a stick figure of a straw-man argument. I fear Rowling was vilified because she was unknown, and therefore dangerous, in Christian circles. If that is the case it is callous, dismissive, and only accomplishes hostile entrenchment toward the world. In short, it is not the work of an ambassador of Christ.
Being Art Ambassadors
An ambassador is a person sent from their own nation to a foreign land. They are emissaries of their culture, the designated messengers of their government. Christians are an ambassador of a much grander sort. You are the messenger of the greatest news imaginable: God himself walked the earth, lived a life we should have lived, and then died the death we rightfully deserved so that we could be forgiven and united with God. He then was raised so that we too might also live forever with him as sons and daughters of the living God.
That message is a three-billion-candlepower spotlight on a starless night revealing every praiseworthy and detrimental value in our culture. We can’t hide the message or the faithful critique it brings to our culture.
We can neither barricade ourselves from the world nor divorce ourselves from our culture. Both endeavors borrow the thinking of an infant without object permanence, thinking that if we close our eyes the world and all that is wrong with it will disappear. Christians must go and participate with all variety of art in both enjoyment of aesthetics and praise or critique of its messages. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:13–15,
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Christians don’t curse the darkness—they rush headlong into it with the light.
Don’t miss-hear me: there is unprofitable art. There are books, movies, music, and other media that are detrimental for Christians as individuals and the church corporately to celebrate or support. However, you should be able to define why unprofitable art is, well, unprofitable. Dismissing something out of hand serves no one. Engaging with a work, pointing out its merits and shortcomings, and showing how Christ is the answer is what we, cultural missionaries, must do.
Asking the Right Question
That may sound daunting, but it’s mostly about asking one question: “Is the message of the art true?” God revealed truths of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. If a song glorifies sex and money as the ultimate good, the song is untrue because it is idolatrous. It may be technically good, and you might really like it, but that does not mean it glorifies God. Likewise, if a song expresses the pain of loss or the question of value in this world, it becomes a platform for conversations about Christ our comforter and our hope.
It is my desire that we would share the beauty we find and work to redeem the brokenness art often communicates. We will only accomplish this if we actively engage in the work of artists with enthusiasm, kindness, interest, and appreciation. You can start that here at Fathom. Check out the work of our featured artist. Share it. Visit the artist’s website. Maybe even buy a piece in our shop or directly from the artist.
It’s time we turned our eyes to the art that’s all around us.
Cover photo by Simson Petrol.