Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Fundamentals of Christian Art?

Part 2 of 2

By Zena Dell Lowe
2010 FCWC Faculty

Now that we know what it looks like to be a Christian Artist, we can start exploring the idea of what kind of art a Christian Artist makes.

This is a very tricky question because again, a Christian artist is just an artist who happens to be a Christian. Consequently, there is no complete list of rules we get to follow in order to ensure we are glorifying God in our work. That's why we must be in fellowship with other Christian Artists.

As Flannery O'Connor says:
“The Christian writer does not decide what is good for the world and then proceed to deliver it.  Like a very doubtful Jacob, he enters into the struggle and wonders if he will come out at all.” 
There are no black and white rules. There are only principles and guidelines. Just as a Christian baseball player "plays the game" differently than his secular teammates, so also does the artist who happens to be a Christian. There are, then, a few guidelines I would like to suggest, and/or a few elements that might be included or present in artwork created by a Christian.

As I mentioned before, when most people consider what the goal ought to be for Christian fiction, they automatically assume that the goal is to be “non-offensive” in terms of sex, language and violence.  But the problem with that standard is that it only describes a void. It doesn’t give any creative guidance. 

As Barbara Nicolosi pointed out, “A lot of Christians lauded the release Walk to Remember mainly on this basis: It didn’t have any bad language and the two teenagers didn’t sleep together.” 

Now I enjoyed the film as much as the next guy.  Nevertheless, this kind of movie can't be the goal of Christian artists.  It was decent.  But it wasn't great.  It was a trite, predictable story with underdeveloped characters and humdrum acting and overly sweet dialogue.  It wasn’t a good movie because of what it didn’t have. Entertainment is a positive, not a void.  A story is great because of what it offers, not because of what it lacks.

So if Christian art is not art that lacks sex, language, and violence, what ingredients should we look for to identify a so called Christian work? Again, the fundamental rule must be:

“The secular novelist sees what is visible; the Christian novelist sees what is there.”  Frank Sheed
“The Christian writer lives in a larger world.”  Flannery O’Connor
“I would rather see an R-rated truth than a G - rated lie.” Act One
The problem with showing sex and violence is not that we show too much, but rather that we show too little.  We need to show the full consequences of sin, the whole picture.  Don't stop short.  Tell the whole truth.

Be true to your characters.  Sometimes people do bad things.  How can you show the redemption if you fail to show the depravity?  Look at the Bible for an example.  Lot slept with his daughters.  David saw Bathsheeba bathing on the rooftop - a pretty erotic voyeuristic image.  He then slept with her, got her pregnant, set up her husband, and then committed pre-meditated murder to cover up his sin.

If the Bible were a movie, it would be rated R because of the content.  God himself didn't hide behind pretty pink bows and a false world.  He dealt with real issues. But HOW we deal with these issues makes all the difference in the world.


We MUST tell the truth, the whole truth, about our character, his world, and his choices.  If we don't, we will not succeed in effecting the audience towards real change.  However, in telling the truth, we must be more creative than our secular counterparts - because we are morally responsible to our audience.  So here's the acid test - find a way to tell that truth without violating your audience.   

Scott Derrickson gives a talk about his experiences in Hollywood called "A Christian's progress."  In it, he describes the different camps he fell into as he wrestled with this question of the Christian artist's responsibility.  His conclusion is that our only responsibility is to tell the truth. 

But even here, he adds a condition.  He writes, "If a creative work is going to have a primarily detrimental effect on the audience, then a Christian shouldn't participate in it.

Consider the TV commercial director who is trying to use his craft to sell shaving cream.  His entire moral obligation is the creation of an excellent commercial that sells a product. For the Christian in Hollywood, excellence is the constant obligation, moving the audience AWAY from "the Good" is the forbidden practice, and moving the audience toward "the Good" is more often than not, the unique opportunity to be taken.”

There are several ways we can violate our audience. One way is to create visual images that are so disturbing that they literally damage the human being who views them. Often times sex scenes do this, which is why we have such a knee-jerk reaction to them.

We must remember we answer to God, and I certainly don’t want to be responsible for causing my audience to sin in lust as they read my book or watch my film. However, my story might be a lie if I don’t include some kind of sex scene. So what am I to do? Find a way to show it without damaging your audience. That’s all, and it’s everything.

There is a mystery in every human person. “I am not a book to be read and understood, I am a man with all his inconsistencies.”  Edith Stein
“The purpose of literature (stories) is to reveal to man his hidden greatness.”  Pascal
One of the paradoxes of the Christian experience is how we can endure both terrible suffering and have intense joy at the same time without any sense of contradiction.  We are complex, complicated people because we’ve been created in God’s own image.  And every human being has the potential for grace, redemption, greatness and hope. 

But at the same time, we have this terrible propensity for sin.  We are capable of such evil.  We are depraved – which doesn’t mean we’re as bad as we possibly can be all of the time.  But rather, we are infected with sin at every level of our humanity – our intellect, our emotions, our thoughts, our dreams.

So at any given crossroads, our decisions or thought processes can go astray and lead us away from our Creator.  We need to be willing to portray this truth about the human condition.  We need to be willing to explore the sinful realm that so infects our humanity. 

As the great Christian novelist Flannery O’Connor noted, “Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live.” 


We don't have to be afraid.  We are free to tell the truth.  And we are challenged to become even better, more creative artists in so doing, which gives God all the more glory, since he is well pleased with those who seek excellence.

We follow the example of Jesus, who was in the world, but not of the world, who hung out with sinners and told parables and stories, so that those sinners might find Him.  When Jesus told parables, they rarely mentioned God.  Yet when Christians write fiction that does not directly or overtly mention God or Christ, we are suspect. This should not be. Our goal is not to save people or evangelize.  Rather, we endeavor to write great stories to the best of our ability, and glorify God with our lives in the process.  And we do this not by writing “Christian” fare, but by engaging and infiltrating mainstream culture.

My hope is that Christians will be major players in Hollywood in the next five to ten years, not because they are writing "Christian" movies, but because they are telling GREAT STORIES with EXCELLENCE.  If we can do this, we can truly change the world one movie at a time.

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