By Haley Hasch
In part two of our series, we examined the colossal impact that Christian artists have had on art throughout history. We also discussed how the Enlightenment caused a split between Christianity and culture, creating a disconnect between the spiritual and everyday life. In this installment, we’ll further address this split between Christianity and culture, and how it has led to the creation of the mediocre Christian art we see today.
The repercussions of separating culture and Christianity did not become totally apparent until the 1960s. People were looking to new and different expressions of art to find transcendence and to give meaning to life. But having no basis on which to judge what was good art, the world lost the ability to distinguish between quality art and mediocre or bad art. Ken Meyers, author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, quotes from William L. O’Neill when he says of the 60s, “The resulting inability to distinguish between art and entertainment was one of the two most important cultural facts of the 1960s.” The Sixties were filled with all sorts of “art” as people tried in vain to find transcendence. Pop culture was encouraging free sex, drugs, and rebellion. Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was deemed “of the devil” became the most popular genre of music, and Christians were worried and horrified.
Writers such as Francis Schaeffer, theologian and philosopher, as well as Hans Rookmaaker, recognized that the problem was the degeneration of art and culture. Sadly, this resulted in some Christians staying away from culture entirely. But avoiding a problem is not a solution. The consequence of removing themselves from culture was that Christians no longer influenced it. Christianity and culture were now at odds with one another. Christians no longer ruled the art world. Culture now sat on that throne, and believers scrambled to find a way back into the mainstream.
Evangelicals saw the glorification of sin reflected in art and in the depravity of the Sixties. They knew the world needed Jesus, and Christians needed art that was edifying. But how could they get worthwhile art into the culture? To some Christians, the best solution seemed to be to imitate what was already popular. They added Jesus to country-western music, soft rock, heavy metal, and hip hop. The same was done with movies, novels, and the visual arts. Christian art was now valued by how well it imitated the style of the world, which, as author Ken Meyers writes, “establishes a curious pattern for people striving to avoid being conformed to the patterns of this world.” In desperation to get the Gospel out, believers began to fully support this copycat mentality. Christian artists put skill and even inspiration on the back burner—or worse, sacrificed them entirely—for the sake of evangelism. However, John 6:65 says, “And He said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by the Father.’” The church seemed to forget that it is the Lord who draws us to Him, and therefore packaged the faith to look like popular culture. While well-meaning and created with good intent, no one likes bad art. The result was that Christians were no longer pioneers of the arts, they were parrots of pop-culture.
In addition to compromising quality and originality, Christian artists began sugar-coating the Gospel in order to make it more appealing to the unbeliever. This is especially apparent in storytelling arts. These stories, which are more like advertisements for the faith, will often show that the main character’s problems are solved as soon as he hands his life over to Jesus. Some Christian art will even gloss over the evil in the world. Evangelical theologian and philosopher Francis Shaeffer writes, “Older Christians may wonder what is wrong with this art and wonder why their kids are turned off by it, but the answer is simple: It’s romantic. It’s based on the notion that Christianity has only an optimistic tone.” This type of overly sweet, inauthentic Gospel could sadly cause unbelievers with real pain and struggles to find Christianity unrelatable and unrealistic.
In his essay “Christian Fiction: Piety Is Not Enough,” Richard Terrell uses the word “parochialism” to describe the attitude towards Christian art. He argues that the strict rules and guidelines we use to define “Christian art” can actually prevent the creation of something truly impactful. He writes, “Parochialism is a spirit that demands we create only for the safely defined boundaries of our ethnic, ideological, or spiritual community.” Terrell is not advocating for the Christian artist to celebrate sin and debauchery, nor is he saying that believers should check their discernment at the door. He is, however, asking Christian artists to be authentic. It is a call for artists to tackle life’s hard issues in their work. But this cannot be done if the hard issues are not being written about. The believer must let go of the idea that all Christian art must be “safe.”
Let’s be honest, if “safe” is the standard, the Bible itself should not be allowed in Christian bookstores. Terrell goes on to write: “The desire to avoid offending sensibilities . . . often results in plastic, smoothed-over characters, and holding back from the kind of writing that may evoke true inspiration or authentic villainy.” The truth is that Christianity exists because we live in a world that needs a Savior. Christianity does not show the world through rose-colored glasses—the Bible does the exact opposite, calling sin exactly what it is, and explicitly telling stories of horrifyingly sinful people. But in spite of all the evil in the world, there is also hope. Christianity is a message of hope: hope in our despair, and forgiveness of our sin.
In our final article in this series, we will explore how Christian artists can make good, beautiful, authentic art, and how the Church can support and love artists and their vocations.
Haley Hasch is a 2020 homeschool graduate and is currently pursuing additional studies in English and music. She attends Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in San Antonio, TX.