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What is Christian art?

God is a creator and he made us in his image, as creators. We need to exercise that privilege more.  I just googled “Christian art.”   A modern pencil drawing, “Joyful Spirit,” (at right) caught my eye. Many of the rest were sentimental prints, like “Heaven’s Loss,”  by Ron…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

God is a creator and he made us in his image, as creators. We need to exercise that privilege more.  I just googled “Christian art.”   A modern pencil drawing, “Joyful Spirit,” (at right) caught my eye.

Many of the rest were sentimental prints, like “Heaven’s Loss,”  by Ron DiCianni, that sold for a hundred bucks or less.  Is that art?  And if so, what makes it Christian?  What is Christian art?

Is the word “Christian” a demographic qualifier as in “America is a Christian nation?” Is a Christian someone who asks Jesus into their heart?  The Bible says that “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7) Does this mean literally everyone who loves or are we talking about a certain kind of love?

And what is art? Is it enough to be creative (as in you create something new), or must imagination be an essential ingredient? We speak of “arts and crafts” in school, implying that crafts are not art, that they can be mass produced, like a Thomas Kinkade print (below).

Who gets to decide what art is? 

The real question then might be not “What is Christian art?” but “How does a Christian glorify the greatest Artist of all time, the Creator of the heavens and the earth?”  How do Christians make art that is worthy of him? Or, how will God bring glory to His name through me? 

Madeline L’Engel said, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that it is one of the deepest messages of the incarnation.”  Maybe in a world that scorns Christian art, it is time for artists to be incarnationally secular.

Of course if God hadn’t invented the incarnation, many Christians would have found the act blasphemous (and in fact, many theologians have).

Religious bureaucrats from Jesus’ time until our own have sought to dumb down and define the sacred and become gatekeepers for it. They have commissioned religious art, decreeing it sacred simply because its subject matter is biblically derived. Thus a Hieronymus Bosch painting is considered a sacred work of art whereas a modern artist rendering the same subject matter may be seen as secular.

So many musical artists are avowed Christians that they have their own genre: Bach, Handel, the members of Switchfoot.  But then there are musicians like Bono and Sufjan Stevens in the secular music field who happen to be Christians.

Some of our greatest sacred music appropriates the melodies of street songs for religious purposes. Luther, finding beer drinking itself to be a spiritual experience, discovered the musical theme for “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in a local beer hall.

When art is most obviously sacred – Michelangelo’s David, or the Sistine Chapel, or Handel’s Messiah – the very act of creation is a kind of incarnation, a physical expression of the divine, where the artist doesn’t so much create as he does partner with God in the act of creation. Mozart composed his first works at age five. I think he was channeling some kind of divine muse.

And insofar as God has endowed all of us with imaginations and a yearning to create, a legion of Christian’s artists is out there waiting to be awakened. Maybe you’re one.   

Comments (14)

  • Intriguing question. Used to live with a mime artist and a dancer and their family. Both of them were wonderfully creative in their expressions of who they understood God to be and used their art to share that. In the end, the mime artist stopped working and chose a different profession partly because Christians were so reticent to pay him for his work. Apparently it was “a gift from God” and should therefore be used for free, despite the fact that he had a wife and four kids to support. Of course the critics wouldn’t view their accountancy job the same way and thought it proper they should be paid in order to live from it. Their thinking was transparent that creativity was from God if it is called art but their own creativity in say number crunching was not. A common but wrong perspective.

    I am a musician who plays 11 instruments, a singer, a songwriter and composer, a writer of dramatic sketches, a musical arranger, an actress, director, photographer and I have been a painter, dancer and choreographer in the past too. Does that mean I am more creative than you? I don’t think so. It just so happens that the only things I am good at are things people view as creative.

    Art is the spark of the Creator, the proof that we are in His image. The fact that we are driven towards dreams, wanting to make a difference, to make things happen, express what’s inside us, these are all proofs we are in God’s image. It’s a Christian painting if a Christian paints it, it has no need to be a painting of the cross. The divine spark is in the world and flickers in many places and in people who are not Christian by faith because it is from His image in us.

    It gets called genius. Inspiration. That’s fairly close to the truth. It happens in your parenting, in your number crunching, in the way you choose to love people. You don’t have to be a singer for the unique melody that is you to be heard. I am passionate about all things creative and artistic, but I am well aware that creativity itself goes well beyond the bounds of all that we define as art. We express Him every time we creatively think around a problem. He really is the source of it all.

    And there are just those moments of sublime otherness that occur – sometimes in listening to a piece of music or seeing an amazing view or witnessing kindness. Moments when we become aware again that the divine is present and there are rarely any words to describe the wonder of the moment. The kiss of the divine is still in our world.

  • I took a philosophy/theology class in college called “Art, Beauty, and God”. We read a lot of materials on art and its development within the Church, what different theologians say about it and how it should be applied (or not applied) to worship. It was pretty interesting, but I would never take it again. It didn’t help me fall in love with art…

  • I’ve never liked how we’ve labeled art, music, etc. as “christian”. Art is art. Music is music. It may have a kingdom or spiritual expression but that doesn’t mean that it’s “christian”. Labeling something as “christian” is just a way to sell it to the church people. It’s like an unsaid raiting system for christians.

    My heart is to see us truly embrace art, not by labeling it, but accepting it for what it is – an expression. Let’s stop with the cookie-cutter christian crap and make something that transcends generations.

    God is the ultimate Creator. When we create art I believe we are exressing a very large part of his heart.

  • This is a great post and something I have struggled with for a long time. As an artist by nature (I am like Carol abovedanced, played instruments, and now draw and paint and do web design for a living) I have considered over and over the artists place in the church and find it very frustrating that Christian artists are expected to draw cute little pictures (or deep inspirational) of Biblical things in order to be considered to be using their art to glorify God. It eventually came to me that BECAUSE I am a Christian whatever I I am inspired to paint is going to have some sort of Christian undertones, just like, as my dad pointed out recently, my paintings are often flavored by my childrenbecause I love them and spend so much time with them they somehow seep into my paintings. It would make sense that because I love my Lord and spend much time with Him, He too would seep in and be part of my paintings whether intentionally or not.

  • Some of my favorite art, especially fiction, is persuasive. The author holds up a way of life or a worldview that he or she finds meaningful.

    For example, I just read a novel called The River Between by an upcoming Kenyan author. The story was the most moving argument for contextualization of the gospel. It was beautiful, life changing.

    The best part was that it intentionally had all the elements of the gospel, only disguised in the clothing, the context, of the people. It was Christ incarnated in rural Kenya.

    Most “Christian art” is sentimentally religious. It picks and chooses symbols from Christian history (mostly Western Christian) but it only inspires the religious. Non-Christians don’t understand it. There’s nothing they relate to.

    If I were ever to do art seriously, I would want to clothe Christ in the context of my culture rather than pick and choose from cliched symbols. Not only would this give a wider audience for the work, but it might even persuade others to my worldview.

  • I was looking at a rose the other day. I wondered if God had anything to do with creating it. I looked for a fish logo on one of the petals. Maybe he’s discreet. Il pulled all the petals off looking deep inside. I couldn’t find the fish. I guess he didn’t create it. Oh, well.

  • Hi,The teachings of Christ came to a civilized world at a time when they were most needed. The twilight of the power of force and terrorism was to fade before the dawn of the power of humility.Thank you Jesus for a ministry of excellance,great blog man,God Bless you.

  • I find that in the art classes that I take you may express your feelings as long as it is spiritual but not Christian, I have had my teacher stop me when I explained my painting, and another who wanted to write what her painting was about, she suggested it was not in “good taste”. I quite this class for a few years, but I am back and I will do as the Lord directs, I believe it is a testimony. Whatever our Lord Jesus shows us I praise Him that we can express artfully.

  • I am so glad to see such interest in Christian art and uplifting through the visual senses. I would like to also share a new Christian piece my husband just finished. It is titled, “From Fear to Faith” and is the first of at least 8 more Christian pieces he will do this year. http://fineart.howardlyon.com/blog-2/

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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