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It’s been a while since I’ve read Relevant. I found some time ago that it’s better for my blood pressure if I stay away. But every once in a while something catches my attention and just like that I get sucked back in. And, here we are.

There’s so much wrong with this piece about Christian art that I barely know where to begin. So, how about we begin at the end.

The conclusion that the author, Tyler Huckabee, arrives at is this: “Together, we’ll get this Christian Art thing to work.” I hate to be a buzzkill, but no, we won’t.

“This Christian Art thing” will not work because it’s a faulty premise. When Huckabee says “Christian Art,” what he means is the byproduct of an American evangelical culture that feels the need to make “Christian” versions of everything. It really has little do with Christian art. Here’s an example, walk into a Catholic or Anglican church and look around. You will see stained glass, sculptures, paintings and tapestries. This is “Christian Art,” but more importantly, it’s art.

The idea that kitschy knockoffs sold in Christian bookstores should be referred to as Christian Art is preposterous. Most of the best art ever made in the history of the world has Christian themes, but even then, it’s hardly ever called Christian Art; it’s just art. If an artist sets out to make Christian art, what she really is doing is attempting to create for a captive audience. Plenty of Christians are artists, but they don’t limit the scope of their work to a tiny subculture. Rather, they make art that reflects their faith. The difference is the intention of the artist. In the kind of “Christian Art” Hucakbee is describing, it is Christian because it is aimed at a particular audience. It actually has little to do with the work itself. That the work is often awful is a reflection of this motivation, and certainly not the Christian content. Huckabee is talking about American evangelical kitsch. So, that’s the first problem, the sinking sand on which Huckabee’s entire piece is constructed.

Scrolling on up, Huckabee flirts a bit with the notion that keeps the evangelical kitsch makers in business, the notion that because this stuff is Christian it is beyond criticism. He considers, briefly, whether his “snarky disregard” for the stuff isn’t as just as bad as when youth pastors coerce their students into burning secular CDs. It’s not.

Fortunately, Huckabee gets back on track and ensures the reader that he’s not saying “we shouldn’t criticize bad art when we see it.” So we should criticize Christian art, he thinks, but only if we try our hand at making it. Otherwise, it’s like “an overweight Colts fan screaming at Peyton Manning to throw the ball harder.”

But of course, this argument, too, is false. In the art world, critics play an essential role in the curating and shaping of what is deemed good art. If only artists could say what was good they would either only promote their own work or support other artists who make work like their own. Artists are often the worst critics.

Huckabee’s piece begins with a story about his own experience in Christian Art, the television show he and his friends are creating. He documents a scene in which they consider how their show will be received and whether it will be accepted or rejected. His friend Brad doesn’t know, he says, because, “So many Christians are just addicted to the same old crap.”

I agree with Brad, kind of. But in my mind, the crap doesn’t refer so much to the quality of the “art” that is created, but the idea behind these creations. And the idea is the problem, the notion that Christians need their own art. That’s the “same old crap,” and unfortunately Huckabee’s piece just propagates that misconception.

We have to stop acting like we’re talking about “Christian Art;” what we’re really discussing is evangelical kitsch. Further, we have to stop suggesting that the creations of Christians are beyond criticism or that the only people who should criticize are those who are also turning out the same kitsch. We need critics who are Christians, who understand the importance of religious content in art and who can see it as art and not simply a means to an end. Likewise, we need artists who are Christians to make art and release it not only into the shallow pool that is evangelicalism, but to the world at large. This will be “Christian Art,” and it will be art. It will be something we can be proud of.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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24 Responses to It’s Christian Kitsch, Not Christian Art

  1. bitterbare says:

    I thought the same thing when I read it. Thanks for writing this, if only because now I don’t have to. As long as something is said by someone, I can get the pissed-ness out of my head…

  2. Caroline says:

    I, too, try to stay away from Relevant… but they’re so dang good at drawing you in, I sometimes have to read! I agree with you, though. When we have to qualify the word art in the first place, we’ve already got problems. Christians should be excellent at what they do because God’s calls us to no less. Then people from all sorts of circles will notice that it is excellent … and then we can have a conversation about why.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I love Thomas Kinkade. Have you seen the one he did with the cottage? That one’s my favorite.

    That’s a little snarky, I guess, but just because a verse of Scripture is placed on some forest dwelling doesn’t make it divine, or even relevant. I agree with almost everything you’re saying. I would disagree with ‘addicted to the same old crap’ line only because a lot of people are just trying to use their use of art and media in our culture as a way to label themselves as Christians. “I went to see Facing the Giants and Fireproof in theaters, that’s part of being a Christian.” It’s really just an identity crisis of the faith and church in this country. What are tangible ways to identify myself as a Christian when I have the same jobs, 401k, lawns, cars, ideologies, cultural activities, etc. as everyone else? We as a country, not just Christians, have lost our connection to art. If it doesn’t pleasure, it’s not generally pursued.

    Thanks for the article.

  4. Justin says:

    “So we should criticize Christian art, he thinks, but only if we try our hand at making it.”

    I’ve read through this article four times now, and I’ve yet to see this claim. He says that the snide comments of his youth were cheap, true, and that he’s learned a little more after his experiences. Yet that’s not the same thing as the assertion that criticism is valid only after one makes the same attempts.

    Snark IS cheap. Cynicism is immature. And maintaining a constant position of looking down your nose at something is snobbery, not criticism. Anyone can do this.

    • nathan says:

      Yes, the studied ugliness of the average evangelical worship space, the Testa-mints, the plastic combs with john 3:16 on the handle, the ham-handed need to “christianize” every art form, the whole of the material culture of evangelicalism isn’t the problem…it’s the mean, snobby people who see the bankruptcy and name it for what it is. sheesh.

      cynicism isn’t immature. it’s the logical end result when a sub-culture obstinately refuses to interrogate itself and subject itself to the same scrutiny it feels led by God to direct at, well, just about everyone and everything else.

      I’m thankful for Fitzgerald’s essay. Seriously.

      • Justin says:

        It’s not that they’re “mean,” it’s that their aim is lousy. They’re tilting their guns sideways for show and missing the target.

        It’s the whole “Either-or” attitude here, plus the assumption that I haven’t been thinking about these issues for over 20 years, that seems to give credence to my argument.

        And if cynicism is the logical end result of anything, you’re doing it wrong.

  5. […] Patrol has an opinion article up on the idea of “Christian Art”.  Fitzgerald’s driving point is that much of what we call “art” in history was […]

  6. Jon says:

    In response to this: “In the art world, critics play an essential role in the curating and shaping of what is deemed good art.” Even you would admit that the best critics are the ones that are educated. They’ve studied art, whether through higher education or through the practice. They aren’t purely consumers. But they get it wrong. At points, woefully so. That’s a big part of “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The public, the critics, all of us get fooled. We get it wrong. Too many artists die bankrupt only to be celebrated later because they were misunderstood. Where are the critics on that one?

    And that is massively frustrating to those that spend their lives creating rather than judging. You see this when Brad Bird rails against the critics in the movie “Ratatouille.” Anton Ego states, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

    It’s easy to judge Huckabee. It’s easy to say that he is completely off base. However, have you seen the show? Have you seen what they are trying to do? Have you heard their message? Is it different? And most important, is it good? If so, I think the question becomes, is he now able to better relate to the people that have gone before and failed? Because honestly, that is where I think he is coming from. He’s not saying that “Fireproof” and Kincade are good but rather that their jobs of creating art that conveys a spiritual message is a lot harder to make than the critiques about them.

    • I think it is important to note that I did not, at any point in my critique of Huckabee’s essay, offer a critique of his show. I was very intentional about that. I am judging Huckabee’s essay, not his art.

      Also, my argument was not that critics should not be educated…of course they should. My argument was that it is not necessary that they be practitioners. And yes, critics also get it wrong sometimes (often?).

  7. mike kelsey says:

    Jonathan – Thanks for your post. Do you have any recommended resources that have helped shape your view of art from a Christian perspective?

    • Joshua Keel says:

      Hi Mike,

      I’m not Jonathan, but I thought I would make some recommends of my own, ones I think are in the spirit of this post.

      Walking on Water – Madeleine L’Engle
      Art and the Bible – Francis Schaeffer
      Imagine – Steve Turner

      Josh

  8. Jeffrey says:

    The ongoing scandal of the evangelical mind. This desire to Christianize everything stems, at least in part, from a failure and/or refusal to think about the doctrine of vocation. A farmer doesn’t glorify God by growing crops for a Christian market or selling crops at a Christian farmer’s market. A farmer glorifies God by farming well, being a good steward of the land, etc. An English teacher doesn’t glorify God by tacking on a Bible verse at the end of a sub-par lesson or asking his students propose the most effective way to witness to Jay, Nick, Daisy and Tom. He glorifies God by preparing well, stayng current in his subject area and on the latest pedagogical research, devising ways to most effectively teach the particular students he has that year or semester, etc. In the same way, an artist does not glorify God by creating sub-par “art” and beleiving that the most important thing about it is whether or not it evangelizes people. Good grief. Everything does not have to be a sermon; in fact, everything should not be a sermon.

  9. Johnny Wood says:

    as an experiment: i ask any of you who have a problem with what jonathan is saying here to do the following:

    1. listen to any song by any instrumental rock band, such as explosions in the sky, pelican, or mogwai.
    2. decide if you like it.

    if the next question you’re asking yourself is, “are they christian?” you’re doing it wrong.

    i’d like to propose that if we as christians have managed to corner ourselves into not only believing that we need our own art (of any kind), but that any christian making bad/lame/umm-not-freaking-good-in-any-way-shape-or-form art shouldn’t be discouraged in any way (or even encouraged to not suck), we have a huge problem on our hands. it’s this huge problem that has rewarded bands like casting crowns with not only lots of fans, but millions of dollars for making mediocre pop music with biblical kitsch.

  10. […] Do we really have to use a qualifier? Too often, Christians think there is art and then there is Christian art. This is more than strange because for centuries Christians or non-Christians could express themselves creatively and everyone called it art. I really appreciate this article that takes the unnecessary qualifier to task. There is no such thing as Christian art . […]

  11. Jason Lewis says:

    Excellent article. I’ve always been perplexed that every time someone uses the qualifier ‘Christian’ to describe art, music, or literature (and I use the terms loosely), they could equally well have used the qualifier ‘shitty.’ which is really a shame, b/c, as Jonathan points out, much of the greatest art in history is on Christian themes… and it seems a peculiarly Evangelical disease. I was raised Evangelical, now I’m an Episcopalian. Part of the draw, I’m sure, was worshiping in a place where every window and wall sconce screams ad majoram gloriam dei. But evangelical churches too often look like conference centers or shopping malls. Is it any wonder that the aesthetic standards in other areas decline? Visiting my childhood church, I feel that there is no ‘there’ there, to borrow from Gertrude Stein. The lyrics praise God, but the music… is wanting. The words from the podium speak of Christ, but the speech could be equally well delivered at the Marriott. And the books people are reading… not exactly C.S. Lewis. I dunno… it just seems to me, great art that is indeed Christian shouldn’t have to plaster the label everywhere… instrumental Ralph Vaughn Williams pastorals or Bach concertos (to my mind, anyway) glorify God far more than Toby Mack.

    • Jason Lewis says:

      It reminds me of the line from Hamlet:

      “My words fly up, my thoughts stay below. Words without thoughts ne’er oft to Heav’n go.”

    • Liz says:

      As a classically trained musician, I understand your point, but you are missing a significant aspect of the music and art you cite. During much of the time in which this art and music was being created, the church ruled. The church provided employment and commissions, and the product was bound to be religious. Especially during Bach’s time, a composer and musician would find it quite difficult to support himself (occasionally herself) outside the employment of the church. I’m not trying to nullify the music or declare it insincere, but the circumstances under which the music is composed must be considered. I love the music of both Bach and Vaughn Williams and I believe it can be used to glorify God, but I’m not convinced the purpose of the composition was necessarily more than musical accomplishment or a paycheck. I am a firm believer that old and traditional does not always signify better. The way you describe your experiences in Evangelical churches is quite similar to the way I describe my experiences in churches of the Catholic/liturgical vein. While the buildings may be old and beautiful, I have found their holdings to be stale and lifeless. Attendees recite text with no thought to the meaning (especially when it is in Latin and no one bothers to find or read the translation) and sing hymns with glazed eyes, no attention paid to what is being sung. And the poor musicians look so bored from playing the same staid arrangements again and again. This also goes for a lot of traditional Evangelical churches I’ve attended. I walk away thinking ‘what’s the point?’ There is no evidence of faith, simply routine religion. On the other hand, the ultra modern churches, in my experience, are often all hype with no substance. The art of excellence has been lost as a whole to the industry that Christianity has become. And I agree that simply because something is the product of faith does not mean it needs to be branded as Christian. My favorite example is the band Switchfoot. Yes, they started out in the Christian music industry, but they never wanted to be a ‘Christian band.’ They merely wanted to be a band of Christians who made good music. They sought excellence in their craft and consequentially gained fans both within and without the ‘Christian scene’ and have garnered respect from many within the musical world. The key is not to figure out how many ways to make a product Christian, because that in and of itself will not glorify God, but to strive for excellence in the areas of gifting he has bestowed upon us. He is glorified through excellence and faith, not mediocrity and religion.

      • Joshua Keel says:

        Very well said, Liz.

      • Jeffrey says:

        Hi, Liz,

        Just wondering if you’ve ever heard of a hasty generalization? Or the psychological concept or projecting your own subjective perceptions on to others? I hope I don’t sound too harsh, but I have, as one who enjoys traditonal, confessional worship, a pet peeve about critics of such describing it as ritualistic, cold, lifeless, or boring, and describing the worshippers in such an environment the same way. If you visited my very small, organ playing, creed confessing, gloria patri singing church, you could easily draw the conclusions that you do above. But the problem is that this would be the height of presumption because you cannot see or know what is happening in my heart as I, or the other members of my congregation, worship in this way. How many of the people that you are describing in your post above do you really know? I mean know in such an intimate way that you could make some qualified inferences about their hearts? Certainly sometimes criticism is merited in these areas, but I think we have to be very careful, respctful, humble, and exceedingly cautious when doing so, especially when we are not just generalizing about styles of worship, but about what may or may not be going on in others’ hearts. Unless someone flatly, explicitly, and unrepentantly over a long period of time contradicts his or her confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, then we should proceed with a judgement of charity, and further, we should also be slow to generalize about other forms of worship simply from our own limited experiences. A real-life ancecdote may help clarify my position. I’ll call it “the tale of two friends.” One friend’s wife happens to work as a secretary at a traditonal, liturgical church but this friend and his wife worship at a big, contemporary worship, non-denom. church. The other friend grew up attending the traditonal, liturgical church and was thinking about reintegrating into that faith community. But the friend whose wife works at the traditional church urged the friend who had grown up there to attend his church instead because the traditional church was essentially a dead, cold, lifeless church. How did he know this? Because his wife or he attended worship once or something like that. Or his wife picked up the wrong vibe while working there. So the thinking-about-going-back-to-the-church-where he-grew-up friend instead began attending the contemporary church. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that, and he seems happy there. But here’s where I do have a problem. I grew up in that traditional church too. And yes, it has its problems like any other church, but I know, fairly intimately, a number of people at that church. And thier love for Christ and their spirituality is vibrant and thier committment to Chist is serious. I also have a problem that other Christians from a church that perfers to worship in a different way concluded from scanty evidence and no in-depth relationships with any of the people at that church that the worship there–and by implication, the people–were cold, ritualistic, lifeless, etc. I also have a problem with the fact that the freind who grew up in the original church and his new friend who invited him to the contemporary church have smoked pot together on a couple of occassions, and once because the contemporary worship guy said he felt “annoited” to do it. Now, I am not going to hastily generalize from this one situation that this guy is not a Christian or that all those who worship at contemporary churches are presumptuous and judgemental, but this real-life example and your post just remind me that we need to, I don’t know, try to love one another and regard each other with a judgement of charity instead of assuming we know what is in others’ hearts or minds because they don’t raise their hands or sing loud or because they do recite ancient creeds and try to cultivate a sense of reverence and awe in thier hearts during worship, which often invloves being silent before the Lord.

        Again, this may be a bit strong, and if you feel I have sinned in my response, then let me know and I ask your forgiveness in advance, but I feel, in the current Christian culture, like a cornered animal on this issue.

  12. Jen White says:

    I am an artist and I recently completed a series of 12 contemporary paintings on “The Church”. Exploring the different conditions of the church, which were inspired by the 7 churches in Revelation.
    I would love to get feedback from anyone willing to take a look.
    squidoo.com/churchandart
    Thank you,
    Jennifer white

  13. […] Unoriginality and trite “parody” are hallmarks of Christian kitsch. […]

  14. Ryan says:

    I don’t know which Relevant article about art you read, but the one I just thumbed through said everything you said, and then some. A lot of Christian art is kitsch, and 99.9% of that kitsch is crap. Major crap, and artists like myself who don’t make kitsch, and instead make actual art usually get thumped by our own brothers and sisters for not making more ham-handed kitsch that appeals to that infamous captive audience. Not only that, I get told just how many ways I’m going to Hell to boot. There is a reason artists who are Christians are in the creative closet, we don’t want to be crucified for refusing to tow a worldly line.

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