In an age reliant on selective realism to sell art, music, and stories of all mediums, artistic communication is necessarily shot through with sadness. Instead of escapism, serious art now champions the exploration of a surrounding darkness, bald representation of brutal realities, ingrown wallowing in self-discovery and self-pity, and the lauded unresolved ending.
This is the primary critique of much Christian art, leveled by non-Christians and world-wise Christians alike: too many happy endings.
That’s not the way the world works, we say.
Christ doesn’t solve all your problems, we insist.
You are presenting an expectation that is not reliable, I argue.
Your story does more harm to Christ’s reputation than good, I accuse.
So we start writing stories that showcase our own faults and problems, with little glimmers of hope here and there designed to make us feel better about the fact that they offer little else to the world. We laud the cultural stories of the world for their “reliability” on the topic of sad endings and unresolved conflict.
My book club recently read the Sylvia Plath novel “The Bell Jar”, which is a classic case of a painfully real story with an unresolved ending. Esther’s gradual insanity is so sympathetically constructed that it worried me how much I related, and the rhythm and metaphor in Plath’s prose composed a work of intimate force. Even as the heroine is preparing to enter her final examination before leaving the asylum, she dreads a future descent of the bell jar – that isolating, suffocating illness that has been her normal for so long. She enters the room, and the story ends. Only a slight mention of a house and a baby on page 3 of the novel suggests that her life is now “normal.”
For Sylvia Plath in real life, the ending was much more certain and undeniably sad.
As a book club of Christians, we looked at this book and saw so much value – for those of us who had been through mental illness or depression, it provided the opportunity for validation of their experiences, and for those of us who hadn’t it offered an opportunity to empathize. However, believers all, it didn’t offer us any sort of satisfactory answers to the problem of mental illness, because the author didn’t ever find one herself. We don’t discount the value of this book, but we do acknowledge the absence of a right perspective or a form of truth worth grasping in such difficult situations.
What alternative can we offer?
Christian art – that which comes from a sincere belief that Christ is the answer – should have three aspects.
Christian art must be true.
We absolutely should write heroes that grow to be more full of life then ever, or who realize pain and remain faithful. We should aspire to exemplify the truth in our poems and songs that such growth is desirable, attractive, and worth pursuing.
We live in and affirm the truth that the world is going to hell. We must also live in and affirm the truth that Christ is taking us to heaven. Between this world and the heaven we long for is a life that must be informed by the resolution of it all. If we sit and simmer on the problems of the world without offering truth and beauty – in essence, answers – we are merely patting people on the back as they drown in quicksand.
“Oh, hey there. Look, I don’t want to be obnoxious or anything, so I’m going to sit over here with my guitar in this pit-side brewery and play some quiet confessional songs with spiritual allusions in them. And then I’ll read you a little poem I wrote about my troubled family life and how dark our shared fate is here on the cursed earth. It will be a suitable ode to your impending death…”
…when maybe we should be cranking out death metal, screaming, “YOU ARE DYING AND YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW IT / DO YOU FREAKING WANT A ROPE?”
We have such low expectations of the power of the Gospel to transform us and those around us into Christ’s image. Never be ashamed of the cross.
Christian art must be excellent.
If you’re like me you’re moaning, does that mean I have to watch the latest attempt at a movie from that one church?
The evangelical alternative to secular art that we’re all familiar with is “kitschy Christian pseudo-art.” You know the type: blatant, half-assed gospel beat-downs with miles of smiles and miracles (s’miracles?) affixed on perfect Christians with perfect teeth. This is crass marketing at it’s finest, not art that communicates, and it smacks of a different cultural age of evangelical crusades and big business Christianity. Of course, our own cultural age is more about high-quality, small-batch, moody, independent faith. Hm. Myopic much?
Besides the irony (I am a millennial, after all), the basic fact of this faux-art is that it is simply not true because it’s trying to sell something. Christ cannot be bought or sold. You don’t convince someone that Christ is worth following, because all human logic says following Him is totally not worth it.
As believers we have an even higher responsibility to create something excellent when we make art. This means depth, it means symbolism, it means beauty, skill, nuance and simplicity. Excellence and truth can protect us from cheese-ball Christianity. When we strive to do our best with our art, we avoid using it like a hammer (except where necessary!) on unbelievers, because our life in Christ bears incalculable nuance. We invoke robust hope and curiosity, not easy answers worthy of the mockery they receive. We explore the “not yet” of our current life while celebrating the “now” nature of salvation and considering the “wow” nature of glorification.
Christian art must be motivated by love.
As is everything we do in life.
Not by pride, not by fear. Not by an ancillary desire to pay the bills. Not by an ambition to increase our “reach” in order to “maximize our effectiveness.”
Christ’s kingdom advances when we are so connected to Christ that our actions are fully motivated by true love. It’s not a numbers game, or a followers game, or a name game.
Love, tempered by truth, characterized by excellence, actualized as art.