If you’re looking for the butt of a joke, Christian art is an easy target. The phrase alone conjures up sentimental paintings of pastel angels, novels where the godly girl gets the guy, and films in which every character learns his lesson and the team who prays wins. Yet for much of the past two millennia, Christians were the ones making the best, most enduring art. What happened?
Brett McCracken, Ryan Lister, and Thomas Terry sat down to discuss why Christian art—particularly Protestant art—is so often bad. They pose some plausible hypotheses—such as an overly utilitarian view of art driven by an urgency to get the Christian message out, or a tendency for Christians to put more emphasis on placing boundaries than exploring beauty. In spite of this, all three men are hopeful about the future of Christian art and the ability for the church to produce works that stirs our hearts’ affections toward our Maker.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast or watch a video.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Ryan Lister: All right, gentlemen, this is a hard question. Why is art in the church often so bad?
Brett McCracken: Well, wow, there’s a lot we could say about this question.
I think I would start, I kind of have a theory that is related to one of the greatest strengths of Protestantism, which is our kind of healthy sense of utilitarian kind of efficiency, right?
Like, we want to get the message out to the most amount of people who want to get the gospel out as efficiently as possible. So the printing press has helped with that. That was a great thing. You know, packing out stadiums, Billy Graham, like, it’s kind of like whatever means necessary to get the gospel out. So, that’s a good thing, I think. But when applied to the arts, it can become a bad thing, because I think art thrives in not utilitarian space, art thrives in the kind of superfluous space.
And I think for Christians, sometimes, we struggle with the superfluous. We don’t feel like there’s a place for that. Like, life is too short. There’s too many people that need to be saved. The urgency of the mission is forcing us to kind of be efficient and utilitarian. And so, therefore, when we make a film, when we come up with like music, like, we want it to be about that mission.
We want it to be as direct, as didactic, kind of, “Get the message out through my film.” But the problem with that, and the reason why that often just doesn’t resonate with people and it’s panned by critics and whatever is just not good, is because art isn’t meant to do that. Like, art isn’t meant to just be a message transmission vehicle. Like, it’s meant to be this breathable space, this wide-open space, where the grandeur and the glory of God through His creation, through creativity, is manifest.
And I think there’s ways that you can do that and also communicate the gospel, and we can talk about that as well. But I think because we’re so urgent in our mission, we have tended to err on the side of message over the medium, and the beauty of the medium, and the mystery of the medium, right?
We don’t like mystery because that feels counter to the whole, like, efficiency of the mission sort of thing.
Thomas Terry: We want resolve.
Brett McCracken: We want resolve, yeah.
We don’t want to leave questions in people’s minds. We want the gospel to be super clear.
Ryan Lister: We’re answering people.
Brett McCracken: It’s no questions.
Thomas Terry: Well, I think one of the challenges with art in the church is a theological challenge, really. I think we have an issue with helping artists theologically think about their art. And so what ends up happening is artists in the church just learn to copy. Because they’re observing other people, because they don’t have a theology for it, so they just do what that person does.
Brett McCracken: Right, derivative.
Thomas Terry: Yeah. That, “I’m just doing what they do.”
And so it just becomes really mundane, and boring, and uninspiring. But I think when you help them theologically to think about God and all of His complexities, the beauty of who God is, you touch the cosmos, you transcend this world, and it opens up your palate. It gives you colors that you never imagined.
It inspires you in a way that is not just, you know, copy, copy, copy. And so we need to spend more time being inspired by things that resonate with who God is and testify of the kind of person God is, and His work, and His imprint on this beautiful world that we live in.
You inundate yourself with those things, you will become inspired to create magnificent things, and you’ll just transcend all these copycats. The church would do really well to grab some theology.
Ryan Lister: So on the flip side of the coin is, okay, so how do we make the art in church better, or how do we make artists in the church better at their craft?
Brett McCracken: I would say we’ve really missed the education piece of it in the Christian tradition recently. It’s not true, you know, if you go way back, like, the church was this kind of location of art and learning about art. But recently, Evangelicals haven’t prioritized, like, training in art and beauty.
It hasn’t been something, you know, seminaries and Christian colleges have prioritized all that much. And we value biblical knowledge and theology, and all that is great, but we just haven’t kind of valued education, and creativity, and beauty. And so you have a lot of young people who want to become filmmakers or artists.
And they want to do it for the mission, and they want to, like, impact the world for Jesus through those media, but they just haven’t done the time and, you know, taken that. Like, to become good at it, it takes time, and it takes patience, and we need to value that and invest in that in the church.
So we should have programs in our church that are just for like artists to improve in their skill set, I think.
Thomas Terry: I think there’s much more weight on boundaries than there is the exploration of beauty. Because many times, the church doesn’t understand creativity. It’s like you mentioned before, there’s tension, there’s mystery to it.
And because it’s not so black and white, they’re afraid of it, what this might become. So immediately, they place boundaries on it. But education will help people to understand, not just understand it like it’s something to be understood and they move on, but to wrestle with it, to enjoy it, to find satisfaction in it. So those, I think, is important.
Brett McCracken: I think enjoying it, too, is huge. Like, I think churches need to model and have events that are just about enjoying art and beauty, because we’re not going to . . .
Ryan Lister: Not just parsing it . . .
Brett McCracken: Well, I mean, that could be part of it, like a discussion after the film. But we’re not going to become good creators of culture if we can’t enjoy it, if we can’t appreciate just the beauty of it. And we get that in Genesis 1. When God created, after He created, He said, what, it’s good. God delights in the beauty of creation, and we, as His image-bearers, should as well.
And too few churches have prioritized that, whether in their church architecture or just what they do on stage. I mean, we should have film nights, we should have art celebrations, just because it’s beautiful. And we should turn our cameras on the world God has created. Like, that is an act of worship just in itself, I would say.
And if we don’t do that, we shouldn’t expect any sort of change in the quality of what Christian artists are putting out.
Ryan Lister: One real quick question. So I think a root of all of these is this sort of dichotomy between truth and feeling or didactic and experience.
How do we help marry those two? Can those be married?
Brett McCracken: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think they… I think pitting them against each other, like as if it’s one of the other.
It’s not helpful, and I think it’s kind of the head and the heart idea. Like, Ray Ortlund said at this conference, TGC West, that Christianity is a whole person kind of holistic reality. It involves the head and the heart. It involves accuracy and beauty.
And I think that’s so helpful. Like, too often, we kind of resort to one or the other kind of go to our camps, whichever one you lean to. And I think we need to have both. And yes, there’s a place for truth, and defending the truth is so important, and clarity on the truth is so important. We don’t want to, like, kind of celebrate ambiguity in the name of art, you know, like, when it comes to the gospel.
Thomas Terry: Well, truth, things that are true about God and this world should impact our heart in such a way that drives us to worship. I mean, just truth for the sake of truth that does nothing to the heart of the individual is just empty. But truth that testifies of who God is stirs your affections in worship. And that’s the way it’s intended to be, we separate the two.
It’s not complete. It’s not right.