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Is Christian Art Too Much Like Propaganda?

This question has surfaced during the discussion of what constitutes good Christian art. The gospel, which has survived since it was first proclaimed in the first century, has been communicated in a variety of form. In the oral form of the early church, to the musings of the Church Fathers, to visual art in an illiterate world, to being printed on a press; the gospel, in a living way, has transcended mere information and cemented itself as that which innervates human imagination. It survives not only because it exists as beautiful words written on a page, or as a theme of redemption painted on glass windows, or layered upon a moving melody, but because it is the Spirit at work in the hearts of sinful men.

It is thus imperative that any synthesis of the gospel and art be done in a way which respects that mystery. Every generation must wrestle with both the gospel and how to communicate it as it is not something that can ever be figured out. In a society that lives in arrogance at its capability of knowing, the mystery of the gospel is rebellious. “Give me science and you may have religion” some may say. But at it’s essence, the gospel is poetic, in the sense that it conveys a truth beyond mere facts; it is always beyond the grasp of human reason and reaches into the depth of the total human experience. The word poetic for some presumably implies fabrication, as if only facts are worth pursuing, but this cannot be the purpose of Christian art.

In discussing his biblical narrative paintings, Edward Knippers describes how he goes beyond mere illustration: “I am not trying to make an illustration of the text but a poetic statement about the text . . . By poetic statement I mean to be allusive to multiple layers of meaning.” For Knippers, it is imperative that the poetic not be removed from the art because it then becomes didactic propaganda – an oversimplification of something profound. How often I recoil at the superficial lyrics of some Christian contemporary music. Many of these songs, which use generic melodies and pop-like production methods to prop up overt Christian lyrics, are unpalatable to the artistic ear. The problem, as Knippers points out, is that “the object that carries the meaning is a disposable thing . . .With propaganda I can look at the art object, get the idea, and then retain the idea with no further reference to the art object . . . The importance of the object and its rightness in embodying the idea is our defence in the making of non-propagandist art, even while we proclaim the great truth of the gospel.”

Does not the beauty and awe of the gospel demand that art made by Christians go beyond mere propaganda? Is it not tragic that an object which communicates something as revolutionary as the gospel be discarded? Don’t we owe God the best quality of artistic expression? It is possible however that we have subdued the gospel because it exposes aspects of our humanity that we find uncomfortable: The sickness of humanity; the reality of evil and death and the unthinkable cost of the cross to remedy such a prognosis; the freedom of humanity to reject such a gift and cause unthinkable suffering; the anticipation of an invisible kingdom which is impossible to articulate; and the call to die to self and commit Christ as our Lord. “The artist,” writes Steve Turner, “taps deep levels of consciousness and brings to the surface things that amaze him or her. A lot of CCM song writing begins with a conclusion and the lyric is simply used to expound it. There is no sense of revelation because the artist wasn’t on a voyage of discovery.”

It is the voyage of discovery that produces good works of art. It is not merely enough for the artist to communicate the gospel, but rather what and how the gospel is transformative. When one steps back one can hardly see the scope of such a truth. Earth and humanity produce endless subjects to be explored and one finds that almost no theme is taboo: Goodness, creation, fall, sin, death, life, pain, joy, hope, community, relationship, intimacy, isolation and an endless number of other themes come into light for the person transformed by faith. Songwriter T. Bone Burnett speaking to LA Weekly said: “If Jesus is the Light of the World, there are two kinds of songs you can write. You can write songs about the light, or you can write songs about what you can see from the light. That’s what I try to do.”

That revelation however is not something that is complete and therefore one’s art can never be complete as well. The Christian life involves sanctification, and propaganda which assumes a totality of truth and experience, is somewhat offensive to the Christian experience. We have tasted the kingdom but still await its complete arrival. Our salvation is a process as we await our complete theosis. Our knowledge of God is never complete but shrouded in metaphor and mystery. Just as an artist commits to a process of imagination and creation, so to did God conceive his handiwork and bring it into being through his Word. This should ultimately humble the artist, that God in his grace has allowed us to participate in a creative process. This also needs to be present in the art of a Christian – a sense of humility and gratefulness that we possess the ability to create at all. Christian art then is eschatological and incomplete – it looks forward and lacks an absolute clarity of the present. This lack of clarity makes Christian art as propaganda counter-productive – it only inflates human ego.

I personally find freedom in approaching art from a non-propagandist perspective. In his book Imagine Steve Turner makes a crucial observation: “When Christians think of the arts as something that can be used to win the world to Christ, they create an unrealistic expectation of the arts and put unfair pressure on artists.” The pressure to use every aspect of art to evangelise causes anxiety. At the heart of the lover of art is the desire for sincerity; one wants to look at what he/she has created and see themselves in their art. As a songwriter involved in three bands, I can testify to the desire to be honest in my lyrics. At times my lyrics describe relationships, sex, fear, depression, hope, loss, faith or humour. To force the creative process in a box and ask “how can I write this to win people to Christ” would inevitably disconnect not only myself from the product but ironically the product from the audience. If we believe we can create a specific order of words or series of paint strokes and win people to Christ we are being naive. For one, the gospel is the Holy Spirit at work in the heart of sinners, but also because human beings are drawn to our story as Christians because it is connected to the greatest story ever revealed to humanity – the gospel. The Christian artists will inevitably tell his/her story through his/her art and the gospel will come through; not as forced subject matter, but as a genuine telling of one’s life experience. We need to feel free to allow an artist to engage his/her art with genuine honesty to engage with the culture in a meaningful way. 

While Christian art can fall into the trap of propaganda, this is certainly not true for all Christian art. Ultimately however I believe it is imperative that Christian artists passionately resist propaganda, and engage with society in a sincere way. The reality is that we have created a Christian subculture that in many respects, is only engaging and dialoguing with other Christians. The statement “with absence comes loss of influence” is a poignant reminder that art which is discarded has no eternal impact.

Bibliography

Bustard, Ned, and Sandra Bowden. It was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2006.

Turner, Steve. Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2001.

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