The term “Christian art” is notoriously difficult to define. I won’t attempt to do so here. For the purposes of this blog post, I wish only to suggest that we should not attach the adjective “Christian” to the noun “art” simply because of intentions that lead to the production of a work of art, but that “Christian art” refers more appropriately to the way a work of art is used (e.g. interpretation). Thus, “anti-Christian” works of art will be considered to be those that either lend themselves to interpretations that are contrary to a Christian vision for human life, or that are often interpreted in such a way. A “work of art” will be conceived in a very broad sense as significant aspects of material culture that, to varying degrees, deserve our careful reflection. It is well known that Christians (individually and institutionally) have struggled to find adequate ways for engaging with an increasingly secular modern and post-modern culture. In this post, I will suggest four different approaches that a Christian could take in regards to works of art considered to be anti-Christian. I do not mean to suggest that Christians must choose between these four approaches, but rather that Christians may, with careful discernment, take any of these four approaches in regards to anti-Christian works of art.
- Censorship: This approach responds to anti-Christian art by intentional non-use or boycott. We are all aware of instances when the Christian church has censored certain works of art (i.e. Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code) only to find that they have encouraged more people to see it, and that they have interpreted the work with a lack of generosity. Thus, talk of censorship or boycott in much contemporary discussion about Christian engagement with culture is avoided, if not taboo. But I would suggest that there are some instances when censorship is appropriate (probably best exercised personally rather than institutionally). My wife and I, for example, have chosen not to own a TV because we think that it can adversely affect personal relationships at home, and that much advertising on TV sows discontent more than it does any good.
- Debate: This approach views art and culture as like a battle in which Christians are called to fight. A recent example of this approach can be found in Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo, which attempts to expose and demolish anti-Christian worldviews that shape various works of art. Positively, this approach recognizes that Christians cannot remain silent about art, and that works of art should be taken seriously. Negatively, this approach only works best within an apologetic context, and so it rarely considers how Christians might learn from other points of view.
- Discovery: This approach gives special attention to the way that western culture is shaped in significant ways by Christianity, and, theologically, affirms that the Holy Spirit is often at work beyond the Christian church in ways that Christians do not expect. The discovery approach looks for a Christian interpretation in works of art that are, on the face of things, anti-Christian. For example, as I suggested in an earlier post, that it may be possible to interpret Picasso’s Guernica through the lens of crucifixion iconography even though Picasso probably did not intend a Christian interpretation. Or even though Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ appears blasphemous, one could still recognize (along with Serrano himself) that the work suggests something profound about the incarnation. A drawback of the discovery approach is that one may look and then “find” many Christian interpretations where they cannot be. Much discernment is required.
- Dialogue: This approach recognizes that there are some works of art that simply do not lend themselves to a Christian interpretation, but nevertheless there may be value in allowing an anti-Christian work of art to “converse” with Christianity. We might think first of works of art that are obviously outside of the Christian tradition, such as a Hindu temple or ancient Japanese paintings. Even works of art that are highly critical of Christianity can have much of importance to say to Christians. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, for example, presents a God who is weak and controls others by fear. For this reason, it is difficult for Christians to know how to interact with this fictional world, but by placing Pullman’s world next to the Christian faith, Christians might see more clearly the kind of God they confess and worship.