Christian Conversations with Anti-Christian Art: 4 Approaches

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: Travis

    Thanks Jim, helpful points. Your last point under ‘Conversation’ regarding Pullman’s work giving Christians a clearer understanding of the God they confess and worship reminds me of something Harold O. J. Brown said in his book Heresies about the various distortions of Christian doctrine through the centuries of Christian history–namely, that they reveal the outline of truth in the reflection of what they distort, and force true believers to firm up the content of their confession of God’s true nature as a result of their challenge. The early creeds of the church come as a result of attacks from within on the nature of Christ and the Trinity, e.g. More recently, the controversy surrounding ‘open theism’ and its distortions of the character of God helped orthodox evangelicals to correct the misunderstanding of God as impassible, forcing them to more rigorously think through and defend conceptions of both God’s knowledge and compassion towards his creation. Or to return to your example, Pullman’s portrayal of a God who is weak and insecure forces Christians to consider how their God may be all-powerful and yet lovingly disposed toward his creation, and how human freedom and divine sovereignty might be compatible.

    1. says: Jim

      Thanks for this comment Travis. I think you are absolutely right to widen the notion of conversation beyond the church’s engagement with art, and into its engagement with heresy. The story of the early church is a story of Christians trying to define themselves doctrinally, and heresy plays an important role. I think it is important for Christians to realize that understanding very different cultures or religions or view points is important because we not only understand the ‘other’ better, but we also come to understand ourselves better as well. ‘Convseration’ seems to sum up that idea well.

  2. says: Wes

    This is a really helpful summary of four different approaches! Would it be fair to say that our overarching approach should be conversational, and within that approach there will be a time for censorship, debate, and discovery?

    Also, can you think of some outstanding examples of Christian conversation with art and popular culture?

    1. says: Jim

      This is funny. I just wrote a comment about how I disagreed with Wes, but now I think that conversation may actually provide a helpful metaphor regarding Christian engagement with anti-Christian art. Here is how it would work.

      Censorship leaves room for the ending of the conversation, or the recognition that a conversation should not start.

      Debate is a form of conversing that primarily tries to defend a position. This type of conversing is sometimes necessary, but I think it is not an ideal means of communicating.

      Discovery is a form of conversing in which we recognize that the ‘other’ is in fact very similar to ourselves, and we find that what he or she is saying is the same as what I am saying.

      Dialogue (I change this word to make room for ‘conversation’ as a guiding metaphor) is a form of conversation that allows the ‘other’ to remain just that. There is little to no attempt to find ways that the ‘other’ agrees with me. Nevertheless, understanding the differences between myself and the ‘other’ can help me to understand myself better.

      I think I will actually change the post to reflect this new typology.

      As for outstanding examples, I will need some time. But it would be nice to have a list, especially if it can be shown that different books take generally one approach or the other. I would be grateful if others would jump in and suggest some titles before I get around to it.

      1. says: Wes

        I like this clarification, Jim, and highlighting four different kinds of conversation. I realize that alliteration can be overdone, but if you change ‘censorship’ to ‘denunciation’, then you would have four d’s!

      2. says: Jim

        I think that I will resist the over-alliteration and keep it at censorship, even though “the 4 d’s of Christian Conversations with Culture” does have a nice ring to it.

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