What is the point of Christian arts?

The week of 23 August, the Guardian website ran a series of responses to the question: ‘What is the point of Christian arts?’.  The editor of the series starts by considering the distinction made between artists who are Christians and Christian artists, noting that the distinction seems to be ‘between inspiration and purpose’.  As artists, inspiration comes from within the worldview one holds.  However, a purpose of proclaiming truth through one’s work is a different matter.  And it seems that contemporary Christian art that focuses on the latter lacks in inspiration.

Three writers respond to the question posed: Harriet Baber, Roz Kaveney, and Maggi Dawn. Baber writes of her journey that led her to becoming a part of the church, a journey that was mediated by Church music.  For her, engaging with Christian arts is given a deeper dimension because of her involvement with the Christian faith.  She writes: ‘The aesthetic character of a work of art goes deeper than the aesthetic surface because what we want in art, like what we want in most departments of life, goes beyond the sensuous surface.’  For Baber, ‘Christian art is an end in itself.’

Kaveney offers a different perspective.  For her, the Christian upbringing she had but now does not adhere to provides a ground of understanding and thus deeper meaning to the Christian art she experiences.  What moves her is ‘the aspiration of human beings to feel in touch with something greater than themselves,’ something she experiences as much in nature as in great art.  For Kaveney, ‘Art is first and foremost about itself, not about instruction or the fine points of theology.’

Rather than offering a personal anecdote, Dawn considers how we come to determine that which is ‘religious’ in art.  Is it the devotion of the artist?  Is it how the viewer interprets it?  Despite the ambiguity in the distinction, what is necessary for understanding ‘religious’ art is a knowledge of Christianity.  Because ‘religious’ writers, artists, and musicians were creating from within that understanding, the modern-day viewer would miss out on a significant part of what the work signifies.  Dawn suggests that if we give in to the ‘cultural cringe’ towards modern-day Christianity and abandon our cultural association with it, then we end up losing ‘understanding of our cultural heritage’.

What do you think about these three responses?  How would you answer the question posed?  What strikes me about the responses is the role given to Christian faith and belief, primarily providing a framework for understanding when approaching works of art.  Baber comes closest to explicitly mentioning that being a Christian makes a difference.  Are we as a society in danger of losing our capacity to truly understand the works of art we see?  Does a head knowledge of Christianity actually solve that problem?


  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: jstimages

    It seems like the distinction between inspiration and purpose is a valid one. When I think of religious art or Christian art I envision art that proclaims explicitly religious themes as its subject matter. Probably my definition is pretty narrow and should could be interpreted broader. Christian art could reveal the reality of human brokenness, hope, love, redemption. All of these things are religious themes and wouldn’t have to be work that names Jesus or shows biblical stories explicitly. As a developing photographic artist I prefer to refer to myself as an artist who is a Christian. My work is inspired and shaped by my worldview as a redeemed person. The subject matter of my work may or may not be explicitly religious but clearly my identity as a redeemed person by God’s mercy shapes my view on the world. With this identity at the core of who I am as a person and artist my work reveals something about God and his relationship with his world and of his world’s need of him. With the emphasis on my identity all that I do says something about God.

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