Why excellence matters in Christian art

I was very struck recently by two posts by Holly Ordway on the need for Christians to pursue excellence in their writing. I have often lamented that too many Christians in the arts are trying to so hard to communicate their message that they fail to pay any attention to the artistic quality of their work. To be quite frank, for a very long time I have avoided contemporary Christian fiction almost entirely because I concluded that it was largely dull, always predictable, often trite, and rarely good writing. I know that there are exceptions, of course -- Stephen Lawhead, for example --

Another good, but I think often overlooked, purpose for writing, is to give joy and pleasure to the reader. Why not? This is the Kingdom of Heaven we're talking about. Rejoicing in art and beauty and storytelling is, and ought to be, a purpose in itself, in Christian writing, but one that I think is under appreciated. We see here some of the effects of secular utilitarianism.[^1] Too often Christians [only ask] what is the story good for? Is it presenting the Gospel? Is it doing something? This is just utilitarianism. Why not enjoy something beautiful for itself? If you go outside and look at the flowers and the birds and clouds in the sky, it seems fairly evident that God as Creator has made lots of things that are simply beautiful, but not useful in any particular way. What good is a bluebird? What use is a sunflower? No use whatsoever, but beautiful and part of God's creation.

'the most important purpose for Christian fiction'

To give glory to God in writing is to express the image of God in ourselves. God is the ultimate Creator, of all that is, seen and unseen. He made everything. And He made us in His own image. We are made in the image of the Creator, and so we have an urge to create and a desire to create that is part of the stamp of God upon us, the part of the image of God in our very self. When we create, writing stories and poetry and do art, we are honoring God by expressing our reflection of Him and His nature in ourselves.

'in order to honor God, we need to do good work'

Part two

If you shove a Bible verse or a message or a moral into a story that’s not particularly well done, you create a disconnect between content and presentation. The God whom we are trying to tell people about is the God of all Creation, who made everything, including galaxies, the phenomenal complexity of the human body, sunsets, and people falling in love. If we point to the awesomeness of God in a lackluster way, there’s a disconnect between our message and the way that we’re presenting it.

 

The way that something is presented will have an impact on the credibility of the message. If we want our presentation of the beauty and awesomeness of God to be credible, we ought to present it in a way that’s consonant with the truth that we’re trying to convey.

We can see that most powerfully if we skip back a couple hundred years and look at the cultural productions of Christian artists in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Look at cathedrals or any church from the seventeenth century or before. Beautiful architecture, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts. Look at the carvings on pews. Listen to the music of Bach or Handel. Listen to the hymns of St Thomas Aquinas. This is true excellence, and it is a witness to God who is the source of all beauty. This is not to say that there is no good Christian art after the Renaissance (there certainly is) but after the Enlightenment and the Reformation, it becomes less and less consistently good.

We have lost the cultural expectation of a consistently good Christian body of art: beautiful, challenging, and engaging art, literature, song, drama that is accessible for all Christians, not just high-culture ones, but also the ordinary person in the pew. With that loss has come a great loss of opportunity for witness. A return to excellence in Christian art will help us regain a powerful form of witness for Christ.

© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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