The Loss of Imagination


Ever drive by one of the new breed of churches and think, It’s just a big, ugly box ?

Ever wonder why what passes for Christian art in most Christian bookstores is only a step or two removed from velvet paintings of Elvis?

Ever wonder where the great contemporary Christian literature vanished to?

I think about that last one a lot. As a writer, I struggle with the dearth of avenues for Christian fiction that veers outside the mainstream. I recently wrote a story called “Killing Lilith” that deals with the crushing load of sexual guilt that many men carry. Not only does that story suffer from being brutally frank, but it’s a short story, a form of fiction that lies in a coma in secular realms, and has been dead, buried, and its grave trampled in Christian ones.

If you struggle with fasting, write short fiction for the Christian market. Just be wary of the tendency to starve to death. 😉

I hate to see loss of imagination triumph in the Church. I meet too many Christians who long ago relegated creativity to the devil. It saddens me to no end to encounter dull, lifeless children from Christian homes who have had the imagination beaten out of them, who if asked, “Tell me a story,” can’t dream up one. Somehow we’ve gone overboard in rooting out “vain imaginings” and removing any and all things that stem from our “deceitful hearts,” never questioning whether we have to throw our minds out altogether or if our imaginings and hearts can be redeemed.

So in our purges, I wonder if we’ve left Christianity a shell of what it’s supposed to be.

What should we think when God demands the finest craftsmen for His OT tabernacle and temples? That He asks that the lampstands around His altar be crafted in the likeness of almond branches and their blossoms? Or that He chooses men to write down His inspired words of Truth in a wealth of styles?

I can think of few things more appalling than ugly churches. I mean, if we’re going to spend millions on building a church building (and there’s an ethical question for you), what could be worse than spending all those millions on something that’s ugly as sin, an edifice glorifying mediocrity? Whatever happened to building that building to the glory of God and making it look like something honoring a supreme and majestic Lord?

And why so much bad art in Christian circles? It’s okay if Thelma Lou Posey makes a cross-stitch of the ubiquitous “Footprints” poem and sells it as a church auction, Fridtjof Schroder - 'The Pieta' - 1961but God forbid if some trained Christian artist creates a challenging oil painting and asks for support.

I wrote a couple weeks ago in my “100 Truths in 30 Years with Christ” post that we need to honor our artists and intellectuals as highly as we do our pastors and preachers. Are we? If we were, what then explains the stifled creativity that inhabits the Christian circle of influence? Why such lowest common denominator art and expression? Shouldn’t we be the ones who foster imagination and the creative spirit?

One of the most underappreciated aspects of us being made in the image of God is that God is a creator at heart. Therefore, so are we.

If we can’t evangelize that truth as much as some of the others we so readily support, we’ll wind up impoverished people. I can’t help but think that if the world saw that Christians led the arts again, they’d be more open to the Gospel.

Yet what would do they think when they encounter a huge multi-million dollar building of cinder block and corrugated metal passing itself off as a church? I know that I don’t immediately think, That’s where life, redemption, and joy happens.

It’s tough to be in the arts and know that few of your tribe value your work enough to pay you to do it. I’m struggling now to know what to do with the short story form, one that I enjoy writing but pays nothing. When I think of God demanding only the finest artisans for His works, I wonder how we got off base.

I wonder.



Additional links from previous Cerulean Sanctum posts on this issue:

Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 7-8


Odysseus blinding the cyclops PolyphemusOver the last week, we've been looking at commonly heard statements about Christianity that have taken on mythical proportions. It's hard  to be a Christian in the West and not encounter these myths: 

  1. Christians are more judgmental than non-Christians.
  2. Christians are stingier than non-Christians.
  3. Christians are more intolerant of other people than non-Christians.
  4. Christians are more short-sighted than non-Christians. 
  5. Christians don't know how to have fun. 
  6. Christians despise intellectuals more than non-Christians do.
  7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art.
  8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting.
  9. Companies run by Christians are as unethical as secular companies, and perhaps more so.
  10. Christianity causes more problems in the world than any other religion.

Today, we'll look at myths #7 & #8:

7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art

As the Church of Jesus Christ grew and expanded, it touched nearly every art form. The Gospel's revelation of the divinity of Christ and His human nature resulted in a synthesis that ultimately broke the back of gnostic religions. This, in turn, created an environment in which art flourished, as God's coming to Earth as Man hallowed imagery.

But while the important artists that forged the backbone of Western art identified as Christians, the 19th century saw an increasing backlash against the realism that undergirded Christian art up until that time. With the coming of German higher criticism in the late 19th century, questions about the veracity of Scripture led to questions about absolute truth. The resulting cultural decline reflected in art that deconstructed itself.

Christian artists, unable to fend off the trend, either stayed true to their art and faded into profitless obscurity, or they pandered to low culture in an attempt keep bread on the table. When modern marketing techniques raised advertising to the level of popular art, the culture rewarded ad icons. Those icons, when mass marketed, led to an even lower form of art now known as kitsch.

I suspect that the rise of fundamentalism on one side and higher criticism on the other, dealt a death blow to Christian art during the Great Depression. Fundamentalists, in an entrenchment move, lumped all contemporary art into the category of "potentially evil," and this spilled over into the Evangelical consciousness. As a reaction against the supposed judgment that fell upon this country for the Roaring Twenties, Fundamentalists pushed hard against all forms of profligacy, and art, as a whole, suffered in that wake. Art, in general, lay damned.

But God built a creative spirit into man, so that desire to create needed a channel. What it got was a version of art that combined advertising imagery with a new sanitized Christian "ideal." And popular art, especially by Christians, has not recovered.

In her seminal book, A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch, Betty Spackman argues from two sides of this issue, at once decrying kitsch as poor art, while acknowledging that it can still carry meaning for Christians. More to the point, she makes a bulletproof case that much of what passes for Christian art today is more kitsch than art, and that recovering a true appreciation by Christians for more masterful art may be difficult given the current state of Christian subculture around the world.

When all of Evangelicalism in the West is considered, it's hard to escape the truth that kitsch dominates our expression. From our "His Pain, Your Gain" t-Shirts to "WWJD" jewelry to modern megachurches, Christian culture perpetuates kitsch over substantive works, the typical Christian bookstore replacing the secular museum. Worse yet, the average Christian today can rack his brain and not come up with the name of a contemporary Christian artist—with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade.

The problem of Christians and kitsch extends to all parts of the creative life within the Church. As kitsch itself is a derivative form, so too many creative endeavors within the Christian community lack a true defining Christianity, instead adding a Christianized coating to secular forms. What a true Christian expression of the arts might look like in the 21st century is yet to be seen, but we all should hope to live long enough to witness its full blossoming.

Assessment: Confirmed


8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting

Our affinity for kitsch means Christian expression cannot avoid including it at the core of our subculture. As mentioned above, the derivative nature of kitsch means the art itself has come from some other source, itself often derivative. Christians attempting to create out of that limited pool come off as pseudo-sanctified mynah birds, rather than images of the Spirit as dove.

For this reason, contemporary Christian culture in the West lives more off a perverted form of its past than a vital present. When the Reformation is reduced to a derivative t-shirt, it's hard to argue that modern Christians care one iota about leading culture, preferring instead to be culture's dog on a leash.

Appealing to cultural relevance only worsens the problem, pulling the Church down into the world's cultural cesspool. Though not all of modern culture should be viewed at arm's length, sadly, the aspects deemed most usable by the Western Church are the ones most needful of discarding. Sure, it may be possible to erect something intriguing out of rusty tin cans, but is that redeeming the time we've been given by the Lord?

Until the Church in the West abandons its love affair with redeeming the sleaziest parts of our culture, most of what we redeem from it will be garbage. And derivative garbage, at that. Encouraging folks guided by the Lord to create new directions in culture—leading, not following—and backing their gifts wholeheartedly is our only hope.

Assessment: Confirmed 


Stay tuned, the final two myth assessments still to come… 

Entries in this series:

{Image: Odysseus blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus

Unshackling the American Church: Cultivating Essential Beauty


You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch–so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold.
—Exodus 25:31-36 ESV

In this “Unshackling the American Church” series, we’ve talked about conserving family and community, plus the Creation, but we haven’t truly talked about the need for beauty in our lives.

The Bible mentions by name human creators of beauty, the DaVincis, Michaelangelos, Tiffanys, Monets, and Rodins of their day. Moses returns from receiving God’s dictation for the tabernacle requirements and says this:

Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver–by any sort of workman or skilled designer.”
—Exodus 35:30-35 ESV

That passage and others like it scattered throughout the Scriptures carry extremely important connotations:

  • Artists are filled by the Spirit of God to create items of beauty
  • Artworks go beyond mere creativity and incorporate skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship
  • Artists are inspired by God to teach art to others
  • God values what is beautiful and skillfully created
  • God values art
  • God values artists

I’m one of those people who believes Eve was the most beautiful woman ever to grace the universe. I think that God used every bit of his perfect artistry to craft a woman who in her self carried the essence of beauty. If Man is God’s ultimate creation, then some amount of ultimate beauty resides within Man.

More than being a work of art, Man carries the Imago Dei, “The Image of God”, and therefore as God creates works of beauty, so does Man. As God is pleased by what is beautiful, by extension, so is Man.

God placed in us a need for beauty. I’m of the opinion that the need for beauty in people’s lives drives us to the extremes of both artful design and pornography. The onslaught of porn that is hurting so many people is amplified in part by a misplaced need to encounter beauty. Given our need for beauty, if people can’t find it in acceptable venues, they’ll go searching for it in unacceptable ones. As our own art world degenerates into filth, and art acclaimed by “those in the know” is little more than what a chimp can scribble out if given a pack of crayons, people are dying for beauty in their lives.

  • When we desecrate Creation, we destroy beauty.
  • When we build suburbs consisting of one bland house design another, we devalue beauty.
  • When we settle for kitsch rather than skilled art, we parody beauty.
  • When we denigrate artists, especially Christian artists, we tell God that beauty is not worth conserving and that His gift of artistry is not worth receiving. We’re actually quenching the Spirit of God.
  • When we turn our backs on beauty, we lose a precious part of what God formed in us as men and women.

And trust me, we Christians too often reject beauty, whether on purpose or simply from ignorance.

While at a conference earlier this year, Tim Challies was struck by the blandness of an enormous church he was visiting, later learning that this was a deliberate decision by the church leaders. When I read this, I grew angry.


First of all, the reason given—bland so as not to detract from the Gospel—is misguided. In fact, artful craftsmanship and beauty are PART of the Gospel. God’s Spirit now dwells in Man and with that indwelling come the gifts of the Spirit of God, including the artistic gifts mentioned above. To reject this is to ultimately reject beauty. And God does not reject artful beauty. Truthfully, the attitude expressed by the church leaders is the ungodly utilitarianism I mentioned in my last post. Under utilitarianism, nothing has any further inherent value than its function.

But God rejects utilitarianism. Reread the quote that began this post and note the lampstand. Its function is to hold candles inside the tabernacle of God. But God doesn’t concern Himself merely with function, for if He did, there would be no reason for the calyxes, flowers, and blossoms that adorn that lampstand. Nor would it need to have clever design that incorporates all those elements in one piece.

God sees beyond the plain. He also understands that beautiful items enhance worship. Even if we don’t see beauty in other aspects of our meager lives, at least in the presence of God beauty exists. There’s not much to see while wandering in a desert, but at least the tabernacle itself, the very dwelling place of God on Earth, was beautiful. That beauty spoke to the otherness of God in the midst of that stark desert.

The second thing that angers me about the church leaders’ decision to build a bland church is that they’re telling all the artists and craftsmen in that church that their work has no value at all for the church as a whole. How astonishingly bankrupt! And this from supposed Protestants! The Reformation’s imprimatur on all craftsmen and artisans blessed their work as holy unto the Lord. As Luther himself said on this issue of art:

Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and the mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it. That would be a Christian work.

God values artisans. (The Lord Jesus was a carpenter!) When artists and craftsmen serve the Lord with their art, they engage in worship. Yet there are churches that make artists into idolators even though God Himself has filled artisans with His own good Spirit. How utterly tragic when we tell those artisans that their work cannot serve God or their fellow Christians. Talk about quenching the Spirit!

And lastly, what a mind-boggling waste of money to build an enormous multimillion-dollar church complex that is purposefully dull. All across the country I see these piles of boring brick and I just shake my head. I’m sure someone thinks that designing an architecturally-interesting building filled with handcrafted artwork somehow detracts from God, but what detracts from God more than building a costly edifice that equally bores both the saved and the lost?

The truth of God exists in more than what we say with our mouths. His general revelation speaks, as do we when we act out the Gospel in actions rather than mere words. Words are not the only portion of the Gospel. So the leaders of that church are right when they believe that their church building speaks. The message that church building sends in this case? Our God is a dull god. And the people who serve Him are even duller.

When I’m in a beautiful church, it pulls me closer to God. When I’m in a drab and dour church, the opposite happens. Remember again one of the reasons God made the tabernacle beautiful.

It’s not as if beauty somehow detracts from worshiping God. For instance, we love this hymn:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

I suspect folks sing this hymn in those horridly ugly multimillion-dollar brick blocks they call a “church,” but I also suspect they don’t entirely believe it. The correlation between brick block churches and “Christians” who deny all experiencing of God, all wonder, and all mystery—the building blocks of beauty—is shockingly high.

How sad for them.

How sad for us too that folks who reject beauty in life are responsible for the dearth of good Christian art we see today. Where did it go? Simply answered, we saw no purpose in it, stopped being patrons of the arts, and held artists in contempt.

Rather than rehashing old points about Christians and the Arts, I’ll instead point to previous posts detailing this essential aspect of Christian living (especially part 2):

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain – Part 1

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain—Part 2

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain—Part 3 (Conclusion)

We need beauty. God made us with a bent toward it because He Himself deems it valuable.

As I close, I’d like to head off the inevitable cry of “Graven images!”:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
—Exodus 20:3-5 KJV

Idolatry doesn’t begin with the artisan’s idol.  We must be discerning here. Just as true circumcision is not the removing of the foreskin, but the altering of one’s heart, so the other side of that truth shows that graven images are heart-based. If idolatry exists in a man’s heart, he will craft idols that reinforce the idolatry already there.

But a Christian’s heart has been changed, molded to hold the Spirit. Therefore, what a Christian creates is unto God alone, therefore it cannot be an idol, but rather an expression of worship to God. If we fail to understand this, then we fail to understand how God can forbid natural images in one place in Scripture and turn around and ask for their creation in another (our opening passage above.)

Christians harbor the fullness of God’s Spirit, and with that comes the inclination for beauty. Above all other people, we Christians should honor our artists and praise their gifts, even while we praise God for those gifts. To reject beauty is to ultimately reject the fullness of a Spirit-filled life. Those Christians that do renounce beauty miss the full blessing of what God intended for Man.

Today’s Christians must cultivate and conserve the beautiful, because if we don’t, no one will.


Other posts in the “Unshackling the American Church” series: