Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 7-8

Standard

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

17 thoughts on “Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 7-8

  1. I believe the whole argument for both of these issues can be wrapped up by understanding that Christians today do not know how to live as Christians. The whole concept of the “spirit-filled life” is lost on the majority of those who call themselves Christians, and like an elelmentary school grammar exercise, we struggle against it because it is difficult, and we therefore do not want to do it.

    I think the sequence of spiritual growth listed in 2 Peter 1:5-7 is interesting. We start with Faith, moving up to Goodness, and on to Knowledge, then self-control, then perseverance, then godliness, then brotherly kindness, then finish on a high note at the very essence of God: Love. We cannot be Good without Faith (Why do you call me good? No one is good but God.) We cannot have true Knowledge without Faith and Goodness, and knowledge is nothing without the self-control and perseverance of applying that knowledge, and so on. Art and Culture are, at their foundation, the applied knowledge of a people. It’s no wonder modern Christian art is imitative at best, and absolute trash at it’s worst: It is not based on a broad, thorough, manifest knowledge of God.

    • David,

      I disagree, in part.

      The biggest problem here is that Evangelicals today are maniacal about playing it safe on a select few moral issues. As a result, that safety informs everything they do. This narrows the category of what is considered good, noble, and pure to the point that only derivatives are deemed acceptable.

      Having a manifest knowledge of God still leaves people with balancing that knowledge against culture. This is the essence of why it’s so easy to flee to “Do not touch, taste, or handle.” That thinking prevents wrestling with the world at large.

      If anything, that phobia explains everything we need to know about American Christianity. It permeates every aspect of what we think, write, create, build, teach, and so on, then we label it as Christian. This also explains why so few Christian intellectuals exist. They would have to play with the edges of the greater culture while still looking untainted in the eyes of Evangelicals. But to most Evangelicals that smacks of compromise. Thus the dearth of Christian intellectuals in the national spotlight.

      • So I guess then that the issue is not the dearth of Christian intellectuals. They are out there and talking to brick walls across the planet. What we lack are intellectual Christians. I don’t see a disagreement in what you say “Christians…play it safe on a select few moral issues” and my assertion “Christians do not know how to live as Christians.” Living the Christian life means to live in unsafe conflict with the culture around them.

        I don’t see how a Christian can truly manifest knowledge of God, and yet still feel cowed by those around them. It smacks of hypocracy to say “I know God!” And then run for the nearest rabbit hole. Well, I guess if one looks at Elijah and his fear of Jezebel…But Christians cannot hope to be relevant and be derivative at the same time. We should be transcendant, not redundant. If we seek the favor of others, Christian or not, how can we hope to overcome the world?

  2. Yes, Dire Dan, I entirely agree with you: things are perfectly horrible.

    The church in America is down; it lies there in the very dust, prostrate, pitiful, ugly, horrid.

    But do we have to keep on kicking, kicking, kicking, kicking, kicking it?

    • Oengus,

      I honestly don’t believe enough people see these things. I have conversations with folks outside this blog and I’m routinely astonished that so few notice the things I discuss here. Only when I go into depth do they start to take notice. Like the lyrics to the old Talking Heads song, a lot of Christians are content with “same as it ever was,” except that same as it ever was isn’t getting the job done.

  3. Laura Williams

    Dear Dan, Have you ever read Sham Pearls for Real Swine by Franky Schaeffer (son of Francis Schaeffer) ? He makes many of the same points you make about Christians in the arts. I’m not sure this book is still in print.

    • Laura,

      I read Frankie and Edith Schaeffer’s books on art many years ago. Then Frankie directed a couple truly awful horror/sf films that appeared to denigrate everything he wrote in his screeds, so I no longer took him seriously. Considering how he’s bad-mouthed his folks recently, any respect I had for the guy who wrote those books on Christians and the Arts faded away.

    • Francisco,

      Oh, I’ll end with a bang…

      Do you have some myths brought forth by society-at-large about Christianity in the United States? Your observations as a non-native would be greatly appreciated!

  4. my husband sent me a link to this page, knowing that I would be interested in the post about Christian kitsch (I’m going to have to pick up that book you mentioned!)
    Christian kitsch is a topic that I’ve studied on my own for some time…perhaps I should work up a post about it sometime. I find the Christians’ obsession with kitsch (unknowingly) to be almost blasphemous sometimes. Christians everywhere released cries of outrage when Serrano showcased a photograph of a crucifix submerged in what is assumed to be urine. “What a blasphemy!” However his whole point was to show how trite the image of Jesus had become and how society at large was not giving the image of God the respect it deserves…
    okay, end rant…sorry.

    for some contemporary Christian artists, you might check out Edward Knippers or Theodore Prescott.

    • Alicia,

      The Serrano work has been interpreted so many ways by Christians, both pro and con, that in some ways it’s lost all meaning. While I can understand the pro comment (that it represent the humiliation of God being incarnate in flesh, coming down into our gutter-world), I’m also not so naive as to think that much of that work is anything more than a stunt. And as a stunt, it can’t hold any interpretation outside the shock value. And in that case, one can’t argue the incarnational pro argument anymore. It can’t hold a deeper meaning.

      Prescott doesn’t do much for me. Knippers, I’ve encountered before. He owes a debt to Goya, as I see much of that artist in Knippers’s work. I also like the fact that Knippers is not afraid to take risks that would not endear him to the Christian community, especially his fully nude renderings of Christ during His trial and crucifixion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.