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When good intentions create bad art

A while ago, I hosted a retreat with a group of Christian art students. I taught at a number of sessions, showed them some art I liked, and we spent lots of time discussing questions we had about our faith and our art practice. One of the most common of these revolved around why we make art.

Sometimes this was asked directly, but more often it came out in explanations of the intentions behind individual pieces of work or certain areas of practice. The assumption that several of the students had was that the primary purpose of their work was to communicate the gospel.

This was mostly due to a creditable evangelistic zeal, which I in no way wanted to dampen, but when one student shared her feelings in a time of open Q&A, I couldn’t help myself. This student expressed her frustration that her tutors kept telling her to stop making art about Jesus and asked me what she should do.

Now, please understand that my response didn’t come with a completely clear conscience and I’m sure I could have phrased it better, but whatever my internal wranglings, what I said probably wasn’t what the room expected.

My answer: Perhaps you should stop making art about Jesus.

I have reflected on this answer at length since then, and this post in a way is an attempt to flesh out this answer a bit more helpfully than I did at that event.
You see, while I should have said more, I broadly stand by this answer, and would encourage more Christian artists to get hold of the sentiment behind it.

I’m of the opinion that it’s exactly the kind of good intentions that those students had that hamstrings so much artistic output by Christians.

Why do we make art?

So, let’s zoom out a bit: Why do we, as Christians, make art?

No, that won’t do, let’s go a bit further: Why, as Christians, do we do anything?

Followers of Jesus have a worldview that provides a foundational answer to our ‘why?’ questions. In our cultural setting, this is both one of Christianity’s most attractive features and its most controversial claims. Jesus leads us to believe that our lives have a fundamental and objective purpose and we can know what that is.

So what is our purpose? Now, the phrasing may be slightly different for different Christians, but ‘for the glory of God’ will probably cover most angles (Ephesians 1 seems to be quite a handy touchstone here, particularly verses 6 and 12).

Okay then, we’re alive to delight God, to enhance his reputation, to glorify him. But what does this look like in practice?

Well, this is a little more contentious, but for many of us, I guess we’d say that an important reason we’re alive is to help people follow Jesus more closely and particularly help people who don’t know Jesus to become his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). This is certainly where the students I mentioned earlier were coming from.

Now, I reckon that this, while possibly a tad reductionist, is a pretty decent reference point when it comes to purpose. I wholeheartedly believe that a life lived purposefully and deliberately to lead more people to become disciples of Jesus is a very good life, very much in line with what we were created to do.

So, if you agree with me, have we answered our question then?

Why do we, as Christians, make art? To encourage people to become Christians.

Well, in a sense ‘yes’ and in a sense ‘no’, and which way I’d lean at a given time will probably depend on how quickly we move from this ‘why?’ to the all-important ‘how?’

The Purpose Driven Life

To see what I mean, consider the difference between someone who has a purpose and someone who has an agenda.

A purposeful person is motivated, enthusiastic and makes good use of their time. A person with an agenda is often seen as sneaky, driven and calculated.

We, as Christians, should relish our purpose and the meaning and direction that God fills our lives with. However, I don’t think we should therefore become coldly utilitarian and robotic in how we live out our purpose.

Salt and light have a purpose, but they couldn’t be described as having an agenda.

This is, I think, why the New Testament’s teaching on evangelism is not just about how we speak, but also about how we live.

Jesus told his disciples to ‘preach the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:2) but he also said that they were the ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. Salt and light have a purpose, but they couldn’t be described as having an agenda. Peter puts it slightly differently in his first letter:

‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, although they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

1 Peter 2:10

Being salt and light

When I was a secondary school teacher, I found out pretty quickly that while your typical good deeds (honesty, kindness, patience, etc) were important here, another one was simply taking my job seriously and working hard at it. In fact, if I’d chosen to intentionally shoehorn the gospel into my lessons or pastoral care in a way that was to the detriment of me being a good teacher, I would have lost the respect of my colleagues and probably caused very few people to glorify God.

This is generally understood when it comes to most professions and disciplines. To use another example, a plumber could live out their evangelistic purpose in their job without carving Bible verses on every U-bend they fit. By doing a consistently good job, probably unthinkingly most of the time, they are potentially speaking volumes about Jesus’ ability to cause his followers lives to flourish.

If I chose to shoehorn the gospel into my lessons to the detriment of being a good teacher, I would cause very few people to glorify God.

But when it comes to art, we seem to get this all muddled up. I am living proof of this. Time and time again, I have overthought artistic projects and dwelt for so long on ‘why I should be doing this?’ or ‘how should this song communicate the gospel’ or ‘how can this story glorify God?’ that I’ve created work that didn’t communicate anything and only glorified God to those who were willing to overlook the clear inadequacies of the work (ie., Christians).

Purpose driven lives are to be commended. Purpose driven art doesn’t work.

Making art should be like making friends

It sounds kind of twee, but I think that making art should be like making friends. I’d imagine that most of us are friendlier people because we are Christians, and at least part of this is because we believe that we have something good to offer other people. Our friendliness is purposeful. However, friendliness that has an agenda is a totally different thing. If we set out to make friends purely to convert people, it would quickly become something quite ugly. Our ‘friendships’ would be conditional, one sided and somewhat inhuman.

If you recoil from the idea of such an approach to friendship, consider the similarities with our role as artists. Hopefully, in both cases, we’ll have opportunities to explain ‘the reason for the hope that we have’ (1 Peter 3:15), but both as friends and as artists, our default position is to show people love and serve them the best we can. As artists, we do this by creating the best work we can, not by advertising our worldview to them.

Stop making art about Jesus?

So maybe if I’d had more time, I’d have put it a bit more like that on that student retreat.

I definitely don’t think we should all stop making art about Jesus. I’d hope he is the subject who fascinates, excites and invigorates us most, and if so, we won’t be able to keep him out of our work. Nor should we.

But for anyone who is overthinking their work and finding that their good evangelistic intentions are stopping them from creating work that is authentic, generous spirited and full of life, it might be a good place to start.

Let’s glorify God together in every way we can, and my prayer for many people reading this would be that one of the ways we’d live out our God given purpose is by creating the very best artwork that we possibly can.