Have you ever seen bad Christian art? It comes in many shapes and sizes. Unseemly and disproportionate shapes and sizes, as it were. Maybe it’s cheesy praise and worship music. Maybe it’s a bad book. Perhaps a poorly done movie. Tyler Huckabee captures this well in a recent blog, “If Love Songs Were Written Like Worship Songs.”
“My girlfriend, my girlfriend / Is so great, is so great / She will be / My girlfriend / Till the end / My girlfriend, my girlfriend / Is so nice, is so nice / She will be / My girlfriend / Till the end…”
Surely Huckabee is having a little fun here, and this is not to say that there isn’t some wonderful Christian music. This is simply to highlight the importance of good Christian art, in whatever form it may come. What happens when we, as Christians, do what we do poorly? People get turned off, and this matters for several reasons.
According to writer Dorothy Sayers, “The only Christian work is good work well done.” That is to say that before a painting or poem or song can be an effective Christian work, it must be a beautiful piece of art. The work must adhere to the standards of the genre to which it belongs. C.S. Lewis, for example, could only be a great Christian author because he was a great author. Certainly it is important for the Christian artist to be a devout, well-formed person, but he also must be a skilled, well-trained artist, or else he will fail. As Sayers observed, “No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie. Yet in her own buildings, in her own ecclesiastical art and music, in her hymns and prayers, in her sermons and in her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.”
For most people, there is not a strict divide between the content and the form of a message. The quality (or lack thereof ) of one spills into and affects the other, for better or worse. So whether the form is a song, poem, painting, or even just a conversation, if the goal is to capture or convey a Gospel value, a teaching of the Church, or what have you, the way the message is delivered must be just as beautiful as the content is rich. A keen example of this is the summer blockbuster The Fault in Our Stars, in which the protagonist, a young cancer patient, is forced by her parents to attend a church support group for kids in similar situations. The meetings are led by a well-meaning but insurmountably nerdy youth minister who strums his guitar regrettably and leads a generally cringe-inducing prayer service. Our protagonist does not stay in these meetings for very long. As with art, style and artfulness also matter in pastoral capacities, because in order to build trust and cultivate authentic, life-giving relationships with other people, one must oneself be a well-integrated, normal person.
Specifically speaking to movies, Sayers writes, “The worst religious films I ever saw were produced by a company which chose its staff exclusively for their piety. Bad photography, bad acting, and bad dialogue produced a result so grotesquely irreverent that the pictures could not have been shown in churches without bringing Christianity into contempt.”
The antithesis to this bad Christian art is a movie like Juno. Here we have a great example of a smart, funny, winsome movie with a resonant pro-life message. Frozen, too, rises above the caricature of bad Christian art with catchy songs, clever jokes, and a strong display of sacrificial, self- giving love. Movies like Juno and Frozen do a great job of introducing the public to certain Christian messages and themes in a beautiful, accessible way that does justice to the art forms in which they participate.
To put all of this in a broader context, this message is especially important for those of us in our unique position right now as university students thinking about our futures. When discerning our vocations, an honest and humble appraisal of our own gifts is very necessary. We serve no one by doing what we do poorly. It is important that we really dive into the work we are doing right now, whatever that may be, so that we might form ourselves to be good doctors, good business owners, good engineers, and good Christian artists.
Michael Infantine is a junior PLS major who is looking for someone to sing Frozen duets with. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.