Bad Christian Art

Tony Woodlief, Image Journal

Editor's Note: This article originally published at Good Letters, Image Journal's daily blog.

"Why," asks the title of a recent movie review by Salon writer Andrew O'Hehir, "are Christian movies so awful?" He asks this after watching Soul Surfer, a film targeted at American evangelicals, about a one-armed surfer girl. It's supposed to be a true story, insofar as anything can be true once it has been plucked from the web of human interdependence and stretched across a fifty-foot screen.

Apparently this is a bad movie, though the only question when such movies hit the screen is not whether they are bad, but whether they are better than Left Behind, or better than Facing the Giants, or better than whatever else has been served up to good Christian people who judge art by criteria like message and wholesomeness and theological purity.

I'm convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it's not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.

Consider, for example, some common sins of the Christian writer:

Neat resolution: You can find it on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore: the wayward son comes to Christ, the villain is shamed, love (which deftly avoids pre-marital sex) blossoms, and the right people praise God in the end. Perhaps best of all, we learn Why This All Happened.

Many of us are familiar, likewise, with that tendency among some Christians to view life as a sitcom, with God steadily revealing how the troubles in our lives yield more good than ill. It's sad that he died so young, but look at how his brother has turned to Christ. The earthquake killed thousands, but see how God's people are coming together in response.

What good God works from a three year-old who is raped, however, or a teenager who succumbs to schizophrenia, is His domain entirely, and to speculate on how these horrors fit into the Great Plan borders on obscenity.

Sometimes we suffer and often we fail, and there is no clear answer why, no cosmic math that redeems, in our broken hearts, this sadness. The worst Christian novels seem to forget Oswald Chambers' insightful observation, which is that God promises deliverance in suffering, not deliverance from suffering. And so they lie about the world and about God and about the quiet, enduring faith of our brethren in anguish.

One-dimensional characters: In many Christian novels there are only three kinds of characters: the good, the evil, and the not-so-evil ones who are about to get themselves saved. And perhaps this saved/not saved dichotomy—more a product of American evangelicalism than Christian orthodoxy—accounts for the problem.

I think we might craft better characters if we accept that every one of us is journeying the path between heaven and hell, and losing his way, and rushing headlong one direction before abruptly changing course to dash in the other, and hearing rumors about what lies ahead, and hoping and dreading in his heart what lies each way, and grabbing hold of someone by the arm or by the hair and dragging, sometimes from love and sometimes from hate and sometimes from both.

Sentimentality: Like pornography, sentimentality corrupts the sight and the soul, because it is passion unearned. Whether it is Xerxes weeping at the morality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont, or me being tempted to well up as the protagonist in Facing the Giants grips his Bible and whimpers in a glen, the rightful rejoinder is the same: you didn't earn this emotion.

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