What Is Christian Art and Can it Be Better?

The word "Christian art" may make you groan. But what does the term really mean... and have we been missing something in our discussions about Christian movies, books, and other kinds of art?

Updated Mar 08, 2023
What Is Christian Art and Can it Be Better?

Christian art. It can seem like a loaded term at times. After all, we can have a hard time defining it. In many Christian reading groups that I (Hope) belong to, I often see debates as to whether a work qualifies as being “Christian enough.”

We know that God does value art. When he decreed the ark of the covenant and its tabernacle tent should be built, he had a skilled artisan named Bezalel make the components. When the time came for the temple in Jerusalem to be built, he tasked Oholiab with making beautiful artwork for the house of the Lord. Jesus was a craftsman with carpentry and excelled at using the art form of storytelling to share his message. So, God clearly values art. We should too.

But how do we define Christian art? How much evangelism power does it need to have? How well must it be made? We’ll explore these questions and others to determine what’s “Christian enough” to qualify as Christian art.

Does Christian Art Need to Evangelize?

Let’s look at Christian films for a moment. I (Trey) am a huge cinephile, someone who loves film. I grew up on films from practically the moment I was born. From the 1990s Disney Renaissance to the groundbreaking The Lord of the Rings trilogy to the jaw-dropping mystery The Prestige, movies have deeply impacted my life in how they are told, directed, and edited. Needless to say, I paid deep attention to storytelling.

In the last 20 years or so, evangelizing through Christian films has become popular. The evangelism altar call at the end of God’s Not Dead. The altar call speech at the end of Courageous. The worship concert with Chris Tomlin in Grace Unplugged. And so on. While it is understandable to have Christian symbolism and tone, a problem occurs when the message outweighs the art. If the message leads to sacrificing a film’s craft (the character development, storytelling, and cinematography), is the Christian art the best it can be? Are we giving God our best if we ignore the fundamentals of telling a good story?

Someone may respond, “Well, the budgets for Christian films are much smaller than those in Hollywood, so we cannot expect the art to be good.” The problem is some of the best Hollywood masterpieces have been created on low budgets, even adjusting for inflation. Rocky had a $1 million budget. Star Wars had $11 million. The Passion of the Christ had $30 million—which sounds like a lot but is less than a third of what most Hollywood blockbusters cost today. As YouTuber Josh Keefe points out in his video on Christian films, “Money does not equal quality… Money isn’t the problem, it’s the execution.”

Secondly, it misses that authentic Christian stories often don’t feature what we’d immediately consider “Christian elements.” For example, let’s look at The Lord of the Rings (my go-to in these discussions). The story implies but contains few mentions of higher beings (the Valar become more important in Tolkine’s other writings). Some references resemble biblical characters (Sauron and the Balrog are basically fallen angels), but no Christ figure like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia. The story is also filled with fantasy creatures that don’t exist in the real world—elves, dwarves, hobbits, ents, orcs, goblins, Uruk-Hai, wizards, and giant sea monsters. So, no clear Christian agenda. Yet the Lord of the Rings books and movies are beloved across Christian circles. Why is this? It displays Biblical truths and themes that J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind—ones that require digging but are there. Tolkien combined his Roman Catholic faith and storytelling skill to create something that talked about Christianity in a fascinating, authentic way.

Christian art can simply be art made by Christians. If you tell a good story with a message in mind, the message can and will flow out organically and naturally. There is no “come to Jesus” message in The Lord of the Rings, but it has pointed many believers back to Christ in its themes, characters, and more. In other words, you do not need to evangelize through a story. Let the story do its work, and the message will follow through.

Does Christian Art Need to be Well Made?

When I look at this question, I think of two important quotes—one from Martin Luther and one from C.S. Lewis.

Martin Luther: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

C.S. Lewis: “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”

And if you don’t want to take those Christians’ words at face value, check out Colossians 3:17 and Colossians 3:23. God makes it clear that he wants us to do all with excellence. I often think of the parable of the talents. The servant who buried his talent received quite the rebuke from the master. Why? Because he didn’t use his gift well.

In the same way, Christians can run the risk of “throwing away their talent” if they attempt to shoehorn the Gospel message without giving any investment into craft or organic storytelling.

I (Hope) see this all too often in my industry. Working at a publishing house, I often see Christian storytellers sending me a manuscript with a clear Gospel message, but it’s also entirely clear that they didn’t spend much time reading works in their genre and honing their writing voice.

When my publishing house issues a rejection, they often recoil. They say, “Well, God told me to write this story.”

I kindly remind them that God has called every Christian artist, and that’s not an excuse to neglect to work on the craft.

In some circles, Christian art has sadly earned a reputation for being hoaky, unrealistic, and lacking in finesse. As Christians, we need to do better. We need to support the Christian artists who are doing the best they can with the talent given to them.

Does Christian Art Need to be Kid Friendly?

The short answer to this is this no. Christian art does not need to be kid-friendly. On the contrary, keeping Christian art “family-friendly” hinders Christian art from being profound and unique.

Let’s look at the Bible itself. We call it the “Good Book.” It is full of betrayal, murder, lust, chaos, idol worship, sexual immorality, adultery, child murder, rape, war, genocide, torture, and so much more. To me (Trey), the Bible often reads like The Game of Thrones of Christianity… just with a redemptive message. If we see the Bible as a book that we should raise the next generation to read yet hinder them from creating Christian art that isn’t “family-friendly” enough, then we become hypocrites.

Full disclosure: I am not saying we should throw our hands up and make super-violent, inappropriate content solely to do whatever we want. I am saying that we should see making Christian art as a high responsibility. How does this content serve the plot? Is this to shed light on a topic or for shock value? Is this enough for audiences to understand and grasp at?

A good example of Christian art that isn’t family-friendly yet responsible is Martin Scorcese’s award-winning film Silence. The story follows two seventeenth-century Jesuit priests traveling to Japan, where Christianity has been banned. They seek their mentor, rumored to have committed apostasy. The film is violent. It is filled with torture, executions, and psychological despair.

Despite the gruesomeness, Silence has deep themes. The film considers faith being tested beyond someone’s limits. It considers psychological and physical temptation and the depths of apostasy and grace. Rather than evangelism winning in the end, it leaves viewers to ponder what “endurance to the end” (Matt. 24:4-14) really means. Instead of a hopeful Christian message, it is grim about how dark, lonesome, and horrific missionary life can be when persecution arises. Silence is no easy viewing experience, but it is a Christian film that Christians would benefit from watching. Those benefits include the intensity of dying for the faith, the endurance of real missionary work and calling, and the sense of hopelessness when our world goes dark and God feels far away.

Christian art should not remain “family-friendly” because not everything in this life is family-friendly. It can be dark. It can be cruel. It can even feel hopeless. If that is true of this imperfect world, why should we limit ourselves to feel-good stories that do not reflect reality and don’t consider life accurately and realistically?

When I was growing up, one thing that my parents did with my siblings and I was to watch PG-13 and R-rated films together and then have discussions about them afterward. We discussed films like Braveheart, 3:10 to Yuma, Spider-Man, and many more. If we can do this with mature secular movies, why can’t we do this with Christian films? Why can we do it with all forms of Christian art?

Does Christian Art Have to be Made by Christian Groups?

Can a Christian artist be considered a Christian artist if they aren’t published by a Christian house, produced by a Christian film company, etc.?

I’d (Hope) like to argue yes. Not only because I have done so myself. I’ve had several books published by non-Christian companies/performed in many theaters with no Christians on staff or in the cast. But I’ve also seen several examples of Christians working in mainstream spaces to create compelling work that explores Christian themes. For some to check out, read about them here, here, and here.

Why? How is this possible?

Simple, God calls us to be yeast, salt, and light. Sometimes we’ll be yeast employed by non-yeasty people. Sometimes we’ll be light, commissioned by people in darkness.

If we say Christian art can only be made by Christian groups, publishers, or production companies, we limit God’s power. If God can place prophets such as Daniel in one of the evilest kingdoms of all time, he can certainly place Christian artists in dark places.

Although many Christian groups do well to share the Gospel through Christian art—and we should support these groups—we shouldn’t limit God’s work to just these companies.

How Can We Support Christian Art?

We can support well-made Christian art in a variety of ways.

First, we can look at the upcoming Christian artists and storytellers. If we truly want to see Christians spreading the Gospel through industries, we must look at all Christians in those industries, not just the ones we like or prefer.

To do so, we can research through various sites and recommendations. It is best to familiarize ourselves through current Christian authors we should know, Christian work we are unaware of, or films to watch during Christian holidays. We can also look at Christian review sites that explore themes in Christian art or secular art beyond “how violent it is” or “how many profane words there are,” such as Geeks Under Grace or Film Fisher.

From social media groups to websites and even simple Google searches, there is always a way to discover upcoming Christian art and artists. Who knows? Maybe there is something or someone you might find and like.

Great Resources to Learn More about Christian Art

50 Books about Christian Art

What Does the Bible Say about Art?

Bad Christian Art

Why Do Christians Seem Suspicious of the Arts?

15 Female Christian Authors You Should Know

Evangelical Tracts and Real Art

Photo Credit: Getty Images/GDArts

Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, book editor for hire, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids. Check out her editing profile at Reedsy.com to find out about hiring her for your next book project.

Trey Soto holds a B.A. in Communication Studies from Biola University and an M.A. in Communication Management from the University of Denver. He is a photographer, a writer, and a podcast host at T.V. Trey Podcast. You can see more of his work on his Wix portfolio.


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