Why Protestants Don’t Make Good Art

I posted this short piece on my old blog in 2016 and think I made some good points, so I’m reproducing it here.

A friend recently posted on Facebook that, in his experience, Evangelical Christians aren’t making good art. We tend to discuss art a lot, but in general, we don’t encourage the kind of atmosphere that great art thrives in. I don’t have an explanation for this, but here are three guesses as to why this trend is so persistent.

Walking on Water - Azurite by Makoto Fujimura

First of all, when art is encouraged in Christian communities, it’s often encouraged in the service of a larger goal, usually one with a theological argument behind it. Christian artists love to explain what they’re doing. The meaning of the art is displayed on its surface. “That’s Noah, and this rock over here represents sin being swallowed up by the waters of baptism.” Most of the time, this comes from a genuine love for the truths being communicated. But a certain level of ambiguity is often what makes art great, because what the art is saying can’t quite be put into words. Protestant Evangelical Christians don’t really like ambiguity. We usually want art to have one straightforward meaning, and frankly, most great art doesn’t.

That brings us to the second point. Art requires an element of uncertainty in the artist. David Bentley Hart mentions that beauty seems to give reconciliation to things that cannot be reconciled. It’s almost as if beauty operates on a different timeline from ours. In order for the artist to let beauty do that work, the artist must admit that things are not reconciled. Ecclesiastes says that God put eternity in the hearts of men. The Evangelical Protestant wants that eternity to be filled up with the truth of the Gospel. (Whether or not this is historically true, it’s how many present-day Christians operate.) Again, this may be done with utmost sincerity, but it smothers the artistic pursuit. Beauty wants those unanswered questions.

Lastly, as the poet Scott Cairns says, artists tend to fall in love with the stuff of making. Those who paint canvases dream of paint. The poet pushes words around in her head all day. The serious photographer or cinematographer is always paying attention to the way light bounces off of things. At one level, the artist must be willing to lay aside what he knows in his mind to be true in order to pay attention to what the stuff tells him to do. In the contemporary evangelical church, the stuff of the world is typically regarded with suspicion. (This seems to be changing, based on my own experience, and praise the Lord for that.) Trying to create art with that kind of attitude is sort of like, say, making bricks without straw. Unless Christians are willing to fall in love with the world, they can kiss their artistic aspirations goodbye.

(I’d encourage you to read this post at CiRCE about why modern people can’t write and this post at First Things, which kicked off this whole discussion in the first place.)

That painting is Walking on Water – Azurite, by the Christian abstract artist Makoto Fujimura.

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