Updated: 5 days ago
Whenever I talk to Christians who consider themselves to be particularly cultured and artistically sophisticated, I almost inevitably hear a single repeated criticism, often spoken as if the speaker were the first one to think or utter such a sentiment. It goes something like this: "Christian literature, art, and music was once great and beautiful, but now they have fallen; so-called Christian artists and writers and filmmakers are completely lacking in originality and are only interested in either money or teaching lessons; the Church needs to support Christian artist, musicians, etc. like it did in the old days." This type of argument is often accompanied by a scornful attitude toward recent Christian works that have achieved a degree of popular success - shows like The Chosen or films like Risen - as if the mere fact that they are Christian and popular is enough to dismiss them.
I will admit that there was a time when I myself would utter such glib arguments and feel a smug sense of superiority whenever I encountered a piece of popular Christian film, writing, or media like The Chosen. But then I actually took a moment to reflect on what I was saying and promptly realized that it was utter non-sense. Although I won't claim to uphold most of popular Christian media as worthy of enduring praise and of inclusion in our culture's artistic cannon (The Chosen certainly isn't at that stage yet), the presuppositions that cultured Christian critics hold regarding why this is the case and how to respond are not only untrue - they are often the exact opposite of the truth. So, having perpetuated many of these wild fancies in my own conversations for far too long, I think it's only fair that I take a moment to work to dispel them now. I will address two of these myths this week and follow up in a future post addressing couple others.
The Myth of the Golden Age of Christian Art
The first place where snobbish sentiments toward modern Christian art, music, and literature go wrong is in the belief that modern Christianity has fallen from an artistic golden age. The reality is that, like our own time, almost every age of Christian art, literature, and music has been a grab bag with a mixture of good and bad.
"But wait!" you say, "What about _______? Are saying modern Christian artists/musicians/writers are better than him/her?" Well, no, I'm not claiming that any particular Christian creative today is better than or even equal to any other specific Christian creative from the past. I will also admit that there are a few seasons of extraordinary artistic output like the Renaissance. But it is worth pointing out that our knowledge of Christian artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc. in our own time is quite different from our knowledge of artists, musicians, and such from previous generations. Our knowledge of the contemporary creative scene is broad and chaotic - we encounter the good, the mediocre, and the embarrassingly bad. On the other hand, except for a handful of specialists, our knowledge of past artists, musicians, etc. is highly selective - we only encounter the good, because the mediocre and the bad have not been preserved for our enjoyment (or lack thereof). Thus, we get the impression that our age is uniquely bad or mediocre because of the bad and mediocre works that are produced today, when the truth is that there have almost always been bad and mediocre Christian artists, writers, and musicians. We just haven't been forced to encounter them, in the same way that our grandchildren will hopefully never be forced to encounter Left Behind or Hawk Nelson.
The other factor at play here is our natural tendency toward telescoping history. We live in a time when so much content is being produced in such a little time and artistic and musical trends are changing rapidly. As a result, it's easy for us to underestimate the relative amount of content from previous generations that we still cling to compared to the sheer amount of time that passed by. Just think about how many centuries have passed by over the course of Christian history. Now consider how many artists and musicians you know from all that time. Unless you're quite learned, the ratio is probably quite lopsided. Even specific periods of artistic output like the Renaissance were much longer (over 200 years) and, in all but a few central cities, much sparser than we tend to assume. We, on the other hand, feel embarrassed that the next Dante hasn't arisen over the course of the past thirty years. On a historical scale, we actually aren't that far from titans of Christian literature like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (there are still people alive who knew them); we only feel like we are because our culture has taught us to expect the next big thing every five months.
I do not encourage quietism in regards to Christian arts and media. The creative output of Christians in our time could indeed be improved. But the solution to the faults of this season is not to imagine a fictitious golden age that we have fallen from. Rather, we need, first of all, patience, and, second, a clear-sighted and concrete evaluation of how to improve the infrastructure and support-systems of the Christian artistic community in our present moment.
The Myth of Originality
If you asked ten random cultured Christians what was lacking with Christian art, movies, literature, etc., I imagine at least nine out of ten would say a lack of originality. And yet if you had asked ten random Christian masters from anytime prior to the nineteenth century what the secret of their success was, not a single one of them would ever have even considered mentioning the word. The value of originality and invention is itself a relatively recent and original invention. If one surveys the literature, art, and music produced for the first 1700 years of Christianity, he finds that most of it - even the very best of it - is profoundly conventional and "derivative." Shakespeare is the best known example - a vast number of his plays are not original concepts but rather refined versions of stories that had been told many times before. Or consider how many times the Arthurian tales were told and retold throughout the Medieval period. Prior to modernist artistic movements, Christian painting was exceptionally conventional, focusing on a relatively limited number of topics and utilizing a fairly fixed visual vocabulary. Instead of pursuing originality, those who participated in the artistic tradition of pre-Modern Christian art labored in a common direction over the course of multiple generations in order to achieve gradual refinement and perfection.
But perhaps I'm not doing justice to this aspect of the cultured Christian critic's argument. When the need for "originality" is raised, the critic is often specifically concerned about how often Christian musicians or filmmakers make "Christian" copies of successful secular songs or movies. And yet such an accusation is quite ironic. In a world in which everything has its ultimate origin in God, what is originality if it is not taking two things not previously connected by humans and then smashing them into each other in order to see what emerges? And is that not exactly what Christian artists who are mimicking secular artists are doing? The very first Christian screamo bands were not being unoriginal - they were smashing together two very separate things (Christianity and screamo). You may call into question whether they performed this original connection skillfully or whether this combination turned out to be desirable, but you cannot argue that the failure was with respect to creativity. In reality, the issue with modern Christian artists is rarely a lack of originality; rather it is the origin of their sources. Instead of pursuing the passing fads of their non-Christian peers, they would be much better served if they focused on studying, refining, and passing on the enduring artistic heritage of the Christian fathers who preceded them.
And yet I do not reject the work of those who mimic the art of their non-Christian peers. This too is part of the Christian artistic tradition. Luther famously mimicked the bar songs with his hymns; hagiographies famously mimicked the myths of paganism; and even the pinnacle of Christian literature - epics like Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy - are but sophisticated (and quite conscious) imitations of pagan literary epics. The key thing to be aware of when mimicking modern artistic, musical, and literary fads is that such trends often have a short shelf life. If one is content to be a brief but loud blip in creative history, there's nothing wrong with copying other brief but loud blips in the secular artistic scene. However, if one aspires to create a work of more lasting significance, one must take care to study and imitate works of lasting significance (whether Christian or secular). Those who transformed pagan myths into Christian hagiographies and those who adapted the pagan epics into Christian epics could be sure that they were working with materials of wide and enduring significance because their pagan sources were already quite old and universal before they were imitated. But those who imitate secular works that we consider "original" today have no way of knowing whether they are working with materials that will last or materials that will be discarded tomorrow, because their sources are brand new and untested by time.
Having pushed back against the excessive elevation of "originality," I should acknowledge that I generally do prefer stories with unique or original premises, and so I am certainly not rejecting the value of innovation in storytelling or art. But I've come to see this desire for "original" or "creative" stories as a matter of taste, kind of like the desire for stories that are suspenseful or stories that are funny or stories that are intellectually stimulating. Originality works for me and for many others, but it doesn't work for everyone. I know several people who prefer works that follow the tropes and patterns that they're familiar - and those people need solidly made stories and art and music just as much as people like me who enjoy works that break the mold. Originality is a value, but it's not the primary value. Ideally, we need Christian artists and creatives who produce both conventional and original works, and we need critics who can value the contribution of both types of work.
Contributing to The Bible Artist
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If you liked this post, I've done several posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation that you might want to check out, including articles on how The Chosen adapts key biblical characters and discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Season 1 and Season 2. You may also be interested in some of my other content on adaptation and youth ministry.
The Chosen Season 3
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
John the Baptist in The Chosen **Season 2**
Lilith, Demons, & Evil Spirits in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Simon the Zealot & Nathanael in The Chosen ***Season 2***
The Virgin Mary in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 2***
James & John in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Mary Magdalene in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]
Episode 1 Guide: Homecoming
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?
Season 2 Reflection P2: What was The Chosen Season 2 about? (Plots & Theme)
Episode 1 Guide: The Beloved Disciple
Episode 2 Guide: Philip, Nathanael, & Matthew
Episode 3 Guide: Life Among the Disciples of Jesus
Episode 4 Guide: Simon the Zealot & the Man at the Bethesda Pool
Episode 5 Guide: Mary's Demons & the Destiny of John the Baptist
Episode 6 Guide: Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Episode 7 Guide: Quintus Returns
Episode 8 Guide: Judas, Matthew, & the Sermon on the Mount
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara