Not Too Great a Good

Some Christians place little value on art. But I’m not going to complain about them. I intend, rather, to complain about Christians who place too much value on art.

I am thinking right now of Tony Woodlief and his article Bad Christian Art. I ran across this article while reading Sentimentality And Christian Fiction (an essay you should check out) on Speculative Faith (a website you should check out). Woodlief wrote:

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.

I am certain that bad art does sometimes arise from bad theology; more often it merely shows it. But to treat art as a barometer for soundness of belief is to highly overrate art. Bad Christian art = bad Christianity is a false equation; it assumes a connection between good religion and good art that does not exist.

It’s unquestionably true that knowing God falsely means writing and painting and sculpting Him falsely. If that means writing and painting and sculpting badly, we will have to denounce as bad art every movie with New Age overtones, every humanistic piece of sci-fi, every sculpture made by a pagan and every song written by an atheist.

I think we all know better than that; I think we all would acknowledge that there have been great artists who have not known God, and some who have hated Him. And that should remind us of something that, in the great debate of Good Art and Bad Art, we sometimes lose track of: Art has value in and of itself – the same passing value of a good meal and a well-made table and all other good, earthly things. We might say of art, as Augustine said of beauty, that it is a good gift of God, but in order that the good might not think it too great a good, He gives it even to the wicked.

Anything can have heavenly value, but only through being offered up to Heaven. Art is no further from heaven, and no closer to it, than anything else. They say that you can peel a potato to God’s glory if you peel it to perfection. You can also paint and write and film to God’s glory, but that is the real value – not art for art’s sake, but art for God’s sake.

What is done for God must be done well. The mistake of Christians is not in wanting to find – or create – messages in art, but in forgetting that the art as well as the message should be good. The ham-handedly preachy movie and the schmaltzy, overdone book have errors that bear correcting. It’s good that someone points it out; maybe it will help us all to do better.

But we have to hold on to this thought: It may very well be that the preachy movie and the schmaltzy book please God more than the most beautiful sculptures of Greece. Because God never judges by mere appearances; He looks deeper and makes a right judgment.