This is a response to the article Bad Christian Art written by Tony Woodlief.
I would like to start off by thanking Tony Woodlief for writing this article. I believe his goal for this piece was to start people thinking about how they view Christian art. He accomplished his goal in my mind because I have not been able to stop thinking about this article since I read it. This article is my response to Tony’s thesis.
I’ll give you a quick overview of my takeaway from the article’s main points as I set up my response. He attacks three main things about Christian art. The first is overarching Christian standards for what constitutes great art (in this specific instance he targets movies, books, and one painter by name). Secondly he points out the “sins” committed by Christian writers when writing and producing art. And thirdly is the spiritual immaturity of the Christians viewing art.
The article is well structured, hinting at the overall theme very early on and then bringing it back as a straightforward question in the end. This is exemplary structure: thesis, supporting arguments, and restatement of thesis. College students who are writing their English research paper: take notes.
In the “overall christian standards for great art” part, Woodlief states that Christians base their criteria for great movies on Christian movies that have already been produced. He mentions Left Behind and Facing the Giants. And then claims that Christians think these “works of art” are good because they judge art based on things like “message and wholesomeness and theological purity.” Here he makes the first decision that I have a problem with. Rather than clarifying how these concepts connect to the films mentioned he dives right into his thesis statement: bad Christian art is not a product of poor artistic skill but a product of poor Christianity.
Woodlief defines specific common shortcomings of Christian writers as:
This is where Tony Woodlief and I begin to disagree even more than I previously stated. He gives these specific examples of bad storytelling and then uses the the last one to prove his thesis. He accuses Christian writers of being too clean and wholesome because they remove profanity, sensuality, and critical questions from their material to avoid a scandal. He then uses that to prove that a large majority of Christians have not graduated from milk to meat. It was at this exact point that he lost me. “Moving from milk to meat” is a reference to the tough truths that SCRIPTURE has to offer us. The idea of meat does not give the Christian writer the license to start employing explicit sexual themes and cuss words into his stories causing other weaker believers to stumble simply because he’s “graduated to meat.” Woodlief mocks these weaker Christians for needing “wholesomeness in order for their faith to be preserved.”
This is a false generalization of why many Christian films try to be “wholesome.” Woodlief is right in that there are many believers still in the milk stage of life. But we see in the New Testament illustration of meat offered to idols that having a stronger conscience does not give one believer the license to offer another believer anything that would violate their conscience. (I Cor. 8)
Attempting to produce a truly meaningful piece of art is a very dangerous and powerful thing and should not be entered into lightly. As artists we like to create meaningful things. We spend so much time in our own heads that we think up wonderful things that could change the world. But God gently reminds us that knowledge is puffed up and that we need to start loving the people that we want to influence and consider the place they are coming from in their personal walk with God. I’d venture to say a large majority of Christians are capable of watching things that aren’t wholesome at all without the bottom completely dropping out on their fragile little faith. Unless When Calls the Heart really is the ONLY thing in all of our Netflix recently watched queues.
When creating art the Christian artist must consider who his piece of art has the potential to reach and how it might cause that individual, weak or strong, to benefit or possibly stumble. As artists we often forget to put God’s basic commands above our noble attempts to glorify Him. While we search our minds for the metaphor that will transcend the centuries, God is calling us back down to earth from our haven of knowledge to show Christ’s love to the person that is in the seat next to us. It comes down to a matter of priority. Is your goal to love people as Christ commanded you to do, or would you rather “show the world as a broken and beautiful place?"
I realize this response to Woodlief’s article leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Do not worry, I will be writing Part Two on the problems with Christian art. We will discuss how to fix one dimensional characters, how to equip the world with sin and suffering without going too far, and using academic story principles rather than a complete overhaul of the Christian faith. In closing of Part One I offer this open letter Mr. Woodlief.
"Dear Mr. Woodlief, if you do desire to write the story about the three year-old who is raped or a teenager who succumbs to schizophrenia in full detail with explicit themes and depression shown in its fullness then I encourage you to do that! Please just make sure to put it on the bookshelf labeled: Strong Conscience Christian Fiction/Non Fiction, so I’ll know where to find it when I go to Barnes & Noble.
- Mark Baral, February 2018