Why Are So Many Christian Artists At Odds With the Church?

Christian Artists in Birdtrap Church header

You may have noticed that many talented Christian artists split with the church—either completely, like Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan—or partially on various issues, like Michael Gungor or Dan Haseltine. It seems that many “fringe” Christian artists feel disconnected from the church, or at least uncomfortable inside of it. This is actually a common experience, far more common than most people know.

Derek Webb, former member of Caedmon’s Call, had this to say in an interview with Richard Clark:

I’ve never fit very comfortably into church culture and church framework. When I was a kid, and growing up being a musician, the church fumbles with artists a little bit. Even before I had the language to be able to articulate it, I always felt as though I had a fairly unconventional approach to spirituality, or else I didn’t love the terms of it the way that some people did, and the way a lot of my friends did.

And there it is: “the church fumbles with artists.” Part of the reason for this fumbling is an incorrect understanding of what it means to be an artist within the church. The label “Christian artist,” though convenient, is often unhelpful. Is there really such a thing as “Christian” art? Certainly there is art made by Christians, but should all of that art by necessity have a “Christian” flavor?

That depends on what you mean by that. For most within the church, Christian art (movies, music, etc.) must reference God explicitly. Whether it is a painting of some biblical scene or concept, a song about God’s grace, or a movie of some redemption narrative, most Christians have a very narrow view of what constitutes “Christian art.”

The mainstream Christian view is actually much narrower than the Bible’s. Esther, a beautiful narrative, never mentions God. Not once. Song of Solomon is an erotic human love song before it is an allegory of Christ and His Bride. Plenty of the Psalms, most of Proverbs, and nearly all of Ecclesiastes are very troubling and doubt-inducing. And what about Solomon’s temple? It was the central image of religion and art in the Old Testament. It was most definitely sacred art. But not all of the art of it was strictly religious. It had angels (1 Kings 6:23f), to be sure, but it also had pomegranates (1 Kings 7:20).

Christian art can be sacred or secular. It can be either for the explicit worship of God or the exposition of God’s character in the vast and varied world all around us. Or some combination of both. It should span the minutia of human experience and the vastness of burning stars. God didn’t see fit to brand an ichthus or a cross on every bit of art He ever created, so it follows that a good bit of art made by Christians can freely and honestly explore, well, everything.

Christians who are artists, in order to make whatever art God gives them, should be supported by the church, even when their art doesn’t “look” Christian. As long as they are pursuing Christ, their art will follow. And we should be willing to receive it in its varied forms.

The church has put the aesthetic cart before the horse. We emphasize that Christians must make “Christian art” before we emphasize that Christians who are artists need to be pursuing Christ first. This has produced widespread and almost endemic hypocrisy in the mainstream Christian arts community. Consider this excerpt from an article about the former frontman of As I Lay Dying, a purportedly “Christian” band:

“In the process of trying to defend my faith, I started thinking the other point of view was the stronger one,” he said, adding that he began using his new-found atheism as a justification for his sins.

“The first time I cheated on my wife, my interpretation of morality was now convenient for me,” he said. “I felt less guilty if I decided, ‘Well, marriage isn’t a real thing, because Christianity isn’t real. God isn’t real.’”

But there was money to make with As I Lay Dying, so Lambesis pretended he was still a Christian. “When kids would want to pray with us after shows, I’d be like, ‘Um, go ahead and pray!’” he said.

In some ways, this is shocking. In others, not at all. It’s not isolated by any means. Lambesis also had this to say: “In 12 years of touring with As I Lay Dying, I would say maybe one in 10 Christian bands we toured with were actually Christian bands.” One in ten? Not good numbers.

We’re so focused on forcing our artists to make “Christian art,” we are hardly concerning ourselves with whether or not their relationships with God are vital and authentic. And aren’t their relationships to Christ and His body of primary importance? If that’s taken care of, won’t their callings honestly and naturally develop without undue external constraints (Matt. 6:33)?

Like the Preacher said: “Like an earthen vessel overlaid with silver dross are fervent lips and a wicked heart” (Prov. 26:23). The religious zeal so readily apparent in the art of many contemporary Christian artists is the silver dross of fervor covering the earthen pottery of cynical opportunism.

Which would you rather have? Strong Christians staying within the church making expertly crafted bronze sculptures, landscape paintings, and instrumental songs (none of which have the superficial appearance of being “Christian art”) … Or outwardly “spiritual” “Christian” “artists” writing praise songs, making altar call movies, painting religious tableaus, but not actually believing in Christ or submitting to His church. Don’t you think this emphasis on “Christian art” over against good art made by authentic Christians has been detrimental to the church and her aesthetics?

By creating an environment in the church where fake Christianese art becomes financially profitable, an emphasis on religious superficiality also jettisons authentic, challenging, convicting art. This is the nature of listening to lies. When you listen to liars and endorse liars (and what is religious hypocrisy but a big lie), you by necessity push away truth-tellers (Prov. 29:12). Actually talented artists who want to make good art, but don’t want to be lumped into the hypocrisy of contemporary Christian culture, have largely been ignored or isolated by the church.

And let’s face it. We want to hear comforting words. And talented “fringe” Christians don’t often make us feel good about ourselves. But that’s not the point of art. Read the story in 2 Chronicles 18. When Israel abandoned good religion, she also abandoned truth-telling art. But that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of “religious” poets who would give the church in Israel what she wanted to hear. Only one poet of truths remained, and the very religious, very hypocritical Ahab hated him because, “he never spoke good of the king, only evil” (2 Chron. 18:7).

I often lament what the exodus of talented artists has done to the church. But it is not as often that I lament what this exodus has done to Christian artists. This disconnect from the church poses some serious temptations for good artists who are trying to pursue Christ.

It’s a vicious cycle. The church doesn’t know how to deal with talented artists because the contemporary church really doesn’t value good art like it should. This lack of good art ends up making artists very uncomfortable and isolated. So they leave or hold themselves at a distance. Which just exacerbates the issue.

Most people think that Dan Haseltine, Michael Gungor, Sufjan Stevens, Derek Webb, and many others differ ideologically from the mainstream church’s values, and this ideological difference was the root of their various splits from the local church. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the ideological splits come after a much more powerful cultural difference. These artists differ with the church over art first, and are then freed by that isolation to differ with the church on all sorts of other things.

If the church were doing a good job of integrating the prophetic visions of talented artists into the ecclesiastical structure, it is likely that all these various ideological issues could be dealt with internally. As it is, Christian artists don’t get support from within a church until they’ve already gained an audience outside of it. So they are encouraged to leave really. And they are encouraged not to submit to the church’s values.

How does this pan out? Most talented Christian artists become “rogue” prophets without accountability. They don’t feel included by the church, so they choose not to submit to the church’s leadership. They feel rejected and cast out. So they pave their own way, and in the process they lose that vital connection to the tangible body of Christ that could give them correction and restoration when they most need it.

It is a rare artist indeed who can resist the temptations of sin and heresy when he is encouraged to be his own rule for faith and life. When you stop listening to reproof and discipline, you almost always, no matter your intention, go astray (Prov. 19:27). All of us need the accountability and leadership of the tangible, institutional church. Without it, we will all wander. Christian artists are no different in that sense, but they have much greater reason not to feel included.

It’s a two-part problem with a two-part solution. Churches need to support local artists in their communities and integrate those artists into their prophetic vision. And artists, no matter how rejected they may feel, need to submit themselves to their governing authorities in the church. It is my hope that this will happen soon—both for the beautification of the church, and the sanctification of her artists.

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