What is Christian Art?

by Cole Matson

Back in November, I posed a question to my friends on Facebook and Twitter:

‘Question: Is (the musical) Les Misérables Christian theatre, and why/why not?’

Les Misérables in Concert - The 25th Anniversary

I had just seen the 25th anniversary concert of my favourite musical livestreamed at my local cinema, and the question of whether such an international mega-hit could also qualify as ‘Christian theatre’ was very much on my mind. Les Miz holds a foundational place in my Christian life. After I first heard the music when I was 13, I decided to read the novel by Victor Hugo. Though I was raised in a Christian household, it was only after I read that book that I understood what it meant to be a Christian, and decided to devote my life to Christ. Jean Valjean was my first literary Christian role model. For me, reading the book and listening to the musical are both devotional experiences in a way, and I’ve always thought of them as Christian art. But I was interested to see what my friends thought, and more importantly, how they came to a verdict.

The verdict was split about whether the musical or the book qualified as Christian art. Two major criteria emerged from my less-than-scientific survey:

1)      Author’s intent

2)      Themes of the work

Friends who defined Christian art by author’s intent – an artwork is Christian if the author intends to create a ‘Christian artwork’ – were less likely to call Les Misérables Christian, on the assumption that it was not written as either a Christian musical or Christian book. (This assumption fits with Hugo’s ambivalence towards the Catholicism in which he was raised; I do not know anything about musical composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s and librettist Alain Boublil’s intentions.)

Friends who defined Christian art by its themes or values – an artwork is Christian if it deals with specifically Christian themes such as sin and redemption – were more likely to call Les Misérables Christian, because of its central plot of a convict (sinner) who is reborn through grace (the mercy and gift of the Bishop of Digne) to live a life in imitation of the mercy, compassion, and self-sacrifice of Christ (as modelled by the Christ-like bishop).

Those of the ‘intentional’ school argued against using themes as the primary criterion because one could miss what the artist was actually saying. One friend shared an example of teenage English lit students in the U.S. Bible Belt who argued that Kafka’s Metamorphosis was a Christian parable – not realising that Kafka was Jewish. In addition, identifying a work as Christian against the author’s intent could be disrespectful to the author. Another friend warned, ‘I don’t want to Christianize authors who didn’t want to be Christianized.’ Finally, there was the problem of the distinctiveness of themes which could be identified as Christian. A third friend, who pointed out that she was both Jewish and a great fan of the musical, argued that ‘some of the ideas in it that could come across as Christian are somewhat more universal in terms of ideals’.

On the other hand, those of the ‘thematic’ school argued that the presentation of Christian themes in a way consonant with a Christian worldview was sufficient to qualify an artwork as Christian, although they generally accepted that the artist’s own worldview should be taken into consideration. One person defined Christian art as that which ‘arises out of a Christian worldview, resonates with one, or arises from the life of a Christian’. Even though themes which ‘resonate’ with a Christian worldview were claimed to be a sufficient criterion to identify Christian art, on further discussion it seemed that the themes should be distinctive to Christianity, not themes of universal goodness or reconciliation. There was some disagreement over just how distinctively Christian the themes of Les Misérables were, especially if Hugo and the musical creators were not necessarily writing out of a Christian worldview.

When I spoke with a local Oxford professor about Christian art a few months ago, he gave me a possible definition (here in vastly-oversimplified form): Christian art is art in which the artist is struggling with the questions of the Christian tradition, from within that tradition. That does not necessarily mean that the artist would identify himself as a Christian, but he is swimming in its stream, even if he is fighting to make his way toward the bank to climb out.

According to this definition, Les Misérables would qualify as Christian art. Hugo’s disillusionment with the Roman Catholic Church shows through in his screed against monasticism and his criticism of rich clerics who ignore the poor while advancing their own social standing. However, he also presents two model Christians, one of whom is a member of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and yet a saint. His act of mercy and generosity towards Valjean transforms him to live a life of virtue and love that stands in contrast to the inhumanity of the society which has rejected him.

It is more difficult to know whether to define the musical as Christian art, because the biographies of Boublil and Schönberg are less well known. This points up a possible flaw in the above definition, in that it seems to require knowledge of the artist that one might not be able to glean from the artwork alone. However, I think the musical qualifies as Christian art according to the above definition, not only because it faithfully portrays many of the key themes of Hugo’s novel, but also because it does not shy away from using religious language to show the Christian motivations of both the Bishop of Digne and Valjean. In addition, the clash between Enlightenment ideals and Catholic beliefs in French history forms part of the background to both the novel and the musical; though not brought to the forefront as much in the musical, the question of how post-Revolutionary France deals with religion is still lurking in the story’s struggles.

While the novel and musical might not qualify as Christian art based on the artists’ intent, I think they do based on their themes (though these are not exclusively Christian), and also based on their creators’ engagement with the Christian tradition from within a society still grappling with that tradition.

What do you think about defining art as a struggle with the Christian tradition from within it? What do you think about using author’s intent and/or distinctive themes to define Christian art?

Update: Just found an excellent article on the Christianity of Les Misérables from Touchstone Magazine: “‘Sentiments Abstractly Christian’: Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, and the Catholic Imagination”.