What is Christian Art?

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”.

21 thoughts on “What is Christian Art?

  1. Hi, Cole

    The psalmist is a good analogy; and as you know, the Psalms end with praise, but often take us through an amazing range of emotions before they bring us to that destination.

    Yes, there is an overflowing in Richard’s songs, but before the overflowing came the emptying: like the miracle of Cana. Richard practiced several disciplines in his life that allowed God to come through his work. I’m currently writing about how he lived the Beatitudes as a creative discipline.

    Yes, you said it well. I was making a distinction between forms of art and art with a capital A. Art has life in it, art outlives the artist, art touches hearts and lives, art perpetuates more art. As artists who are Christians, this is the fertile art we strive for. Tolkien’s work would be an example.

  2. Pam,

    Thank you for your comments. It seems like Rich Mullins was very much a psalmist, singing for the glory of God because his heart overflowed with love. No other audience needed but him and God alone, though if his songs helped others come closer to God, that was good, too. Would you say that was accurate?

    I’m interested in the contrast you draw between “art” and “songwriting/playwriting/acting/image-making” in your last sentence. Are songwriting, etc. not types of art? Or is art sincere, whereas these forms are not art when they are not sincere in their creation?

  3. I think Rich Mullins addressed this topic. He and I often discussed his views on Christian art. He was a bit of a purist about his art. He considered his music Christian because he was Christian. Having said that, his themes were derived from his life experiences. Sometimes they contained explicit Christian content, sometimes not so much.

    His motivation? He said he wrote songs for himself. He said the Bible commands us to sing.

    But he expected his songs to reflect his world view, and I might add that his ethics were extremely strong, so he carried out his expectation. Whether a song carried explict Christian content or not, he would not have written a song he had never had the experience to write. He counted on shared human experience, not shared Christian beleifs, to reach his audience. The common meeting ground made many of his songs effective vehicles for evangelism, whether he intended them that way or not.

    Overall, his ability to turn himself inside out was his most effective tool as a Christian artist. To me, the trait of transparency marks the difference between Christian art and Christian songwriting, or playwriting, or acting, or image-making.

  4. I like your Trinity of Perspective-Manner-Art (Product? Christian perspective carried out in a Christian manner = Christian artistic product?).

  5. Always intent rather than extent. Your first story is AS Christian as your second. Explicated themes don’t make it “more” anything.

    I think that you’re covered in your run up,
    “1) It helps the viewer to understand the world/herself/her neighbour/God/etc. better, and does not mislead her.
    2) It is helpful and not harmful to the viewer (and providing aesthetic pleasure is in itself helpful).
    3) It provides aesthetic pleasure (which involves reflecting something of the order of the universe).”

    It is Art (3) that explores the world through a Christian perspective (1) in a Christian manner (2)

  6. Got it. Don’t reflective and thematic overlap, in that one can be reflecting on a theme?

    And don’t worry, I don’t feel a calling to make evangelical art.:-) I agree with you, art might have an evangelical side effect, but when evangelism is the primary purpose for making the art, it generally comes off as forced, false, and unlikely to actually influence anyone in a positive way. That evangelical side effect happens when a person is attracted to something (or Someone) pulling them into the art, not when the art jumps out at them to grab them and shove flyers in their face.

  7. Another thought re: intent: Do what extent does the intent have to be to add Christian elements, besides to work in a Christian context? By the latter I mean to make sure that, in its final presentation, my work adheres to a Christian understanding of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty:

    1) It helps the viewer to understand the world/herself/her neighbour/God/etc. better, and does not mislead her.
    2) It is helpful and not harmful to the viewer (and providing aesthetic pleasure is in itself helpful).
    3) It provides aesthetic pleasure (which involves reflecting something of the order of the universe).

    As long as I intend my work to exist “within these bounds,” can it be said to be Christian work, or is it only Christian work if I consciously add Christian elements on top of whatever exists within these bounds?

    Basically, is my art Christian if I, a Christian, am making it with the intention of it existing within a Christian worldview (which basically means that I intend to keep my art faithful to what I believe), or does it only become Christian if I decide to make it Christian, as Tolkien describes doing in his revision?

    So, for example, let’s say I write a superhero story that has the responsible stewardship of power as a theme (kinda like Spiderman). Let’s say the values of the story (keeping in mind that the deduction of values from a story is secondary to the experience of the story itself) are consonant with Christian values of obedience, mercy, compassion, etc. It’s a good story within the bounds, and that’s it.

    On the other hand, let’s say in the revision I decide I want to bring out specifically Christian themes, to say something about the need to die to self to bring life to others, or something like that. I hide a death-resurrection motif within the fabric of the story, including in the climax. I also infuse my superhero with subtle shepherd imagery, so that the reader will get the sense of someone who is willing to die to protect those he takes care of, and go out of his way to aid the one, not just the many.

    Is only the latter version a Christian superhero story?

    I’m thinking yes. But at the same time I’m thinking, as I think you said to me in a previous post, that anything I make is going to be Christian in some way. On the other hand, I can think of roles I’ve played in which I’ve had absolutely no sense of being a “Christian actor” (except insofar as I believe I have a moral obligation to be respectful, diligent, and loving to my employer and co-workers), whereas with others (most especially Will Roper in A Man for All Seasons) my Christianity greatly informed (and was informed by) the role. (Of course, acting may be a different kettle of fish altogether, because you’re interpreting a part in someone else’s story, not creating the story yourself.)

    So maybe I can’t help being a Christian artist, and therefore all art I create is going to be influenced by my Christianity in some way, but only some of it will be Christian art (the works I make a special effort to make Christian artworks).

  8. I always think suffused is a better idea than anything else…

    I think that if you are going to choose a niche deliberately you need to know exactly what it is you are working for or the mission will be too muddy to be successful.

  9. “So the intent of the artist to make a piece of Christian art makes the piece Christian art. Correct?”

    To my thinking yes.

    “Your distinction between reflective, thematic, and evangelical intentions leads me to believe that you would not define Christian art by evangelical intent, but by the intent to create a piece of art that is Christian, is above.

    (Or are these three intentions? If not, what are they, and if so, what is a thematic intention?)”

    Three separate intentions. And lord above please never ever make evangelical art… Jesus doesn’t need selling. Thematic would be any of the fruits, salvation itself, grace, forgiveness, the shepherd metaphors, the blood metaphors…

  10. Is that because, if I don’t have a solid idea, it could come across as a muddle of evangelistic and non-evangelistic desires ending up in a confused work acceptable to no one?

    The model of Christian art I want to emulate in the realm of theatre is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which he wrote in a letter (#142 in his Letters) was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Its Christianity “is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” He was consciously working with Christian themes from within the Christian tradition. But he was doing so in a way that kept the Christianity hidden – not denied, but suffused throughout the story and its characters. I wonder if this way of working is particularly Catholic, reflecting Catholicism’s more sacramental understanding of the world and how God works within it.

  11. Travis,

    So the intent of the artist to make a piece of Christian art makes the piece Christian art. Correct?

    Your distinction between reflective, thematic, and evangelical intentions leads me to believe that you would not define Christian art by evangelical intent, but by the intent to create a piece of art that is Christian, is above.

    (Or are these three intentions? If not, what are they, and if so, what is a thematic intention?)

  12. I think intention is key.
    To me labeling it “Christian Art” implies intent.

    I think the further breakdown comes when you start looking at whether a piece of art is reflective, thematic or intended evangelically.

  13. Jenn,

    You ask a really good question. I suppose my original thought process when I started wondering about Les Miz after the show was, “If Les Miz is Christian theatre, then it shows: 1) Christian theatre does not have to be ‘religious’ theatre (i.e. theatre made with a primarily didactic, evangelical, liturgical, or devotional purpose, or theatre whose content comes entirely out of the Bible), and 2) Christian theatre can be good and enjoyable to a mass general audience (including non-Christians).”

    I was also interested in seeing the process by which others defined Christian art in general.

  14. Question: What is your purpose for defining Christian Art?

    Your intention behind trying to define Christian Art would determine whether or not I would classify Les Misérables as Christian Art. Are you trying to catalog Christian Art, are you looking for instructional material, or some other purpose?

  15. Elissa,

    I would agree that intention comes into play, although I don’t think that a Christian making art must be intending for it to be “Christian art” (or should I say “religious art”?) for it to be so.

    I wonder, though, how it is possible (or even if it is possible) to determine whether a piece of art is Christian without knowing the intent of the author. And I don’t like requiring prior knowledge of the artist’s intent before one can analyze his or her work.

  16. This is a very interesting post!

    I would want to almost argue two things. First, I think that it would be somewhat inaccurate to argue that something is *Christian* art if the artist is not explicitly working from within a Christian context. As a former student of Christian ethics, I recall learning about how one should judge the morality of an action. That is, it is not just the action and the result, but also the intention that comes into play in Christian ethics. Thus, if the author’s intention is not to create Christian art, I am reluctant to give it that label. However, as an historian, I recognize the difficulty at judging intention, so, in a way, this category can include things that are not explicitly Christian and Les Mis may fall into that category.

    Second, even though some art is not Christian because of the intention of the author, that doesn’t mean that it is therefore not useful for Christian theology. All Truth may come from God, but that does not mean that Christians are the exclusive holders of truth. The long practice of theologians borrowing from philosophy illustrates this. So, even though a work may not explicitly fall into the category of Christian art, on the part of the receiver, it may spur one on to Christian reflection and learning about their own beliefs.

  17. I guess a further question is, does it only count as Christian art if the artist is aware he is working from within the Christian tradition, and intends to?

  18. I think struggling with the the Christian tradition from within it is a pretty solid base.

    It’s hard because even as a non-Christian, coming from a deeply committed Christian background and a Christian home a LOT of my art will be necessarily Christian themed regardless of my intent. But that doesn’t make “Orestes” (with it’s risen from the dead motifs) Christian art.

    So I think the “from within” is key.

    [I think Les Mis is simply a musical with strong Christian themes not a Christian musical]

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