From 2006 to 2012 Kemper Crabbe penned thoughtful articles on “Why Evangelicals Make Bad Art” and came up with enough ideas and examples for 30 columns. Unfortunately, he wasn’t being particularly unfair or snitty, and his assertions are easy enough to prove (by percentage anyway) at the nearest Christian book store.
A disclaimer: These are generalized statements with many exceptions, and some of those exceptional evangelical artists I’ve featured in this very column. So please don’t hear a personal or denominational attack with defensive swords all parried and sharpened for battle until we think this out a bit.
Crabbe’s explanations for bad church art in America are complex, involving a culture he claims is now “driven by the quest for self-fulfillment, affluence and pleasure.” This sad state of affairs he ascribes to a “logical extension of Evangelicalism” – but an evangelicalism in decay, I might add, as its religious base is increasingly rejected by the mass of cultural icons.
Since evangelical Christianity no longer has a starring role in popular media, it’s not reasonable to lob too much contempt our direction. Recently we’ve had so little effect on secular culture that we can’t be both held responsible and simultaneously considered non-entities.
Still art in the church should be more visible, potent and compelling than it is. America is stuffed with evangelicals, everywhere it seems but the arts. Defining “evangelical” more by theology than denomination, Crabbe asserts they account for as much as one-quarter of our population. With numbers like that, we should expect more than mediocrity.
Why is most “evangelical” art so bad then?
I’ll skip the obvious question, which is, “How do you define ‘bad’ art?” Crabbe used several examples, and I wouldn’t even agree on their inherent “badness.” It’s a mire of endless debate.
The truth is, though, there’s a lot of crummy, trite, shallow, melodramatic, kitschy and downright silly religious art that is highly marketed and embarrassingly popular in recent decades. And the chief consumer of the silly Christian art tends to be the evangelical arm of church.
An enigma: The more fundamental and biblically based churches are in some respects, the more truly awful the art – if it exists at all.
Crabbe has his own explanation: “Laziness and bad theology.”
Now round No. 2: “Most Evangelicals neither know nor understand their Scriptures, which drastically effects their ability to produce meaningful, deep art,” Crabbe contends.
He pens this as a self-professed evangelical, Episcopal priest, so he can’t be accused of narrow denominationalism. Although he makes some valid points about not understanding Scripture as related to art, that doesn’t prove that evangelicals don’t “know” Scripture.
As an example of “bad theology” Crabbe cites 1 Timothy 3:16-17, where Christians are instructed to use the Bible to prepare ourselves for “every good work.” The arts are not excepted here, but perhaps the concept of “good” art is the problem.
Does “good” Christian art demand only tame, inoffensive and soothing subjects, and must we be eternally positive, bright and cheerful to please God? And while we’re at it, who would seriously want to share heaven with a host of pink cartoon angels in gingham dresses and soppy expressions?
Back to Crabbe’s critique.
The pink angel invasion portends seriously bad theology in Crabbe’s view. Refusing to grapple with unpleasant realities in art echoes shallowness elsewhere. We are “motivated by self-worship in pursuit of pleasure” and in favor of “feel-good” experiences, he charges.
This is fruit of disregarding the Bible’s ethical and even intellectual and emotional demands on our time and energy.
Evangelicals tend to disallow any portrayal of darkness, sin or evil in visual art but tolerate it in music and literature, I’ve observed. This is rarely if ever discussed in the church for some reason – as if it’s a foregone conclusion
Music is an exception to the stale backwater of visual art in the church, possibly because it’s been so more vigorously embraced. Crabbe’s long critique is published in “HM Magazine,” which features mostly musicians and new album releases. The majority are hardly household names, even in Christian circles. Titles and band names (“Chainsaw the Musical,” “Apocalyptic Visions of Divine Terror”) are riveting if disturbing at times. So they counter but rival on the same planes for the public attention now ceded secular music.
Crabbe finds several weak points in contemporary evangelicalism and relates them to the arts.
Because we misunderstand “Created Reality,” he charges, that leads to “inferior, distorted expressions” of life posing as always “good” rather than redemptive. Christians and non-Christians feel the inauthenticity of these “inaccurate and irrelevant representations,” he claims, because they can’t use or portray Creation in all its depth and beauty.
“Bad theology inevitably leads to bad art,” says Crabbe.
He has more. Implications of a “deficient doctrine of Creation” lead to denigration of matter as a medium for expressing the spiritual and overly simplify reality. This allows no theology concerning art, which Crabbe charges greatly reduces the impact of contemporary Christian art. The results are flat, uni-dimensional art that is “fit only for carrying the propaganda of the wicked and the strong.”
Crabbe claims art should be expressed through “culturally grounded media,” something the church is loathe to consider. I don’t feel he means a replica of culture such as highly tattooed priests or sexually provocative advertising. What we’ve had, though, is a very unconvincing, alternative reality. Could we do better?
Ignoring culture leads Crabbe to another “theological” problem, failure to reckon the value of “time” and God’s sovereignty over it. This includes history and culture. Crabbe claims evangelicals desert the arts as well as other challenges as “earthly” and of no real importance.
He shoots another flaming missile of theological challenge out, concerning the Trinity. Crabbe describes the triune nature of God as “a Mystery so great that the human intellect cannot comprehend [it] in its fullness.”
Crabbe next charges evangelicals, including artists, with ignoring this great cryptic challenge because it’s just too hard to think about. He imputes this to the current “Evangelical penchant for intellectual laziness and overemphasis on experience and concomitant de-emphasis on content and knowledge.” Fighting words, but worth thinking about.
This promotes a shallow understand of the church in general, which is to be a reflection of God on earth.
“Which is more important,” he asks, “the One (the individual, diversity, multiple meanings) or the Many (the group, unity, single meaning)?”
The answer, he claims, affects how Christians see not only the church but earthly institutions such as government and schools.
So to follow Crabbe’s explanation, the arts are left to Satan, profiteering and an assortment of the worst forces on earth. Some of this is our fault, as we fail to “occupy” and assert even our own talents and abilities in surrender. Crabbe accuses evangelical Christianity of helping to elevate the kingdom of darkness indirectly through this and giving the devil much more than his due. Thus the charge of “laziness” and escapism he finds in evangelical worldview as many wait for death or the Rapture.
Alternatively, Crabbe proposes we should believe God will accomplish His purpose and goals in history and even culture – that it isn’t a hopeless abyss. Artists can then value the “potential for accomplishing God’s Purposes” of their art in history and the “probability that history will fulfill the Purposes” of that art and of our lives.
Sadly Mr. Crabbe’s critiques aren’t supplemented with positive examples in any medium by evangelicals, but he acknowledges excellent work exists and is even on the increase. But his basic point seems to ring true, especially in relation to visual arts – the ones you don’t see on walls or even in the publications of most evangelical churches.