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What are Christian Artists?

May 10, 2005

In a recent post, I mentioned the names of some of today’s best Christian Novelists. Several people took me to task for mentioning names of writers who do not publish “Christian” books. Their characters do not get saved or do street-witnessing, the Lord doesn’t return in their plots, and no one disappears from the cockpits of planes while flying. John Grisham and Madeleine L’Engle are examples of novelists who have a relationship with Jesus, but who choose to write good stories where the questions they ask and the answers they give are not as biblically cut and dry as some people would like.

So that just begs the question: What is a Christian Artist?

Intriguingly, there are two different definition categories. The first definition sees the Christian Artist as a Billy Graham of Creativity. Their primary goal is to present Gospel Truth or some facsimile of Scriptural relevance. If you can’t make a video of their book that could be shown in church, or if the Pastor could not quote your song right before giving the Altar Call, then you can’t be labeled a “Christian Artist”. There are a thousand variations of this categorical label, but they boil down to an “in-your-face” presentation of Bible Truth.

The other category focuses more on the artist and how they relate God to their art. Or perhaps, how they relate their Art to the Human Condition which is overseen and interacted with by God. This viewpoint sees validity in producing art that is infused with truth, layered with Biblical Truth and fashioned with pointers toward God. But, at no point in time is a Gospel presentation given, no one gets saved openly (although a few characters may wrestle with their own mortality and the meaning of Eternity), and certainly the Rapture never interrupts the angst of the moment. Characters do not “fly away” from their problems; they have to face up to every single one of them.

In a recent article in CCM magazine, a young person wrote and asked if the musical group Lifehouse can be considered a “Christian” band. Her Youth Pastor didn’t think they should be, except for a song like “Everything” (which the band’s leader, Jason Wade, wrote for a worship service). Perhaps the Youth Pastor objected to the band’s Love songs and songs about dealing with loneliness that pervade their albums.

But look at these lyrics off their first album, self-titled “Lifehouse”:

desperate for changing
starving for truth
closer to where I started
chasing after you

I’m falling even more in love with you
letting go of all I’ve held onto
I’m standing here until you make me move
I’m hanging by a moment here with you

forgetting all I’m lacking
completely incomplete
I’ll take your invitation
you take all of me now

As you read the words of this, you are left with a question: Who is the writer addressing the song to? It may be to God…but it could also be a close friend, a parent, or a lover. There is no way of knowing, is there? But look at some of the phrasings of the song. “I’m standing here until you make me move”. There aren’t many people in the world who can make us move. God is the one who truly moves us. “I’ll take your invitation you take all of me now” is as “altar-callish” as you can get without drawing a picture of a tent meeting. Yet, you have to be looking for it to see it. If you are pre-Christian in your mindset, then you may not notice the God-message. Nonetheless,even a pre-Christian will be left with an overarching sense that surrender is not a bad idea in life.

Surrender, being the opposite of Rebellion, is hardly ever immortalized in song. You certainly don’t find it in mainstream Pop, Grundge or Rap. Interestingly, it is a concept which makes its way into the lives of the children in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, and C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”, and Hester Prynne’s life in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”. It is as biblical a concept as any Gospel presentation, but it doesn’t have the Four Spiritual Laws attached to it. The value in presenting Truth through Art is that it is Truth; and all Truth is God’s Truth. Truth is the intinsic power to challenge lies, especially those deeply held within the memes of a culture. American culture doesn’t explicitely say it all the time, but we teach one another to “Look out for number one” and “Get all you can” and “Second Place is the first Loser”. We see the “Donald” firing the latest Apprentice, or a soloist wannabe voted off American Idiot and the hearts of a nation thinks “I have to be the best or I am nothing. Submitting to anyone would only mean I’m a loser”.

I seriously doubt any pre-Christian will bother to listen to any music that is overtly “preachy”; whereas the words of Lifehouse quoted above are part of a song that became the most listened to song of 2001 on American radio stations (“Hanging By a Moment”).

Two of Lifehouse’s founding members are missionary kids. Almost in spite of this, they also have a great understanding of the depression and loneliness that many of their generation have grown up with. One of the band’s members faced the hardships of a broken home, even though his parents were believers and church attenders. Listen to his comments in this interview:

My parents split when I was 12, and on some level I’m still dealing with it. I can face it now in a way I couldn’t then. Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever gonna stop writing about stuff like that, but your scars become part of you.”

Having read that part of the interview, listen now to the lyrics from his song “Blind” (an excellent song musically also):

I was young but I wasn’t naive
I watched helpless as he turned around to leave
And still I have the pain I have to carry
A past so deep that even you could not bury if you tried

After all this time
I never thought we’d be here
Never thought we’d be here
When my love for you was blind
But I couldn’t make you see it
Couldn’t make you see it
That I loved you more than you’ll ever know
A part of me died when I let you go


Lifehouse’s generation is the generation that has had to deal the most with divorced parents. As they listen to this song, with its focus on coping with the pain and the hurt, it draws 20-somethings who feel that hurt into the world of Lifehouse’s influence. From that influence comes understanding and mutual appreciation. Out of that appreciation comes the vantage point for Lifehouse to call out other truths.

Christian Artists are those whose lives are grounded in God’s Truth and who describe the world through some part of that viewpoint.

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15 comments

  1. As someone who is new to Lifehouse, their music grabs you with solid hooks and gut-level lyrics. This is the type of Christian band I’ll keep listening to. They, and Reliant K and P.O.D. They speak the language and know their audience


  2. I often wonder about people who take “someone to task” like you said for bringing in a “secular” vs a “christian” book, or whatever else you might talk about. It makes me wonder if they have the mindset that before you can come to the cross, you better clean yourself up first. What is their witness to unbelievers? We have to, as Christians, meet people where they are at in life, and walk with them showing examples by OUR own actions. How many times has the Lord told people like that mentioned above, to get out of His way?? If we had to clean ourself up first, well…….


  3. The people who “took me to task” did so (I think) because they are nervous thinking in pictures. Unless something hits others over the head, it doesn’t feel like a real presentation of Truth. Yet, we almost have an inborn aversion to being “hit over the head” (I know I don’t like it…frying pans are the worst). Also, I think some people fear that their point of view will be buried in the thousands of ideas in this world unless they are shouted out and backed up with good press and maybe even legislation. But I wrote this article to explain that most of the best preaching uses pictures and metaphors and woos people into Truth. That is how we would win a friend; and isn’t it friends we are seeking?


  4. What would the cultural influence and legacy been of The Lord of the Rings if they would have included more immediate and obvious biblical references and have sold primarily in Christian bookstores? This is one topic that Christians have to talk about more often with each other because of the misconception of what constitutes “Christian” art. I was the one who asked, when you blogged about this originally, what a Christian novel is precisely because of this problem. One of the reasons for the lack of Christian influence in America is that we live in a ghetto of Christian culture created by ourselves for ourselves. Most of the garbage in the Christian ghetoo (music, novels, non-fiction, and “fine art”) can only succeed because there is little competition and many who enter seem great to an audience who does not expect excellence and could not recognize it if it was. This is not to say that “the world” does not produce oodles of garbage, but name one (no really, name one) Christian sculptor, painter, novelist, poet, woodworker, dancer, film producer or composer who is excellent in his or her field and who is respected by both Christian and non-Christians strictly on the basis of the integrity, beauty, and high quality of the work (yes there is a very very small handfull-e.g.Kincaid). We as modern Christians only have the past to look to for great artists, not the present. No one looks at Izzac (sp?)Perlman (violinist-arguably the world’s greatest) and notices he is very orthodox in his approach to Judaism and that he flaunts it wherever he goes; no, he just is excellent at his craft and we stand back in awe. Does he have the star of David stickers on his violin, is his music only sold in Jewish book and music stores, or does he wear a WWMD (what would Moses do?) wrist band? Why do we think we have to be so obvious as Christians or as artists? Is it an offense to God if we make no reference to Him in our novel? if none of our sculptures are of biblical characters? if we play The Four Seasons and not “When I Survey” on the violin? if I make a wonderful movie and not have one out-of-the-closet Christian in the whole thing? God did not stamp his creation with a bible verse, but the “fingerprints” of Him who made it are obvious-Paul thought so. So I believe we can do the same. Let us just be excellent in all that we do, and that may be as Christ-like as we need to be (the Christianity will emerge-just like in The Lord of the Rings). Let us strengthen the Christian ghetto but then move out into the world, after we have mastered our craft, so that once again the light of our Lord will shine brightest in one of the dimmest areas of our culture, the arts.


  5. I agree with much that has been said above. Most of the best pieces of literature that Christians could benefit from aren’t even sold in Christian bookstores. Try finding Dante, Milton, Jane Austin, Pascal, or Paley and many many others on any shelf in the local Christian bookstores. I recently called my local Christian bookstore for a title by a fairly prominent evangelical author, and they said that they didn’t carry books by this particular publisher (because it was a “secular” press). I then asked if they carried books by other “secular” publishers and, to my amazement, they didn’t even order some books by very prominent evangelical authors for this very reason. Well, not every Christian book is as marketable, but this time it was not the case and they lost a customer. My wife told me for the longest time her mother would not let her read the Chronicles of Narnia because of the title of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe because it had the word witch in the title. Her mother assumed that it must be full of sorcery and evil. Thank goodness she found out otherwise and I fell in love with that wonderful series. Sometimes I wonder if we Christians have lost our minds on this issue. I love the arts and God too. I hope that people don’t think they have to give up the second definition (given by Mike Phillips) of art just to keep their acts of creativity honoring to God.


  6. I’m not a theologian or historian, but if the Church Fathers had taken the advise to stay away from the secular classics then our most central doctrines of the Christian faith would not have even been developed. Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t they rely upon many ideas of the Greek philosophers and use them to clarify and develop what are now the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation (and probably several others). Can we gain nothing from reading literature that is not strictly or overtly Christian? I believe that Christians should take the spoils found in secular literature, like the person said, Tolkien did, and use it to fashion something new and great that does not have to have a Bible verse on every other page.


  7. Several months ago now I was listening to a secular radio station (sshhhhh!!), and a song came on that, as a Christian, was obviously drenched with scriptural themes. I knew instantly that this group must be Christian because of the ideas communicated-and they didn’t even say the “J” name once!! This band is Switchfoot (the song was “Meant to Live”). I have now come to know that they are Christians. They struck a deep chord with me about what life is really about and why we are here. I found myself in fairly “deep” thought after the song; these were about ideas actually worth thinking about: purpose, destiny, and our life here and after. That song written by Christians guys, has been played on secular stations incessently over the last year. Christians can actually make a powerful impact for Christ by being in the world but not of. All of my friends my age think so-“maybe Christians aren’t so dull and boring” they say. Now a Christian group has a platform in the minds of many young people who wouldn’t give a preacher the time of day. All of the fields of art can have this kind of influence, no doubt!


  8. I’m sorry, but I can’t stand most Christian music. I love God alot, and I love to worship, but having the feeling that every song is a worship song (which most songs on Christian radio stations are) tends to drag on the mind and spirit a little too much for me. Turning to decent secular music is a nice change of pace. It would be nice if there were more Christian bands who could put out some CDs without “I love you”, “I praise you”, ” “I want to know you”, “I lift my voice to you” in every other line. I love to worship, but can’t there be a little middle ground coming out of the Christian music industry? It just might be possible to make great albums without being disrespectful to God or compromising our beliefs.


  9. I would love to hear from anyone, in a spirit of charity, who agrees with the view of the people who took the person who posted the original blog “to task”. Why do you hold your view? What value is there in it? Would it weaken the Body of Christ to produce art without explicit references to scripture or Christ? What, in your view is “Christian” art? If we cannot argue charitably within the walls of the Church without fighting and without Christ’s love then how can we expect to do this outside of the Church with unbelievers? Please post anonymously if you do not feel comfortable. Thank you.


  10. My pastor loves books in the fantasy, sci. fi., and mythological genre and I don’t believe that his soul is in jeopardy…..yet. I agree with the comments about The Lord of the Rings because J.R.R. Tolkien relied upon largely non-Christian sources if I am not mistaken.


  11. Tolkien was a professor of medieval and norse mythology. Many of the characters, sub-plots, and even names of some of his elven and dwarf characters are taken directly from two primary sources: The Norse “Ring” myths and Beowulf. Some have rejected his Cosmology because of this. Yet, there is no mistake that he redeems them by bringing them out of their original place (norse myths) and gives them morality. The norse myths are low on moral standards and high on bloodshed. Tolkien came from his Christian viewpoint and used the stories to tell a different ending…where Good triumphs over evil. That doesn’t happen in Grendel and the other legends.


  12. Thank you for your comments about Tolkien, they are very intersting. Are you going to write a commentary to the trilogy anytime soon?!!! I’ll ask my pastor if he knows about what you wrote. Thanks again.


  13. I wonder if many Christians even knew that The Lord of the Rings was written by a Christian before the release of the movies. Will that fact make any difference in their approach to this book or any others, that aren’t explicitly Christian, in the future.


  14. Some people seem content to complain that more Christian art is not “obviously” Christian and so avoid it if it isn’t; but all of those same people (ok, nearly all)and their kids are watching “R” rated movies, or television shows that are garbage, at home many times a week. Why hold a double standard in regards to finer art and pop culture-both are “art”?


  15. All of these comments are nice, but my question is why aren’t more Christians encouraged to pursue careers (if it is possible) or atleast to produce as much good art as is possible. Many of my Mormon friends are strongly encouraged and supported by a sub-culture of people, within their community, to pursue these fields; and they are given the resources to do just this. I don’t know, just a thought.



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