January 22, 2021

Surprise! God Does Art

In my previous essay we looked at the culture of Jesus junk. I tried to say things in a nice way–maybe I was too nice. I still have many friends in publishing, in broadcasting, in music production and distribution. Many friends who seek to follow the Lord from their hearts, yet sometimes have to hold their noses and put out a product they would not want in their own homes due to the possibility of extreme embarrassment. I have been there myself. Now, I just can no longer participate in the death of true art.

That is a powerful statement. The death of true art. Yet that is what so much of Christian entertainment is: the death of art. When I taught at a university in the 1980s, I required students in one of my upper division courses to read Frank Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts. Is that how our generation will be remembered? As the ones who took art from beauty that glorifies God to being simply mediocre? Or will the memory of our contributions be even seen that kindly?

(The art selected for this essay is titled Death Of Art. The artist? Marilyn Manson.)

The greatest contribution in our day the church as made to the arts has been a negative one, something that has driven thousands of Christians from the arts. Or driven them from the church into the arts with no ties to enterprise Christianity. This contribution is spoken of everyday in most any area of art or entertainment. This contribution consists of two simple words: “Christian” and “secular.”

The word “secular” has its roots in the Latin for “of the age.” As God is outside of time, this designation was meant to distinguish what was eternal from what was temporal. I do not think that the earliest users of “secular” ever envisioned using the term to distinguish songs written for one’s girlfriend from songs written for Jesus–but sounding just like Jesus was one’s girlfriend.

“Is that a Christian book or a secular book?” Just how does one answer that?  I don’t recommend giving the answer I usually give. “I didn’t know a book could be either” gets me branded as a, well, something about the intelligence of my backside. I hate the use of the words as they have come to be used in our day. “Christian” is a word applied to some of the earliest followers of Jesus—and it was not necessarily a positive term. “They look and act like Jesus” was an insult. Now we apply this word to products that are “safe” or “family-friendly,” neither of which truly describes Jesus. (Back off, Dobsonites. One day I will write on how Jesus came to turn families upside-down … but that day is not today.)

And we use the word “secular” to label products good Christians should avoid, or at least approach with the utmost caution. So a follower of Jesus who is a writer is shuttled into writing Christian, not secular, literature. And there are further restrictions and requirements this writer must meet. She cannot have her characters do anything real, like sin. No alcohol may be consumed. No sex outside of marriage. No cussing. Violence is to be off-screen; we only get to see the effects, not the act itself. What is so ironic is that this leads to trying to introduce the reader to the God of the Real through totally unreal circumstances. What is the reader to believe?

Is that song Christian or secular?

That artist must have gone secular.

I only watch Christian movies.

It’s phrases like these that are keeping Christians from making great art. Those who follow Jesus and create lasting art seldom make their Christianity known, and for good reason. The hostility they will face from the church is unbelievable. And that is to our utter shame.

Yet God has always worked through art and will continue to do so. It’s just that he now shows up in surprising ways. We see the Gospel revealed, not in “Christian” art, but in art made in this age, within the temporal. In other words, secular art shows us God in a greater way than Christian art. (Ok, commenters, start throwing the tomatoes my way.) God surprises me all the time, popping up and waving at me in movies, books, music, dance, theater, and many other works of arts where I never expected to see him. Now, I expect to see him everywhere. I get disappointed if I come out of a movie not having seen him in some way. (Recently I came out of the movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the person I saw it with looked at me and said, “Don’t tell me how you saw Jesus in that movie. It will just ruin it for me.” So I didn’t say, but I did see.)

If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, God will reveal himself in just about any work of art. I find it so much fun to be on the lookout for God wherever I go, whatever I’m listening to or reading or watching. Sometimes he presents himself in an undeniable way, a presentation of the Gospel that cannot be mistaken for anything else. At other times, he sneaks in a word or phrase or glimpse of him that is really just for me and just for this specific time.

I asked our other iMonk writers to share some works of art in the fields of music, movies and books where they have seen God revealed. Of course, I didn’t ask until late last night. Thus not all were able to share their insights. But know that all of our writers are artists, and they all see God in places outside of the enterprise of Christianity. You may be scandalized by some of the suggestions below. That’s ok. It will make you think through why you are scandalized and perhaps that process alone will begin to free you from the “Christian art box” you have been stuck in for too long.

So here are suggested movies, musical groups and books/authors you will not find in most Christian bookstores, but that we feel will help you get to know our incredibly artistic God in a greater and deeper way. (Note: AP is Adam Palmer; LD is Lisa Dye; JD is me.)

The Fountain (Widescreen Edition) (2006)  A treatise on the nature of life and the inevitability of death that always leaves me thinking. (AP)

Saving Private Ryan (Special Limited Edition) (1998)  I personally connect with the (seeming) insanity of the mission placed before these guys, and am floored that they go through with it anyway. That is a pretty accurate metaphor for my walk with Christ. (AP)

Wall-E (Single-Disc Edition) (2008)  The most profitable art film ever made, it asks the age-old question: “What makes us human?” And for me, it always reinforces my need, as a creation, for interaction with my Creator. (AP) And the portrayal of life aboard the spaceship/lifeboat is a great picture of the church in the West today. (JD)

Children of Men (Widescreen Edition) (2006)  Yes, it’s brutal and violent and packed with, as Ralphie Parker would put it, “The F-dash-dash-dash word.” Set in a world where no child has been born for 18 years, the film, at the end (spoiler alert!), finally ushers in a baby. This baby is the hope of mankind, and all the different political factions want to use it for their own gain. But there is a sequence toward the end of the film where everyone gets quiet, stops their fighting, and, quite simply, pauses because of the baby. There is no agenda, there is no policy–it is just the baby. It always reminds me that we must offer simply Christ, with no strings attached, no agendas, no moneymaking schemes. Just Jesus. (AP)

No Country for Old Men (2007) Evil is relentless and the devil will stop at nothing to destroy us. But my favorite Godly reminder comes in an off-hand conversation the main character Ed Tom has with his uncle. Ed Tom is feeling like God is against him, and his uncle, swimming upstream against our culture’s narcissism tells him, “What you got ain’t nothin’ new. It ain’t all dependin’ on you. That’s vanity.” So much truth in this film. And violence, too. (But mostly truth.) (AP and LD)

Gran Torino (Widescreen Edition) (2008) Clint Eastwood as he neared 80 found he could still glare and growl. He could also show the sacrificial nature of Jesus, giving himself for someone who had tried to steal something very precious from Clint. Yes, a lot of profanity. Well, that isn’t even close. If you took out all of the profanity, I’m pretty sure this would be reduced to a silent movie. But the last scene is one of the most memorable from all movies I have seen. (LD and JD)

Spanglish (2005) The love of a mother to protect her daughter from the seduction of wealth, materialism and popularity is another portrayal of Christ’s covering of us. (LD)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition) [Blu-ray](1977) The power of a call on one’s life and the cost to the person called. Plus some really good special effects–for a 33 year old movie. (JD)

Harvey(1950) Jimmy Stewart is the only person who can see Harvey, a 6 foot, 1 1/2 inch tall rabbit. Yes, Stewart’s character is a drunk. But he has a heart as big as a Buick. “My mother told me, ‘In this life, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” Is Harvey the Holy Spirit that only those with eyes to see can see? (JD)

The Shawshank Redemption (Single Disc Edition)(1994) Prisoners who have served their time are set free. But after years of the security of their prison walls, freedom is too much. They long to return to their Egypt. A great portrayal of not only the Israelites in the midst of the exodus, but those of us who are offered freedom through the blood of Christ today. Will we accept, or will we turn back? (JD)

Up (Single Disc Widescreen)(2009) A great look at the harm of holding onto the past. Also, the first ten minutes are perhaps the greatest ten minutes of cinema ever. (JD)

Lisa recommends Over The Rhine, U2 (especially How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), Jakob Dylan in the Wallflowers (Red Letter Days), Seventh Day Slumber, Evanescence (Fallen).
Adam had trouble narrowing this down, but suggests checking out these groups.
Sigur Ros: Yes, they sing in Icelandic, so it’s lyrically tough to connect with, but musically these guys move me, especially their albums entitled “()” and “Takk…” The video for their song “Glosoli” remains the best six-minute artistic representation of following Christ I’ve ever seen.
U2: These guys have always had a spiritual bent in their music, but it’s getting more pronounced the older they get. “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”
Steve Reich: This guy is a minimalist composer of Jewish descent who writes incredible, mesmerizing music. He has the wildest ideas, but he pulls them off! Creating a 30-minute vocal composition based on verses from Psalms 19, 34, 18, and 150, in their original Hebrew? Why not! Compose for “string quartet and tape,” the “tape” in question being interviews with Americans and Europeans, including Holocaust survivors? Makes perfect sense! Compose a piece for a cello octet and have all parts played by Maya Beiser, one of our generation’s greatest cellists? Of course! I have lived my professional life to Steve’s music, and it never fails to seek out that part of my soul that craves invention and delight in the audacity of grace. Oh, and those pieces are “Tehillim,” “Different Trains,” and “Cello Counterpoint,” respectively.
The Innocence Mission: Simple, heartfelt music from a band that sounds exactly like what their name indicates. I never miss an album.
Mumford & Sons: This one’s new to me, but I can already tell this band will be in heavy rotation for the rest of my life. They speak difficult truth, but it’s heartwarming, Gospel truth.
The Polyphonic Spree: This band always makes me happy, and I think that’s their mission in life. It’s just a circus of different musicians and vocalists singing/playing with zeal about how great life is. Always makes me smile and realize how blessed I am to be drawing breath.
Vigilantes of Love: Such incredible lyrics that always trim the fat and hit me straight in the heart. Directly and to the point. A sample: “Why is joy something I must steal? A starving skeleton looking for a meal? But out in the graveyard the church bells peal: ‘Earth has no sorrow Heaven can’t heal.'” There’s a hard-lived, gnarled intelligence there. These songs are written by a man who knows suffering, but who also knows healing in the midst of it.
I would add a few artists to these already mentioned: Neko Case, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Gillian Welch, Leonard Cohen, and–if you are really daring, Warren Zevon and Tom Waits.
Lisa says, “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is the first one that comes to mind. Mr. Norrell, the fussy traditionalist who wanted to practice magic only by the books in his jealously-guarded library, represents (to me) Christian addiction to law. Jonathan Strange was raised up as a magician under Norrell’s tutelage, but broke away when a crisis demanded it. He was a Luther of sorts, running into dangerous places, forsaking the books (law), but confident in the magic. JS&MN is a book that needs to be read many times.
Brideshead Revisited (Movie Tie-in Edition) (Everyman’s Library (Cloth) by Evelyn Waugh for its examination of Catholicism, legalism, alcoholism and friendship.
“Two children’s books that are so much fun, but touching as well are A Long Way From Chicago (Puffin Modern Classics) and A Year Down Yonder, both by Richard Peck. The time period is the Great Depression, the setting is a rural Illinois town and the main character is a tough, battle axe of a grandma (described through the eyes of her visiting grandchildren) who creates adventure, dishes out shocking justice to the annoying folks in her small town and true kindness to those who need it most.”
Adam agrees with Lisa on her first choice of JSMN. Other books he recommends in order to see God revealed include The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (Calvin & Hobbes) (v. 1, 2, 3), Bill Watterson. (“Bill Watterson managed to do something that I don’t think had ever been done–turn his art into a pop culture phenomenon and RETAIN HIS ARTISTRY. I introduced my eight-year-old son to “Calvin & Hobbes” a couple of years ago, and it brought me back to the sheer joy of Watterson’s illustrations, drunk on the delight of whimsy and invention, and the breathtaking way he captures the beauty and simplicity of God’s creation.”)
Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, Steven Pressfield. (“Forget that nonsense that masqueraded as a historic telling of the Battle of Thermopylae that called itself “300.” Ugh. This is the real deal, and though it’s packed with viscera and real-life military talk—as imagined in the ancient world—this remains the bloodiest reminder of my need for community. The way Pressfield describes the purpose of the phalanx warfare the Spartans use is a spot-on metaphor for the way Christians need to engage with one another.”)
As for me?  JSMN is the best work of fiction I have ever read. Is the author a Christian? I have no idea beyond having read the book and thus concluding that she know Jesus in a very real way. I love Flannery O’Connor’s works. Yes, she was a Christian, but did not publish “Christian fiction.” Douglas Adams was one of the best crafters of the English language I have ever read. Even though he claimed to be an atheist, I believe the Christian roots of his childhood were stronger than he imagined.
These are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to books, music and movies where we have seen God revealed to us. Works that are not typically thought of as “Christian.” When we as followers of Jesus can get past the Christian/secular divide, we can begin to approach God in a real way. Which, of course, is the only way he allows us to approach him.


  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I only watch Christian movies.

    “And I only drink milk
    If it comes from a Christian cow.”
    — Steve “Meltdown at Madame Tussaud’s” Taylor, circa 1980s

    • Love it! – “Guilty By Association,” the whole song fits. I particularly like this line, which comes right after:

      “don’t you go casting your bread to keep the heathen well-fed
      line Christian pockets instead”

      I have listened to Steve Taylor in years. Thanks for the memory…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And Steve Taylor wrote that in the Eighties.

        Since then, it’s only gotten worse.

        • Steve Taylor was my first concert. I think I was like 13 or something. My older brother took me. I was in awe of his words because they were like nothing I had ever heard anyone say before. Every lyric was like a confirmation that I wasn’t crazy in the way I thought differently about the mess of it all.

          I miss him and Chagall Guevara.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I was in awe of his words because they were like nothing I had ever heard anyone say before.

            And he got in trouble for it. Especially with the “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good” firestorm.

            Every lyric was like a confirmation that I wasn’t crazy in the way I thought differently about the mess of it all.

            Lori, every time I phone my writing partner cross-country, I always ask one question:
            “Did we go crazy, or did everybody else?”

            And he always answers with one of the Desert Fathers:
            “There will come a time when men will go mad. And they will lay hands on the sane among them, saying ‘You are not like us! You must be mad!'”

  2. Rick Ro. says

    A few books just came to mind:
    -“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Warren Miller
    -“The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell
    -“Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson
    -“The Judas Field” by Howard Bahr

  3. “The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode” – Flannery O’Connor.

    Evangelicals have traded truth for pragmatism, and their attempts at art confirm this.

  4. A very interesting discussion of Christianity and art I think is natural after reading some of the great Russian authors (particularly Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in particular). Tolstoy I think offers a really clear, almost shameless, discussion of the battle between knowing what is right, and doing what is right (at least in War And Peace, and Anna Karenina), and Dostoevsky is such a complicated discussion of God and religion because he portrays mankind as precisely the worst kind of people that could even be fathomed, and yet knowing that Dostoevsky himself was a devout believer, it is clear from his writing that this was no small struggle for him.

  5. Highly recommend this list for film…many thanks to the Image Journal for putting it out: Arts and Faith Top 100: http://artsandfaith.com/t100/

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