Christian Art = Good Art

"By the words 'Christian Art' I do not mean Church art. . . . I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity. . . . It is the art of redeemed humanity."

--Jacques Maritain, "Christian Art," Art & Scholasticism

I fear I may be beating a dead horse--or a horse that is really more than happy to run--by returning to this subject, but something about the way Maritain put it back in 1974 has crystallized my thoughts. Perhaps that is one of the gifts of beautiful writing: that it not only makes wonderful sense of the world around us, it induces our own thoughts to become clearer, sharper, even stellar. Like a generous master, this kind of writing makes us better, let's us, the apprentice, shine.

The point is, I think he has helped me say my words better. Like this:

There are three parts to the equation that make what we might call, in the broadest sense, Christian Art:

1) the Christian imagination
2) the instruments of art
3) Christian fruit

Put simply, the Christian imagination when expressed through the instruments of art produces Christian fruit. Now this statement could just as easily have been written by a Politics pastor or an Educations pastor. The only difference is the instrument used to give expression to the Christian imagination.

There is something internal (the imaginative worldview), there is a lens or screen (the instrument), and there is something external (the work). In the words of Maritain, how can a tree nurtured by living waters, the theological virtues, and the gifts of the Spirit, in short the life of Christ, not bear Christ-like fruit? Is not a tree known by its fruit?

Yes. But what is Christian fruit but another way of saying redeemed fruit? And how is this simply not another way of saying good fruit? Whether one eats of it while sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning, munching on hymns or sipping sermons, or while walking through a public park or a local gallery makes no difference, none of substance that is, only context. Whether you eat a good meal at your kitchen table or at a fancy restaurant, the food works its nutritional and savory magic equally the same. Does it matter that the environment of the fancy restaurant produced an exponential, all-encompassing aesthetic effect that your kitchen was unable to match? Sure.

But that's like saying that the two-hour Alvin Ailey dance performance I watched at the perfectly silent, perfectly lit concert hall was aesthetically more delicious than the five-minute liturgical dance I viewed at the non-perfectly silent, non-perfectly lit church service on Sunday. Both were done excellently, but how can an appetizer compete with a five-course meal prepared by one of the best dancerly chefs of the 20th century? It can't.

But it doesn't matter. Both were beautiful, both were good for the body--and, to bring the analogy back to itself, both were good for the soul.

Maritain writes: "The entire soul of the artist reaches and rules the work, but it must reach it and rule it only through the artistic habitus" (italics his). Whether art is made in the church or for the church, or whether it is made for the classroom or stage or public square, makes no difference theologically speaking. The only questions are two: 1) is it good? and 2) are you obeying God's calling on your life? Your calling might be to make art, so to speak, for the temple. Your calling might be to make art for life outside the temple. Our life of worship, discipleship and evangelism, "temple life," is only one part of God's economy. The rest of the divine economy includes wondrous inventions such as sport and law, industrial engineering and animal husbandry, and yes, art and entertainment, all ventures belonging to the original program of creation: tend the garden, be fruitful and multiply, love your neighbor.

Let me take a detour for the moment. Can unregenerate sinners make good fruit? Yes. Yes, because God enables them to do so. Yes, because they have not completely forgotten what goodness tastes like; they've not completely forgotten the garden. The image of God in them is not dead, it is simply sick unto death. If it were completely dead, we would have only pure evil, and there is only one kind of creature that is purely evil and that is the demonic creature. Humans, on the other hand, however dimly, still recognize goodness when they see it; they even desire it. Theologians call this common grace, i.e. a grace common to all humankind.

The non-Christian cannot accomplish in his own power the regeneration of his heart, only God can do that. But he can do good things--disburse potable water, heart surgery equipment, Fiddler on the Roof musicals--many good things indeed that remind him that it is good to be alive: that life is better than death. Granted, he often makes a miserable mess of his life because his heart is terminally ill, but oddly enough his works of art often betray his love for the Good ("Man of La Mancha"), the True ("In the Heat of the Night"), and the Beautiful ("The Nutcracker"). He can't quite seem to shake that mysterious lust for eternity lodged in his heart.

At issue here, fundamentally I think, is the recovery of a good term: Christian. Christian, among many things, is a way of being. It is also a form of belonging. I am a Christian because I belong to Christ, to God in Christ. To be a Christian is to become like Christ. And to become like Christ is to become at last a truly true human being. That is, of course, what God set about to accomplish in the rescue mission called Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection: to show and to return us back to our truest selves. And if this is true, then the Christian artist has only two worries in his life, two itty-bitty worries: 1) How can I grow into the full measure of Christ, and 2) How can I grow my artistic muscles?

If I fill my mind, my heart and my life with the richest of Christian treasures--good theology, good worship and prayer, good acts of social justice and neighborly kindness, good friendships--how will my imagination not be swimming with supersensory goodness? How will my imagination not care about the things Christ cares about: color, children, chlorophyl, human commerce? How will my imagination not begin to see the world, St. Paul and St. Dorcas, Jerusalem and Athens, the Vatican and the Met, as Christ sees it? It will!

But my Christian piety and doctrine cannot tell me, in any specific way, how to become a better actor. Only acting can. Good actors, good teachers, good books, good directors and plays and experiences, in short the muscular apparatus of acting—only these things can help me become a better actor. If I want to become a Christ-honoring, neighbor-loving doctor, then I need to learn medicine, not divinity, I need to attend a medical school, not a seminary. So too with all the arts.

But the whole essay comes to a screeching halt if one thing is denied: that the vocation of the artist belongs to the Kingdom. It should be obvious where I stand on this, so I'll not bother with any kind of defense. I press on and say that if art is important and if the vocation of the artist matters to God, then we open up for ourselves the possibility that the Christian artist, like any other vocation, is free, as St. Augustine once put it, to love God, truly love God, and then to do whatever he likes. Or as Maritain insists, it’s "futile to try to find a technique, a style, a system of rules or a way of working which would be those of Christian art. The art which germinates and grows in Christian man can admit of an infinity of them."

So let me return to my beginning. Of the three parts of the original equation, we need worry only about the first two: the formation of the Christian imagination and the development of artistic skill. At Hope we're doing everything we can to foster a rich imagination, full of Christ. Through preaching, through small group studies, through the passing around of books and the sharing of experiences, we seek to grow the true knowledge of God in our lives. That true knowledge is not theory only, it is en-earthed through genuine, though often difficult community. And it is within this community that we seek to encourage one another to continue growing, learning and stretching the artistic muscles. We don't always get it right, but I think we're surely stumbling in a good direction.

And what about the "Christian fruit" part? Well, I'd say it comes down to this: whatever “fruit” you produce, whether it's "genius" or not, whether it's our style or not, whether we get it or whether we don't, the most important thing is that you keep making it. God has created you, artistic tree that you are, to bear fruit, so that's what you need to be doing, however much you can. Whatever it is, it will be most worthy of a tasty celebration!

"Do not say that a Christian art is impossible. Say rather that it is difficult, doubly difficult -- fourfold difficult, because it is difficult to be an artist and very difficult to be a Christian, and because the total difficulty is not simply the sum but the product of these two difficulties multiplied by one another: for it is a question of harmonizing two absolutes. Say that the difficulty becomes tremendous when the entire age lives far from Christ, for the artist is greatly dependent upon the spirit of his time. But has courage ever been lacking on earth?" —Jacques Maritain

(PICTURE: Byron Tate on harmonica, "Battle of the Bands," HopeArts Fest 2003, Momo's club.)


noneuclidean said…
This was a really good concise discussion of what it means to make Christian art. Although I would have to firmly disagree with Maritain about their being an "infinity" of styles for Christian artists to work with. Quite literally, there are certain styles that don't bring glory to God (except in that final way which includes judgment). So while I think it is important to grow spiritually and in skill, it is also important to explore how the two work together. Especially in our culture which tend to support dichotomies between intellectual ideals and actual manifestations, it is necessary for Christian arts to make a conscious effort to understand how their faith interacts with their art. A perfect example of this would be your own blog which encourages this contemplation.

Anyway, again, great post. look forward to more. Recommend an important Maritain book?
pamela said…
Great stuff. Much of your post reminds of Madeleine L'Engle's little book on this subject.

By the way, I discovered you through a link on Paul Soupiset's blog, but I think I knew of you long before that because of my friendship with Brie Walker.

Look forward to more of your writing.

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