Bad religion

When I was in high school, in an act of theatric piety, I destroyed all of my "secular" CDs. I understand my teenage self and what I was thinking.  I felt at the time that "Christian music" was holier than anything else and I hoped to guard my heart from anything "unsavory" in non-Christian music that might infiltrate my spirit.

Guarding our hearts is truly necessary but my views on music and art and how they intersect with faith and Christianity are very different today.

When I first read Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, her words were a revelation to me and changed the way I thought about making art as a Christian.  She said that

"art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story.

If it's bad art, it's bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.

If it's good art...and there the questions start coming,

questions which it would be simpler to evade."*

I think this idea, that "bad art is bad religion" is the reason that so many of us, Christian or not, are turned off by much that is marketed as "Christian art" whether it be music, writing or the visual arts. Certainly the idea of "good" or "bad" art is hazy and subjective. But the truth is, much of the "Christian art" we encounter simply doesn't ring true.

I heard a conference speaker talk about approaching and critiquing film as a Christian.  When asked what made a film "Christian" by his estimation (and here he was speaking not specifically about films marketed as Christian but what L'Engle claims is all "true art" in general) the speaker said that a film was Christian when it either told the truth about what life is or showed what life could be.**  By his estimation, true art shows the dirty, ugly, lovely parts of life with a robust honesty.  True art also expresses a longing, reaching beyond itself for meaning and otherness.  L'Engle says this a different way, that "all art is...cosmos found within chaos."***

Maybe this is why "Christian art" often feels false.  In many instances, it seeks to gloss over the pain and struggle of life, painting a pretty picture of a neat and lovely God or of tidy, sweet Christians who never doubt or feel angry or question the darker parts of life. Certainly we behold many beautiful parts of life and creation.  But the whole narrative has twists and turns and dark endings, sad beginnings and hopeful climaxes.

I've had many moments when I've tried to conform my writing to some Christian ideal, spotting it with didacticisms rather than approaching and digesting the reality of the world and God.  And I'm quite sure my writing was the worse for it.

That's not to say that Christians can't make good art as Christians.  On the contrary, many Christian artists are makers of worshipful art in all its forms. And I hope to be one of them.****

I wrote in a recent post about L'Engle's view that an artist should be open and "obedient" to the work she is engaged in.  As artists who are Christians, this obedience enables us to be more open to the spirit of our God and his guidance, giving us a longing to tell the truth, to show what is outside ourselves. All kinds of writing can reveal truth about the world and about who God is in the world.

I think of art as a lens through which to look at the world.  Hopefully this lens gives the reader, the listener, or the watcher a picture with new arrays of color, a new focus on the way of our world, or on the truly mysterious ways of our God.

Do you agree with L'Engle that "bad art is bad religion?"

* L'Engle's Walking on Water, pg 5.
** this is very paraphrased from a speaker at the Calvin College "Festival of Faith and Writing."
***L'Engle's Walking on Water, pg 8.
****added to the original post.