Bad Christian Art

This past weekend, an awards show took place in Hollywood bestowing honors and awards on those movies that were so richly deserving of being recognized for their artistic contributions. I speak, of course, of the Golden Raspberry Awards, the “anti-Oscar” ceremony for bad movies. In a move that surprised no one whose been paying even the slightest attention to pop culture, Kirk “Banana fallacy” Cameron’s underwhelming tour de force Saving Christmas swept the Razzies, winning four Golden Raspberries: Worst Film, Worst Actor, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Combo (the combo being Kirk and his over-sized ego).

The many “wins” racked up by Saving Christmas at the Razzies reminds me of how low the artistic quality is among religious conservatives in general these days. People like Fred “Slactivist” Clark and the “Stuff Fundies Like” blog have done wonderful posts on the banality of what passes for art in the white evangelical and fundementalist Christian world, so if you want more information on that, I would suggest you go to those blogs. I will say that the crux of the matter is that white evangelical Christian subculture has enthroned kitsch (e.g., Thomas Kinkade paintings, the Left Behind series, Christian rock) and mistakenly calls it art. As a rule, any artist, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, who can the ability or the opportunity to make it in Hollywood does, which leaves the quality of explicitly “Christian art” to be questionable at best, because it consists of individuals who couldn’t make it past the quality control of mainstream entertainment.

But what about Catholicism? Surely the church who gave us the Sistine Chapel, Chartres cathedral, and those lovely Spanish Baroque statues of green Jesus must be able to appreciate art. Not quite. The great masterpieces of Catholic religious art almost all date back to the medieval and Renaissance periods, which was when the church had complete control over all aspects of artistic expression. This meant that it could feel emboldened to put a bunch of naked people on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or turn a blind eye at the bawdy anti-clericalism of The Decameron because these works were being produced in a millieu where anything that actually threatened the status quo could be quickly neutralized.

It’s also worth noting that the artistic achievements of the Renaissance could be interpreted as an expression of the Catholic church’s decadence and moral laxity. This was a time when prelates, scholars, and clerics dabbled in classical paganism, ritual magic, alchemy and other pursuits that should theoretically be off limits to “orthodox” Catholics. The Renaissance was a time when the church was open to outside influences, mostly because it could still define the parameters of how this interaction would take place. Once the Reformation erupted, the church retreated into a defensive cultural and artistic stance from which it has yet to recover. The modern Catholic church simply comments and criticizes on cultural trends, but it doesn’t actually make them.

For all of the rhetoric about the importance of “Truth” and “Beauty” in conservotrad circles, there hasn’t been any artistic output of note by post-Vatican II conservative Catholics. Canadian author Michael D. O’Brian has written a number of books that encapsulate the conservotrad outlook. Before I left the church, I read most of his works, including his series about the anti-Christ (which like most modern takes on the subject, turns out to be a smooth-talking European social democrat). The main takeaway I got from O’Brien’s works was that he really needs an editor, since his books tend to go on and on for hundreds of pages, when the same point could have been conveyed in half the time. I also learned that O’Brien has a peculiar fear of dragons, claiming that any depiction of a dragon is always a demonic/Satanic symbol because dragon = serpent = Satan. I’m not really sure how the Chinese version of the dragon would fit into this, since it’s a symbol of wisdom, strength, and benevolence, but I doubt that O’Brien knows much about Chinese folklore, especially since most Chinese aren’t Christians. A more likely scenario is that he’s just taking his own personal dislike of dragons and taking that to mean that they’re evil. I can see the appeal of O’Brien for conservotrad Catholics, but I doubt that readers outside of this small niche are going to be interested in his books, because he assumes a lot without giving us any evidence, as the dragon example shows.

The only conservotrad artistic work to really breakthrough to the mainstream was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I think that the success of this movie was based less on the actual merits of the film and more on the fact that it was framed in culture war terms of “pious Christian filmmaker” vs “evil Christian-hating liberals.” This would explain why so many evangelicals embraced the film, despite the presence of Catholic elements that would ordinarily raise flags as being extra-biblical (e.g., the Veil of Veronica, the explicit Marianism, the fact that the primary source material was a book by a stigmatic nun and not the New Testament). While The Passion of the Christ still has a huge fanbase, especially among Catholic traditionalists, it’s still one of those films that isn’t going to appeal to you unless you’re in the conservative Christian bubble, much like the “Left Behind” books.

Aside from the fact that the really talented artists are poached by Hollywood or other mainstream sources, I think one reason why modern Christian art, especially in its evangelical form, is so bad is because it has to be “wholesome”: no sex, swearing, alcohol, smoking, discussion of the existential, or crude humor. Like a crossword puzzle book, a “Christian” film should be suitable for anyone from eight to eighty. All the characters must be “super Christian” role models that never do anything wrong, and preach incessantly about the need to repent, repent, repent. Either that, or they have to be confused, hedonistic sinners who eventually find god at the end of the story, thus solving all their problems. These types of unnaturally “wholesome” media have nothing  interesting to say about the human condition because there are too many topics that are off-topic.

In the United States in particular, I think there is also a strong tendency towards anti-intellectualism among conservative Christians, which is accompanied by philistine tendencies in art. The high arts are regarded as what effete liberals like, whereas “real Americans/Christians” like more earthy pursuits like football, shooting guns, hunting, or watching reality shows. Consequently, “Christian art” is of a poor quality because there’s no demand for it to be better.

Great art manages to be universal and particular at the same time. You don’t have to be a Japanese Shintoist or Buddhist to enjoy The Tale of the Genji nor do you need to be an seventeenth century English Puritan to like John Miton’s Paradise Lost. However, I think it’s safe to say that no one will be reading the “Left Behind” books in 200-300 years. But as Fred Clark has pointed out, the “Left Behind” series was never meant to be great or even good art, but rather to create a profitable franchise based on pre-millenial theology and to reinforce the belief among readers that they will eventually be vindicated when the Rapture inevitable comes. Similarly, Kirk Cameron’s purpose in making Saving Christmas was to show that the materialistic aspects of Christmas are completely in keeping with what the Bible says on the matter (except the Bible doesn’t actually mention Christmas). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it), Cameron overplayed his hand and managed to offend fundamentalists who believe “Jesus is the reason for the season” and more mainstream conservative Christians who at least expected to be entertained on some level by the film. At least Saving Christmas‘ Razzie wins mean that it can legitimately be called “award-winning.”

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