Religious art; is it bad?

My wife recently ran across a painting in the Christian bookstore that she described as “a creepy Jesus painting” that resembles a friend of ours. I laughed when I saw it, both for the resemblance and the typical European look of Jesus. I snapped a picture, texted it to my friend with the title of “self-portrait?” and got a good response from him. Below is the offending photo:

What I didn’t realize is that this is apparently the work of a “child prodigy” by the name of Akiane. It’s also the picture that Colton Burpo (the Heaven is for Real kid) said is accurate to the Jesus he saw in heaven. Now, I don’t want to get into that, but there is something else to be said about the proliferation of this image. Despite being done by a child prodigy, the painting has all the shades of the “bad art” that is levied at Christianity. It’s an image that has technical expertise, no doubt, but little beyond that. It’s a kind faced, unassuming Jesus who wouldn’t dare hurt a fly. It’s a white Jesus. A very white Jesus. And it’s popular enough to be sold mass market and framed in a border with scripture printed in Times New Roman at a chain Christian store. Like I said, all the qualities of bad art. But is it bad art or does it say something else?

Here is what I think is going on with the proliferation of these sorts of images. There is little attention paid towards wether this is “bad” or “good” art. Rather, it steeps itself in the Conservative Evangelical theology that the bible is literal and must be read for its “plain meaning.” The story of Chrisitanity in the 20th century (in the United States at least) is the move from liberal to conservative (and fundamentalist) and the proliferation of life-like, “here is your meaning” type of art work is a symptom of that. We shouldn’t be surprised that images like the one above are so common and so widely hailed in the Christian community. If the theological position of most of the church regards itself with a hyper literalist interpretation of the bible, then it won’t seek out artwork that defies a plain spoken, hyper literalist interpretation. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this sort of “bad” art is everywhere when critical inquiry and open ended meanings are discouraged. Sometimes, these approaches are equated with the Devil himself.

So, the popular conception of Christianity with bad art (or music or literature) continues because the theology of the whole structure lacks, for want of a better term, imagination. Likewise, the move into a more conservative model of theology decries the process of  change that happens when one is confronted with an image that lacks an immediately graspable meaning. The conservative model is one of preservation for the way things are.* This is precisely why a musical group like Gungor seems so fresh. They aren’t doing anything that any indie/post-rock band hasn’t done already, but they are doing it in a structure that doesn’t want metaphor and analogy. That doesn’t want subtlety. That wants something safe, secure and easy to understand. The structure must change and it starts with us.

 

*This isn’t to say that a liberal theology will produce greater artwork, as neither side has produced really great art. Rather, it’s simply an observation on how a particular theological position lends itself towards certain styles of art.

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