The Christian Ghetto: The Gospel, American Culture, and Our Art

Christian Art and the Gospel

“I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.” Francis A. Schaeffer

Evangelicals in America are entangled in a conversation about Christian art and the gospel. It is an important conversation to have for two reasons. First because how Christians live out their faith is important. We live under the authority of God who has spoken in Scripture. We must obey what he has commanded and we must do the hard work of applying biblical principles to the daily choices we make--not only in art but in our businesses, our homes, our leisure activities, and our entertainment choices. This takes hard work and wisdom rooted in Scripture. The second reason it is important is the gospel changes everything. Nothing remains the same once you have been raised from death to life. You are now Christ’s.

This conversation pops up in many contexts but the most recent and ongoing may surround Lecrae’s choice to alter the approach to his artistry. For those not familiar Lecrae is a Christian who raps and ministers in an urban context. His earlier music is more explicit gospeling and his more recent music is less sermonic (and involves non-Christians in production and in a limited way provides verses for some of the raps).

Many of his previous fans seem to feel betrayed because he music is less sermonic. They feel like he’s sold out or just lost some of his passion and boldness for the gospel. You can this concern in a recent song released by another Christian rapper Tha Kidd Jopp,“My Letter to Lecrae”. Lecrae insists this is not the case and has tried to explain this new approach to his music.

For what it is worth I am with Lecrae. And I will explain why from a biblical perspective in this article. Lesslie Newbigin sums up my approach when he says, “The Christian story provides us with such a set of lenses, not something for us to look at, but for us to look through.” I will tackle this topic from three perspectives--cultural, historical, and gospel.

Cultural

American Flavor
This discussion has a peculiar American flavor to it. We love to compartmentalize our lives. We have the secular and sacred. You have Christian music and non-Christian music. You have Christian books and non-Christian books. You have Christian movies and non-Christian movies. (More on how this divide impacts the telling of the gospel story in the final perspective) This creates angst for those wishing to honor their Christian faith while enjoying many of the wonderful artistic mediums available for consumption.

The point of view that separates the sacred and secular runs into problems because the gospel transforms all of our life. It should change the way the plumber runs his business. He need not advertise as a Christian plumber but the gospel should make his business different. His work also reflects the creativity visible in God’s handiwork. It gives value to the mundane tasks of life. He does not need to leave a gospel tract with three easy steps to do that.

The Christian Ghetto
When you create a divide between the secular and the sacred you create a Christian ghetto. The Church in American has created their own privatized artistic enclaves. We have specialized sub-cultures for everything. Rather than make the gospel clearer, these subcultures obscure the gospel. In these artistic ghettos we speak a language that the rest of the world does not understand. We have disconnected the gospel story from the average person’s life. We are answering questions no one is asking.

Artists as Idols
This expectation that Christian artists must not only identify as Christians but also move into one of this ghettos is unique to the sphere of the arts. We do not expect our plumbers, bankers, grocers, florists, or teachers to do the same (for the most part). In America we worship artists especially musicians, actors, and athletes. These people because they have the public ear often sway fashion, political, and ideological trends. What qualifications do these people have that we should entrust them with this level of control of our culture? We have transferred this kind of expectation onto Christians who create. But it is not a biblical expectation. We have made our “Christian” art the third sacrament of evangelicalism.

We’ve taken one approach to art and made it the only approach. It reminds me of churches who make door to door evangelism the certified, God-honoring method for evangelism. If you are not at Thursday night visitation God is not pleased with you and the pastor will be sure to tell you this coming Sunday. It places pressure on people who are not wired for these kind of encounters to evangelize in a certain way.

Praise be to God some people have the personality and gift to do evangelization in this way. My dad is one of those people. He can start a conversation with a perfect stranger and within ten minutes have the conversation on the Roman’s Road. I am much more introverted and tend not to talk to strangers. I am far more comfortable sharing the gospel story through the transformation God has worked in my life and I can place other’s stories within the larger framework of the gospel story aptly.

Historical

Honest Questions, Honest Answers
This kind of problem hasn’t been pervasive through out church history. As I have read theology and church history I have yet to come across this kind of ghettoized approach to Christian art. If it is there at all it is not as pervasive as in the American church today. If you want to read about living the Christian life through a gospel lens start reading Francis Schaeffer, Abraham Kuyper, or Tim Keller.

I am a reader and a writer. My college degree is in literature. So I am more familiar with artistic expression from a literary perspective. We are blessed with a large canon of Christian literature. Some of the greatest literary works are Christian works. That does not mean that the author gave an explicit gospel presentation and opportunity to respond in their work. They developed their vision of life within their work from the Christian perspective. They have challenged the competing worldview at some point.

Some of these works are “Christian” in the way we American use it today. But others are not. So you have John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Shakespeare’s plays, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, W. H. Auden, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Augustine’s Confession and City of God, Flannery O’ Connor, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Blaise Pascal, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gerald Manley Hopkins, John Donne, George Herbert, T. S. Elliot, J. K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter, Marilynne Robinson, N. D. Wilson and I could go on and on.

Paul Elie wrote a piece for the New York Times asking a similar question that I’m raising “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” He asks where are the future generation of great Christian writers. I would suggest they are stuck in the ghetto near the great Christian musicians and artists. Historically our art has not lived in ghettos. It was lived with the rest of our life on display. It answered the cultural questions those around us were asking. Much of what passes for “Christian” art fails miserably in this regard.

Not an Either/Or
I am arguing that both approaches to art are acceptable. You can write a song that deals with faith like shai linne or you can do it like Lecrea. You can be a Chris Tomlin or a Derek Webb. You can be a Michael Gungor or a Matthew Smith. (Speaking of Michael Gungor. He wrote an excellent piece about this very topic “Christian Pizza”) Both approaches work. It’s not an either/or. A comparison from the literary perspective might be comparing the poetry of George Herbert with the poetry of T. S. Elliot post conversion. Or you might even see it in the difference between the fiction of C. S. Lewis and good friend J. R. R. Tolkien. C. S. Lewis’s Narnia is much more explicitly Christian. The imagery is much closer to the surface. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is still a Christian world but the imagery is more subtle. But it’s there nonetheless. Ironically Tolkien bristled at the more allegorical and surface level expression of Christian faith in some of Lewis’s works.

The Gospel

Muddying the Gospel
By insisting on making one approach to the gospel the only approach we have muddied the gospel story. We are requiring a form that the Scripture itself does not require--that is dangerous. That is why many of the “Christian” movies are forced. You are waiting for the trite conversion moment. Everything has to be done on screen. You cannot leave that part out.

This muddied gospel story is the fruit of the truncated gospel the American church has preached. We have made the gospel mainly about us and the turning point in our story. Instead of primarily about the long hoped for Messiah who came and will come again to end the story. Do not misunderstand. Our story fits within that larger story but it is not ultimate.

I do not have to tell you you are a sinner if I am writing a book or a song. I can show you the fallenness of the world. I can show you the gritty reality of sin. I can implicate you in it. I may even focus on one part of the gospel story. I might focus on creation (human equality, value, creativity, and solidarity). Or I might focus on the fall (sin, brokenness, and pain). Or I might focus on redemption (grace, sacrifice, mercy, love). Or I might focus on the consummation of all things (justice, reward, and judgement). Now it is another conversation all together if you never tell the whole story. If you only talk about the fall but never give hope. If you only talk about equality but never about the destruction caused by the fall. Or redemption without consummation.

Challenging World Views
Tim Keller in Center Church examines Paul’s gospeling in different contexts and marks the differences but also points out that Paul always provides an “epistemological challenge” (Kindle Location 2993 out of 3305). Paul challenges world views with the gospel story. That is what good art does. It challenges alternate world views. It shows their deficiencies.

The beauty of this approach is that it allows us to locate the one story within the stories told by non-Christians. I can read a Cormac McCarthy novel and agree with his picture of fallenness as ugly while realizing he does not provide hope.

I can read a Lee Child’s novel and appreciate the desire for justice and judgement but grasp there’s something more. He’s missing redemption.

I can read an Avengers comic by Marvel and appreciate the need for someone more than human to enter our story to save the world. I can say “yes” to these things and point to the fuller story revealed in the gospel story. Tim Keller describes this approach.

To enter a culture, another main task is to discern its dominant worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized gospel ministry should affirm the beliefs of the culture wherever it can be done with integrity. When we enter a culture, we should be looking for two kinds of beliefs. The first are what I call “A” beliefs, which are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s common grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching. Because of their “A” beliefs, people are predisposed to find plausible some of the Bible’s teaching (which we may call “A” doctrines). However, we will also find “B” beliefs — what may be called “defeater” beliefs — beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly offensive. “B” beliefs contradict Christian truth directly at points we may call “B” doctrines. (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City [Kindle Locations 3299-3305]).

I would highly recommend purchasing Center Church and reading Chapter 10 “Active Contextualization.” (As of my writing this it is on sale for only $5.69 on Kindle here) It will provide a foundation for understanding and sharing the gospel diversely and in a much fuller way.

“Glory be to God for dappled things—”

Let’s breakaway from creating Christian ghettos for our art.

Let’s live a gospel that transforms all of life.

Let’s tell the gospel story in a variety of ways.

Let’s shine the light of the gospel through the prism of different forms and delight in the way that light refracts and penetrates the culture.

Let’s trust in the sovereign God who has sheep in those cultures. These sheep will hear the gospel and respond. They will hear the one true story and it will resonate in their heart. It will create a longing that nothing can fill except Jesus Christ.

But let’s not shrink the gospel story into a four minute rap, or a double folded tract, or a two minute sales pitch. It is much deeper and wider than that.