Did Christian Artists Sell-Out To Become “Family Friendly?”

If you’ve ever spent much time in art museums – particularly in Europe – you know that much of the greatest Christian art of the past was anything BUT “family friendly.” Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath for instance. Powerful painting, raw, and violent. The most amazing thing about the piece is that it’s a self-portrait, and yet Caravaggio painted himself not as the hero, but as Goliath. As if he understood his own dark and sinful heart.

I’m not sure most Christian stores today would proudly display a painting like that, or most of the other great art of the past that often features exposed breasts, fingers being jammed into Jesus’ wounds, or a naked Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

At what point did Christian artists give up their role as provocateurs?  Certainly there is a role for comfort when it comes to art, but we can never forget the artists job is to make us think. To shake up our pre-conceptions, and show us a world we never considered.

I have a feeing that we lost much of the quality in Christian art when it was determined that everything needed to be “family friendly.” I imagine the marketplace had a role to play, and certainly the more conservative Church culture here in America. But today, Christian record labels refuse provocative language, Christian publishers aren’t interested in much that’s not positive, and paintings? Well the “Painter of Light” pretty much moved into that space long ago.

Today, the stakes are too high for us to be hypocritical – to admire the great art of the past, and yet criticize artists today who are simply trying to reveal the truth. The question is – how do we change? How can we show that “family safe” art, music, books, filmmaking and more is fine, but we also have to give artists enough space to challenge our thinking – sometimes even scare us. It’s not about being controversial just for the sake of controversy, it’s about telling the truth.

To creatives, I say when your idea requires it, let’s peel away the veneers of what people expect, in order to expose them to the raw beauty of what they don’t expect. To reveal the truth of our message is the greatest service we can offer.

Because the stakes are too high to keep up the lie…..

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Simon Dillon

    I completely agree. In my own novels, I refuse to kowtow to this idea that “noble, lovely and true” means PG rated. Of course, as Phil says, there is some place for art to reassure. But art should also challenge, provoke and in some cases offend to shock people out of apathy.

    • Mark Owens

      My thought would be, who is your intended audience? And what do you intend to be the reaction to your work? If your audience is the church then offending them with may unnecessarily offend them and negate the intended message. If your audience is those who are not saved then writing and good story that is not sugar coated is good. A film with great Christian theme and a compelling story will do far more than 10 sugar coated, half way done, poorly written “evangelistic ” films will ever do.

  • Well said. I think the more we say this, and the more places in which we say it, the better the chance we might start to nudge the Big Christian Audience into feeling that way, and not thinking Christian has to equal family friendly.

    • It is a “Big Christian Audience” so the issue matters. Great point Nate…

  • richdixon

    I also agree 100%, but I also think the ship will turn slowly as long as the Big Christian Audience is K-Love dominated. Perhaps wealthy patrons will step forward to support artists who can express themselves independently?

  • There seems to be enough vulgar, disrespectful, mean, and profane media in contemporary society without Christians jumping into that ring. I’ll stick with Philippians 4:8, which tells us to think about what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praise worthy.

    • I don’t think any of the great art I’ve mentioned above is “vulgar, disrespectful, mean, and profane.” Michelangelo, Caravaggio, or even Hieronymus Bosch (who’s stuff is pretty strange) would not be characterized that way. The thinking you’ve mentioned may be part of the challenge. As long as we think in “extremes” we’ll never understand or benefit from great creativity.

      • I respectfully disagree that trying to keep your mind pure and righteous and free of thoughts, words, and/or images that go contrary to Philippians 4:8 is “extreme.” I believe that is better called “holiness” and that holiness, rather than hindering creativity,opens us up to the supernatural creativity of God. If you are not advocating impurity in art, then I apologize for misreading your post.

        • No apologies needed Steve! It’s a good question. But I assume your position is that the painting above, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or other works like I’ve mentioned are “vulgar, disrespectful, mean, and profane?”

  • Phil, you continue to challenge our thinking…. thanks! I agree with this concept. I think the reason Christian artists have stayed on the family-friendly side of things is that we haven’t determined the where the line between “provocative” and “vulgar” or “inappropriate” is. What do you think of that dynamic?

  • Jason Fox

    Great post, Phil. For some reason, the general assumption is that people of faith are somehow less creative than our secular cohorts. I know I’ve experienced this in my own career as some colleagues are shocked to find out that I am both a conservative Christian and a creative writer – gasp! – at the same time! I think a lot of that is our own fault. If you’re chastised as a youth for liking any music with a backbeat rhythm, how exploratory or expressive will you tend to be in other areas? Okay, I (and my parents) managed to reject that legalistic stance and get on with life, but you get my point. I personally wonder if there will ever be an R-rated “faith-based” film. Christian subject matter is often adult and serious. Showing the consequences of sin can be brutal and discomfiting. And while we should not wallow in the gratuitous, we should neither shy away from the genuine. I fear we too often mistake being sanctified with being sanitized and are the worse-off for it.

    • Could not agree more Jason. The assumption that “people of faith are somehow less creative than our secular cohorts” is significant. Great point and thanks for bringing that up.

  • @craigparshall

    A needed discussion, Phil. My take: prettiness, coziness & tidiness need not define Christian art. The crucifixion was a horror to behold, but magnificent in the outcome of God’s grace extended to us. John the Baptist’s beheading was gruesome, but an ennobling illustration of the cost of discipleship. I think the test for Christian art should be the creative demonstration of TRUTH directed to an edifying end. Francis Schaeffer once wrote that the design & function of a Boeing 707 was “beautiful,” because it demonstrated the truth about the orderliness of the laws of nature, which in turn points to the Creator-God. The Church, I think, needs to think a bit deeper on the Gospel/Art equation.

    • Very well said Craig, and thanks for posting that!

      • Craig Parshall

        Phil, need to email you. Let’s connect. Craig Parshall

  • Adam Niven

    thought provoking and needed…I wonder if part of the issue is that we’re using “Christian” as an adjective for stuff we create instead of as a noun attributed to people who follow the Christ?
    my wife and I had an interesting experience recently as we have been reading the book of judges and samual 1& 2 around the dinner table and wondering if we weren’t actually reading scripts for Game of Thrones. Now of course, with younger children I was selective in how I decided to frame some specific matters from these books. And I’m not suggesting that what we need is an old testament (HBO)TV series that attempts to out-muscle GoT. But one question I’ve used to provoke thinking about this is “what makes a thing (other than a person) Christian anyway?” If a family friendly piece of “Christian” creative is designed more or less to just feed a capital system – making someone at the top lots of money – is it still “Christian”. I guess I think there’s more to defining creative items than content alone.

    • Absolutely. I’ve often said it would be impossible to accurately film the Old Testament without a strong R or potential X rating. God didn’t withhold the truth in the Bible. We shouldn’t either. Interesting comparison to Game of Thrones….

  • Robert H.

    “Family-friendly” Christian art is about as relevant as “common sense” theology. Both seem to be concessions to marketing and fitting in.

  • dean

    In truth, some ‘art’ is provocation for the sake of provocation. Some rap ‘artists’ are vulgar and obscene because they are violent criminals. Some artists are just rebellious teens with little or no talent. I never found the Beatles offensive. They were just good. So don’t be deceived to think mere provocation is necessarily art. Sometimes it’s just bullies.

  • Nick G

    Reading the other comments, here’s how I think we square the circle. Phil 4:8 starts with “Whatever is true”. Paul sometimes used vulgar shocking language, but prophetically to speak a truth, and Jesus was accused of profanity. Nothing created by people is totally pure but we can appreciate art or music of any genre that might articulate a truth about our world, no matter how vulgar or shocking.

  • Catherine Haws

    This is very thought provoking. I am reading your book “The Last T.V. Evangelist” for a class right now, and I am loving it! I would like to be a writer that happens to be a Christian and not necessarily a “Christian writer.” Thank you for the encouragement. :)

    • Thanks for the support, and I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the book!