O Me of Little Faith

Last week’s post about the Jesus/Junkie Christian art was a popular one. A few commenters thought I (and others) were a little mean in critiquing the painting. A bunch of other commenters jumped right into the fray, finding a lot of things to either 1) question or 2) make fun of in the piece.

It lead to some good discussions about criticism, drug use, inspiration, and hurt feelings. (In other words, just a normal Thursday dinnertime discussion around the Boyett family table.)


But most of the commenting took place on Thursday and Friday, and I’m afraid many of you may have missed an interesting discussion on Sunday. Rabbi Josh Rose, of Congregation HarHaShem in Boulder, Colorado, jumped in with some challenging insight. Here it is:


I’m a rabbi, so I have no use for this work at all, but your post on this, as well as the chorus of eager-to-agree commenters, strike me as – well, as cheap as the painting.

Much more interesting than the painting and the culture that helped create it is the culture that gave rise to the comments on the page tearing it apart. There is a bland and sorry uniformity, all too familiar: educated and probably over educated middle class Americans, many but not all of them male with a tendency to be contemptuous of religious ideas and to express that contempt with smug irony.

Of course the comments you make about the painting are “right” – of course the thing is cheesy when seen through the lens that now seems permanently affixed in front of the gaze of intellectual and pseudo-intellectual culture in our country. But the gaze of that lens is so predictable and tired. Wouldn’t it be more interesting and even useful to explore what the painting is really getting at and why it is so meaningful to many people?

…Your attacks are too easy. Just way too easy. And why does it bother you so much? The guy is making art that, I agree, has an air of cheapness, but that brings satisfaction to people who need it. Are we scared of what may be, in spite of its unfashionably simple aesthetics, its authenticity and power in this respect?


My first thought is “guilty as charged.” I attacked the cheapness of the art by making fun of the nunchucks — the first thing that caught my attention once I turned my gaze away from the freaky muscle-tat Jesus arm. Why did the nunchucks capture my attention? Probably because of my tendency to gravitate toward smugness and irony at the expense of certain religious ideas. Because it was easier to make fun of the surface of the art than it was to really get to the heart of it.

I was about to reply, though, in defense of you guys…most of whom, I’m thinking, are operating (like me) not out of contempt for religious ideas but out of a passion for them — and a passion that they not be cheapened by tacky art.

But my Interwebs friend Ken came to our defense quickly and eloquently while I was writing my own reply. He said this:


OK, here’s the thing — Some of us have had the misfortune of growing up in a faith community that has forsaken its own rich heritage in art, music, and literature in exchange for the cute and/or sincere. For centuries, it was artists immersed in an understanding of faith that produced art that challenged, art that required time and discipline to fully appreciate, art that could be returned to time and again for fresh inspiration.

Then, in the early 1800s, the American church went through a transformation that emphasized the emotional over the intellect. Most of the protestant church became anti-intellectual. This led to a complete disregard for art, literature, and music — unless it could be used for cheap sloganeering, the modern American protestants didn’t want anything to do with it.

Today, some of us are trying desparately to raise the standard when it comes to art produced in the name of our faith.


Rabbi Josh jumps back in:

So, acknowledging what you said about growing up in an anti-intellectual Christian environment, and recognizing how this would color your view of the painting, I just want to say that I get it.

I think though that in religious dialogue and critique it is useful to come to the discussion with an assumption of the other person’s seriousness. I failed to do this in my own sharply worded evaluation of the comments on this page, and so I missed the context of what was written (the stultifying religious b/g to which you allude).


And it goes on from there. Read the full exchange here.

I really appreciate Josh calling us to task for being, perhaps, overly critical of nunchucks and playing cards when it might be more constructive not to go for the easy laugh. I think I head down that road too often — here as well as in my other writing. That’s kind of the point of my books — to combine humor with education — but probably shouldn’t be my default attitude. But I also appreciate Ken beating me to the punch in explaining that many of us are tired of cheap art being praised simply because it’s about Jesus. Whether it’s modern worship music (if I hear another Lord/adore rhyming couplet I will personally rip out your faux-hawk, Mr. Worship Leader) or Precious Moments figurines or Thomas Kincaid paintings, I wish Christians would show a little more passion for the quality of art than for its popularity. Or its inspirational value. Or whatever. Just because it’s available in a Christian bookstore or the artist signs his name with an ichthus or because it has Jesus in it, doesn’t mean it’s good. And it doesn’t mean I — as a Christian — have to like it.

Produce the art, sell the art, be inspired by the art all you want. No way would I try to censor you. But I reserve the right to be critical of the skill, the subject matter, the sincerity of the artist, everything. Christian subject matter should not insulate anyone from either criticism or the pursuit of excellence.

That said, I found the Jesus-Junkie art to be offensive because of two primary reasons:

1) It was so ham-handed and over-the-top in its depiction of drug use. That lack of subtlety, while funny, seemed totally tone-deaf. From the nunchucks to the skull, there are better and more artistic ways to portray violence and death. A lack of subtlety grates on me like sitcom laugh-tracks grate on me after having watched great comedies — like “Arrested Development” and “30 Rock” — that don’t need them.

2) I get really annoyed by pretty white-guy depictions of Jesus. Put muscles on a pretty white-guy Jesus and steam comes out of my ears. Mockery follows. And that wasn’t even the worst of this guy’s paintings. The most egregious one is right here. It’s awful. Jesus: ripped, blow-dried, and ready to punch people for sport.

Now I’ll say something nice about the artist. You know what I really like about his work? Even though they occasionally cross the line into creepy grinning, I like that he paints a lot of happy, smiling Christs. You don’t see a whole lot of those, which is something I’ve blogged about before. So good job, Art4God guy.

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