O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Tacky Christian Art, Part 2: More Thoughts

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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posted March 31, 2009 at 10:07 am

Jason, why didn’t you call me and tell me the Rabbi had my back?! : )Seriously, good conversation. The more I think about it, the thing that worries me is the potential snobishness of it – the potential for even more division in an ancient faith that has been divided by so many petty issues over the course of so many years. I have often felt the sting of wondering if I was “cool enough” to be a Christian under these kinds of conditions – if I’m intelligent enough, talented enough, deep enough, or sophisticated enough. I worry that we will forget that Jesus loved us ALL – and He never really had a hang up with HOW someone demonstrated their love as long as it was sincere. And since He gets the job of judging sincere, I am more comfortable leaving it to Him.Still, I feel the argument for excellence and I believe in it. I really do.

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posted March 31, 2009 at 11:51 pm

What disturbs me is that there is such a “Shock and Awe” attitude with a lot of Christianity these days. We have become complicit in the modern culture’s dumbing down of art for the sake of reaching the lowest common denominator, which usually can be found wearing a wife-beater in a trailer park in West Virginia, drinking a 40 and surfing porn on a Friday night. Do we no longer elevate culture but simply emulate it?

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posted December 15, 2009 at 11:12 pm

I just want to throw this out there for you:I used to smoke pot and it got so bad that I had a mental break down of a sort and could not control my body for minutes on end. Inside, however, I did not feel the movements I was making, the noises I shouted or what else I did. Instead, I felt like someone or something was twisting my arms around my back: a demon, I believe. Everything was a swirling red and black mass in my brain and all I could do was think few words like “What are you doing, Kelly?” “What is wrong with me?” Through the screaming and confusion going on in my head, I knew deep down that I had to pray to God and beg for His help—although all I truly had to do was ask. I prayed for a clear mind and oh forgiveness and suddenly I began to quiet down. The pain eased. I opened my eyes (or rather could see clearly since my eyes were apparently opened the entire time) and thanked the Lord. I have never smoked, drink, or even gone to a similar party since. I know this sounds like some cheese-ball sap story but it is real. And the point of it is that after five months, to this day, of renewing my connection with Christ, I realized that the choice I made with marijuana (AKA the sins I committed) affected Jesus more than me since I have now totally entrusted my life to God. Jesus is responsible for my sins, not me. This painting, in relation to my story, this painting grips me due to the courage the painter displays with uncovering this truth of Jesus Christ. He leaves it uncovered for all to see. I have no clue of his life nor have I read any of your posts but this one so it could sound all too dumb to you but I honestly do not care. I hope this all helped you in some way see where the artist is coming from. Love always.

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