Why Christians Should Not Make Safe Art

Christian art is limited by faith

Last week I learned about a former Christian hard rock musician who became an atheist at the height of his career, but he kept making music for the Christian market since the money was good. Presumably Christian parents encouraged their children to buy this band’s albums because they were expecting a particular message that would be safe and positive. Perhaps Christian youth believed they were protecting their faith.

They didn’t suspect that this band’s message was simply a sham for making money. According to this band’s front man, the majority of Christian musicians he knows are quiet atheists, cashing in on the demand for Christian music. That matches what I’ve heard from other friends.

How did we end up with a huge community of “Christian” music “artists” who aren’t really Christian and who, according to most experts I know, don’t usually make good art?

The problem from my perspective is that artists face ostracizing if they don’t arrive at a set list of answers at the end of the creative process. The subtext is clear: don’t wrestle with big questions in your art unless you’re ready to follow the evangelical script.

This represents the problem when faith becomes a barrier to art. Faith determines the answers and the final product without allowing time and space to ask the questions. The final product is vapid, unhelpful, and can hardly distinguish itself from art by a sell out.

In our quest to create safe art without swear words, sex, or violence (unless you count Christians who bow down to Brave Heart and MMA), we’ve stunted out ability to create honest art that fully engages our faith. The answer HAS to be Jesus died on the cross for your sins. That’s why the cross is all over Christian art, so many of our songs mention the cross, and so many books proclaim they’re offering a fresh take on the cross/Gospel—provided the Gospel is defined as Jesus dying on the cross for your sins.

While musicians who have left the faith can mimic what a good Christian “should” say, Christian artists have to play games to make their work marketable. Writers have to clean up their novels, artists have to insert “Jesus saves” into their lyrics, and artists have to paint subtle (or not so subtle) salvation messages. Meanwhile, our world has big tough questions that our artists aren’t allowed to ask.

Christians should be the ones diving into the jaws of the beast, confronting the worst of this world’s demons, and making ourselves as “unsafe” as possible as we face the worst the world has to offer. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s just a clever fabrication of his followers who needs to be protected from our big bad world.

Are we doing anyone any favors when the most influential art made by Christians is coming from people who don’t have any faith that can guide them?

Rather than encouraging Christian artists to speak to today’s issues, we’ve created a sub-genre that isn’t compelling to anyone other than Christians who want to play it safe and fear the loss of their faith. This is catastrophic. When the artists within that subgenre start asking questions they aren’t prepared to answer, they just keep plugging in the answers that they know activates record sales while their faith quietly dies.

This is how we ended up with the religious broadcasting group ostracizing Waterbrook Multnomah publishing because it published a book in its progressive imprint by a Christian man who believes the Bible supports same sex relationships. The message is clear: feel free to wrestle with the Bible, provided you arrive at our conclusions.

Honest reflection on difficult topics always brings up anxiety among Christian artists because we know that we could lose friends, struggle to make a living, and experience alienation from family and friends. As I started working on my Christian Survival Guide project, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to settle for the answers I’d been given, even if I didn’t find them satisfying.

I had to force myself to look at scripture without the evangelical community looking over my shoulder with heresy stamps at the ready. I had to dig into my tough questions about the violence of God, the place of God in a world with evil, and the ways we interpret the Bible 2,000 years removed from the New Testament writers.

I didn’t always arrive at the answers I expected. I found that hell isn’t what I thought it was, the end times described in Revelation were actually good news to their original readers, and that the Bible can be easily abused. As I considered God’s place in a world that has evil, I arrived at a conclusion that I didn’t see coming.

I didn’t reinforce everything I beleived, but I also found that facing the tough and mysterious questions of today isn’t the end of my faith, especially if I arrived at a different conclusion than expected. I found that my faith is far more sturdy and capable than I expected.

Perhaps that is our problem in the Christian subculture. We’re so afraid of our faith cracking if we place too many burdens on it. On the contrary, I found that my faith can handle far more than I would have expected. If anything, I had been placing my faith in the wrong things.

When I started asking the questions I wasn’t supposed to ask and opened myself up to conclusions I wasn’t supposed to arrive at, I found that Jesus didn’t need me to protect him. Scripture is far more reliable than we realize. The Holy Spirit settles among us to give us wisdom.

Creating art as a Christian isn’t safe or simple. The way of Jesus requires taking up one’s cross. The presence of the Spirit brings tongues of fire. We may have to endure death and fire, but the art that comes out of the process has been pruned and refined. We will find that our best work comes out of the times we face what we’ve feared the most.

Learn more about my Christian Survival Guide project.


10 thoughts on “Why Christians Should Not Make Safe Art

  1. The Christian Survival Guide just arrived, and I’m looking forward to reading it, so I can write a review, Ed. When I wrote my novel Refuge, I faced the artistic challenge of staying true to my characters and to the twist that grew organically from their natures. Cain, Lilith, and Abel took me in directions I didn’t know I would go when I first started writing. As the inspiration swept me along, I felt God’s pleasure in the story as it unfolded. I had to consider things I’d never considered before. I grew tremendously! But, as I wrote, I could imagine disapproving voices of some “church people.” I knew I would make some people mad, and I did. But I also knew the story would be one that Jesus would tell, shocking the same groups of people. I chose a “secular” publishing house with a small “Christian” fiction line to get Refuge into wider doors. I’m happy I did because Refuge is a shocking story of redemption and love that is touching many hearts.


  2. Ed, when I began reading this post I thought maybe this time I just won’t feel impressed to comment. As I kept reading I thought well maybe a little “amen”. When you wrote “The message is clear: feel free to wrestle with the Bible, provided you arrive at our conclusions” my responding juices began flowing big time. This is so important I’m going to struggle to keep this short enough for your readers to actually read it.

    We as carnal children raised in a religious (any serious active religion of community tradition) environment are all taught the values, innuendos and vocabulary peculiar to our established belief. Each of our religions is a unique ghetto among thousands throughout the world each speaking a different language of spiritual, secular and carnal expression. If our church, synagogue or mosque (to keep this in the family of Abraham) are really good at selling their children our ghetto’s cup of zeal overflows into neighboring communities carried mostly by our children’s influential example and their inquisitive search for new. If our sales are confused our influence is diminished accordingly because our children are confused.

    This has bothered me for years especially when I was assured that I was “saved” but no one could convincingly explain exactly what I was save to do. Most in my ghetto said I was saved to go to Heaven and now saved obligated to save others so they could go to Heaven. But what about, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”?

    And for scripture kids were not to read what about, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters– yes, even his own life– he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”?

    This is the only way I can keep this short.

    Jesus Christ is real and serving as my instant access Lord, Brother, Friend, High Priest, Judge and most importantly for those of us who come to Him as impressionable children my direct Teacher. The “Law” is written in my heart and mind by the Holy Spirit who constantly counsels me throughout the day for what to say, where to go and how to savor to appreciate more fully all that is good. My Father of the Family of God loves me and by His authority I have been born into His Family as a child after having died to my carnal influences. My Family of God speaks all languages of every ghetto fluently and is available to all who sincerely open their hearts and minds to Them to unite us all in the church of Jesus Christ.

    I find life so much lighter a burden now yoked together with Jesus in the lead than when I kept getting lost and confused while independent of Him. It is an honest privilege to be asked by my Father to pick up my own cross, not Jesus’ cross, to be ready to die that my enemies who would crucify me today might have the time to find the narrow gate to eternal life. I am free to go anywhere, speak any way and love everyone. I am free from having to repeat by rote the lessons learned from the ghetto of my birth. I am free from the bonds of my ghetto’s evolving traditions where I was intimidated and manipulated by non-scriptural sayings from parent’s who truly loved me like, “If it was good enough for my mother it is good enough for you my child.”

    I don’t have to be dependent upon any neighborhood gang to survive when I live within a nurturing Family of God that loves and knows all within all neighborhoods. I can actually gauge my progress and/or determine my actions every where (carnal and spiritual) simply by acknowledging this single guideline, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” … all others and not just the safe “others” in my church who are dependent upon all the “safe words” and unique words of their ghetto to get along. Free, free at last from the dependence upon any one ghetto because as a healthy growing child I am faithfully dependent upon my Family of God to nurture me in good, clothe me in love and shelter me from evil.

    Do you remember our independently walking childhood, before any formal school, where we didn’t have to be worried about a job, taxes, preparing food, what we wore or where we would sleep that night? That was the freest time of my carnal life to search, rummage, roam and learn with joy and at peace because the family I was dependent on loved me and took care of me. The Family of God is exponentially and divinely better, is less exclusive due to parenting limitations and with room within for all who sincerely want to be born anew as children of God; honoring but separated from their carnal birth family.

    Okay, not so short but how to express and share my cup that is overflowing? Love you, thanks Ed!


  3. Thank you for saying all of this. As someone who is constantly being created and re-created as a person and a believer and an artist, thank you.

    I have been writing music since my teens, but somewhere around the end of my time in college, I stopped being able to. I stopped being able to because I value speaking the truth above all things, and I hit this place where I couldn’t write the truth without pissing people off. And, as so many creatives do, I chose for a long time to write not-the-truth. I couldn’t get words out without looking at them and thinking, “Excellent! I’ve written some contrived bullshit today. Great.” Then came the day when I couldn’t do that anymore. I couldn’t write not-the-truth anymore, couldn’t verbalize anything but all-the-wrong questions. So I just stopped.

    But like you said, ‘the Holy Spirit settles among us to give us wisdom.” And so I’m digging in again, scratching it out, asking the hard questions, arriving at relatively few of the expected answers. And for the first time in a decade it’s okay. To make anything but safe art requires absolute trust in the existence, wisdom, and leading of the Holy Spirit. It is terrifying. But it is the only way to say anything worth being heard.

    Thank you. Thank you for all the times I said out loud, “EXACTLY!” in the middle of reading this peace. Few things more encouraging than a gut-level “Me too!”

    Blessings, Ed.

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    1. Wow. Thank you. It’s so wonderful to know that this resonates with you. Always good to know I’m not alone in this! Also, I think Christians, at least evangelicals, have gotten used to answers and conclusions, but sometimes art deals with emotions and process. It’s about “Here’s where I’m at today…” That doesn’t sit well if you’ve been taught to seek THE TRUTH. If art is about the process, then doubt and difficult questions aren’t catastrophic. They’re just part of the process.

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      1. Absolutely! I was raised evangelical, so the idea of absolute truth is something that was engrained into me over decades. The older I get, the more I learn to love the process, and all the growth that happens in it. You learn to be comfortable with the idea that the place you are today is not any sort of destination or arrival, and that’s okay.

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    2. indirtysoil, I LOVE this: “To make anything but safe art requires absolute trust in the existence, wisdom, and leading of the Holy Spirit. It is terrifying. But it is the only way to say anything worth being heard.” Amen and amen! Thank you for saying that!


  4. Thank you for this, Ed.
    I’m working on a deadline right now on a topic that is personal, yet outside the bounds of what I grew up in. I’m walking this very path, and coming to conclusions that will likely alienate some people.
    But I want to wrestle, and I want to grow as a person.
    I want a Jesus who doesn’t need me to stand up for Him, either.
    Thank you for writing this, friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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