Trying to describe "Christian art," a number of evangelical novelists have offered the definition that it is art "from a Christian world view."
That definition might not be as helpful as it appears. There's some ambiguity about whether fiction written "from a Christian world view" entails just the faith commitment of the author or means there is a requirement for certain representational rules. It can be taken as a rejection of the idea that evangelical fiction has to have an explicit gospel message, the novel functioning in some ways like a tract. But it can be also be taken as an insistence on a particular message, the art required to stage certain themes and issues.
It's problematic from the perspective of cultural history because it's normative. It's not a description of a certain category of art as much as, in practice, it's an imperative. The definition is not helpful in identifying what counts as Christian fiction. It's more of a mission statement.
Taken as a mission statement, though, as an imperative for Christian art, the definition raises a question about aesthetics. What aesthetic values are connected to that Christian view of the world?
Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic for Christianity Today, argues that good Christian art -- art that's good at being Christian and good as art too -- is art that flows from the Christian recognition of sin. Christian cinema, she says, should have an aesthetic that starts from the sense that all have sinned, all are broken or messed up sin. It should be moved by that to empathy.
Wilkinson is calling for what could be thought of as sinners' cinema.
Maybe you're not a recovering alcoholic; maybe you've never been unfaithful to spouse or friends or whatever; maybe you've never murdered anyone or cheated on a test; maybe you have lived a pretty clean life. But if you are a Christian . . . then you know you're a mess, one that has to not just lean but grasp, wildly, for something greater than you or you'll come apart at the seams. And if you're an artist, you don't start from ideas -- you start there.
I guess what I'm trying to say is this: the best Christians, the best artists (and critics and parents and pastors) -- the ones who make things that actually change lives -- are ones who know they are miserable sinners.This is an aesthetic value I identify with a lot, personally.
I am not in the business of making Christian art. I am also not in the business of judging the quality or value of the evangelical fiction I'm studying. It occurs to me, though, that what bothers Wilkinson about many, many works of Christian art is the same thing that bothers me about many popular critiques of those same works. There's a fundamental lack of empathy. The characters aren't human, but just flat. Their motivations aren't taken to be complicated and conflicted, but simple and dismissible.