Non-Christian Art: Three Christian stances and why to care

Sometimes, Christians make bad art. Perhaps its because they don’t have talent or training, perhaps its because they get confused about what good art means. That doesn’t perplex me. There are lots of reasons to fail in art, and enough Christians succeed to show that faith isn’t a disqualifier. But, assuming it’s good for the Christian soul to interact with beauty, what does the Christian do with beautiful art created by non-Christians? In general, I have always consumed it without a second thought. Dish out Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” in front of me, and pass me another helping of Asimov.

But, I like to check in on my assumptions every once in a while. After all, I believe that goodness, truth, and beauty are united – shouldn’t it concern me a little bit that people who disagree with what I believe to be true are so fluent in the language of beauty? What is it that I’m taking in so thoughtlessly?

A whirlwind survey of Christian thought on the subject reveals three major camps Christians have formed in response to this question. What does the Christian do with art made by non-Christians?

1) The first stance is fear. As a representative, let’s pluck St. Justin Martyr from the second century; he wrote that demons were the inspiring force behind non-Christian poetry. There was an active possibility of the Christian coming to harm by interaction with non-Christian art. It had to be fought against.

2) The second stance is disinterest. St. Augustine can serve as an example for this position. Recounting the tale of the Israelites taking goods for the Egyptians as they left captivity, St. Augustine’s fourth century On Christian Teaching allows the Christian to accept anything good created by non-Christians. If all truth is God’s truth, the Christian can accept anything good, true, and beautiful wherever she finds it. However, St. Augustine also argues that the church has the best of everything available. The rest of the art and poetry in the world, though not harmful in itself, is kind of a waste of time.

3) Dante Alighieri represents the third position – permission. In the fourteenth century, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, which included the tale of a poet who had come to Christ through the works of a non-Christian. Dante’s fictionalized Statius thanks Virgil for making him into both a poet and a Christian. Dante believes that non-Christian art can benefit the Christian, both in her understanding of truth and of beauty. All the same, Virgil himself will never enter heaven. According to this stance, art can rise higher than the artist and reflect truths the artist doesn’t know or understand.

Saying that a complicated issue breaks neatly into three categories is, of course an over-simplification (as is linking such categories tidily to specific historical figures). But, these three categories offer a broad idea of the major trends in Christian attitudes toward non-Christian art throughout history.

So, what is the Christian to do with non-Christian art? My purposefully avoidant answer is that the Christian should think about it. Not just about the art itself, but also about the process of coming to non-Christian art. There is a rich history of people who are smarter than me (and probably you) explaining different positions on this issue, and it would be a shame to ignore that history just because it feels natural to behave a certain way.

Image via Flickr.

  • dave

    I agree with Dante, but see Augustines angle, eventually disagreeing. In the end I think possibly Hans Urs von Balthasar got it most correct.
    “Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, leaving it to its avarice and sadness.

  • Sarah Rohrer

    When I think of real beauty, I think of the art of diplomacy and governing a community towards peace and good living. In trying to apply these same three responses to different kinds of governing, it brings up the same tension I have with the idea that we can learn about God from Virgil’s art, but Virgil can’t know God. Since the church is supposed to be God’s kingdom on earth, it seems strange that non-Christian communities might teach us more/differently about God’s kingdom, without getting into it themselves. Not sure if that leaves me to go to Augustine’s “camp,” in order to avoid the tension. But definitely thinking about it, like the author encourages.

    *Sigh* But thinking is so hard…