Should Christian Pop Art Copy Culture or Lead Culture?

When it comes to pop art and pop music, Christians tend toward mimicry. If we want to impact the world, we must become innovators rather than imitators.

How many times have we heard, or even used, that famous adage, “Be in the world, not of the world”?  When it comes to pop culture and pop art, there are two leading mindsets as they relate to evangelism:

  • Withdraw from the world so as to be completely distinct from it
  • Christianize pop culture

The first approach can lead to asceticism, and is seen in its most extreme in Mennonite and Amish communities.  More often it’s seen in the idea of maintaining traditionalism, rituals, and pharisaic religiosity.  Regardless, withdrawal was not the approach used by Jesus and the earliest Christians and, ultimately, leads to a lack of evangelistic outreach.

The second approach–Christianizing pop culture–leads to criticisms of being worldly and sacrificing values.  This approach is best seen in the arts.  Despite the popularity of this approach, it can lead to being mocked and dismissed and, thus, be a hindrance to evangelistic outreach.

In this article I will look more at the second approach than the first due to its popularity among many evangelicals.  I will examine two specific examples: pop art and music.  Finally, I’ll propose a solution.

When it comes to pop art and music, I ask you to consider one question: should we be mere followers who “Christianize” it, or should we be innovative leaders?

Christianizing Pop Art: A Bad Idea

You’ve seen them, I’m sure, especially in your favorite Christian retailer: Christianized pop art.  Here are some examples:

The idea behind this type of Christianized artwork or Christianized logos is to take a popular image and use it for evangelism.  As Kerusso, a leading manufacturer of Christian apparel, puts it: “Change your shirt.  Change the world!”  However, the evangelistic effectiveness of this type of “preaching” is debatable.  What’s far less debatable is that this type of “art” (and I use the term loosely here) conveys two other messages.

First, it indicates that Christians have little respect for trademarks and copyrights.  In many cases, the artwork and logos are trademarked or copyrighted pieces and, thus, are legally protected.  Copying them to create Christianized versions may be illegal.  This tells the audience that, as Christians, we’re not really concerned with possible legal issues.  Even if the law is on our side, it doesn’t look good (I guess the adage “avoid all appearances of evil” doesn’t apply?).

Second, copying popular art and making it “Christian” tells the world that Christians lack creativity.  No, I understate that.  Christianized art screams, “We don’t have a single creative bone in our bodies!”  It’s always been my belief that imagination and creativity are gifts from God, yet when we merely copy others, then, in a way, we are admitting that these attributes are limited to the secular world.

It’s time that Christians get off the Christianized art bandwagon, stop copying others, and show the imagination and creativity that I believe we possess.  Otherwise, we may as well concede that it wasn’t just Jesus that died on the cross, but also our creativity.

The issue of Christianity and pop culture isn’t limited to visual arts.  Christians seem to approach popular music with the same copycat mentality.

Christianizing Pop Music: Another Bad Idea

In the 1960s and 1970s many young Christians began copying the folk music styles of popular singers, giving birth to “Jesus music” or “Jesus rock.”  This evolved into the contemporary Christian music industry and today’s Christian rock.  The trend of writing music in the popular styles of the day, though, predates the Jesus Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.  Songwriters such as Ira Sankey and Martin Luther would compose songs in the styles of their days.

While many often point to and lament that contemporary Christian music and Christian rock merely copy their secular counterparts, this practice is not limited to the pop and rock genres: Southern Gospel is little more than country and bluegrass music with Christian lyrics.

Whatever the style, the question remains: should Christians copy secular music or be leaders and innovators in the music industry?  While a debate over the purpose of Christian music can be entered into at this juncture, that’s not the point.  Whatever the purpose–entertainment, edification, education, or evangelism–should Christians copy the secular world or take the lead?

As a youngster, around the age of 13 or so, I liked to take secular songs and merely revise the lyrics to be Christian songs.  But then, that was back when I knew little about music, at least compared to what I know now.  That approach was childlike and even possibly childish; it was innocent but juvenile.

When Christians today merely rewrite the lyrics to songs to make them Christian, it’s no different than changing a company’s logo.  It also indicates a childlike, or even childish, approach to music.  Additionally, merely copying the world’s music and changing the lyrics shows a lack of creativity among Christian musicians.  We should be better, more creative than the secular world, not musical clones.

Besides the issue of merely being musical clones or copycats (or childish in our musical approach), there are two important reasons why we should be musical innovators rather than musical imitators.

Reason #1: Today’s pop music is bad

First, today’s pop music is, well, bad.  Oh, it may be popular, but it’s still bad.  I don’t mean morally (though that may be the case in some instances), but in its musicality.  Today’s pop music lacks originality, is overproduced, lacks real talent (can we say auto-tune), and is lyrically devoid of meaning.  A study out of Spain shows that today’s pop music is overly generic and highly synthetic.  This may be a reason that young people today actually prefer the music of the 1980s and 1960s (in that order) over today’s pop music.

As Christians, do we really want to lower our musical standards and copy pop music that is recognized as low-quality, forgettable, and cookie-cutter?  I say absolutely not!

Reason #2: Secular pop music doesn’t need our help in being copied

A second reason we, as Christians, need not merely copy today’s pop music is because secular pop music does a good enough job copying itself.  And it’s not only pop; metal (my musical preference) is ripe with songs that sound alike as noted in the multi-volume YouTube series “Metal that Sounds like Other Metal.”

While Christian music is often about sharing Jesus or worship whereas secular music is generally profit-driven, that should not be an excuse for mediocrity or merely copying the world.  Rather than Christians looking to secular music for inspiration, we should be on the forefront so that the secular world wants to copy us.  We should be the leaders and innovators in music.

And don’t get me started on the problem of quality Christian film-making… ahem, Left Behind (2014), which was even panned by Christian reviewers.

So what does all this mean?  When it comes to art–visual or performance–what should Christians do?

Christian Art: We Should be Innovators not Imitators

Artwork is about expression and thus should come from within.  It should convey who we are, what we think, and how we feel about the world in which we live.  The secular world is very creative when it comes to art; Christians, however, have shown a tendency to mimic others rather than create original content.  We have been artistic imitators rather than innovators, and this must change.

The lack of creativity, along with possibly the desire to exploit Christians for profit, has resulted in an inundation of “Jesus junk” among Christian retailers: mediocre and platitude-laden pieces that copy the creativity of others in order to sell a product in the name of Jesus.  As Matthew Block observed regarding the declining sales of contemporary Christian music, “much of the CCM industry’s music just wasn’t very good.”

Within every Christian artist are the gifts of creativity and imagination, yet we seem to refuse to exercise them.  As a Christian artist myself (though not professional), I value innovation and expression.  Therefore I offer the following recommendations:

Christians can and should be inspired by pop art.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by popular styles.  In fact, I believe that it’s a good idea to seek inspiration in what people enjoy.  Otherwise, if we’re going to avoid all worldly styles, we’d be stuck with cave drawings and Gregorian chants (or Jewish songs from the days of Jesus).  Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have been inspired by pop art and sought creative ways to express their thoughts, feelings, and faith.  We should do the same.

Christians should be innovators, leaders in pop art.

It’s one thing to be inspired by a style; it’s another to be a copycat (or a plagiarist if you illegally copy someone else’s work).  Christians should be, I believe, the most innovative, the most creative, the most imaginative people in the world.  Secular artists should desire to be like us, not merely copied by us.

Christians should express themselves through art.

Want to reach others with the gospel of Jesus using art?  Then worry less about being preachy (as most “evangelistic art” can seem) and more about simply expressing your faith through art.  Whether it be a canvass, sculpture, or through a musical instrument, let your art convey who you are, what you think, and what you believe.

Creativity inspires others to question, seek, and change.  If we desire to impact the world through art, we must be willing to shed the copycat mentality and become the creative innovators God wants us to be.

About John L. Rothra
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