Why the Church Needs More “Ugly” Art

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My friend Jimmy used to play guitar for the musical worship team at his church. One Sunday, after the service was over, a man approached Jimmy and said, “I don’t think you should put distortion on your guitar. It’s evil. It’s Satanic.”

Jimmy, being a well-humored and quick-thinking guy, turned the distortion down to 0% and strummed a few chords. “So this is okay? This is not evil?” he asked. The man replied, “Yeah. That sounds good.” Jimmy proceeded to incrementally increase the degree of distortion, play a few notes, and ask again at intervals, “So what about this? Is this evil?”

The man, apparently not seeing the arbitrariness of his position, pinpointed the exact analog percentage where Jimmy’s distortion crossed over from the Kingdom of Light into the Kingdom of Darkness.

I hope this story strikes you as humorous, but unfortunately, Jimmy’s critic speaks for a very large and influential segment of the church. I’ve heard similar sentiments hundreds of times all over the country: “Christian art should be hopeful and full of light. Positive not negative. Inspiring not doubt-inducing.” Generally speaking, the contemporary church requires art to be simple, pleasantly pretty, tame, and unchallenging—especially if it is going to be included in worship.

This generally means, for the mainstream church, that movies must be uplifting and fully resolved. Music must generally be in major keys, free from distortion, and not too loud or dissonant. Visual art must be spiritually themed, unchallenging, and light (most of the time literally—I’m looking at you, Thomas Kinkade). Literature must be unambiguous, basically “moral”–centered, and free from “unwholesome” words and imagery. Christian art is required to be, in a word, “safe.”

The Bible and “Ugly” Art

I have a number of problems with putting these kinds of restrictions on art, but my primary objection is the (what should be obvious) fact that large portions of the Bible’s art don’t make the cut.

The Bible includes and endorses unpleasant, dissonant, unresolved, deconstructive, unsettling, ugly, and singularly unpleasant art. The majority of prophetic poetry is brutally critical and negative—much of it quite ugly. Just take a cursory glance through the major and minor prophets. The prophet Jeremiah devoted the entire work of Lamentations to mourning. Ecclesiastes, in the unlikely event that we allow it to speak on its own terms, undermines our confidence by calling out the existential futility of cyclical sub-celestial experience. The epic poem of Job leaves us with a profound list of unanswered questions. Similarly, most of the Psalms are unsettling and, at least circumstantially, unresolved. The imaginative fantasy of Revelation contains graphically hideous images and dark, bitter irony. Song of Solomon is so full of earthy sexual innuendo that a former pastor of mine used to say—somewhat tongue-in-cheek—that it should be “wrapped in brown paper.”

And let’s not forget that, due to the regular public temple sacrifices, the Old Testament believer was regularly confronted with blood-letting and gore—especially during “worship services.” In the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper is primarily a memorial of death (1 Cor. 11:26). The scars of the crucifixion remain in the hands and side of Jesus. It seems most Christians would, at least effectively, prefer if all this ugliness could just be set aside.

After all, unpleasant art doesn’t sell very well, and Christian-themed stores are for profit. But are churches for profit too?

To be fair, it makes sense from a marketing perspective that our Christian bookstores and retailers would stock almost no unpleasant or difficult art (aside from what is generally ignored of it in the Bible, of course). After all, unpleasant art doesn’t sell very well, and Christian-themed stores are for profit.

But are churches for profit too? Contemporary churches generally reject dissonance (cognitive or musical), distortion, ugliness, lamentation, gallow’s humor, irony, swing, ambiguity, bittersweetness, ugliness, despair, unresolved narratives and poems, unextinguished questions, reproof, and critique—all of which are enshrined in what we say we believe is the infallible Word of God. It is shameful that our worship services contain only the inspirational refrains from the Psalms, the heavenly visions of the prophets, the reassuring resolutions of the Gospels, or the mere morals of Jesus’ parables. All the pretty blessings with almost none of the ugliness of sin’s curse.

So What?

This is a massive problem in the church today, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as a merely superficial issue without theological significance.

So many of the virtues and truths in the Scriptures become incoherent without their context in the dirt, doubt, and sin of real human experience. The resurrection is completely meaningless without the Cross. Faith is completely insubstantial without an honest confrontation of doubt. Hope is completely toothless without the context of lust and despair. Love is cheap if it isn’t overcoming fear. Life is not properly cherished unless we understand death. Joy is listless without the ballast of pain. This list could go on and on, and it is because of these theological realities that the Bible includes so much “ugly” art.

Joy is listless without the ballast of pain.

Don’t get me wrong. It is certainly necessary for Christians to produce straightforwardly pleasant art that inspires gratitude for the good gifts of God. But it is also necessary for Christians to directly and honestly engage the ugliness of sin and suffering in their art. It is not that we should love this ugliness or wallow in it. At the same time, we can’t just leave off addressing unpleasant things merely because they don’t make us feel good, or worse—because ugliness doesn’t really fill the pews.

The Gospel does not promise a return to blissfully ignorant innocence, as if we could return to a time before the Fall when we did not know sin and evil. Innocent goodness is simply not available to us anymore. God’s promise to Eve was not a future return to innocence, but a future dispensation of enmity (Gen. 3:15). The fear of the Lord is directly connected to hating evil (Prov. 8:13). How can you learn to hate evil if you refuse to even acknowledge its bitter realities?

As it is now, only artists with callings to pleasant words, sounds, and images have any place or support within the church. But what about the poets, painters, photographers, songwriters, and movie makers who have been called to deliver God’s unpleasant stories? What about the bringers of prophetic fire who call us to repent in unpleasant sackcloth and dirty ashes? What about “ugly” art?

God’s promise to Eve was not a future return to innocence, but a future dispensation of enmity.

Unfortunately, like Old Testament Israel, the contemporary church persecutes and rejects artists who don’t tickle our ears and reassure our hearts. In this, we have become like the priests and prophets God criticized through Jeremiah:

For from the least of them even to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for gain,
and from the prophet even to the priest
everyone deals falsely.

They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
but there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:13–14)

Like Ahab, we send our Micaiahs away from our presence because they only prophesy evil and never good concerning us (1 Kings 22:8). We force our artists to either neutralize the controversy and conviction of their work or get out of the church. So they leave. And outside the discipleship and accountability of the church, they suffer vicious, life-crippling temptations and discouragements. And without the presence of their “ugly” art in the church, we forfeit a great portion of our relevance to a broken and suffering world.

Attic Static Sticker Star

It’s for this reason that the Nehemiah Foundation supports so much of what could be considered “ugly” art. Our newest sponsored record—Attic Static Sticker Star, by the Normal Knees—which we will release March 25, 2016, even contains what could be considered an “unwholesome” word or two. Additionally, the whole thing, save one song, contains generous doses of solid-state distortion. Dissonance abounds throughout the record. It also contains some lovely pop melodies, but much of this record falls squarely into the category of “ugly” art.

Strangely, the only song containing “unwholesome” words (“Baseball Diamond”) was the song that sealed my support for this record. “Baseball Diamond” is an uncensored exploration of the schizophrenic and self-deceiving postures we adopt when we are trying to justify damaging another person for our own sinful sexual pleasure. The honesty and rawness of this track convicted me to my core. I had never heard anything like it. I’m including it below for your consideration. Just to be clear, it’s not safe for the whole family.

I know many people will take major issue with a Christian arts organization releasing an album with “curse words” in it. Most people will cite the verse from Ephesians: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.” Or rather, they will cite half the verse. The rest of the verse goes like this: “But only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” The question of wholesomeness has a lot to do with the intended audience and the need of the moment for edification. I believe there are rare times when unpleasant words, even curse words, are necessary according to the need of the moment for edification. Not all words are for all audiences. Not all art needs to be safe for the whole family, in other words.

But I don’t think any word should be careless. We here at the Nehemiah Foundation scrutinized the lyrics for “Baseball Diamond.” We had a long and mutually edifying conversation with the artist who wrote them. In the end, we all came to the conclusion that the uncensored lyrics aptly conveyed the self-disgust and duplicity the speaker of the song feels, and no other words would really suffice. Additionally, we realized that even if we had censored the words themselves, the concepts in “Baseball Diamond” would still not be fit for children. The reality is that this song is written for adults who sin in adult ways.

Not all words are for all audiences. Not all art needs to be safe for the whole family.

I believe projects like Attic Static, and so many of the other unsettling works the Foundation endorses and supports, are necessary for the edification of the church today. In biblical times, unpleasant art was especially necessary during times when the church needed to be called to repentance. If you don’t think we’re living in such a time today, I don’t know what could possibly happen to convince you otherwise.

Ugly art is rarely the art we want. But sometimes, it’s the art we need. I believe that time is now.

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If you’re interested in hearing Attic Static Sticker Star, it was made available for free download on March 25, 2016. Get it here on Bandcamp.

Also, I think much of the confusion concerning “ugly” art would be resolved if the church properly understood the purpose of evil in God’s plan and distinguished evil from wickedness more biblically. I wrote a whole article on that for my blog: The Problem of Evil has an “Evil” Problem.

  • Amanda Joy Tindall

    Dear Michael, I understand your critique of the church’s tendency to stay close to moralistic stories and to stray from those that tell of the human condition as it is. I do fear, however, the confluence of the concept of ugly art with ugly subject matter.

    The works of Flannery O’Conner, for example, I would consider beautiful art, although the subject matter is grotesque and disturbing at times. A beautiful piece of art compels its viewer to that which is (or He who is) Perfect. Your examples from the Bible might deal with the concept of sin, of death, or of suffering, but that doesn’t mean that the Art, the narrative, the scriptures themselves are in some way ugly. We must remember that ugliness is not in itself a thing, but the lack of beauty.

    • Michael Minkoff

      Thanks for commenting Amanda. I wrote this comment in June, but I just noticed that it didn’t post to Disqus. I’m sorry about that!

      By “ugly art” I did not mean that the craft of our art should be wanting. It was partly tongue-in-cheek. As O’Connor herself evinces (along with a host of others), great craft can serve the needs of grotesque (“ugly”) concepts. My point in the article was simply that these concepts are permissible, and perhaps in our time, even more profitable and necessary than simply pleasant or pretty art. As O’Connor herself says in Mystery and Manners:

      “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. . . . He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

      Especially in our time and in our church, we need to remind people (ourselves included) of the cost of redemption. I don’t think the church is releasing artists to do that quite yet.

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