Dear new believer,
I've always loved going to bookstores, comic shops, and music stores.* I love the opportunity visiting these stores brings for me to be amazed. To listen to something that's new and interesting, or think about why a writer chose to write a sentence in a particular way, or why an artist went with the panel composition he did… I can't get enough of it.
But I've got to be honest: Christian art really bums me out. It's not that there aren't amazing musicians, writers, artists and filmmakers who are Christians—some of whom are even creating brilliant content that explicitly reflects their faith. It's just that a lot of it seems to be trying too hard to be like whatever is popular in the mainstream but a bit more "Jesus-y". This, incidentally, is why you see the signs in the music section of the Christian bookstore that say, "Looking for something like Foo Fighters? Try this!" (Whether said comparison is accurate is another story altogether.)
When I first became a Christian, I actually tried to like Christian music. Not because I really wanted to, but because I thought it was what I was supposed to do, and all my friends listened to it. So for about a year, I listened to a whole bunch of bands I can't even remember the names of, except that most of them weren't really any good. Instead of listening to songs about girls, I was listening to songs that may have been about Jesus, but more likely were also about girls. So I quit, and went back to enjoying music I actually liked. To this day, friends look at me like I've got two heads because I have no idea who the dude singing for Newsboys is, still don't know who Andy Mineo is, hadn't heard an Amy Grant song until she was interviewed at a conference I attended one time, and don't know why anyone would want to saddle up their horses, let alone sing about it.
(But I do know who Carman and Geoff Moore are, so there's that…)
The funny thing is, there's this weird pressure to try to like this stuff. Maybe you've experienced it (I know I did): the expectation that you'll give up your old music, movies and books, and replace them with new—but more Christian—music, movies and books. But, for whatever it's worth, here's my advice: Don't.
Don't unthinkingly and uncritically jump into the Christian entertainment bubble. Don't have a shallow view of art. Instead, one of the best things you can do is take some time to develop a theology of art—to consider why we create, whether all we create is pleasing to God, and the need for discernment.
First, let's think about why we create. Ignore for a moment, the question of the specific content being created. What is it that motivates human beings to be creative? Why do we write stories, make music, build and design and shape and innovate—all of which have no natural place in a utilitarian worldview? It's simple (but not). Fundamentally, we create because God is creative. Creativity is valuable because God does it. He made all the stuff of this universe: from the tiny atoms that make up your body to the moon and the stars (Genesis 1:1-2:2). And we do likewise because we who are called image bearers of God are like him (Genesis 1:26-27). In his book Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer described creativity as being intrinsic to our "mannishness"—that is to our very humanity. And so because we are like God, all of us are creative to one degree or another, whether it's with a paintbrush or a spreadsheet.
Human creativity shows up early in the biblical narrative. Adam, the first man, got his creativity on naming the animals (Genesis 2:19), but hit his stride when he met his wife in Genesis 2:23, composing the world's first (and certainly not last) ode to a girl. Later, it was a descendant of the world's first murderer, Cain, who created instruments (Genesis 4:21), and another who developed instruments of bronze and iron (Genesis 4:22). Later still, we see that the first person described as being filled with the Holy Spirit was an artist, Bezalel, who was filled "with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft" (Exodus 35:31-33). The great king David himself was a brilliant poet and musician, as well, crafting many of the Psalms that exist in our Bible today. On and on I could go, but the point is simple: We create because God has made us to be creative. And God calls creativity good.
Now, let's think about whether all creative efforts glorify God. After all, just because creativity is intrinsic to our nature as human beings and God is pleased when we create, not every creative act is equally glorifying to him. This is, in part, because of quality. I think we've all seen that not all creativity is great art. When a song is poorly composed, we know it. When a book lacks a plot, we are not unaware (even if said book[s] wind up selling gazillions). When a movie's special effects are laughably bad, we notice. And while I don't want to diminish the efforts of fellow believers, this, unfortunately, seems to be where a lot of the material marketed toward Christians lives. There's a noble desire to make something that is honoring to Jesus, but it all falls apart in the execution.* But if something has been poorly crafted, regardless of the label, guess what? It's not good, and therefore inherently is not as God glorifying as something that's very well done.
We can't stop there, though. Quality can't be the sole factor in determining what is God-glorifying with entertainment and creative efforts. We've got to remember that, although we are made in his image, we are also fallen image bearers. Sin affects our creative acts, and not just the ones that are 50 shades of creepy. Because of our sin, we tend to use gifts God has given us to give glory or praise to ourselves instead of him. Some of our creative efforts overtly point toward him as though we are saying, "Look how amazing God is!" Others shout from the rooftops, "Look at how great I am." Most are somewhere in-between.
As you can see, this is actually pretty complicated, which is why we need to practice discernment. Discernment requires serious work. It forces us to not turn our brains off and let whatever we're listening to, reading or watching wash over us, but to ask questions of ourselves and of it. To consider the story of a book or film, yes, but also the story behind the story—the worldview in which it exists. To consider not just the music of a song, but its words and what they mean. When you do this, yeah, you're going to find shows and books and music and all kinds of things you can't partake of anymore. For example, I used to love the Joss Whedon show, Angel (the one about the vampire detective). And believe it or not, it actually has some pretty powerful things to say in terms of living as "already" people in a "not yet" world. But even so, there were aspects of it that required me to stop watching it altogether (mostly the whole loads of crazy witchcraft stuff). In the same way, there are songs by certain bands I just can't listen to because they're actually praise songs to pagan gods—something I didn't know when I would turn them on full blast as a teenager. Then there are movies I can't watch that are made for Christian audiences because they're too busy making caricatures out of non-Christians to be taken seriously. And songs that I can't sing in church because I'm pretty sure a Muslim, Mormon or Jehovah's Witness wouldn't have any issue with them either.
See what I mean? Simple (but not).
So for whatever it's worth, here again is my advice: Don't make assumptions about Christian or non-Christian creative work. Don't assume one is automatically good or bad. Creativity isn't limited to believers—it is a gift from God to all who bear his image. Just as God can glorify himself through a sunset, so too can he glorify himself through a comic book, sci-fi movie or rock and roll record. And you can glorify him in enjoying those, too.
*A music store, if you're too young to remember, was a place where you could purchase vinyl albums, CDs, and cassette tapes. These stores seem to exist only in the seediest corners of major cities, "carefully placed to attract the bare minimum of window-shoppers" (as Nick Hornby aptly described it).
*Though, to be fair, this seems to happen mostly in film projects these days.