What is it?

Is it an adjective?

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Is “a Christian” someone who prayed a prayer asking Jesus into their heart? What if that person forgets about that prayer, and strays?

Is it someone who continues in a dedicated fashion to pursue and develop a relationship with Christ?

The word began as a label that others put upon the disciples of Christ, a teasing sort of label: “Little Christs.” And the name stuck. It was, whether intended that way or not, rather spectacular flattery.

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But let’s stop talking about the people for a moment. Does the word “Christian” extend beyond people to apply to their works?

Can a movie become “Christian” by the insertion of a particular element?

What if a non-Christian makes that movie, and includes that “Christian” element? Is the movie a “Christian” movie, or is it disqualified because he is an unbeliever?

Is a “Christian movie” somehow more appropriate for Christians to watch than a “non-Christian movie”?

What makes a movie “Christian”?

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Or should we perhaps avoid using that term as an adjective?

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Is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a “Christian” story? It’s full of ghosts and curses, so….

Is it a non-Christian story? It teaches a moral lesson, and it “keeps the Christ in Christmas,” so….

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Many Christians are praising the movie Facing the Giants because of its “Christian elements.” Does that make it a better movie… the fact that the characters openly testify to faith in Christ?

Is it a Christian movie because the Christian characters who demonstrate faith in Christ end up winning games?

At the Internet Movie Database today, a reporter writes:

Facing the Giants is the third uplifting football movie released this month, although this one may be more faith-based than the others. And therein lies a problem: how can the outcome of the movie be otherwise than imagined since God figures so intrinsically in the plot? Jeff Strickler, writing for the McClatchy newspaper chain puts it this way: “The religious proselytizing in this football movie is about as subtle as a blind-side hit by a 300-pound defensive tackle.”

I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t have an opinion about it. But it does raise the question again: Since non-believers look at this film and sense an agenda to present the gospel in a persuasive manner, does that make this film a “Christian” movie?Is a “Christian” movie one in which the Christians pray and win the football game? The reporter writes that it’s hard for him to imagine a “faith-based” movie in which the faith-based team loses a game. Why? Don’t Christians ever lose games? Do we need to be assured that faith will lead us to victories in the world’s sense of winning games and getting satisfaction?

Could the team lose, and it still be a “faith-based” movie? Would it somehow be a strike against the Christian team if they lost the game?

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What about The Nativity Story, the upcoming film from a secular movie studio, written by a Christian, starring non-Christians, that tells the story of Christ’s birth. Is that a “Christian” movie?

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What about the home movie I made the other night with my digital camera, in which I let the camera gaze long and hard at the glory of the setting sun. What would make that a “Christian movie”?

Must I recite a verse aloud, so you can hear that while you watch what God is doing?

Is it a “Christian movie” because I, believing in Christ, filmed it?

Or would it be “Christian” if Joe Pagan walked down to the beach and filmed the same thing in the same way?

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What is this adjective… “Christian”… that we put before things like movies and music?

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Amy Grant sang a lot of songs to God. Then she sang a song of love to her husband, and many Christians complained that she had stopped singing “Christian music.”

It is not “Christian” to sing a song of love to one’s spouse, the way that Solomon sang love songs to his sexy lovers?

What if a non-Christian sings a song of devotion and love to their spouse? Is that “Christian”?

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Perhaps “Christian” isn’t a very good adjective.

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Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about dividing art into “Christian” and “secular.” Perhaps we should investigate whether God can speak through all kinds of art, and whether all kinds of artists are capable of really tacky art even if they believed in Christ all along the way.

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My wife Anne once spoke at a poetry conference. A woman came to her with a stack of poems and asked Anne to tell her who would publish them. Anne asked if she could read them. The woman said, “Yes. God gave them to me. I prayed and prayed, and he gave me these poems. They need to be published.” Anne read them. They were poorly written. They were, basically, prayers on paper. They were not really poetry. They did not invite us to investigate what they meant, or give us anything to wrestle with. They did not show much deliberation over particular words. But they did, in fact, make it very clear that the writer believed in God. They also showed that the writer had invested a lot of her own money in binding these poems together with a handsome, exquisitely decorated cover.

Was that Christian poetry?

Should it, indeed, be published… because the woman had so much faith and had volunteered so much of her own money to bring its message to others?

Or should she be told, “I’m sorry. I know you care about this. But this isn’t really poetry. Or, if it is, any accomplished poet will tell you that it is mediocre poetry, or worse. You need to take some classes. You need to learn the art of metaphor, meter, and concentrating your language. If you want to glorify God, you need to do more than give it a positive message. You need to make it a beautiful work of language. You need to make it excellent.” ?

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Once, when my friend Martin and I were talking with T-Bone Burnett, we were talking about the difference between “sacred” art and “secular” art, between Christian muic and non-Christian music. When asked what advice he would give to Christian musicians, trying to live Christian lives, and navigate their way through the Christian and the mainstream music industries, he suddenly asked us why we needed to worry so much about the word “Christian.”

“Why can’t we just be people?” he asked.

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Why can’t we just live as people, testifying that we believe in Christ, and let other people decide whether our behavior demonstrates any kind of Christ-likeness. Why must we always use this word to divide our work into “Christian” and “secular”?

Are “Christian books” just for Christians? I hope not. Then why must they bear such a label, which immediately turns so many potential readers away from them… readers who might enjoy them?

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Perhaps we should avoid labeling things like this, and let what we do speak for itself in its truthfulness, its excellence, and its beauty.

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In Through a Screen Darkly, I’ve written a bit about the apallingly bad art I’ve encountered that has been labeled as “Christian,” and the transcendent, profound art that has led me into deeper relationship with God… art that was made by unbelievers for their own agendas.

Maybe it’s not up to us to label these things. Maybe God likes to remind us that he can speak through the most unexpected, “un-Christian” things. Maybe he likes to humble us Christians when we start declaring that our own works are somehow divinely inspired and superior just because we’ve put Jesus’s name on them.

As the Scriptures say, many will come before God and say, “Lord, Lord, look at the things we did in your name!” And he will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

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Art is a way of exploring, studying, and investigating God. It is a way of practicing the work of incarnation — giving things shape, discovering the reflection of God in those things, and then sharing them with others. It is a way of finding that God is present even in the work of those who don’t believe in him — because, whether they like it or not, they are made in his image.

Are we approaching art in that way?

Or are we more concerned with creating codes by which we can judge the works of others and, as a result, judge them?

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Jesus sometimes told his disciples not to go into a community declaring that the Son of God was coming. Sometimes, he wanted his work to speak for itself, and let people start asking questions until they came to that conclusion on their own.

People don’t like it when other people start shoving answers down their throat when they haven’t even asked a question. But when they ask the question, investigate, and discover it on their own… then, it is theirs. It is personal. It sticks.

So why label these things? Why put a flashing banner on it that says, “Christian! Christian! Christian” before they even experience the work itself?

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This is the kind of path my mind takes on a Saturday afternoon, when I’m not trying to get projects done at work.

Perhaps I need a long vacation.