Design Sub-culture: Christians Would Rather Copy than Create
August 5th, 2008 in Web Design Worldview
by: Matthew Griffin
Reformed Christian writer Doug Wilson once said, "Whatever the world can do, we can do five years later and not as well." While this may be somewhat of an exaggeration, it's not that far off. For the past 150 years or so, the Christian community has been declining in just about every creative arena. And in the last fifty years you would be hard pressed to find more than kitsch coming from the Christian creative community. There are exceptions for sure. The International Arts Movement, for example, has proven that this rule is not unbreakable; but by and large, the creative sub-culture in evangelical Christianity is about as deep as a West Texas lake (for those of you who've never been to West Texas, we have no lakes). What has caused this fall? Why has the once rich creative wellspring of Christianity seem to have dried up? And what can we do about it?
Whatever the world can do, we can do five years later and not as well.
The Birth of Christian Creative Sub-culture
Christians around the time of the Reformation and leading all the way up to the twentieth century produced some of the most inspiring works of creativity history has ever known. But today, the first thing that comes to most people's mind when they hear the words "Chirstian movie" or "Christian art" or "Christian music" is "Cheesy". Christian works of superior quality are the exception rather than the rule. There are a myriad of complex reasons for this change but the heart of the issue is a fundamental worldview shift in Christianity. The key to the problem lies in the very existence of a Christian creative sub-culture. Most mainstream Christians seem to believe that superiority in a creative work rests solely in its explicit "God" content. It's a "good" work if it preaches the gospel or praises God explicitly. The other stuff may not be evil but it's definitely not good. And while this may not be the only thinking in Christianity, it's definitely the dominant thinking (especially in America). This mindset creates a rift between secular creative culture which is primarily concerned with technical merit, and Christian creative culture which is primarily concerned with moral or religious character. On the surface this may seem like the inevitable result of a people who are in the terms of the Bible, "set apart". So what's so wrong with the Christian creative sub-culture?
What's So Wrong with "Christian" Art
The problem with Christian art and the Christian creative sub-culture is two-fold. First, by its very existence, it concedes the point that Christianity should be completely separated out from general culture. This is a thoroughly unchristian idea. If Christianity is true, and it actually conforms better to reality than any other system of thought, then we should be the ones creating and leading culture. This first problem should force us to completely redefine "Christian" art. And really I hate to even use the word "redefine" because it sounds like I'm suggesting something new. In reality, this definition of Christian art—an integrated, full-orbed art—is nothing new at all. It just seems to be lost or obscured from time to time waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of Christians. But I digress. Second, the Christian creative sub-culture breeds mediocrity by holding up moral quality as the only quality of value in a creative work. Shoddy work that is moral is not Christian. Christian creative work is technically excellent, effective, and moral. When explicit Christian content is held up to the exclusion of technical merit, rampant mediocre copying of "secular" style is inevitable. Why not, that technical stuff doesn't matter to God anyway, right? God only cares that my heart is right. Wrong. The Bible knows nothing of great Christian men and women who stink at what they do. Before the fall, God put us on earth and gave us a job to do—namely, create. That purpose has never changed; but many Christians seem to think that our purpose for being here is to go to heaven. I'm not sure if monastic neo-platonist theology is making a comeback or if Christians are just too lazy to do it right. Either way it's time for a generation of Christians to put this trend to an end.
Course Correction for Christian Web Designers
Christian web designers have been put in a wonderful position for effecting change and pulling Christianity out of its creative sub-culture. Our work is right on the edge of technology. It can be artistic. It can be pragmatic. And it's always visible. But we have two strikes against us. Not only are we swimming in a Christian creative sub-culture that's obsessed with copying (strike one), but we are part of a broader culture that's obsessed with copying. There are plenty of web designers, Christian and non, that think great design is seeing something that looks good and designing something that looks just like it. That isn't to say we should never draw inspiration from the works of others. On the contrary, we should be inspired by great work and employ appropriate styles to convey meaning. But knowing design—really knowing it—and choosing style out of knowledge is a far cry from the shallow mimicking of popular design.
The only cure for the broader consumerism driven copying trend is study and learning. Christian web designers should be the greatest students of their craft. Their work should be progressive and deliberate. And they should be ready with biblically based answers for the whys and whats of their work in every situation. It's a difficult road to travel in these times. There is no school for web designers that teaches from a Christian worldview. But I won't leave you on a note of despair. There are actually quite a few resources available for understanding worldview in design. But as far as I know, no one has ever compiled a list of essentials for designers. And it definitely hasn't been done specifically for web designers. I plan on compiling such a list and turning it into a study course on Mirificam Press. No idea when it will be complete, just know that it's coming. In the meantime, take this article as encouragement to press on. If you're guilty of shallow design (as I have been so many times), don't get discouraged. The road to becoming a truly creative web designer is a life-long process—one that most of us have just started.
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