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.
Doug Wilson

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

...this definition of Christian art—an integrated, full-orbed art—is nothing new at all.

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.



Posted By: J.Bentley on 08/05/08

As a Christian and a designer (at least I'd like to call myself that), this post was dead on! I loved that Doug Wilson quote, too.

Posted By: Nick Dominguez on 08/05/08

This post was so dead on with so many of it's points. As a musician and designer who has fought the trappings of the "christian scene" for years now it's always refreshing to read someone who gets it.

Posted By: J.Bentley on 08/05/08

As a Christian and a designer (at least I'd like to call myself that), this post was dead on! I loved that Doug Wilson quote, too.

Posted By: Jin on 08/05/08

Matt, I'm interested in seeing some good portfolios of Christian web designers on the web. I tried to google "Christian Web Design," the results returned were hmm, let's just say they're what they are, for the reasons you listed in your blog. thanks.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 08/05/08

Thanks for the comments. I appreciate it.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 08/05/08

Jin, honestly, I'm interested in the same thing. I don't know of any that I'd recommend at this point but that doesn't mean they aren't out there. If anyone has any links they'd like to share, please post them. I mentioned the International Arts Movement at the beginning of the article. That seems to be where a lot the Christian artist who "get it" are popping up right now. I plan on keeping an eye on them and supporting them however I can.

Posted By: Wes P on 08/05/08

Great article Matt! You talk about how copy prone the Christian sub-culture is, and I would attribute it to being that it's the easy course. It seems as if the constant persecution and pressure from the world has given modern Christianity something of a serious inferiority complex, if such a state can even be called "Christ-like". I would say that the mark that is most missed, and the most influential one at that, is really and truly letting Christ be the center of everything you do, and understanding that it's nothing to be ashamed of. Once a Christian is literally a person who is like Jesus Christ, things can begin to piece together. Inspiration can be given from the True Inspiration. The broken sub-culture can begin to be healed into Culture. The apostle Paul wasn't just joking around when he said "I can do ALL things through Christ who gives me strength." and "In Christ are hidden all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge." I can't profess to be perfect, and I can't even profess that I have everything down, but I can continue to try my best to let Him set the course of my life in my field. Thanks again Matt!

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 08/05/08

Well put, Wes. A lot of times I get caught up in pushing the historical orthodox Christian view of a subject and I neglect to mention the reason why all this design and dominion is possible. Christ is the reigning king and if it weren't for his redemptive work on the cross, I would be without hope--stuck in slavery to a sinful mind. To him alone be the glory!

Posted By: Edgar on 08/05/08

Well said Matt. Copying is just so much easier than creating new material. And copying wouldn't be so bad - after all - the Beatles copied some stuff - except that they perfected it and made it the one to beat. We need to be like them. Whatever we copy, we must made perfect and made "the standard". The one to beat. Of course, the talented ones must innovate.

Posted By: Chad on 08/05/08

"And really I hate to even use the word 'redefine' because it sounds like I'm suggesting something new." How about 'reforming Christian design'? I recently met a young reformed guy, who didn't like to be called 'reformed', on the account that it was the original historic belief. Thus nothing has changed, and there was no need to call it so. Just a fun technicality. But this was a great article. Really put me in a position to reform my own view on design and creativity. Thanks. Also, I'm looking forward to the collection of essentials you are putting together.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 08/05/08

Thanks for the comments Edgar and Chad.

Posted By: Brandon Cox on 08/06/08

Dead on! May I copy this article for my site? Kidding!! I'm immersed in a book on creative leadership right now and one great point is that believers, above all others, should be leading out front in creativity. Hollywood and Vegas are extremely creative at communicating a worthless and even destructive message. We have this wonderful gospel to share and this creative God to glorify - we really ought to be out front. Love the article!

Posted By: WotUThink on 08/06/08

Totally agree which is quite sad, I would however add an extra 5 years to the 5 years behind the non-christian world. I design websites (and do graphics for church) and its quite sad trying to push certain elements/ ideas but they are still stuck 10 years ago in relation to design. I know you are just focusing on design hear but its fairly true in most circumstances especially music. 20 years ago Rock and Heavy Metal was "devils music" and now they play/ use it but hip hop/ R&B etc is now the "devils music"... Good article and sorry for venting.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 08/06/08

Thanks for the input, Brandon and WotUThink. You both make very good points.

Posted By: Josh on 03/11/09

excellent post! I don't really post on blogs, but this one deserves it. Just a heads up, I'm exploring this concept for my major project this year, and have just quoted that Doug Wilson quote in my proposal - hope that's ok :)

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 03/12/09

Absolutely, Josh. I hope it helps.

Posted By: Jahn on 08/03/09

It's much worse than you know. The twentieth century as a whole has produced almost nothing of significant and lasting artistic value. Pop culture is filth. Christians are mostly producing bad imitations of bad art. Most Christians are relativists and wouldn't even concede the good quality art is a thing that could be judged. The wellspring of Christian art hasn't dried up. That wellspring is the Bible and we don't read it. We have our own broken cisterns with polluted water.

Post Your Comment

Comments are closed.