Evangelical Tracts and Real Art: Gungor and Creation’s Goodness

You know music has power when it has you shivering while running in hundred-degree heat.

Güngör’s Ghosts Upon the Earth is like that, though. From the opening track, the album screams its willingness to be and do something terribly different from most Christian music of the last quarter century. For one thing, this is an album, not just a collection of songs. For another, the musical skill on display here combines with a willingness to forge a new sound, rather than retread the same old pop-rock milieu one more time.

Musical and lyrical unity in an album is a rarity today in any genre, but this album tells a story. Indeed, it tells the story.

But back to those shivers.

“Let There Be” is the first and only time to date that any piece of art in any medium has struck me with the same force and intensity as Tolkien’s glorious description of creation in The Silmarillion. One suspects, given some of the commonalities between the two, that Güngör is familiar with “Ainulindalë”, Tolkien’s magnificent chapter of sung creation and sung rebellion and sung divine triumph.

Ghosts Upon the Earth sweeps from this divine moment of joyous creation through an idyllic, Edenic revel in the delight of yet unbroken fellowship with God before plunging through the Fall and into the longing that pierces every heart in this age. But the hope of resurrection comes soon in the proclamation that “when death dies / all things live”, and this theme of hope then undergirds the painful journey that follows. Every joy that follows in this album is tinged with sorrow, but every moment of despair gives way eventually to hope. Again: this is a journey. It is beautiful and broken.

Gungor-ghostsGüngör’s first album, Beautiful Things, had musical interest in spades but sometimes at the cost of musical intelligibility. Much of the album – the titular track the main exception – required repeated listens before I could “get” it, and the recording never entered my regular listening. It was, like many classical pieces I have studied, interesting but not consistently engaging. But here, the band has achieved something remarkable: they have kept the same musical interest and complexity, but in such a way that every song on the album is engaging. You can sing this stuff with them, but you can also dig deep, deep down into the musical guts and find there remains yet more to plumb. That’s hard to pull off.

If you take a look at Güngör’s blog, you’ll note that Michael Güngör has criticized the typical evangelical approach to art, and rightly so. This album isn’t just a piece of music; it’s a salvo in a war against a reductionist understanding of art that typifies so much of evangelicalism. If it has become something of a cliche to attack the evangelical approach to art, there nonetheless remains a need for pieces to fill the gap, and there remains too the need to educate.

One reviewer on iTunes noted that the album confused him. It is not, he said, a typical worship album, and the lyrics were not all perfectly suitable for use in evangelism. You can not simply hand this to an unbeliever and expect them to come away understanding the gospel perfectly. The reviewer seemed particularly confused by the second track, “Brother Moon,” with its references to “Brother Moon” and “Sister Sun” and “Mother Earth.” I was bemused by his concern. Every reference to nature points right back to its Creator. The song points toward an innocent, nearly Edenic delight in unbroken fellowship with God and in all his hands have made. In the end, the album is as gospel-saturated as one could wish. But this was too much lyrical and intellectual complexity for someone looking for an evangelistic tract in the form of an album.

A high profile Christian music website posted a discussion of another song (“This Is Not the End”) along with a walkthrough of the music a few months ago. The comment thread – to my sorrow, but unfortunately not my surprise – read much like that iTunes review. “Why isn’t Jesus mentioned explicitly in this song?” wondered nearly half the comments. “How can this be a ‘worship’ song?” The closing lines of the song, “We will shine like the stars / Bright, brighter” came in for particular criticism. Complaints ranged from that lack of explicit reference to God to comparisons to New Age philosophies.

This revealed a certain lack of Biblical literacy, of course: Esther conspicuously fails to name God, and the closing lines of the song are a direct allusion to Daniel. But such comments also revealed an inability to grasp the song in its context, or to understand how art can carry meaning without functioning didactically.

That, of course, is as it should be. God called the world good in the act of creating it: before the fall, before the need for the evangel ever arose, the world was good. Creating beauty is good. The world has instrinsic value, not merely as a means to an end, for it was made to show forth the splendor of God, and so it does. Artistic endeavors themselves have merit1 even (or especially) when they avoid preaching and stick to painting.

It may be cliché to say that evangelicals are bad at art – we are, and I think most thoughtful folks know it – but we struggle to identify why we are bad at art. Some point to the liturgical traditions from which great Christian artists have sprung. There is some merit to this point: liturgical traditions consciously embrace the role of beauty and narrative in the service in ways that evangelical services generally eschew for simpler and more viscerally emotional responses.

More to the point, I suspect, is our tendency as evangelicals to see the world in terms only of mission2. Along the way, we lose sight of many important truths: the beauty of vocation is dimmed by an overemphasis on vocational ministry, the delight of community is buried under the weight of too many programs, and the value of art hidden in its subsumption under propagandistic didacticism. We struggle in each of these areas because we do not recognize that all things work to the glory of God.

My aim is not to diminish evangelism. (Quite the contrary, as will become clear in a moment.)

When we fail to see the other goods in the world, when we attempt to turn everything to the single aim of evangelization, we break those other goods. We cease worshipping God in our vocation, considering it inferior to the work of the paid pastor or missionary. We cease worshipping God in our ordinary fellowship, considering community to be pointless unless it’s doing something. (We’re often not sure what we should be doing, but definitely more than just enjoying food and prayer, right?) We cease worshipping God in the making of and enjoyment of good art, considering it worthless unless it can be turned toward explicitly evangelistic or didactic ends.

In so doing, we not only diminish those other goods; we hurt our evangelistic cause. We paint a shallow picture of a God smaller than He is, a God who has no time for ordinary men and women, for simple joys, for the beauty of the world He made. And the remedy cannot be trying to do each of those better for the sake of getting people to recognize him; that’s just more of the same. Rather, we need a recovery of the value of each sphere. Family, government, vocation, art, community, sport, and yes, evangelism: these are distinct goods. Christ is at the center of all of them, but they point to him differently. Art is not for propaganda; it is for beauty and for meaning.

That Güngör’s music is not an evangelistic tract, not readily turned into yet one more worship anthem, is in fact one measure of its real artistic quality. That alone does not qualify it to be good art, but it is a prerequisite. Until we grasp that, we will be left making gospel tracts into movies and songs and novels, and wondering why our art is so terrible.

Now, evangelicals have one other troubling tendency. We criticize far more than we do the hard work of solving problems. The solution to this problem is simple and hard: go make some art. The kind that is nuanced, interesting, saturated with biblical truth and with its eyes wide open to all the beauty and all the horror of the world as it is, that doesn’t feel the need to teach a lesson or explicate a message, that simply revels in and shakes at the world God has made for us.

Oh – and when you find someone getting this right, make sure they can keep doing it. For example: go buy Ghosts Upon The Earth.


1The degree of merit an artistic piece has is of course up for discussion. Art is not neutral and it is not wholly subjective. Art has value to the extent that a piece of art rightly reflects the world as it is – including the one behind it all – and challenges us to engage the world more truly. So evangelistic tracts and jingoism are of much lower value than secular works that provoke us to delight in what God has made, even unintentionally. But this also allows us to reject the purely deconstructive as ultimately destructive and therefore un-artistic. Much more could be said about this.

2Some might quibble with me that evangelicals are often very distracted from mission. This is true in the narrow sense; but we are usually distracted from the mission by some other mission. The gospel is not usually replaced, among evangelicals, with anything but some other gospel: a social gospel, a social justice gospel, even an art gospel. We are people who consciously aim everything at mission, even if sometimes the wrong mission.


This piece was cross-posted at Ars Artis, my personal blog for art and reflections thereupon.

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  • Alan

    No doubt you are torn between belief and non-belief. One cannot quasi-intellectualize the work of the Holy Spirit in hopes of sounding intelligent. It does not work for you, sorry.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com Chris Krycho

      I’m sorry, but I haven’t any idea what you’re trying to get at here. If you’d like to expand on your comment, I’d be happy to respond.

  • Marie

    Great write up. One christian band that similarly melds artistry and content is a French group called Yatal. http://www.yatal.fr/ Of course the lyrics are in French, but it’s beautiful, deep music.

  • Josh Lowery

    Enjoyed reading this. I must have a penchant for desiring explicit “evangelism” in my Christian music, because when reading your sadness at certain comments on iTunes, I thought, “Well those lyrics sound sort of frou frou to me, too.”

    I haven’t actually listened to Gungor’s new album yet, so I can’t cast an opinion on it, but I’ll pose a question anyway. I think it was C.S. Lewis that wrote a bit on the importance of maintaining “subtlety” in Christian art (I could be confusing him with someone else). But might it be worth exploring the difference between subtlety and ambiguity? Even if Gungor’s new album is objectively beautiful, could there still be a place for discussing at what point Christian art becomes counterproductive in its unwillingness to truly proclaim Christ?

    Just some immediate thoughts…

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com Chris Krycho

      Josh, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I think your question highlights what I suspect is the tension most people feel in discussing “Christian art,” that is: if the art is to be truly “Christian,” doesn’t it have to get to Jesus at some point?

      My answer is Bach’s fugues. Or, for that matter, any piece of instrumental music written by Christians. It is impossible for these pieces to “proclaim Christ.” But this does not diminish their value. The same is true of any painting on a non-religious subject, of architecture for all buildings not churches, and so forth.

      I think this struggle comes because we misunderstand the purpose of Christian art. Art does not exist to help people know Jesus, at least, not in the sense that most Christians think. It isn’t a tool for evangelism, or a means to revelation. It simply is. It reflects the nature of God and brings him glory by being, not by pushing people in some direction.

      I’m not, therefore, saying much of anything about an unwillingness to proclaim Christ, as you say. Handel’s Messiah is one of the most glorious pieces of music ever written, and it’s quite explicitly Christian. But Handel conceived of the piece not as an evangelistic or didactic work, but an expression of the horror and beauty of the Messiah’s work. For that matter, Güngör’s album is entirely unambiguous, at least when taken as an album. (Part of the problem is our tendency to want every song to stand alone; that’s another discussion of its own.) By contrast, Tolkien says nothing at all about Christ in his fiction, but his works remain great art. The question is not whether Christ is the subject of the art, but whether the subject is handled as art rather than as evangelistic or didactic material. Different spheres, different objectives.

      I think art can only be “counterproductive” in the sense you mean if we think art’s end is evangelistic or didactic. It can be counterproductive in other ways, as well: in painting the world badly, in destructive deconstructionism, in creative acts that are actively nihilistic or otherwise embracing rebellion against the creator. But those things have to do with the content of the art as art, not the content of the art as tract.

      That’s a particularly lengthy response, but I hope it gets at the question you’re asking. Again, thanks for posing the thoughtful question.

      • Josh Lowery

        Thanks for the response. It’s actually funny. You answered my question perfectly, and yet I’m still feeling a little unfulfilled. On the one hand, your point about instrumental music can’t be argued with, because any argument against it would necessarily have to suggest that Christians should not compose wordless music (which is absurd).

        It’s actually a much more complicated question than there is probably time and space to address. I tend to think that, when an artist DOES venture into the theological, the onus should be on him/her to avoid ambiguity and confusion at all costs, as they are at all times–whether they are aware or not–an ambassador of Christ to a fallen world. But then that begs the question of the nature of art itself (which reminds me I need to actually read the “Art and the Bible” pamphlet by Francis Schaeffer that’s been on my shelf for a decade :-P).

        This may be opening a can of worms, but here’s another thought… How might a commercial culture, if it is the context in which art is being produced, change the game as it regards the objective of the Christian artist? Or does it at all?

        • http://www.chriskrycho.com Chris Krycho

          Actually, I do think you’re on to something here. I was reflecting on this briefly at church yesterday (had to remind myself to refocus on the sermon!): what do we do with “worship music”? That is, songs that Paul explicitly tells us should instruct and build up? One way to approach the topic – the way I prefer, at the moment, though I’m admittedly still working the kinks out – is to note that “art” and “artistically done” are not in fact the same.

          There is a difference, for example, between Mere Christianity and The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. No one would deny that the former is artistically done: it’s exceptionally well-written. But is it art? I suspect most of us would say it’s not, and I think that instinct is correct. There is a distinction between excellence and the end to which that excellence is being put.

          All of that leads me to my response to your first comment: I think you’re right, but only in certain contexts, and I’m not sure that context is “art”, per se. To take that easy example again: Lewis is certainly treading on theological ground in most (perhaps all!) of his novels, sometimes more explicitly and sometimes less. Perelandra is particularly fraught with the sorts of questions on which one must be very, very careful. Lewis was, but I wouldn’t say he was sufficiently explicit as to avoid any potential ambiguity or confusion. A worship song, to be sung corporately, demands an entirely different approach than a song set in the midst of an album telling a story. The former demands theological precision. The latter requires theological accuracy, but allows room for artistically ambiguous language, metaphors that must be considered carefully, and even the necessity of context for understanding the piece. This is the case for “Brother Moon” and “This Is Not The End” on Ghosts Upon The Earth, which would be confusing considered alone but are not ambiguous as all taken in the context of the album. That’s something you can’t do easily in the context of a bog-standard evangelical worship service.

          As to your latter question… that’s one I’m still chewing on. I would maintain that the responsibility of the Christian remains producing art that shows the world as it is to the glory of God. How he or she goes about presenting that art to the world then becomes the challenging question. But I’ll leave that one for another day, or even another writer (as I know of someone who’s been thinking about just that topic at length and may be posting here at Mere O on it shortly).

          Thanks for pushing me to keep thinking harder about this. So good!

          • Josh Lowery

            Good words. I think it’s apropos to establish for the record that what we’re talking about is somewhat of an empty sheet of music, to borrow an “art” metaphor. :-) Though it offers a little light, Scripture doesn’t really hit this topic head on, so I think there’s a lot of room for “conscience.”

            When I posed the “commercial culture” question, it was a thought prompted by my skimming over that “Art and the Bible” pamphlet I mentioned from Schaeffer. He makes this statement toward the end, regarding art that is, unlike a wordless song, ostensibly “Christian”:

            “Christian art needs to recognize the minor theme, the defeated aspect to even the Christian life. If our Christian art emphasizes only the major theme, then it is not fully Christian, but simply romantic art. […] On the other hand, it is possible for a Christian to so major on the minor theme, emphasizing the lostness of man and the abnormality of the universe, that he is equally unbiblical.”

            It got me thinking about how, at points in my life, I’ve composed either poems or songs that express inner darkness, w/o any spiritual resolution. These forms of art I would only feel comfortable sharing with a select few people who have, as Schaeffer says, “the basis for knowing.” Or put another way, they’ve already been brought from darkness into the light, so a song or poem that “majors on the minor,” so to speak, can be uplifting to them. However, if I were a recording artist, unless the song were part of a concept album and thus woven into the fabric of a broader thought process (one that, say, HAD resolution), I would be highly resistant to including such a work on my album, as I would have no control over who digested it. That’s the sort of conundrum I was getting at with the “commercial culture” question.

            But in all candor, that “unfulfillment” I mentioned in a previous comment is not so much unfulfillment as it is self-annoyance. Your piece unearthed some presuppositions I didn’t quite realize I had. And at 31, as someone who in my sphere is usually the one unearthing OTHER people’s presuppositions, I become perturbed at myself when I discover lingering ones of my own. So thanks for the bit of stretching. :-)