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Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste

Talk about worship aesthetics need not polarize people. Frank Burch Brown tells how to be more inclusive in arts and worship, yet also more discerning. A feature story exploring the idea of "taste" and aesthetics in Christian Worship.

Here’s a where-angels-fear-to-tread topic for your next family reunion. Just ask people what they think about Thomas Kinkade. Also known as “the painter of light,” Kinkade has sold more work than any other painter in history.

Your aunt can’t wait to see the blockbuster exhibit “From Abraham to Jesus,” because it includes a bazaar selling Kinkade’s newImpressions of Israel series. Your art major cousin shudders when your aunt explains that the painter’s peaceful scenes remind her of God’s love.

Meanwhile, she can’t fathom why he’d rather sing “God of Wonders” instead of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

What do you do now? Leave the room, because questioning either one would be uncharitable? Jump into a polarizing argument about good and bad or high and low art? Frank Burch Brown suggests a third way. You can welcome diversity and creativity while exploring how an art form fits a specific worship context.

“In some churches, the need to say no is not as strong as the need to say yes for awhile. But how and what one responds to, aesthetically, can make a religious difference. And genuine impoverishment of taste can impoverish worship and the spiritual life as well,” Burch Brown says. He wrote Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life and teaches religion and the arts at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Reasoning together

In years past, Burch Brown has been a church composer-in-residence, music director, or worship committee member. Since writing Religious Aesthetics for scholars and his tastes book for worship leaders, he has “dropped into the background in most actual, practical worship settings.”

That’s partly because he wants space to simply worship, not analyze it. He also knows people sometimes feel afraid to talk about aesthetic response with him.

Taste is a biased and charged term. People relax when they realize the main point of my work is not to reject and judge. It is to encourage, help train, and mutually edify individuals and groups of worshipers engaged in the arts and arts leaders with religious commitments,” Brown says.

Reasoning together about worship and the arts works best among people who agree:

• It’s elitist to assume that good taste or Christian taste belong only to one specific sort of community or art form.
• There are multiple forms of good art, with many aims and modes of expression.
• It’s okay to explore values and criteria associated with arts and music as used in worship.
• It’s okay to ask about an art form’s quality and appropriateness in a specific worship context.

“I want to cultivate an aesthetic that ‘has teeth but no fangs,’ ” Burch Brown explains. “But you have to build trust before you can ask questions. Otherwise it’s hard to move very far in conversation.”

Honoring the other

Building trust starts with avoiding what Burch Brown in his first book calls “four forms of sinful taste.”

Obviously, art can enrich worship. But glorifying sinful tastes harms worship. Aesthetes idolize art for art’s sake, often appreciating only creations that have little or no religious or moral meaning. Philistines focus so much on practical, moral, or religious categories that they overlook or dismiss artistic creations without those obvious messages.

Intolerant people elevate and absolutize their own aesthetic standards. Indiscriminate people say it’s wrong or impossible to value some aesthetic choices over others.

Building trust also requires opening yourself to new experiences. “People are often skeptical that what they love (particularly in music) will ever change. We have a lot invested in the art and music that helped us know God and love church,” Burch Brown says.

Yet working with Christian Theological Seminary students from 45 denominations and many cultures has shown him that it’s possible to move from “please don’t impose that music on me” to “now I see why you relate to that.”

He describes classical music as his own home base. “So in my church and arts class, I rely on the people for whom another type of music is their home base. I ask those who respond easily to a music or art form to explain it to those who find it alien.”

Listening to someone describe how and why a piece helps them pray or worship, Burch Brown explains, “creates a middle space. Learning to relate to their tastes is a way to love them.”

Asking worthwhile questions

Some reviewers complain that Burch Brown is so interested in not shutting down dialogue that he won’t give specifics on what to avoid in worship arts. He does, however, write, “We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that the kind and quality of art makes no religious difference…and also say that some art is especially conducive to being enjoyed ‘in God.’ “

And he offers twelve assumptions for testing Christian taste, such as “Not all kinds of good art and music are equally good for worship, let alone for every tradition or faith community.”

His wonderful Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste chapter on kitschexplores the assumption that most church art should be relatively accessible.

Yet what appeals to some Christians appalls others. Countless visitors weep in the Precious Moments Chapel, which founder Sam Butcher says he modeled after the Sistine Chapel. Collectors of Thomas Kinkade resonate with his goal of doing visual evangelism that “portrays a world without a Fall.”

Burch Brown notes that Precious Moments and Kinkade art, along with some contemporary worship songs, use sentiment to trigger an immediate (and perhaps calculated) emotional response. By portraying only part of life, they indulge in a beautiful lie—just as preachers do in sermons on Isaiah that use only what John Witvliet calls “the pretty texts...all light, no shadows.”

That’s why Burch Brown calls the church to “art that the Christian can grow into but seldom out of.” Worship arts leaders may prefer to stick with what works or what most people like. In the long run, that choice is not theologically, pastorally, or artistically good for congregations.

Art complex enough to grow into can be the art of “less,” such as gritty shape note music, or abstract muted paintings that quiet the mind in ecumenical Rothko Chapel in Houston. It can also be the art of “more,” with the “sonic exuberance” of Sanctus, from Bach: Baroque Mass in B Minor, or Antonio Gaudi’s ornately extravagant (and unfinished) Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona.

Consider the context

Frank Burch Brown says he can imagine a good worship use for a lot of music that he doesn’t personally care for. These good uses depend on at least three ways of considering the context.

First, worship planners and leaders will want to look at how well a piece of music (or other art form) fits within the flow of a specific worship service. What community is sharing this piece? What does this congregation believe worship is for? What worship principle does this piece further? How well does it relate to a current sermon series or liturgical season?

Second, Burch Brown talks about using mass media in worship. He agrees that commercial or advertising techniques can trigger instant effects in worship. And in Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste, he says it’s “truly elitist (and cynical besides) to believe that popular arts are not concerned with questions of quality, or that they are strictly for the ‘masses,’ or that they must always be mere kitsch.”

Yet, he also asks worship planners and leaders to pay attention to tone of voice. “Saying ‘I love you’ will have a different tone whether you are addressing God or your dog. Tone of voice tells you something about what it means. It’s not just the words. The music, melodies, and rhythm have a tone of voice that suggest what it’s about,” he explains.

So before importing music created for erotic or recreational purposes, worship leaders might consider what message this use conveys. “What sort of God are worshipers envisioning as they sing or look or move? To what sort of life and growth do they suppose they are being called?” he asks in a Christian Century article.

Third, Burch Brown addresses cross cultural context. “If your group has been silenced or marginalized, then using ‘your’ art in worship is liberating,” he says.

“But if you say that no one can make quality judgments outside their own community, then you cut off ecumenical or unity-in-diversity options. The wider community will notice possibilities and liabilities that ‘home’ users don’t, because they are so familiar with it.

“In that process, the ways in which the work or style excels or falters (and almost every viable work or style has both strengths and weaknesses) become part of the larger cultural dialogue, often cross cultural,” he says.

Learn More

At the 2007 Calvin Symposium on Worship, Frank Burch Brown will speak about making inclusive yet discerning worship arts choices. Read and listen to music clips from his Union Theological Seminary lecture on religious and secular music.

Buy his books Religious Aesthetics and Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. This Christian Century article offers a taste of Frank Burch Brown’s suggestions for choosing worship music.

Image Journal editor Greg Wolfe reveals the underlying values or worldview of Thomas Kinkade paintings. Compare Thomas Kinkade’s “Sunrise” to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Morning in the Riesengebirge,” painted in 1810, or to Rembrandt’s work.

Browse these resources on enriching and disciplining creativity in worship. Watch a brief video about Ebenezer New Testament Church of God in Washington, D.C., which draws people from 19 cultures.

Learn more about Christian kitsch and the commercialization of faith identities.

Order Catherine Kapikian’s latest book, Art in Service of the Sacred. Read her advice on discerning the difference between visual noise and visual enrichment. Here’s an interview with Kapikian on why art and theology belong together…and a story about the seminary artists-in-residence program she organized.

Christianity Today has run stories on many artists, including Thomas Kinkade and Grandma Moses. ArtistMakoto Fujimura explains how to experience visual art, in this case, Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” This review of Kirk Varnedoe’s book Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock would spark a good discussion on appreciating nuances of expression in art used in worship.

Browse related stories about African American church musicart that preachesmusic identified with worship communities, and musical theology.

Start a Discussion

Talk about balancing acceptance and discernment in choosing worship arts.

  • What is worship for? In what ways do your services help worshipers experience this conviction?
  • Discuss Frank Burch Brown’s four forms of sinful taste. Does his list help you understand any worship conflicts in your congregation? Do you need to confess a problematic aesthetic attitude?
  • Discuss Frank Burch Brown’s twelve assumptions for testing Christian taste. Identify several of your congregation’s favorite songs, musical styles, or other worship art forms. Use the twelve assumptions to explain why these favorites are especially fitting in your worship.
  • What do you think of Frank Burch Brown’s call for worship leaders to use “art that the Christian can grow into but seldom out of”? How might accepting this call change worship choices in your congregation?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to deepen congregational ability to appreciate new worship art forms and also discern the art’s fittingness in your context?

  • If you introduced new forms of music and arts in your worship, did you move toward something more simple or complex? How did you explain this change to worshipers? What results did you see?
  • Did you create a seminar or education series to help people recognize nuances in worship music, visual art, drama, or dance?
  • Did you research how other churches in your area or theological tradition use visual arts in worship or in other parts of the church building? If so, how did you share this research? Did you use the research to make changes in your use and display of visual arts?