Revisiting ‘Christian Art’

Two years ago, Todd created a schema for discussing Christian Art that I’ve found very useful, even as I’ve made some adjustments to it.  Todd originally suggested:

Category one: Directly Christian works. This category comprises works of art that have the mysteries of the Faith as their direct subject; eg Christ the Lord or “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.  (He later clarified that this category would include stories about Old Testament fathers, the Apostles, etc.)

Category two: Explicitly Christian works. In this category are works that explicitly treat the Christian mysteries through their theme, characters, and plot. The name of Jesus, the Catholic Church, the Bible, prayer, preaching, the sacraments, and so on and so on, are explicitly present. In simple parlance, these works are “about” Christian people, ideas, and/or events. Examples: The Power and the Glory, “The Apostle”, Death Comes for the Archbishop, “I Confess” etc.

Category three: Allegorically Christian works. Here we have art in which Christ and the things of the Faith are not explicitly mentioned, but the theme, characters, and plot are intended to be analogues to aspects of the Christian mystery. Sometimes the connection is sketchy, sometimes it smacks you in the face; sometimes it comes and goes, sometimes it’s sustained throughout. This is a broad category. In it belong, for instance, any number of works with a “Christ figure” – from Billy Budd to “E.T”.

Todd then suggested two other categories, but I’d like to double that:

Category Four: Implicitly Christian.  The works were constructed around a Christian framework, and even if they don’t discuss God and religion outwardly, the work as a whole has a deliberately Christian sensibility.  Works I’d suggest for this category are Wall-E, The Spitfire Grill, and Lord of the Rings.

Category Five: Christian by way of accommodation.  These works may not have been created deliberately to share a Christian worldview, but they have been found to communicate ideas that are highly compatible with Christianity.  Many reviewers picked up Christian ideas in Iron Man or The Incredibles, for example, and the many movies based on Jane Austen’s novels (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility) would fall into this category as well.  (Todd included a similar category, “Works with Laudable Themes.”)

Category Six: Superficially Christian.  Again, building from Todd’s ideas, this would include It’s a Wonderful Life and other pieces that include angels, a vague idea of heaven, and so on.  It would also include works that mention Christianity or the Church on-the-fly, like a Zorro movie with a holy priest who’s only occasionally on screen.

Category Seven: Pseudo-Christian.  This is where works such as The Da Vinci CodeHis Dark Materials (by Pullman), Stigmata (anti-Catholic horror movie), Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), and Joshua (by Girzone) belong.  I might even put the Left Behind series here, as the Protestant theology here runs so antithetically against Catholic teaching.  (I’m not entirely comfortable with the name–how does one label works that are Christian but specifically un-Catholic?)

I know Joseph  and Deal have recently expressed interest in developing a “master” Catholic book list.  The categorization suggested above is intended to stir the pot, yes, but with the goal of eventually clearing the water and helping to show which books are Christian in which way.

Debate, as always, is welcome.

Eric Pavlat


Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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