The Christian-Culture Fallacy

When we withdraw from the cultural marketplace and focus our creative efforts on the narrow segment of people who think like us, believe like us, and go to church like us then we are stunting our creativity and abdicating our responsibility to create for change. The Christian-Culture Fallacy is a far too common trap for Christian creatives who, in their heart of hearts, want to make an impact on the world, but instead, settle for the safe, cozy Christian audiences who prize values over vision and character over creativity.

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What would it look like if Christians created for the glory of God and for the good of others, not just for the “faith” market? Our calling as creators is bigger and broader than just Christians creating for other Christians. When we withdraw from the cultural marketplace and focus our creative efforts on the narrow segment of people who think like us, believe like us, and go to church like us then we are stunting our creativity and abdicating our responsibility to create for change. The Christian-Culture Fallacy is a far too common trap for Christian creatives who, in their heart of hearts, want to make an impact on the world, but instead, settle for the safe, cozy Christian audiences who prize values over vision and character over creativity.

(Read more Culture Change Fallacies: The Culture War Fallacy, The Top-Down Fallacy, and The Speak-Up Fallacy)

“The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
– attributed to Martin Luther

Case Study: Jeff Sheldon & Ugmonk

Jeff Sheldon is a dedicated Christian, an award-winning designer and the founder of Ugmonk, a lifestyle design company that has sold thousands of t-shirts and other products in over sixty countries—often selling out new limited edition runs in a matter of days—and yet, out of his dozens of t-shirt designs, not one single t-shirt has a cross on it. How is that possible? If you think that Jeff is selling out more than just t-shirts or is “wasting” his talent by not designing Christian book covers or Bible verse embroidered products rather than just focusing on being a designer committed to designing good products then you have fallen captive to the “Christian-Culture Fallacy.”

Jeff puts it this way: “The legacy I want to leave is that people [will see] the detail, the passion, and the craft that goes into what I’m doing.” This is a far more robust Theology of Work than what is lived out in practice by many believers, even those who are bold in their evangelistic witness. Unfortunately, I was told once of a church who was forced to disband their “Christian Business Directory” because there were so many complaints from church members about other Christians who did shoddy work and ran their businesses with questionable business practices.

A Theologically Stunted Doctrine of Work

But how does this cognitive dissonance happen in the mind of a believer who can go from worshipping with and praying for a fellow believer on Sunday to working unenthusiastically for, or outright cheating that same believer on Monday?

Dorothy Sayers, in her now famous essay titled “Why Work?” describes the only Christian work as good work well done [1] and places much of the blame for this compartmentalized, stunted Doctrine of Work at the feet of the church. “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”

“Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly–but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.”

“Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.”

“And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.” [2]

Creating “Christian Art”

Have you ever heard a well-meaning church member encourage a young person, maybe someone with artistic talent who is still seeking career direction with advice like, “God could really use someone like you in the church.” And then later, as if God is desperately in need of graphic design staffing: “You could design the bulletins.” If the young person is less than enthused, maybe the next offer is, “Well, you could help us create flyers for our Women’s Ministry sewing circle event.” Both of these projects are certainly great ways to use graphic design skills, but in our desire to serve the church (a good thing!) have we unwittingly limited our effectiveness and engagement with the culture at large?

“Christian Entertainment”

Make no mistake, the “Christian entertainment” market is big business. Movies, books, and music marketed to the “faith & family” audience have been soaring in popularity… within the church. It’s now commonplace for churches, sometimes even from the pulpit, to promote the newest “faith-based”, overtly evangelical movie. “But while the economic impact of these movies is significant, their cultural impact is nearly nonexistent. It’s no secret that entertainment made by the church and for the church is seen by virtually nobody outside of the church.” [3]

In an almost painfully incisive bit of common sense, Andy Crouch points out, “Any cultural good… only moves the horizons for the particular public who experience it. For the rest of the world, it is as if that piece of culture… never existed.” [4]

Lecrae: “My Music is Not Christian”

Lecrae, the Grammy award winning musician who was the first to ever simultaneously land an album at the top of the gospel music charts and the Billboard 200, takes great pains to clarify that “My music is not Christian—Lecrae is. And you hear evidence of my faith in my music.” [5] But for a Christian who is an artist, the economic appeal of creating “Christian entertainment” is clear to Lecrae. “The exploitation of believers just to turn a profit—so you care less about making a quality product, you just want to keep telling the same stories and repackaging them over and over just to exploit people—I have a problem with that.” [6]

Madeleine L’Engle on “Christian Fiction”

The writer Madeleine L’Engle often gets asked for advice about the intersection of writing and one’s faith. “Not long ago a college senior asked if she could talk to me about being a Christian writer. If she wanted to write Christian fiction, how was she to go about it? I told her that if she is truly and deeply a Christian, what she writes is going to be Christian, whether she mentions Jesus or not. And if she is not, in the most profound sense, Christian, then what she writes is not going to be Christian, no matter how many times she invokes the name of the Lord.” [7]

(Read More: A Light So Lovely)

Creating for Beauty

When we create “Christian art” merely as a vehicle to further propositional truths, then no matter how valid those truths, “we reduce art to something we merely analyze or value for its intellectual content,” [8] and we miss the most important part—what we create has value in itself! “It is something to be enjoyed. The Bible says that the artwork in the tabernacle and the temple was for beauty.” [9] [emphasis added]

There is something very uniquely imago Dei about being a human bearing the image of God and being creative just like our Creator. When we ignore this fundamental truth, even in the service of “Christian art,” we not only miss the intrinsic beauty but blunt its effectiveness as an artifact of cultural change. “As a Christian we know why a work of art has value. Why? First, because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator… Second, an artwork has value as a creation because man is made in the image of God, and therefore man not only can love and think and feel emotion but also has the capacity to create.” [10]

Case Study: Alabaster

Brian Chung and Bryan Ye-Chung, millennial creators of Alabaster, the minimalist photography-focused Bible published company, started the brand with a keen eye for design, image, and perception, knowing that a sense of style was a prerequisite to appeal to other millennials used to hipster brands like Kinfolk and luggage maker Away. “Living in a more visually-centric generation, we judge a company by how their website looks,” Chung says. “We were interested in exploring that in a faith-based context… We wanted our Bibles to feel like art books.” [11]

This brand aesthetic can be outside the norm in the Christian market. “Christian brands tend to be wholesome, earnest and, well, ‘cheesy,’” Chung says. But their aim is to say something about God even with the very style and quality of what they create. “One of our main visions is to show a bigger picture of God who is good and beautiful.” They firmly believe that Christian creative products should be held to the same high standard as their secular counterparts. “Don’t use your faith as an excuse to put out a subpar experience,” Chung says. “We want to be judged like any design product out there, Christian or not.” [12]

From “Christian Artist” to “Christian Who is an Artist”

In some ways, it’s a big risk for a Christian creator to transition from being a “Christian artist” to a “Christian who is an artist” and launch their art out into the culture at large.

In “Christian culture” the bar for quality is low. I often tell new writers and creators that the worst thing they can do is ask friends and family members to review or even edit their book or other artistic endeavor. Let’s be honest. Your mom will always love your book. But if you want to grow as a writer and produce the very best art then you need to submit yourself to the harsh, unblinking analysis that a professional editor can bring. There is a parallel for Christians who are artists.

Taking your art from the protective cocoon of church culture and the appreciative congregants who will praise your work if you can manage to even remotely pay lip service to a Christian message and instead venturing out into a culture overflowing with tens of thousands of new books released daily on Amazon and billions of dollars of programming on Netflix and Amazon Video takes courage. But as believers who have a responsibility to impact the culture around us with what we create, we are necessarily called to embrace risk. And though it might be hard at first, When We Create, Other Creators Join.

Case Study: Saving Christmas vs The Tree of Life

Kirk Cameron, the Golden Globe nominated actor and star of the ABC sitcom Growing Pains is an outspoken evangelical Christian who understands what it’s like to take a risk and launch a creative project to a culture who may or may not be receptive. Unfortunately, Kirk has also experienced the negative ramifications of a project that adheres to the Christian Culture Fallacy. In 2014, the faith-based comedy Saving Christmas was released in theaters with a message taken straight from the Fox News talking points and aimed directly at the conservative Christian market. The official on-the-nose tagline of Put Christ Back in Christmas left no doubt about the movie’s message and audience.

Though admirable in its widespread intentions, the craftsmanship of the moviemaking process was soon panned by critics as leaving much to be desired. Within a matter of weeks, Saving Christmas sunk to the unenviable position of worst-rated movie in IMDB history. In typical culture-war fallacy thinking, Cameron took to social media, urging his followers to “storm the gates” of the review site Rotten Tomatoes, warning of “haters and atheists” who were out to besmirch the reputation of a good movie.

“Films like Soul Surfer, God’s Not Dead, Courageous and Saving Christmas are small lights in a dark world. Together, let’s light up movie theaters this weekend and remind everyone this Christmas of the true reason for the season. Together, they can’t stop us! Are you with me??” [13]

The movie’s rating briefly surged, but the onslaught of negative reviewers countered, upset that the equilibrium of movie review fairness was disturbed, quickly sending the movie back down to an aggregate 1.3 stars out of 10.

Contrast the reception to Saving Christmas with that of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. An ambitious, sprawling, achingly beautiful film that has been described as an exploration of the story of Job, The Tree of Life opens with an epigraph taken directly from Job 38:4,7. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” With arresting visuals and a mesmerizing musical score, the film follows the life of a normal Midwestern family, but opens up the possibility of another perspective, that of a transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent Creator God who weaves all things together, large and small, galaxies exploding to lilies blooming, for His own mysterious purposes.

In clear reference to the Psalmist, who says “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4), a character cries out to God, “What are we to you?” The film leads the viewer to confront the ineffable, using art in its highest capacity and creative ingenuity imbued by our Creator to focus on the very human struggle to reconcile beauty, love, and goodness in the world with the pain, brokenness, and suffering all around us. Critics and viewers alike agreed that the The Tree of Life was saying something important, if inscrutable, and rated it one of the best films of all time. [14]

Come on, you might say. You can’t compare a sappy, feel-good holiday movie like Saving Christmas with an experimental high art epic drama like The Tree of Life—they aren’t even the same category! And that’s true. But isn’t that just the point?

In a desire to pander to the “faith market” and sometimes even play to the persecution complex inherent to the very American brand of Christianity—see Fox News and it’s 15th annual running installment of its very own “War Against Christmas” every December—faithful Christians like Kirk Cameron, and many others who are bearing public witness for their faith (which should be applauded) are substituting the wide range of possibilities available to us as creative image bearers for our own very narrow definition of what a “Christian movie” directed and marketed toward Christians should look like.

Discover How You Can Create for Change

More than voting. More than arguing on social media. Committing to real cultural change requires so much more. Discover your creative calling today.

(Portions re-published from my article at MovieGuide here).

Art as Doxology, Not Tract

Gather a cross-section of evangelical Christians—pastors and lay leaders, young and old—and give them the assignment of critiquing and ranking the creative output available out in the marketplace today, whether movies, books, art, or music, and you might find some common criterion bubble to the surface. Profanity, nudity, vulgarity, and all the other “ity”s are listed out in short order on one side of the page, obvious negatives. On the other side, a short tally of praiseworthy items, chief of which: evangelism, or, simply put, is the gospel message explicitly stated? Those are worthy items to consider, but is that it? Is God concerned merely with a tally of curse words and uncovered body parts weighed against the gospel message shared in propositional form? Or could there be something more?

Art and the Bible

In Francis Schaeffer’s classic work, Art and the Bible, he writes: “A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An artwork can be a doxology in itself.” [15] The simplest definition of doxology is an expression of praise to God. A hymn of doxology is when we sing our praise to God, but what we overlook is that everything about our lives can be directed as an expression of praise to God: our work, the art we create, everything.

Unfortunately, the reverse is often the case: a few Christians assessing the worth of any given cultural good are more prone to judge its “goodness” solely in terms of its didactic efficacy, and if there is any inherent beauty, creativity, or innovation displayed in its crafting then that is merely icing on the gospel cake.

Am I advocating for a retreat from proclaiming the gospel with our art? No! What I am saying is that, as God’s representatives here on earth, image-bearers and little creators, each charged with transforming the world around us in the name of our King, we are called to so much more in humble love for Him.

Stamping Little Crosses in Our Art (and Work)

Even Martin Luther weighed in on this narrow “tract-like” approach to our work in his classic response to a cobbler who wanted to create shoes for the glory of God by stamping little crosses on each shoe. “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” [16]

All too often the evangelical approach to our work and our art, including the movies, books, and TV shows we create, is simply like that of the well-intentioned cobbler: our first concern is whether we have “stamped” enough little crosses on our work, rather than asking ourselves if the final product exhibits the craftsmanship and beauty that brings glory to God and demonstrates a true love for our neighbor and the world we inhabit.

The Two-Chapter Gospel

This reducing of our creative output, and even our work, to become mere conduits of proclamation in propositional form, has been referred to by author and professor Hugh Whelchel in his book How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work as the “Two-Chapter Gospel”. Though not a bad thing on its face—we should all be proclaiming the Good News! —it’s not the whole story. If the grand narrative of Scripture is encapsulated in four distinct “Chapters”: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, then a truncated “Two-Chapter Gospel” sees everything only through the lens of Fall and Redemption, making evangelism the one and only call on the Christian’s life, and as such, divorces our work and our art from God’s great plan to restore everything in Creation unto its final state of “goodness”, our long-awaited shalom, all under the Lordship of Christ our King.

More Than Just Salvation… The Truth About Everything

Lecrae, the Grammy-winning rapper who is a Christian, identifies this challenge in the “Christian music” market. “We’ve limited Christianity to salvation and sanctification,” he said. “Christianity is the truth about everything. If you say you have a Christian worldview, that means you see the world through that lens—not just how people get saved and what to stay away from.”

This means creating, writing, and singing about things other than spiritual themes proper. While that kind of music is necessary, he said, “Christians need to embrace that there need to be believers talking about love and social issues and all other aspects of life… Many times, that’s how people see Christian art, or Christians making art: They see the art as having an agenda,” Lecrae said. “Christians have really used and almost in some senses prostituted art in order to give answers instead of telling great stories and raising great questions.” [17]

(Read More: The Speak-Up Fallacy)

In short, God’s plan is bigger, broader, and more comprehensive than the call for personal salvation—it is nothing short of the absolute restoration of everything. Is this a polemic against evangelical Christians proclaiming the gospel message, in their art and work and in their daily lives? No! But we should see God’s call on us, and on our art, as something more, something all-encompassing. Something that demands we create good and beautiful and true things for the glory of God, not merely as vehicles—the ungenerous might even say Trojan Horses—to deliver a sermon, but as a doxology, a thing of praise unto God, remembering that doxology reflects the Greek word “doxa” as in right opinions (orthodox) which are glorious.

Writing Books as a Christian

As a Christian author, or should I say, a Christian who is an author, someone who writes books that are not categorized as “Christian fiction”, in other words—Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, to be exact—I am quite familiar with this tension, even in “secular” books like my own, to include a conversion experience in at least one of the character’s storylines, or an overt gospel message in some way, and I have given in to that pull before.

But, after including that conversion experience, if I discover that the plot falls flat, the characters are one-dimensional, the word craft is pedestrian and bland, and the book is pure drudgery to actually read, then have I truly created a doxology, something of praise to God? Is that it? Can I rest content after a job well done? Well, if that’s the best I can do, then maybe.

But I would venture to say that each of us would find something inside of us that resists this notion that producing an inferior product and then “stamping a little cross on it” somehow covers all ills.

Everything We Do Matters

May this serve as a reminder that everything we do matters to God. What we create, what we consume, what we choose to praise, it’s all an important part of our image-bearing responsibility as God’s representatives here on earth. May we have a renewed focus on proclaiming the gospel, yes, even in our art, but may we also praise what God praises: beauty, truth, excellence, and all that is good and wonderful as it points to and reflects something great about our Creator.

Whelchel, quoting Tim Keller, describe the fullness of the gospel like this: “The gospel, when understood in its fullness, is not solely about individual happiness and fulfillment; it is not all about me. “It is not just a wonderful plan for ‘my life’ but a wonderful plan for the world; it is about the coming of God’s kingdom to renew all things.”

Only with this bigger picture in view can we understand how our story fits into His story.” And one might add: it’s only in understanding this bigger picture that we can understand how our art fits into His story.

How Then Should We Create?

If our Risen Lord, Christ the King, is in the process of redeeming and restoring all of creation unto Himself, and he has tasked his people, the Body of Christ, to act as his hands and feet—and producers and directors, actors and writers, creators and designers—how then should we create? May we never neglect the importance of proclaiming the gospel in word and in deed, but may we never settle for stamping little crosses on our shoes and our shows when the demands on our work and our art are so much more.

So where do you start? How is God calling you specifically to create for change in the culture around you?

Thankfully, we don’t have to live out our Creative Calling and walk along the journey alone, but our Creator has placed us in community to create for change together.

Alone, we fall short.

Together, our Creative Types fit together in the world-changing way our sovereign Creator intended.

Discover How You Can Create for Change

More than voting. More than arguing on social media. Committing to real cultural change requires so much more. Discover your creative calling today.

(Read more Culture Change Fallacies: The Culture War Fallacy, The Top-Down Fallacy, and The Speak-Up Fallacy)

[1] Dorothy Sayers Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine Thomas Nelson, September, 2004 p. 139-140

[2] Ibid. p. 139-140

[3] Jordan Raynor Master of One Waterbrook, 2020, p. 75

[4] Andy Crouch Culture Making, p. 69

[5] Emma Green Lecrae: Christians Have Prostituted Art to Give Answers October 6, 2014 (Last Accessed October 28, 2019)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Convergent Books. 2016 p. 111

[8] Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, IVP Books, 2006, p.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


[12] Ibid.

[13] Mauney, Matt (December 5, 2014). “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas Officially Worst Movie in IMDb History”Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved February 6, 2020

[14] “The 100 greatest American films”. BBC. July 20, 2015.

[15] Francis Schaeffer Art and the Bible IVP Books; 2nd edition (November 30, 2006), p 18

[16] Attributed to Martin Luther


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Joel Ohman

Joel Ohman is a serial tech entrepreneur, author, and the chief creator at Created for Change. You can connect with Joel at or via LinkedIn.