First, let me make it clear that I am not defending Thomas Kinkade’s artistic talent or sensibilities. I am neither an art critic nor an art conisseur, and am entirely unqualified to make such a defense if, indeed, one is justified. This doesn’t bother me too much because even though I like and want to appreciate art, I have a rather low opinion of art critics and the art world in general based on almost exclusively hearing silly nonsense from that quarter. Now, because I do want to appreciate “real” art, I myself dislike Christian industrial art. This is because I dislike industrial art as such and don’t want it associated with Christianity. But frankly, when Christians join up with art critics in condemnations of Kinkade, it reminds me of the second-least popular kid in school joining others in making fun of the least popular kid in school. For such children, it’s a rare pleasure to be able to dismiss others as inferior, and though they themselves regularly suffer from such dismissal, their participation does let them feel like the popular kids for a brief moment. Maybe the critics’ motivations are pure–I have no way of knowing one way or another–but that is the impression I get from these pile-on moments.
What I do want to defend the late Mr. Kinkade against specifically is a theological charge that I see cropping up: that by imagining and painting a world without a Fall, he is rejecting grace, teaching works righteousness, and instructing us that all we and the world need is a little sprucing up. Most recently, this post by Daniel Siedell on the subject has been making the rounds and receiving plenty of praise as it goes.
I find it quite instructive that in Scripture, God provides the very thing Kinkade attempted to provide in his own work–regardless of how well or poorly he carried it out. A perusal of both Old and New Testament (especially the Prophets and Revelation) reveals numerous expressions of an unfallen world that make use of images from this one. You see this at the beginning of Genesis, obviously. But lest anyone see that as mere historical fact, you routinely see the theme of a new creation throughout scripture–a creation in which sin has no place. “And death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). “For behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not fill out his days… The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isaiah 65:18-20,25). Nature without carnivorous slaughter? How “trite, uninteresting, and sentimental!” Nevertheless, according to God, the “fear, anger, and desperation” that make up Siedell’s “Light” will be completely absent in the new creation.
Surely this does not mean that scripture “denies the very foundation of our relationship to God in Christ” by painting these word pictures. On the contrary, they dovetail beautifully with that very message of our reconciliation to God in Christ. After all, being saved so that after we die of cancer on Earth, we can eternally suffer from cancer in a gritty and “real” Heaven is not the Gospel. On the contrary, we are being saved so that we can live in perfect innocence and blessedness with God forever–in a real and sinless world. We are going to be led back to a new Eden and our lives put in order.
I, for one, am very glad that God has made this clear to us. You see, there are two parts to really understanding that this fallen world is not our true home no matter how much we try to spruce it up. The first is indeed what Mr. Siedell points out: the recognition that this world is dirty and gritty. This is true and I’m quite glad there is art that captures this. The second part, however, which the critics seem to take entirely for granted, is that there really is such a thing as “home.” Without that second understanding, the true realization that the world is a nasty place is just shallow nihilism–nothing matters or has any value. If “home” is a meaningless concept, you cannot say that the world is not your home; all you can say is that the world stinks.
With such a clearly legitimate purpose to serve, it appalls me that Christian critics jump on Kinkade’s attempt to paint a world without the Fall and then attach nefarious purposes like “His images give us a world that’s really okay, a world in which all we need is home and hearth, a weekend retreat, a cozy night with the family to put us right with God.” Where did this come from? Where exactly did an attempt to crystallize the abstract concept of “home” in canvas and paint transform into instructions on justifying ourselves before God through works? Could someone take it that way? Sure, but one can take “thou shalt not murder” that way as well. I have yet to see anyone make the case that it must necessarily be taken that way or that Kinkade intended it to be taken that way. Without such evidence, this whole charade is merely an exercise in bearing false witness against our late neighbor. Why should he have “felt excruciating pressure to live up to these paintings?” I don’t typically feel excruciating pressure to live up to the end of Isaiah or Revelation–I feel relief that God has both promised and achieved such a world for us. I feel the same thing when I see “A Peaceful Retreat”–comfort that our struggle with sin will end.
Is showing an unfallen world insufficient on it’s own for teaching that this world is not our home? Yes. Does it fail to teach Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf? Yes. Well, eating only bananas is insufficient for proper nutrition, and I don’t see people leaping up to condemn Chiquita on those grounds. Is staying exclusively within the safe confines of Thomas Kinkade healthy? Certainly not. But if that’s the charge being made here, it’s hidden within quite a bit of vitriol directed towards Kinkade personally and his work as such rather than any abuse thereof.