The heretical art of Thomas Kinkade

When describing his painting "Candlelight Cottage," the late Thomas Kinkade said its "candlelight has a cozy, intimate quality -- especially when it's suffused in the soft mist of this fine English evening." Actually, the cottage windows are glowing so brightly that the entire interior appears to be in flames.

This painting, noted National Catholic Register critic Simcha Fisher in 2011, only makes sense as "a depiction of an oncoming storm, with heavy smog in some spots and total visibility just inches away (blown by what wind, when the chimney smoke rises undisturbed?), several cordless Klieg lights, possibly a partial eclipse and that most cheerful of pastoral daydreams: a robust house fire."

This is as lovely, she argued, as music created when "all of your favorite instruments play as loudly as they can at the same time. Listen, and go mad."

Secular critics have long detested Kinkade's art, in part because of his great popularity among heartland evangelicals who were eager to claim the University of California at Berkeley trained painter as one of their own. Now, three months after his death at age 54 -- while struggling with alcoholism, bankruptcy and a shattered marriage -- some religious writers are focusing on what they see as another troubling question.

The bottom line: Was Kinkade selling bad theology, as well as bad art?

Believers often reject fine art and embrace "mediocre substitutes just because they're labeled 'Christian,' " noted John Stonestreet of the Chuck Colson Center, in a recent BreakPoint radio commentary. "We've created for ourselves a kind of 'artistic ghetto.' ... 'Christian art' has become a synonym for anything that's charming, quaint or makes us feel good. It often portrays a one-sided world where evil doesn't exist and only 'positive' and 'uplifting' messages are allowed."

The problem is that this isn't the real world, which is full of sin and brokenness, as well as grace and beauty, he said, in a telephone interview. At it's core, art should be "a reflection of what it means to be human," he added. Believers who create culture are "supposed to look at all of creation, at all of human life, the good and the bad."

This issue looms over the Kinkade debates, he said, but it also shapes arguments about music, movies, fiction and other forms of popular and high culture.

"Squishy songs that turn Jesus into your boyfriend are not good art," said Stonestreet. "Christian romance novels are not good art. Naked little chubby angels in Christian bookstores are not good art."

Many debates about Kinkade have centered on his use of light, since he billed himself as the "Painter of Light" and said his glowing images represented God's comforting presence in the world. While the artist consistently avoided painting traditional religious scenes or symbols, he frequently said he was trying to capture the meaning of Bible verses, such as a lighthouse image that was said to represent John 8:12: "I am the light of the world."

Yet, in painting after painting, Christian critics note that Kinkade used light in a way that was completely different than in Christian iconography or the work of master painters. For centuries, religious artists have used light as a depiction of God's presence and activity in the real world -- often in the faces and forms of uniquely blessed people.

Thus, the source of this light is "explicitly God Himself," noted Fisher. Yet in Kinkade's work glowing, unreal, unnatural light is found everywhere -- seemingly at random. This matters because if "you follow the source of the light, you will find out where the artist thinks God is," she said.

For artists who are believers, the goal is to show God's light in the midst of the world's darkness, the work of God in the brokenness of real life.

Kinkade, on the other hand, sees "nothing beautiful in the world the way it is," argued Fisher. "He loves the world in the same way that a pageant mom thinks her child is just adorable -- or will be, after she loses 10 pounds, dyes and curls her hair, gets implants, and makes herself almost unrecognizable with a thick layer of make-up. ...

"Kinkade-style light ... doesn't reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren't merely trivial, they're a statement of contempt for the world. His vision of the world isn't just tacky, it's anti-Incarnational."