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."

What Wilberforce would do

It's rare to hear political leaders speak with candor when it comes to religion.

Imagine the angry newspaper headlines if a world-famous legislator dared to say: "I fear for the future of authentic faith in our country. We live in a time when the common man ... is thoroughly influenced by the current climate in which the cultural and educational elite propagates an anti-Christian message. We should take a look at what has happened in France and learn a lesson from it."

How would pundits respond if the same politico then said: "Is it any wonder ... that the spiritual condition of our country is of little concern to those who don't even educate their own children about true Christianity?"

Of course, a modern politician didn't air these blunt words on "Meet the Press." An 18th-century Member of Parliament named William Wilberforce published them in a British bestseller entitled "A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity."

"The first time I read that book, I thought, 'It's hard to work through some of the old language, but what the man is saying could have been written yesterday,' " said the Rev. Bob Beltz, an evangelical Presbyterian who oversees special media projects for billionaire investor Philip Anschutz.

"I kept writing '1797' over and over in the page margins, with exclamation marks. His words are so relevant that it's shocking."

The question is whether modern Americans will admire Wilberforce as much as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and others admired him in the past and, perhaps, go see his life story on a movie screen.

Modern Wilberforce disciples are doing what they can, producing new books, educational projects and political activism ( tied to his legacy. For example, Beltz set out to translate the heart of Wilberforce's book into modern language, a slim volume now called "Real Christianity." Proceeds will go to the Dalit Freedom Network that is active in India.

At the same time, Beltz was involved with Bristol Bay Productions to produce the new movie "Amazing Grace," released on the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's greatest victory. It was on Feb. 23, 1807, that the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire after years of struggle that taxed the abolitionist's faith, will and health.

"Amazing Grace" opened on a modest 791 screens and grossed $4 million its first weekend, a $5,442-per-screen average that matched the top releases. The studio hopes to increase its promotional budget and reach more screens in upcoming weeks.

"We know that this isn't the ordinary kind of movie that makes people rush to the theater," said Beltz. "Then again, Wilberforce wasn't your ordinary kind of man."

Born in a successful merchant family, Wilberforce won a seat in the House of Commons in 1780, shortly after graduating from Cambridge University and celebrating his 21st birthday. Before long he was both a radical social reformer and a radical evangelist who -- after two years of intellectual and spiritual turmoil -- came to see no conflict between his twin callings in the public square.

Thus, Wilberforce on Oct. 28, 1787, wrote in his diary that, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners." In that era, pledging to reform "manners" meant supporting public efforts to promote moral virtue and oppose vice.

As if these passions were not enough, Wilberforce was also a spectacular orator, writer, singer, publisher, art lover, amateur scientist and social activist who helped build hospitals, fight cruelty to animals, reform prisons, improve schools and promote better factory working conditions.

It's crucial to realize, said Beltz, that for Wilberforce all of these causes were woven into the fabric of his life and faith. He saw no conflict between his head and his heart, between evangelism and social justice. What he opposed most of all was "nominal," culturally compromised faith laced with apathy.

"You have people who believe that if you are born in America and go to church on Sunday then that means that you are a Christian," said Beltz. "That is precisely the attitude that William Wilberforce was fighting in the England of his day. He believed that you couldn't defeat a great evil like slavery with a weak, watered-down faith. You needed the real thing."