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, 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 with 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 its 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."