On Christian Coloring Books and Meaningful Hobbies

Coloring books are all the rage, even in the Christian market. A roundup of 2016’s Christian top-sellers revealed seven in the top one hundred spots. I have written about this phenomenon once or twice in the past, but am returning to it today in response to a significant development in the market.

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I recently received the spring catalog from InterVarsity Press. Opening to the first spread, I was greeted with this:

Christian Coloring Books

The very first items they wish to draw attention to are coloring books. These books are associated with Formatio, their spiritual formation imprint. “Formatio books follow the rich tradition of the church in the journey of spiritual formation. These books are not merely about being informed, but about being transformed by Christ and conformed to his image.” They are marketing their coloring books as a tool for being “transformed by Christ and conformed to his image.”

Somehow, coloring has progressed from a hobby to a form of spirituality, from a pastime to a spiritual discipline. Here is the description for Coloring the Psalms: “Scripture provides inspiration and reflection for each of the beautiful designs in this imaginative coloring book. The art will draw you closer to God as you explore Scripture meditation, worship, breath prayer, practicing the presence of God, and more.” Coloring Our Gratitude suggests that as you color, you “take the opportunity to notice the gifts around you and then reflect, wonder, pray, and practice thankfulness. Move closer to God as you celebrate the goodness of gifts given and received.” It even has a custom Spotify playlist to accompany it.

Let me reiterate my position on adult coloring books: In the abstract, I deem them a harmless hobby and find no biblical reason to look askance at them. If we play cards, or assemble model planes, or put together puzzles, or watch movies, we can color between lines. Well and good. God is delighted when we find delight in hobbies. But there’s no heavenly or earthly reason to elevate coloring to the realm of prayer, meditation, or spiritual discipline. The same is true of any other hobby or any other activity. When coloring becomes a form of spirituality, it becomes both distracting and dangerous.

It becomes distracting because it tries to rationalize something that needs no rationalizing. It is a constant human temptation to “baptize” the things of earth, to elevate them by assigning an artificial spiritual significance. But coloring does not need to be spiritual formation in order to have value. The value of a hobby comes in the rest and relaxation it affords, in the satisfaction, contentment, or creativity of a pleasurable activity that relieves the cares and burdens of life. No one has ever tried to make skeet shooting a meditative practice or to make canasta a new form of spirituality. It’s better that way. There’s no reason to elevate coloring past what it is on its own—a legitimate hobby.

It becomes dangerous because this kind of spiritual formation is always mystical, always opposed to the Bible’s emphases. It always imports elements from other religious traditions. Healthy spiritual formation depends upon being conformed to God by the Word of God. We read God’s Word, we pray God’s Word, we preach God’s Word, we fellowship around God’s Word, and we are conformed to his image. This other kind diminishes mindful meditation to emphasize mindless contemplation. It diminishes hearing from God through his Word to emphasize hearing from God in the silence. It diminishes content-rich prayers to emphasize repetitive prayers and breath prayers. It fabricates a form of spirituality that is not only absent from the Bible, but opposed to the Bible.

As Christians, we are free to enjoy hobbies like coloring. Coloring can be enjoyed on its own terms and for whatever benefits it affords in pleasure, in creativity, in relaxation. A Christian coloring book is worthwhile if it simply presents interesting art or inspiring words. But when it becomes a form of spirituality, it has crossed a line.

In an old television show, a youth pastor leads a child into an obsession with Christian rock music. His disgusted father says, “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock n’ roll worse.” The same might be said of this kind of Christian coloring book: You’re not making Christian spirituality any better, you’re just making coloring worse.