catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 5 :: 2008.03.07 — 2008.03.21


Creation and culture

As an artist, I am compelled to create. As a Christian, I am compelled to love. As a human, I am compelled to live in this world. What does integrating the passions and identities in my life entail? I have contemplated this since the time I became a Christian in my early high school years.

Faith integration began for me as a zealous 16-year-old in the context of my public high school (particularly in my art classes). Since that time, I have been blessed to experience several different cultures and people groups, observing the diverse ways that life takes place, and art is made, viewed and responded to—and there is indeed quite a variety.

The world changes through time and place, and both art and audience are vastly affected accordingly. God, however, does not change. James 1:17 ascribes God as the Father of lights, in whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. God is not trapped or constrained by time or space. Though He exists above these limitations, He chooses to communicate within them.

As a Christian, I believe it is vital to be aware of our specific cultural context, that we might create artwork that is relevant to the times in which we live. We have a call to be in the world, though we are not of it, and it is essential to be in our postmodern culture. God still is.

In his book The Gift of Art, Gene Edward Veith writes:

Since art is a function of history and culture, Christian artists should be aware of the contemporary context of their work. To be deliberately old-fashioned, simply reworking earlier styles that seem ‘more Christian,’ is an empty gesture. One style is not ‘more Christian’ than any other; the result is to make one’s work irrelevant and, worse, to imply that Christianity is outdated, a nineteenth- or sixteenth-century religion which some reactionaries stubbornly cling to, faith that has nothing to say to the twentieth-century imagination. Throughout the Psalms it is a new song that is to be offered to the Lord.”

Veith here comments on the Christian artist’s need to be relevant to the current culture, noting the significant hindrance out-dated Christianity can be.

For some time now, Christians have been guilty of simply observing or reproducing the latest trends in the arts. While it is essential to be aware of the latest cultural developments and movements, it is more important to be genuine in the art we make. We need to dialog with, rather than copy what others are doing.  Having a healthy understanding of the self in relation to one’s faith and culture is not only necessary, but imperative. Christ’s example shows us that He was a man who understood his time. He did not model a reflection of that which was around Him, but instead developed a response to it.

Faith is not to be disguised, but art coming from a Christian worldview should not be something forced and overtly religious. Art that is steeped in Christian imagery has a tendency to deter its viewer. Though the artist should not necessarily completely avoid including such imagery, he or she must be mindful of the connotations people have as they view the work. Christian imagery can further misconstrue the artist’s intention, just as Christian jargon is often confusing and misunderstood. Our artwork can be, however, and perhaps should be, instinctively and unconsciously Christian. The Holy Spirit moves as He pleases, and often in ways we do not expect or even realize. In embracing this sense of making art that is not overtly Christian, I have greatly revised my previous approach to making art. In the past, I desired a specific message to be conveyed, but now I am taking a much less symbolic and conceptual approach, instead thinking more about the materials, form and color. I have experienced some freedom in letting go, but it has taken a lot of time to experience such release. Regardless of whether I take advantage of it or not, each day is a new opportunity for trust, and I believe that there lies a greater freedom in depending on God for direction.

I often felt lost concerning my art making throughout my college years. Transferring and changing majors was not without its challenges, and as exciting as it was to be making art again after not having taken any art classes since high school, I had a horrible sense of anxiety and often felt directionless. I had a preconceived notion of what, in my mind, the Christian artist was to be—and perhaps more than that, what the Christian artist was to do. Having a strong interest in the Great Commission and the mission field, I was most interested in the different strategic possibilities and influences art could have as a “tool” for the Gospel. Much of the work I made was intended to have a specific, and often literal meaning, which frequently resulted in frustration. What I made often needed some deal of explanation, not carrying the significance I had strived for.

Over time, these limiting perceptions have melted away, and I have since come to believe that while art can rightfully impact the Great Commission, finding ways to depict the faith literally are not the only means of going about this. Faith is about the unseen, and what is most important is for me to be open for God’s use, living and working in the time that He has placed me. My faith must be in Jesus Christ alone as the revealer of Truth and source of belief. I am no longer burdened by this desire to create very literal pieces, but instead desire an element of mystery within my work. I believe that there needs to be an element of play, delight and discovery and I am daily discovering greater joy and confidence in the gift of art. My desire within the process of art is to trust God’s direction, and to persevere with purpose and persistence, making art that speaks direction to the culture I am in, to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Because God is sovereign over all of His creation, we can approach any area or subject within the arts.  If the Christian has an honest motive of the heart and is pursuing God’s guidance in a worshipful attitude, then our God of transcendence and grace provides the freedom to approach art in this way. As God has called us to engage our society, so He has called us to engage in the important and sometimes controversial current issues. As artists who abide in the faith, this is a venue that is full of opportunity.  The Church seems to avoid these societal concerns, such as race, sex and politics. Artists have a bit more freedom in what they say, as art can be expected to pose a different and sometimes more radical view of life situations. I realize that art making is a gift of which I need to be a good steward, continually offering this gift back to God. My worship and thanksgiving include doing the best that I can.

Regarding faith and culture, I recall Dr. James Romaine, a professor of mine, stating that it is necessary to know your faith, your Father and your society; know the differences, what you disagree with, what is going on in both sides—know the language of your culture. This is something of immense value as we seek to engage the surrounding community and begin contemplating various ways to speak clearly in an attempt to bridge the gap through art that exists between artists and the church, the sacred and secular. God’s message of love and grace is central. He made us to be in relationship with Him and with one another. The call of the Christian is to be loved by God, drawn deeper into a loving relationship with Him, and as we continue to grow in faith, the result is the eventual overflow into all other areas of one’s life, including art and relationships. We understand that we too have a place in His great plan for redemption and restoration, not only in our personal salvation through Christ, but through sharing with other people. This faith allows no room for the artist as a lone studio dweller. Faith integration has a great deal to do with relationships; for me it implies being relatable, available and working toward restoration and reconciliation.

Withdrawing from society is not an option, nor is it godly. In Joel Sheesley’s article “Strategies of Engagement,” he states:

Our only lasting commitment is to Christ and we achieve that, not by our own efforts, but through His grace and the work of His spirit. In the meantime, we work out our artistic strategies based on the best information and advice we can discover in the midst of our present circumstances… every artistic strategy is a way of reaching out to the world. Engagement is really our only option.

If we want to communicate within the context of our culture, we not only have to know the language, but we must be fluent, articulate and eloquent. There is a need for more solid art created by credible Christian artists. As Christians, we know the ultimate source of creativity, and we are attentive to the Holy Spirit. Exhibiting quality and excellence in craft is necessary in order to communicate effectively, and our ideas should be presented as clearly as possible. Creating in a humble manner will demonstrate proper respect and care for the viewer.

Integrating my faith and art through engaging culture toward reconciliation has also meant finding ways to serve in other contexts, such as overseas on a mission trip. For the last two summers I have had the privilege of serving on an ArtsLink team in painting murals and teaching workshops in Bosnia. Bosnia is still devastated from the war, recovering very slowly and ineffectively. The majority of people are without hope for Bosnia. In coming to Bosnia as a group of artists, we sought to find out more about the people, as well as establish relationships and trust with the Bosnians. In an effort to enhance the Church’s reputation and hopefully shrink some of the hostility toward the Christian faith resulting from the war, we were able to develop more reputability for the Christians there, as well as offer something visually beautiful for the Bosnians to engage. The murals we painted around the town were to their preference, and it was a really incredible way to connect with the locals. It was rewarding to leave the Bosnian people with the impressions created by the murals and projects from the workshops we held there. Regardless of the cultural context one is in, art is a means by which one can seek to engage people. Whether one wants to relate to Bosnians or to the contemporary art scene, when going to a new culture, it is necessary to know the language (including the visual language) of that culture in order to communicate effectively.

My faith has given me new eyes with which to see and experience the world. As Christians, we are called to take a longer view of things, and a second or third look. Art increases our awareness and brings to our attention that which we haven’t noticed, or brings us to view things we know so well in a new way. There is a newness and excitement for the potential and purpose of each day. My life experiences are shaped by my faith in Christ. Fall, redemption, restoration, mystery and growth are messages of life that I long to convey in some sense in my work.

The real difference between the world and the church is that of hope, and this is true in the art we make as well. Believers and non-believers alike may very well face the same problems, but Christians have a calling to both give and receive the gift of hope in our art. Our completeness lies in Christ and hope keeps us waiting for the day of restoration. All the world shares in the same broken human condition. This is our humanity and this is our hope.

Art has transformed my worldview, and my worldview has also altered my art. As I previously noted, God does not change, but He has us in the continual process of transformation. Art has instilled in me a sense of wonder, and I see God in an entirely new way—as an Artist. This sense of wonder inspires searching and exploration, which is a really great opportunity to engage and share with contemporary art dialog about faith.

As believers, we believe in that which is not seen. John 3:33 speaks of believing before seeing: “He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true.” Hebrew 11:1 states, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Art making has an element of mystery because it makes the unseen seen which relates to the incarnation of God as a physical person.

As we fix our eyes upon Him, allowing Him to form our character, inform our creativity and renew our minds, we will inevitably create those good [art]works that He has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

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