Faith and Art: What is the Heart of the Matter?

What is at the heart of the conversation between art (in all its form and expression) and the faith of the Christian (in its multiple and varied flavors)?

Here we go again…for more than a decade I’ve been leading an annual discussion with undergraduates at Abilene Christian University concerning the intersection between the real world making of art and the living reality of Christian faith.   When I started this class, I knew what the answers were.  Well, that’s an overstatement, but I was pretty sure I was on the right track.   Now?  Oh, it’s a topsy-turvy world we’ve got going here, and I often wonder…what in the world was the Creator thinking as He got to work in that “let-there-be-light”, big bang impulse of a moment?

So without much fanfare, I want to ask you, my friends from far and wide, some of whom I know, and some of whom I don’t…if you were to try to launch a group of passionate young artists on this life long conversation of making form from varied and disparate material, somehow letting that making being informed by a faith in Christ in one of its multiple and various forms (my emerging biases are showing now), how would you articulate the question at the heart of the matter?

How would you articulate the question at the heart of the matter?

I’d like to say it’s simple, but at least for me, I’m still plowing through mounds of complexity.  But before I tell you what I think the deal is, as seriously as I know how to ask, please pitch in here.  I’d love to have a no-kidding, gather-around-the-question-without-any-great-desire-to-win kind of discussion here.  Many of you are far more grounded than I am, and just now I’m sitting in my chair in class, hoping the instructor shows up.

Your turn…

…and thanks in advance.    

13 Comments

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  1. The practice & language of beauty making and engagement are a daily practice. Art making is about beauty in all its resplendent and frighteningly true glory. That glory is evident in the ordinary, non commercial, decorative and mundane as well as the esoteric and sublime. To know its language and tell its story is to truly be part of the created order to which we have estranged ourselves. Thus, art making & human becoming are a return to the really real, the extraordinarily common, the gift as well as the commodity and the sacredness of place which allows our lives to know life in all its sentient wonder. This is all formed & informed by grace through faith.

    • David, thanks so much for this. You’ve hit the nail on the head beautifully. “frighteningly true glory.” “…the gift as well as the commodity and the sacredness of place…” Here’s the thing. There are few evangelicals, even among the artists, that would recognize the language you’re using as being central to a Christian way of seeing “the really real.” I love the inclusiveness of your statement. “…the ordinary, non commercial, decorative and mundane as well as the esoteric and sublime.” It is indeed about “human becoming”, a particular turn of phrase that I have reflected on for a long time. Again, beautiful…thanks fo taking the time to join in. Jeff

  2. This is an incredibly difficult subject for me to discuss for the very reasons you mention in your post. It has been an internal debate for more years than I care to admit. I have been active in the theatre and a Christian since I was 13 and there is one issue that always creeps up when I’m involved in a show. The debate usually starts when I’m presented with or I am involved in a show that addresses the not so pleasant topics of life; rape, murder, drug/alcohol addiction, adultery, etc. My logical side always starts with what the intention was of the creators of the piece (This we may or may not know). However, I usually end up with the notion that we are all God’s creation and therefore what we create is an extension of ourselves and Him. Then, when a Christian like me is involved with such a piece, I feel as though the message I convey could possibly reach the heart of someone who needs to hear it and make a decision to better their lives. The debate rages on and at the center of it is usually this; “Is any and all performance/expression/form/type/topic of art glorifying to God?”

    • Hey Chuck, thanks for the post. So the debate for you is about content? Should Christian actors work in certain kinds of stories, depending on what those stories both portray and the final “take-away” message? Consider the prostitutes in Les Miserables. Great take away message of grace and forgiveness and lots of other things, and the women are out there gyrating away. What do you think? Christians are free to play Jean Valjean, but not the “lovely ladies”? Calm down the ladies and you don’t have a story.

      As far as the question: “Is any all performance/expression/form/type/topic of art glorifying to God?” what do you think? On the one hand, any creative move of the human hand and heart speaks of God’s grace, His presence, and His image. So maybe yes. On the other hand, it seems pretty simple to say that no, it seems that there are some works of art that we cannot possible conceive as being to His glory. But why not? Content? Lousy execution? What the work creates in the imaginative life of the viewer? Just where is the “violation?”

      Thanks again. Stay tuned. Good to hear from you. Say hi to your family, by the way.,..

      Jeff

      • Jeff, thanks for the reply. Before I respond, I wanted to tell you we have been praying God’s protection and comfort for Daniel, Grace and Amy, as well as all those impacted by the hurricane…please tell Anjie we say hello! Now, back to the topic of discussion here. I do believe God created us for His glory and therefore, everything we do, including our thoughts and actions, should be for the glory of God. So, if our very being is for God’s glorification, then yes, any and all expression of art is glorifying to Him. As for the subject or topic of that expression, I think there is something deeper at the heart of that matter. I will try to elaborate concisely. In varying degrees, I think everyone has an artistic nature because God created us. He used His ultimate creativity to design and bring us into being. And, in His design He gave us free will to accept His Son or not. So, for me, at the very heart of this is regardless of whether one has accepted Christ, a person can glorify God with their creativity and expression of art. However, I think it’s the intent of the artist that truly matters. Does the artist intend to love or hate through their expression or art? In other words, if I were portraying an adulterous man who repents in a play and in my core being believed there wasn’t anything wrong with adultery, then I probably wouldn’t care if the message I was conveying kept an audience member from committing adultery in their own life. However, as a Chrisian believing adultery is a sin, my intention is to reach someone in that audience to hopefully help them make a better choice in their own life. I’m not sure that was very concise, but it sure is an intriguing topic of discussion.

  3. This is far outside my element, but I’m going to foolishly take a stab at it anyway. I was taught to be suspicious of most art as a child. Through your blog I’ve been challenged to look at art differently. I recently attended a retreat in which the instructor used art to encourage us to seek for truth in the canvas. A challenge indeed.
    I am just now, in my old age, beginning to appreciate the infinite creativity of God. Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin. And yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” He could have said the same of the trees, of the snow, of each leaf on the tree, of each animal, and each human being. And yet, each of us was created in the image of Christ, and God’s goal for us is that, in our redemption, we should be conformed to His image. So I think the challenge is to express truth within the bounds of the discipline you are engaged in. Handel’s “Messiah” comes to mind.

    • Neita,

      I love that you come and talk to me here on the blog. Thanks so much for taking the time.

      Yes, God’s creativity is beyond description. And it seems central to His image in us, as you say. Here comes the challenge of your statement. “To express truth within the bounds of the discipline you are engaged in.” Love that you reference ‘the discipline’ of the work. But “to express truth”…oh, boy. Here’s the rub…not that I don’t think there’s truth, but what do you mean? The truth of the gospel? The truth of human experience, which is chock full of ugliness and sin and feelings that we’re not encouraged to feel, especially not in the church world.

      What do you think?

      Jeff

      • But we do feel those feelings, don’t we? Admitting them and repenting of them is an essential part of the gospel. I don’t think it’s a one-time act, as in “repent and be baptized”, but an essential part of living the truth. In Colossians 1:17 Paul said, “…and in him (Jesus) all things hold together.” Jesus didn’t come to earth to endorse Pharisees, but to save sinners. I read “Les Miserables” as an assignment in college. That is an example of expressing truth in the art of the written word. “Leaving Ruin” is another example. Jesus spoke truth in all his parables. How do I know? I see myself in them, especially in the story of the prodigal and the elder brother. They both live in me. (Thank God, I can count them dead, but they still wiggle.) So, in all your art, speak the truth in love. Be true to yourself and to Jesus who gave his life for you.

  4. both previous comments reflect something of what entered my mind (big surprise!) and I did a little impromptu search of “glory” in youversion. Accidentally touched this verse:

    And Your godly ones shall bless You. They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom and talk of Your power.
    To make known to the sons of men Your mighty acts, and the glory of the majesty of your kingdom. Ps. 145:10-12

  5. Jeff: I first heard you speak at the 2001 Taproot Theatre Church Drama Conference. You were our keynote speaker and you performed an essay “Why I Stopped Doing Christian Art.” Through that honesty, you lead me toward a foundational book by Madeleine L’Engle (Walking On Water). Your question above leads me right back to that well highlighted, dog-eared little book. She writes, “…my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what it gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.” pg 16 L’Engle.

    I have found that my own journey toward the fusion of my faith and art has been more about learning to deal with the world, both religious and irreligious (Staub / Culturally Savvy Christian). My own life of Faith-Driven artmaking and Christian faith was already intact. I just had to learn to deal with other people’s reactions, and that I find is the tough part for most who are new to art-making from a faith-driven worldview.

    So instead of new students / artists worrying about how to combine the two, I think it’s far more productive to encourage young artists to know themselves well and to firmly/lovingly stand up for the way God has wired them.

    To my mind, it’s no different than when a new Believer must learn how to speak about their convictions. Someone thumps us on the chest and asks, “What do you really believe?” It is in that pressure to respond that we really find our own convictions.

    Thank you Jeff.

  6. Hey Jeff, I recently started a blog on faith and art myself, here is a post I put up a few weeks ago on my take on this topic. Also, I’d love your input on my blog, you are a pro and I am just jumping into this thing!

    “Art/beauty is in the very nature of God. He, after all, is the great creator, and we, having been created in His image, are co-creators with Him as we take part in His great unfolding narrative. I choose to believe that the existence of beauty in this world is not a gratuitous act of God, but rather something that shows the essence of God. A God, who is so complete, that He could not have created this world without beauty for it would not have fully reflected who He is, for beauty is innate to His being. Art seems to bubble up from within us and cries out for response and recognition. We must share it with others as God chose to share himself through his creation of us in His universe.

    It is our job as artists to awaken sensitivity to beauty in this world, which then opens the door for the Lord to express himself in immeasurable ways. By creating good art, we are pointing beyond ourselves to something even larger, truer, and greater. As actors and artists, we are inspirers of people’s imaginations. God’s ultimate truth is shining in through this fractured world in bits and pieces, and as artists and believers we are striving to illuminate these glimpses of truth. We are flames bringing light into this world as instruments of Christ in the reigning in of the new kingdom. As Christian artists God has given us the precious gift of being messengers of beauty.”

  7. I don’t know empirically what *God* is. I think to assume that I could would be to devalue God in some fashion. I’m a big fan of Peter Rollins’ “How (Not) To Speak of God”. I feel that his interpretation of what the Jews struggled with in regards to idolatry is the same thing artists must struggle with. There is not a single form on this planet that can explicitly and in finite terms define a transfinite God. because the possibilities of the world we live in are transfinite…while our subjective material experience is finite and acute. I may believe that my car will start in the morning or my *Art* will be informed by the divine. Opening one’s self up to the possibility of either allows the en-flesh-ment of either as divine and providential.

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