A Christian Vision for the Arts

I am a Christian, a man who trusts in Jesus Christ for his salvation. And I am an artist, an admittedly unpracticed painter who is guilty of largely forsaking his art for other pursuits. Though I’ve always known that I should do more with the talent God has given me, I’ve largely failed to act on that knowledge.

I have had three primary reasons (or excuses, as you wish) for this failure.

First, I’ve been subject to an irrational fear of being an artist for most of my adult life. Years of prayer, counseling and personal struggle have helped to some degree, but I’m still afraid of being an artist.

Second, I’ve lived most of my twenty three years as a Christian in a denominational environment that largely lacked a model for integrating the visual arts into Christian life and practice. The visual arts were generally viewed positively enough, but largely as something that lay outside of the boundaries of fellowship. Since my commitment to Christ overshadowed everything else in my life, I tended to treat my life as an artist as unrelated and less important.

Third, I’ve largely lacked the level of commitment (or is it obsession?) that seems necessary to any kind of consistent productivity as a painter. I have only recently begun to see this as unimportant and misleading, that I should paint whether or not I feel like it.

All of this has been on my heart for most of my Christian life, and though I’m still struggling in many ways, I’ve begun to develop a personal vision for the arts that I believe will be key to my calling as an artist.

  • The arts, particularly the visual arts, need to be reintegrated into the society as a whole, and into the church in particular. As a culture, we’ve turned the arts into a kind of false religion, replete with temples, priests, icons, and clerics, in the form of museums, artists, art, and art critics, respectively. As a Christian, I see this as an idolatrous perversion of what God intended art to be. A distinction needs to be made, as always, between worshiping God through the arts and worshipping the arts themselves. Ironically, in this case, “casting down the idols” involves restoring the arts to their proper place and role in the society and the church.
  • Part of what makes this art-as-false-religion possible is the artificial separation of various artistic expressions into “higher” and “lower” forms, such that the “higher” forms require the intervention (intercession) of the clerics (critics) for a proper understanding of their meaning, value and intent. By “lower” I mean anything that’s beneath the notice of the critics. Without launching into details, it is important to acknowledge that these categories are by nature fuzzy, dynamic and virtually impossible to define. Nevertheless, this intrinsically Greek way of thinking prevails and is the foundation for how art tends to be evaluated. As I’ve come to look at it, this heirarchical approach makes it almost impossible to view the arts in the way God intended. We either tend to take too high a view or too low a view of a particular work, or body of works, or genre, depending on the prevailing winds of fashion, opinion and mere chance. In the process, meaningful interpretation becomes transitory and capricious, and thoroughly beside the point.
  • Another part of this art-as-false-religion is the idea that artists are unaccountable, that they don’t have to explain themselves to anyone or answer to anyone. I see this as antithetical to the principles of spiritual growth that apply to Christians as a whole and to Christian artists in particular. We are to do all things as unto the Lord, as a kind of service to Him, to His body, and to the surrounding world.
  • This is, in effect, a call to accountability. My plan is to paint, draw and write in the context of fellowship with other artists and writers. This necessitates the destruction of the chip on my shoulder, and a major reprogramming of how I do what I do. Instead of working in isolation, the idea is to practice working in communion with others. This to me has several distinct, yet interrelated aspects. First, as an artist, I need the loving and honest criticism of other Christians. This is nothing more than the application of the command to “build one another up” to the arts. Second, as a Christian, I need the closeness and accountability of other Christians. This is fellowship in the traditional sense of the word. Third, I need to pray with other artists about my work, and theirs, on an ongoing basis. I need to reteach myself how to practice my art, to integrate it fully into my daily life as a Christian. It should become next to impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
  • On another personal note, I believe that the arts need to be practiced in a state of conversation with God. This last point is far more important to me than I had ever imagined it would be. To the degree that I’ve practiced it, painting or drawing or writing in a state of prayer is an entirely different dynamic, and represents what I feel is the very core of what it will take to restore the arts, or at least my own relationship to the arts.As I see it, working from the inside out, doing it in a state of prayer means that the acts of drawing, painting, and writing become forms of prayer. What I see becomes more aligned with what He sees. I begin to feel what He feels about the subject of the work. I become less concerned about the work in a self-focused sense. At its best, I get lost in His heart for what I’m working on and I stop thinking about it in any independent way. Sometimes, He suggests a way to approach the subject, sometimes to even suggest a choice of color or perspective or style, and as I respond in obedience, He in effect leads me in the work. This has brought me to a whole new dimension of understanding what it means to “hear His voice”.
  • A related longing of my heart is to see God’s annointing come upon the works of my hands. I do believe that God’s presence and power are imminant, and that the gifts of the Spirit are ours to use for His purposes. This is the framework for my longing to see His annointing on the arts. As with everything that comes from Him, it will be unique, and therefore impossible to quantify, but nevertheless very, very real. A similar annointing has become almost commonplace with worship music. It’s that aspect of a song that allows the Holy Spirit to usher us into the presence of God. This is what I long to see happen increasingly for the other arts as well. I have never looked at a painting that brought me to my knees under the power of God, but I look forward to it.
  • I have a strong sense that the Lord plans to do all of the above in a grand scale. Whether or not it will be completed in my lifetime, I have no way of knowing. But I know that he’s at work in it. In the grand scheme of things, a worldwide ingathering will take place, “the mother of all revivals”, in that everything will be affected, all aspects of life, all facets of the world’s cultures and of His church. Everything that a man or woman can experience will be imbued with power from on High to bring the lost to Christ, to heal, restore, purify and perfect. Where all prior awakenings revealed one or more aspects of God’s nature, this coming awakening will reveal all that is true of Him. And this will manifest itself in the sweeping pervasiveness of its outworking. This is the perspective that I believe applies to what God is doing in the arts. Yes, He’s restoring what was lost at various points in the past. But we’re in for something far more than that. In the years that follow, I believe that God will do a work in the arts that is totally new and unprecedented in history, yet in a way that will validate and explain all that came before. He will reign in the arts like never before.

I have recently discovered that the idea of painting in a state of prayer is nothing new to the Orthodox. Iconographers have been painting icons this way for centuries. And Orthodox believers use icons in prayer and worship. I’m currently reading Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, in order to better understand the subject. Though I’m admittedly uncomfortable with certain aspects of Orthodoxy, I’m open to whatever the Lord approves.

- January 4, 2004