An Artist’s Place In Christianity

I went to university and completed a Theology degree.

Now I’m trying to place myself within an artistic vocation.

How do these two link together? Sometimes I’m not sure but then I remember what drew me to both.

My first theology class (excluding Biblical Studies which was also incredible) allowed me to look at the world and link everything. I could go from political history in El Salvador, to the music of Italian Requiems, to film musical adaptations of WWI, to children’s book and the use of colour in the Prince of Egypt. Theology covers everything because it relates to humanity, who we are created to be, our values, creativity, and beliefs. How could I not be enthralled by the breadth of knowledge and depth of humanity?

Art has always been much the same. I was the girl who would link anything to anything in order to arrive at a subject I was more interested in. For example, “trees” could link to “age lines” because of the way the rings tell how old a tree is; “age lines” could link to “time lines” and hence to “history”; this could give me a way into fashion, politics, families, even medical history or bacterial and viral cells. If my final piece ends up looking at cells I can easily write about the inner cell structure of trees, and all living things and create beautiful images of microscopic cells. My final piece at first look may not have anything to do with trees, but with a little imagination I can still start my project off named “Trees” and explain how I got there. I could even talk about how even the tallest trees when taken to the most basic components are made from the smallest pieces, as is everything. See? Easy and also quite a lot of blagging.

Seriously! How beautiful is this?

What was incredible is that when I combined these two amazing subjects the world was my oyster. I could explore thousands of years of history, theories, ideas, philosophies, and just so much through art and I didn’t need to scramble for links because beneath Theology is the basic idea of a God above it all. There is already this incredible link between even the most distant of pieces of creation.

What sucks is that despite Theology being so awe-inspiring and good for my artist side, is that often church can be a place that doesn’t feel too comfortable. I recently read an article which managed to put into words some of the issues I have felt within a church community. I wouldn’t ever say that all christians, or even all churches, have behaved like this, but some have, and it only takes one to make someone like me feel pretty useless, feel like I don’t have a place, and, despite my gifts, feel pretty useless in the grand scheme of things.

I’m just going to add a few words to each of the points the article brought up to explain more fully why from an artists’ point of view it’s a rubbish thing for those in a church to act. I think that although the article makes plenty of reverse psychology statements of how to discourage artist’s, it didn’t go into depth about what art can really be within the church.

Treat the arts as a window dressing for the truth”
Somewhat understandably since the Reformation churches have focused strongly on the Word. Of course Biblical support, study and focus is important, but the myth of the reform is that the Word was the only thing said and listened to. Martin Luther and many others opened the doors to everyone being able to read, and read onto, the Bible. Interpretation, translation and inspiration began to have far more say from far more voices than when one man at the top told the congregations what to believe. One of the great freedoms we have to delve into the complexity of the Bible, of God and of belief in order to be closer to the truth. This will often require questions and art is both an amazing resource in which to work them out, and a great challenge. Artists can produce work which reveals a truth, whilst asking questions about God and humanity. It was a painting of St Matthew that really helped me work out how God used us and what we are called to be despite our flaws and failings. To suggest that skill and challenge ended with the Renaissance.

Embrace bad art”
Although I understand it can be wonderfully helpful to add visual images to slide shows, connect with the emotion and feelings behind the worship, it often feels far more manipulative than useful. It’s also somewhat horrible as an artist to feel that only the simple, easy and commercial images will ever get used, thought of, bought, etc. When you know that it took about 3 seconds to produce an image of a woman standing arms wide in front of the ocean/mountains/sunset/sunrise in the same way of the other thousand similar images online, and in comparison it took days, months, even years to produce images of incredible beauty that deal with some of the hardest theological concepts in existence, it feels rubbish  to see which one a church might choose for a preaching tool. It makes those of us searching for truth, praying for inspiration, and putting our lives on the line to follow an often thankless path like a nobody, like there was no point, or possibly worse: that the church doesn’t seem to recognise something you are yourself sure has come from God.

A whole google search of "Christian" worship images... yay!
A whole google search of “Christian” worship images… yay!

Value artists only for their artistic gifts”
It shouldn’t that hard to understand this: artists are normal people too, artists can be normal Christians. It should also be pretty clear that people often have multiple gifts, and in the Church it seems ridiculous to pigeon-hole people into one specific task. I think that has been easy for me to understand, even as an artist, because of the amazing examples around me. I know that artists can also be an amazing force behind charity and children’s work, I have also seen an artist become a great teacher and leader within a church. In the same way it might be an idea to remember this when dealing with anyone in a ministry role: just because someone is amazing in the Sunday School doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be amazing preaching passionately to the rest of the congregation too..

Demand artists to give answers” OR “tell them what to do and also how to do it”
I’ve experienced quite a lot of this and it always made me feel patronised and used; as if I was being told to copy out the dictionary rather than being asked to produce a poem. If you think someone has a gift, and you need a creative input, don’t then take it upon yourself to create a specific image and expect the artists to copy it from your mind. It is not useful, it is not encouraging, and it does not treat God’s gifts with any kind of respect. When you ask for the simplest of images, when you come requesting the clearest of moral lessons, or pick up on any ambiguity and ask for it to be removed, it hurts.
Art is fully of complexity. One of the best lessons I was ever given was from C S Lewis‘ “The Great Divorce” where an angel speaks to an artist about his ability to see heaven and catch a glimmer of it within his work to show humanity. I’m not sure I can say that this process works when given such a tiny space in which to be inspired. How much beauty could be in a sonnet if Shakespeare was only allowed to alter 2 words of it? Freedom allows the Spirit to work in us, and the result is rarely clean. Either the Church needs to accept this or stop claiming their simple clean lines are of God.

“Only validate art that has a direct application”
This is one I have often struggled with. I have been asked to use art for prayer resources, for evangelism, and although at times it’s been wonderful to have a reason to be inventive, creative and inspired, sometimes it’s felt like forcing a square peg into a round hole. When you force art to be practical in a way that says “this was created in order to pray with” it takes away from the breadth of what art can be. Of course art can be utilised to tell a story, talk someone through an issue, help question and answer questions, but when it’s simply a product like a tool to be used, it’s just so much less. Art is not just decoration or background to a point you’re trying to make. Saying so is like saying poetry is only for a speech at weddings. Art is expression and passion and feeling and faith incarnate. It is a piece of inspiration painstakingly prepared in a physical form. Treat it as such, or try to understand a little more about it.

There were far more points that I won’t go into, but I hope I’ve given something a little bit of explanation behind the thousands of artists who don’t know where there place is. We’d love to feel at home, but art is part of us, a God-given part, and it hurts when it’s taken advantage of or dismissed.

An Artist’s place is within the Church, just like everyone else. It might be that the Church needs to understand us a little more, but we’d love to help with that.

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