December 15, 2017

A Letter To Andrew and Other Young Artists Injured By The Church

photograph.jpg[The following letter is an opportunity to talk to the many Christian young people who feel disapproval from family and church in their pursuit of an artistic vocation. In my experience, many of these young people abandon their Christian faith as they go through rejection and misunderstanding. This letter is an encouragement and some advice regarding staying on the path of following Christ into an artistic vocation.]

Dear Andrew,

So very good to hear from you. I can’t believe that your third year of college is approaching. Time passes so quickly. It only seems a few weeks ago that you were in senior English, writing essays about the elements of literature. Now you are on your way to Chicago for a year studying photography with professionals. All of us are very proud of you, and I am personally honored that you’ve kept in touch.

On to your questions. Your alienation from your religious upbringing troubles you far more than it does me. I share most of your objections to the criticisms of your choices you’ve heard from many Christians, and I suspect they are rooted in many shared experiences. It doesn’t take long to discover that, at least among the Baptist churches we are both familiar with, there are severe problems in conceiving of anything in a Christian vocation outside of a few well-worn and familiar options. This means two things are almost certainly going to happen as you grow up and talk about the calling that interests you.

First, there will probably be no one in your church who is a model or example of, in your case, an artist who is consciously creating art as a Christian. In all my years in various churches, I’ve known one graphic artist, and he was held in high suspicion if he did anything beyond designing Christian t-shirts or logos for churches. In your case, you’ve discovered other artists, but they are far from your Baptist background or spiritual commitments and have facilitated much of your current ability to view your own roots with a critical, even cynical, eye. I worry this will lead you away from not just your church- which is probably a good and necessary thing- but away from a meaningful faith.

Second, it’s quite likely you’ll never hear pastoral teaching or preaching that give specific endorsements of an artistic vocation or very much encouragement in your creativity. Frankly, if an artist isn’t willing to become an illustrator for Sunday School materials or some similar ministry, no one really knows what to say to him or her. Unless you find yourself in a very unusual church or fellowship, expect to be left alone at best, and most likely misunderstood in ways that will, intentionally or unintentionally, prove hurtful.

Once you arrive at some self-confidence that God has, indeed, made you an artist and that your joy in life will come from using artistic and creative gifts, it is entirely understandable that, given these experiences, you will see the church as your enemy. Your particular experiences in the rural Baptist fundamentalism here in Kentucky are almost certainly going to leave you feeling like others believe you’ve gone over to “the world.” Your parent’s church will take one look at your appearance and feel threatened. You’ll be in the category of a “backslider,” or one who has abandoned the good ways he once followed as a member of the youth group.

When I meet young artists or musicians such as yourself, I feel a lot of compassion, because it seems like you are seeking to glorify God and honor him, but your family and childhood church cannot see this because it is so far outside of the box of what they consider acceptable. I hope and pray that you will remember that however they treat you, they are operating out of assumptions they believe are right and true. Your angry response will do much to convince them that they are right in seeing you as deserting the faith, or your Christ-like response will prompt them to see Christ in you, and to consider that God may be calling and gifting you in ways they haven’t considered.

Your brother’s comment that you are in rebellion against God is interesting. I’ve noticed that many in our particular branch of fundamentalism believe there are two ways to show that you love God: 1) Say that you love God in preaching, music or testimony and 2) Convert others to Christianity. (I should acknowledge that there are other acceptable ways, such as being a good husband and father, but I am thinking of your situation now.)

Oddly, what this tends to produce is a lot of “loud” announcements of how much we love God. Praise songs that say “I love God!” over and over. Lots of young people entering the ministry, going on mission trips, taking up “Praise and Worship” music careers. All of this is aimed at getting the “amen” of the church or at converting the lost.

What about someone who wants to show their love for God by designing a building, writing a song about life or, in your case, photographing the landscapes of the city? Our fundamentalist friends cannot see God in it. It’s very much suspect. How are you loving God if you aren’t SAYING SO in ways “they” understand?

I know. It’s quite frustrating. It seems easy to conceive that life has a center- in our case the Lordship of Christ- and that from that center all kinds of vocations spring forth, honoring God in manifold ways. Instead, the church has often put itself and a narrow agenda at the center of life, and condemned whatever did not serve that narrow agenda. In the end, we’re left with a sense that “worldly” callings are evil, and only a preacher, worship leader or missionary are serving God.

Andrew, it is our duty to resist this with all our might. We must, as persons who have an ultimate loyalty to Jesus Christ, show what it means to follow him. We cannot let this challenge to discipleship- and that is what it is- go unanswered. It is a distortion, and it is very harmful to the demonstration of God’s glory through the gifts he has given to people. It condemns many of God’s children, and impoverishes the church.

How can we answer this distortion? Before I say anything else, I must say that gentleness and kindness, not raucous argument, defensiveness or intentional martyrdom, are the answers. Show the joy of Jesus Christ to those who insist you cannot possibly be in fellowship with Christ. I say this knowing that arguments with your family have already occurred and will probably happen again. Do your best to show that the heart of your calling is the love Jesus showed when rejected and misunderstood. Be willing to suffer, but be willing to love.

Three specifics come to mind as encouragements to you.

1. While pursuing art without labels, be able and willing to define yourself as a Christian artist, and do it in an uncompromising way. I have grown so weary of hearing young people abandon any true relation of their art to Jesus Christ, and instead saying rather meaningless things about “believing in God” or “being thankful to God for my talent.” A true Christian artist can give a reason for his or her art- a specific, intelligible, definite Christian understanding that can stand alongside other explanations of art. This isn’t smacking a fish on the bottom of a painting or writing praise choruses. It is being able to relate anything in the creative arts to the God who unique reveals himself in Jesus Christ.

I’m sure you remember when we studied the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and how my announcement that she was my favorite Southern Christian writer illicited quite an argument from one of our staff students. She couldn’t understand how someone who didn’t write overtly about Jesus or Christians could be called a Christian writer. My answer to her holds true for all kinds of art: O’Connor writes in the Christian universe, with all her characters and all her stories describing good and evil in the world the Bible describes to us after sin has ruined paradise. She chooses to show us evil as it occurs in the lives and experiences of memorable Southern characters. She’s true to a Christian vision, in fact, much truer than the vast majority of writer’s at the “Christian fiction” section of your local Lifeway. Christ figures abound in her stories, if you are open to see them.

It is simply very difficult for many Christians to relate God to art if the art does not depict God in ways they recognize: Bible stories, familiar images, moralisms. To show God’s universe, and our moral landscape, in images that are honest or even disturbing will be a difficult vocation, but a Christian must do the work of not only creating, but of conceiving the presence of God, truth and revelation within that vocation. You are such a person. You have the tenacity, but you must begin at the beginning. Know how your calling and your faith coincide in your artistic vision.

Look at your art and find a way to articulate how it relates to what we learn about God and ourselves in Jesus. I am not recommending you overtly associate with “Christian” forms of art, but that you be able, when the opportunity arrives, to show the fruits of your creative labors and the roots tht produce that fruit. When the opportunity comes, surprise your fundamentalist friends who believe you’ve left Jesus far behind. Show them that he is in every picture, if they know where to look. Be able, when the time is right, to tell anyone how Christ is part of your work.

2. Find a church that will support your artistic vocation. The sad fact is that our rural Southern Baptist church background isn’t often supportive of your vocation, and your family and church have, sadly, been particularly condemning. But it concerns me that you have generalized this to all churches, and that you now speak of not needing to “go to church” as if “church going” is something we do to prove we our Christians. In fact, we associate with other believers in order to follow Jesus. God’s word commands it for our good and our joy, not as a test to prove we are real Christians. We simply can’t follow Jesus without the church. We need what it gives us, and we need the community if offers us. You need the church, but the church needs you, too. Don’t abandon the bride of Christ, Andrew.

The problem is to find a church where you will be accepted, and now that you are in Chicago, and not in Kentucky, you have many options. Let me suggest a few.

I think many Reformation Churches are very interested in the arts. In the Reformation community, I would put everything from Presbyterians to Lutherans to Episcopalians. Of course, there are theological issues in the various denominations of these churches, and that is another letter. You need a church that holds to the Christian faith and to the teachings of scripture. But in terms of openness to the arts, and even encouragement of the arts, these are churches that will give you a much different experience. Please, look and experiment. Keep in touch and I’ll try to be helpful. Today, many churches are courting artistic members, and you may find yourself a wanted person. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change! Tattoos and all!

[I could say that, in general, the more “Catholic” side of Christianity has a much healthier view of art, but you can see that walking into any cathedral or going to any Catholic university.]

Another option is what is commonly called “the emerging church.” Here, I’m talking about small, often less formal congregations that are intentionally formed with the goal of ministering to the current postmodern culture and those who relate to it. These church are usually savvy to the world of art and media, and appreciate the arts. I am not suggesting that you simply look for something “trendy” or “cool,” but that you may find, in coffeeshops and art gallery basements and movie theaters, fellowships of Christians that are moving beyond the way of doing church you and I grew up with, and looking to include people just like you. I think this is an important and exciting possibility, and I hope you will keep your eyes and ears open to these emerging fellowships.

There are also multi-cultural, open and affirming Baptist (and other evangelical) churches in Chicago. I’ve sent along information about two. God has his people everywhere, and believe it or not, there are those who won’t judge you because of a few tattoos. The important thing is to not neglect the good gifts that come in the fellowship of other believers. Seek a church that will feed and support you. Go to a Christian college like Wheaton or North Park and ask the art professors and students about good churches. Surf the net. Watch for Christian artists giving concerts and showings of their work. There are likely fellowships of Christian artists who have gathered in networks and churches who will be looking to encourage young artists like yourself.

3. Create. I don’t really need to say this, but sometimes the most obvious thing is neglected. If you are a Christian with a vocation in art, then above all, worship God by creating. I am far more impressed with writers than I am those who plan to write. I am more attracted to creators than those who say they one day hope to create. Now is the time to hone your gift and calling, and the best way to do so is to work diligently.

I think of how Jesus, for at least twenty years, found his joy- and his vocation- in his work as a carpenter (or stone worker, depending on how you translate a greek word). He made tables and yokes and shelves and plows and who knows what else. Do we believe Jesus was glorifying God less in those years than in the ministry years? That’s ridiculous. So I can confidently tell you to rejoice in God by creating the photography you love. Do so in a way that makes each picture, consciously, an act of worship to God.

Of course, there are pragmatic reasons to create: you need to build up material for a portfolio, and to seek ways to be compensated for your art. (Waiting tables is a good calling, too, but I don’t think it’s what God has in store for you.) But what I have in mind is coming to the point that you know who you are, and what you have been created to do. That will come as you devote more and more time to your craft, see it as an art that co-creates with God, and brings to a place that looking through the lens is a prayerful, God-centered experience.

Andrew, don’t be bitter at the hurtful things your family and church have said in the past. Don’t become selfish and defensive. Artists are often misunderstood, but it also doesn’t prove you are a true artist simply because you are misunderstood. Artists create. You have the opportunity to glorify Christ in your slight abuse and rejection, and in your continued, disciplined creations. Forgive your critics, and move forward to where God has called you to be, and into what God has called you to do. Don’t abandon the faith or dilute it into some personal religion that makes Jesus small. The God of holiness and sovereignty is worthy of devotion, service and love. Return to your family with joy, and respond to their criticisms with evidence that God is with your work, in your heart, and alive in your vocation. I am sure the point will come, as you create, that God will give a better heart to your family.

Peace,

Michael

Comments

  1. The thing about Orson Scott Card is that he manages to produce good stories with seriously Mormon themes and the mainstream sucks it up without even realizing that they are getting a particular worldview. The Ender books present and promote the Mormon doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul (he calls it the aiua), the Earth books are a retelling of the Book of Mormon (only more interesting and better written). Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus will resonate as a very good piece of Christian fiction in spite of Card’s Mormonism. So the question is: why aren’t more Christian artists doing what Card does? Why is it all Kincaide and Left Behind? C.S. Lewis noted that the measuring stick for so-called “Christian” literature should be the same as for any good literature (“The Seeing Eye”).

  2. ArtistXero wrote:

    “i think the christian artist is almost guaranteed to work in obscurity unless they create something mainstream (watered down).”

    In saying ‘watered down’ are you suggesting that any piece of Christian art must have the ‘4 spiritual laws’ or similar embedded in it?
    Like Francis Schaeffer, I don’t think any one piece of art needs to show an entire worldview.. rather, the artist’s worldview becomes aparent when viewing a lifetime or body of work.

  3. to Adrew,
    I mean watered down so it appeals to Corporate Christianity..which cares very little about the 4 spiritual laws or much of anything about real christianity. It only cares about “christian” product that is highly marketable and profitable and that usually equals watered down. The same thing happens in the “real” world where artists who stick to their vision rarely have as much success as those who who sell their vision out for money and become nothing more than corporate product.
    The way I see it the chrisitan artist has three choices for his/her work…

    1.Produce a work that is uncompromisingly, truly and unquestionably CHRISTian…and get ignored/rejected by the secular world and the majority of todays pseudo-christianity..

    2. Produce a work that appeals directly to mainstream Corporate Christianity that doesn’t have a true biblical message but has the feel goodism of much of todays christian product…and expect to have a surge of popularity and make a chunk of money before being pushed aside for the next big thing..

    or 3. Produce a work that appeals to the secular world and hide the chrisitian message underneath layers and subtleties and hope for the best…

    since I lack subtly I chose number one..

  4. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    ArtistXero, I think in many ways the reason 3 is so difficult is because the playing field has been levelled. Many of the masterpieces of the past that came from Christian art also came from social, historical, and culture settings in which there were relatively few options. It’s easy for we Christians who are composers to use Bach as the benchmark (or Schutz, if we’re more obscure) but the reality was that J. S. came from about ten generations of professional musicians. While that had the enormous upside of family legacy and continuity with an essentially dynastic set of skills the downside was that in some sense that level of artistry could only exist in a cultural setting that assumed a Christian worldview so that each generation of Bach could simply refine the family trade.

    For better and worse we don’t live in that kind of world. A person with an artistic inclination can move in that direction in our society (which would have been all but impossible in the time of Bach and possible in Haydn’s time if you were, well, Haydn (whose genius is severely underrated thanks to Mozart and Beethoven worshippers). But only in our time can a person realistically come out of NO artistic background and develop as an artist. The downside, of course, is that there’s virtually no chance your work will get recognized.

    So in a somewhat cynical, historical perspective, #3 has never quite happened. Handel’s Messiah went over well with the unwashed, if you will, but the Puritans didn’t like it, for instance.

  5. one way or the other it comes down to whether the artist is creating for Gods glory or his/her own glory and then accepting whatever happens when that choice is made…

  6. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    Well, if you create to please God you can still please yourself. Unless you’re making to please only yourself it doesn’t have to be either/or as Ecclesiastes 11:9 seems to suggest.

  7. WOW! Somebody understands what being an artist who is a christain is is like. I went to an IPCH collge for 2 yaers before trAnsfering to an art college. When I shared my desire to study art alot of my classmates did not get it. I wish someone had sent me this letter.
    I did find a great book by Madeline L’engle called “Walking on Water.” Its about being a Christain artist. Its wonderful. Everyone should read it.

  8. Mike, I read this a bit late but you know, I’m a photographer. I take pictures for a living and I’m proud of that. God gave me the talent, and the insite and it took me YEARS to be able to call myself an artist and to really grasp what that meant. I’m still walking out in it. I refuse to be put into some preconcieved idea of what a good Christian is. I was created by God the way I am and if they have issue with that, take it up with Him.

    I used to live in Chicago. Tell him to visit JPUSA- Jesus People USA. They are an incredible bunch of artistic Christian folks LIVING the life and reaching out to help others. Incredible people (I had the honor of spending a summer there). Just network with these guys and you will be blessed!

    As a fellow photographer, welcome to the fold brother. Just keep your spiritual apeture wide open k?