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Artistic Expression and Faith

A few days ago, I came across a post called Of Books and Faith written by Beck at Frog and Toad are Still Friends ( The best blog name EVER to my mind.) She writes about how the Christian market is saturated with mediocre books. How few fiction authors there are who really grapple with the messiness of humanity from a Christian perspective. I agree with her whole-heartedly. The Christian life does not come with the lack of conflict and the happily-ever-after resolutions that I find in many books of this genre.

It's funny that I came across that post because I had been thinking similar thoughts about another form of Christian expression. Art. Christian art is often either poorly rendered or is just too pretty. It lacks creativity. It doesn't engage the mind. Remember when I made that long trek to Hobby Lobby for stencil supplies? That was where this idea started to form.

I spent a few minutes flipping through posters. Flip. Glowing Jesus in a meadow. Flip. Glowing Jesus surrounded by cherubs. Flip. Glowing Jesus and his glowing disciples at the Last Supper. With the exception of the Transfiguration, Jesus doesn't glow in the gospels. There is no record of any sort of radioactive material that could have caused the all the guests to light up at the Last Supper. Cherubim, not cherubs are given a mention in a book or two. There's a world of difference, you know. So there I am flipping through these posters and wondering...How come Jesus looks like a holy, western, Paul Bunyan? Couldn't the artist find a Mid-Eastern model? Surely there are skilled artists out there who can capture the humanity of Jesus. How about a tired Jesus? Or a Jesus who sweats? How about a painting of Jesus sleeping in the boat with the waves threatening impending doom? There's a message in that too. Why do we only focus on the miraculous? The calming of the storm? Somehow I think that these images would draw us closer to Him...make us more appreciative that He chose to walk upon this earth in human form.

It's not hopeless. There are some artists that I appreciate for their thoughtful contribution to this arena.

Thomas Cole was a nineteenth century landscape painter. He captured on canvas the stages of life in his four-picture series The Voyage of Life. (Scroll down on his Wikipedia page to view these paintings.) His work is skillful, reflective, and realistic. There is not another painter of realism who whose work I enjoy as much as Mr. Cole's. It takes hours to absorb the details and message of these four paintings. The kids and I studied them together about a year ago and we were all impressed by his creativity, attention to detail, and ability to speak through art. The Course of the Empire is another Cole series with a relevant message for our times.

I think the nature of modern art is a good medium for a Christian artist because one must approach it with a mind that is willing to wonder...to search for meaning. I have found two modern artists whose work I appreciate. Sally Brestin has a beautiful painting titled Aslan. There is a video on her website that explains the miracle of this work. It gives me chills every time I hear her tell the story. Ann at Genesis Project has created paintings that are representations of bringing order out of chaos. She draws on the first chapter in Genesis for inspiration. Ann paints with vivid colors and bold brush strokes. Appropriate choices for the creation story I think.

There's one more thing I would like to see. How about a photo series that captures the church of today reaching across cultural divides? Photos of middle class people worshipping in ghetto churches with the locals. Photos of blacks and whites serving together. Photos of grandmothers and grandfathers instructing the younger generations. The Church today needs to be shaken out of the comfortable slumber that it is in and see what the Church in the book of Acts really looked like... in today's terms. An artist has the power to challenge our thinking.

Comments

Art with Ann said…
Kate, thank you so much for your encouragement on my painting! I totally understand your frustration with the average Christian artwork. Why is that if it is "Christian" it is usually ho-hum? We should be the ones that have bigger better ideas for the arts. For example our movies shouldn't be so blah and boring. We should be the best - not the laughing stock.
I've enjoyed painting the chaos to order idea... I'll probably be in chaos for along time! Seems I'm finding freedom in expressing chaos. LOL
L.L. Barkat said…
Have you ever read A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch? Well, or looked at it? (It's more picture than essay.) I think you'd appreciate it.

Also, do you know the work of Makoto Fujimura? He is an amazing Christian artist who does not shy away from hard topics, in his art and writing. I believe his blog is refractions.blogspot.com

I loved your line about the holy western Paul Bunyan. Quite amusing!
bubandpie said…
Those links are fantastic. I especially loved The Genesis Project.

When I clicked over to Thomas Cole, I realized that I used his paired paintings "Past" and "Present" in a class on The Sword in the Stone last month. I find that I need some kind of narrative hook in order to experience art - I don't have a very visual imagination, so I need that extra help.
Faith said…
I so agree with you on this one! (Especially with the books, though there are some exceptions; hadn't thought about art but that is so true, too.) I'm thinking about writing a novel or two ... I am all about grappling with the messiness of life from a Christian perspective! Just hope they would sell. ;)
Praying for your friend you told me about!
Thank you for your prayers and encouragement.
Kate, excellent post! I so agree. What's with the fluorescent Jesus? Good grief, we have reduced our Savior to a round bobble-head figure. I suppose it's easier to trivialize his teachings that way. We should be the most creative, having the Creator's spirit within us. More and more I stay out of the Christian bookstores because many are plastic gifts that miss the grit and joy God's plan. I could go on and on. Kate, I really appreciate your insight. Your posts keep getting better!
For anyone who is interested here are links for L.L.'s suggestions:

An example of Christians and Kitsch http://biblical-studies.ca/blog/2005/10/jesus-junk-and-christian-kitsch-volume.html

A book review on A Profound Weakness...http://www.christianity.ca/entertainment/books/2006/08.000.html

Makato Fujimura's blog. makatofujimura.blogspot.com I learned that World Magazine gave him the Daniel of the Year award this year.

Kate
Faith,

I think the fear of not selling is a big reason why real life Christian books don't make it to the market. Publishers have their eye on the bottom line.

Ann,

I'll probably be in chaos for along time! Seems I'm finding freedom in expressing chaos. I laughed with you when I read this. If I were an artist I think creating chaos would appeal to me too.

Kate
"holy western Paul Bunyan!" That just cracked me up! :) But you are so right.

He is the ultimate artist. Look at creation! It's incredible! Makes me want to encourage those Christian artists and authors who don't fit the "glow in the dark" mold so many Christians have settled for.

This is a great post.
Mary@notbefore7 said…
I am with you here. I feel like the Christian "circuit" has made so much progress with music, but the other forms of expression seem to be lacking at times in getting beyond the "bubble gum". (how we put it in this house) Thanks for the links - they were great visits.
Mary,

I agree with you about the music.

"Getting beyond the bubble gum." I think we'll appropriate that statement around here as well. Great way to put it.

Kate
lori said…
Kate,
As an art history teacher too, I agree wholeheartedly! It seems its everything Christian...ever watch a "Christian" movie? They are getting better as is music...there is SO much potential...maybe everyone is afraid! You inspired me, my next piece in art class will be an "imaginative," Christian piece...no glowing Jesus.
Thanks for the inspiration today!
Amy said…
Kate,
This post is so thought-provoking. And as Kathy already said, your writing gets better and better all the time! You need to start praying about a book!

I, too, loved the Paul Bunyan description. It's so true! I was reminded of the recent "makeover" that the Brawny paper towel guy had...he's even been made to look less rugged.

Our Jesus was a rugged man, living in rugged times, who at the same time exemplified tenderness and mercy. Wouldn't you love to see an artist's rendering of that?!!

Love you,
Amy
B&P

I was not familiar with Cole's Past and Present series. I just had a second to click over and view them. I can see how they would be useful for many applications. I'll be looking for an opportunity to illustrate a point with my children.

Amy,

Our Jesus was a rugged man, living in rugged times, who at the same time exemplified tenderness and mercy. Wouldn't you love to see an artist's rendering of that?!!

Yes.

Kate
Alana said…
Kate, I sent a link of this post to my husband. He is a Christian Artist and Professor of Art and I think he'll have some things to add to your discussion. Art in Christianity is a distinct interest of his.

Thanks for broaching this subject!
Rich said…
[Long]

Aforementioned Husband here,

Kate, a very intriguing post. I too wryly smiled at the glowing Jesus remark. I teach at a Christian College in Missouri and I often have these discussions with my students. Unfortunately I believe that the depth of commercial Christian Visual Art is reflective of the spiritual depth of the average Christian. It is so sanitary and safe, an oversentimentalized unattainable ideal, irrelevant to unchurched individuals. We live in an A-Christian society. I was raised in a church. I get the visual flannel-board vocabulary and understand its nuances, but what about a person unfamiliar with its symbols or stories? How are the images and safe topics that wouldn't be frowned upon in a church building going to connect with an individual without a similar frame of reference? Good art and that includes good Christian art speaks to all humanity and not just a narrow slice of an evangelical population.

This last Easter, Christianity Today asked me to submit a piece of work for an Evangelical approach to the Stations of the Cross. Mine was for the thirteenth station, Jesus is Laid in the Tomb Viewers could leave comments, and [I will have to admit] that pieces that were not realistic were often viewed with disdain or downright accused of being anti-Christian. The opinions were extremely polar, either very positive or extremely negative. Few fell in the middle, but I was struck at the sheer ignorance and vehemence of a few of the negative comments, questioning ones faith because one was working in an abstract fashion.

[I am going to post sections of this on my blog with a picture as this is seemingly a blog post anyway]

http://theshaperfables.blogspot.com

The point is that Christians, like most individuals, just do not have a great education in Visual Art. That is not their fault, but nor should it be a hindrance in trying to understand and appreciate sophisticated and deep expressions of visual Christianity. After all, isn't that our witness and our evangelical gift? A gift given to we practitioners by the original and greatest Creator? In addition, I don't believe Christians should necessarily get outraged over secular art that is overtly anti-Christian. Chances are that the individuals creating the artwork have had a bad experience or two at the hands or lips of Christians.

Christianity would be great if it weren't for the Christians.

Can you, the reader, recall a time or two when you did not Do as Jesus Would Do?

We are all broken. I think too often we Christians tout our difference and separation from "those sinners." But we are sinners too. The only difference is that we are covered by a Divine Grace that many of "those sinners" don't even know about. To connect with them, they have to know that we are the same, but different. They have to know that we are broken too. The current mainstream Christian Visual Art is doing a WAY inadequate job of giving broken people anything to relate to.

Thank yo Kate for posting this. Luckily there are MANY excellent Christian artists out there. CIVA [Christians in the Visual Arts] is a great organization that has many, but not all, great visual artists who are also Christian, and from many Christian traditions. [Civa.org] I am also the Gallery Director at my college and I have begun to exhibit Christian artists, not because they are Christians, but because they are great artists, revealing truths relevant to all humanity. The next show we have in September will feature Sandra Bowden. Google her and you will find an exceptionally talented artist. There is hope. People of my generation are tired of phoneys and as our purchasing power increases, so will the offerings of the mainstream Christian Commercial outlets.

Thank you for indulging me, and I hope that you all keep an open mind to non-representational expressions of faith as well as realism, but that is a whole 'nuther comment.

—RWC

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