Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College and a former pastor, knows that artists who are Christians often feel like fish out of water. Ryken says, “Their faith in Christ seems odd to many of their friends in the artistic community—almost as odd as their calling as artists seems to some of their friends at church.”
This is more than a tragedy. It’s a lost opportunity. Ryken notes that “Christians called to paint, draw, sculpt, sing, act, dance, and play music have extraordinary opportunities to witness to the grace, beauty, and truth of the gospel… The arts are the leading edge of culture,” he says.
So with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Ryken asked some of his artist friends what churches do to discourage them from their dual calling as artists and Christians.
First, they said, treat the arts as window dressing for the truth rather than the window into reality it’s intended to be. Second, embrace bad art just because it’s “Christian.” Third, value artists only for their artistic gifts, but not for the other contributions they can make as thinkers and servants with a unique perspective. Fourth, demand that artists only give answers in their work, but never raise questions. Fifth, never pay artists for their work—take advantage of them in ways we would never do with plumbers or accountants. And finally, only validate art that has a direct salvation application.
Unfortunately, too often these are exactly the kinds of things that churches do. But if we want to impact our beauty and truth-starved culture with Christ-honoring art, we have to do better! Come to our website and I’ll direct you to Ryken’s whole list. It’s an eye-opener.
But there’s another side to the coin. Many Christian artists expect to be taken seriously while having bought into the dominant cultural idea that art is all about self-expression. But presenting the obscure and confusing in a trendy way does not a Christian artist make. So, we have to ask, “What, then, is art?”
Artist Makoto Fujimura argues that for the Christian, art must be more than self-expression. It must be communication, because as Christians we deal with objective reality. As one of my mentors once said, art’s job is primarily to “paraphrase reality.” I like that. We can present beauty without being trivial, evil without being gratuitous, and redemption without being hokey.
And the Christian artist is a communicator also because God created through communication—through His spoken word. The creative individual made in the image of the ultimate communicator must be one who communicates as well. Not just what we feel, but what is true and real. Art’s job is to paraphrase Reality.
Now this doesn’t mean Christian art must be preachy or obvious, but it should make us think more deeply and better about life and the world.
For example, Fujimura’s paintings are abstract. Yet because he believes his responsibility is to communicate, he explains his art in writing. He knows that art is not really about the artist—little “a.” It’s about the big Artist—capital “A.”
And we’re not just communicating about God; we’re actually participating with Him. In his book For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts David Taylor says, “Whether through paint or sound, metaphor or movement, we are given the inestimable gift of participating in the re-creative work of the Triune God, anticipating that final and unimaginable re-creation of all matter, space, and time, the fulfillment of all things visible and invisible.”
And, let’s commit together to encouraging, not discouraging Christians in the high calling of art.
Further Reading and Information
How to Discourage an Artist: And Why We Shouldn't - Next Steps
Check out the books listed below for insight on how you and your church can integrate art individually and corporately. If there are artists in your own life, ask yourself and them how you can support and encourage them to pursue their calling. Even for those without direct friends or family in their arts, continue to ask how you can support the arts and artists in the church.