An artist I know recently mentioned to me how he hated going into Christian bookstores. Without mentioning why, I could understand his unstated acrimony. (It may be for some of the same reasons why I would feel uncomfortable watching a Biblically-based movie where Jesus appears as a European-descent white male with brown hair and blonde highlights.)
Simply put, much of the Christian kitsch which passes for art in these bookstores falls short of reality. Whitwashed and tidied, the baubles and figurines and fridge magnets and lithographs which line these establishments seem to represent a view a bit removed and revisioned from the real world we actually live in. Inspirational posters, “how to” books on spirituality, and pastoral landscapes seem a bit out of touch with a world where young girls are trafficked, where children go to bed hungry, where innocent people are persecuted and executed, where airplanes seemingly disappear from the sky. But beyond the pithy sentimentalities of the bookstore, there really is a truth trying to poke out of these works, which is this: God has won the victory, and our sure and steadfast hope is in Him.
It’s like a children’s book of Bible stories. The story of Jericho is filled with cute soldiers marching, shiny trumpets blaring, stone-faced walls tumbling down. It’s a fun story. But the Biblical account also states that the city was razed, and every man, woman, child and animal was killed. That part doesn’t seem to make it into the children’s books, and one can argue, for good reason.
There is an uncomfortable tension between two realities, separated by a broad and hazy line. The truth of God’s love is mysterious and beautiful and full of grace. And the truth of the world we live in is brutally stark and often ugly and full of uncertainty. How can we, as artists of faith, be honest and authentic to both of these seemingly dichotomous truths?
N. T. Wright, Bishop and New Testament scholar, may have something to offer. In his sermon to the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival Eucharist, he says this:
“The whole world is already filled with God’s glory; that is precisely why we feel the present horror and shame of creation the way we do. But the whole world will ultimately be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, on the day when God makes all things new, and binds up every wound, and wipes away all tears from all eyes. The Christian contribution to the worlds of the arts, not least music, is therefore neither to collapse into sentimentality, to murmur the easy half-truths which comfort for a while but wither in the face of the horror of the world, nor to connive at that brutalism which, under the guise of ‘telling it like it is’, denies the very possibility of hope. The Christian contribution to the arts must lie along the line of listening to the longing and groaning of creation, a longing which is itself multi-dimensional because it is the evidence of the Spirit’s groaning and longing within the world, and expressing and portraying that longing both in its present agony and in its certain hope.”
This is where we, as artists of faith, must stand firmly and boldly, to declare the present-tense reality of God through our works and through our lives. It is true that this world is broken. It is simultaneously true that this world is filled with God’s glory. It is true that bad things happen—a lot. It is simultaneously true that we are offered a hope that is certain and secure. We artists must admit that we have not always done a good job of telling these simultaneous truths. We can slide into either end of the spectrum, either to “murmur the easy half-truths” or “connive at brutalism.” But darkness gives testimony to the light. And thankfully, the arts allow us a breadth and depth of expression which allows us to declare the tension of these two truths—through our choreography, our canvases, our musical instruments, our pens, our cameras.
To be an Artist of Faith is to be a prophet, a teller of truth. May we live out this reality in what we do, and with who we are. [Note: For more dialogue on this, please see The Artist as Prophet.]
[Artist Credit: Mixed-media piece by Judith Monroe. Please check out her website. Here is her artist statement about the piece: “This piece is titled “Fallen” and has many layers of meaning, starting with the scripture in Matthew that speaks to how God knows when even a sparrow falls, and then points to how believers are called to die to self, how the wages of sin are death, the sacrifice necessary to atone for sin and wherever else the Spirit leads you to contemplate…”]