“Today most people don’t look at the art world as having Christians involved,” says Deborah Laurin, a contemporary artist, who got her Bachelor’s Degree in Art at Biola University, a private Christian university in La Mirada, California.
“They are two things that most Christians assume don’t go together in current culture.”
Studying and joining the community at Biola, Laurin developed a different perspective as she noticed Christian professors’ continued commitment to art.
“[A] lot of professors still spent days in their studios, doing art and shows, and were really involved in the art community. It showed me that Christians can be artists; it is possible, especially in the contemporary art world.”
In the past, churches often commissioned art projects, and much of the classical art that you see shows Biblical scenes. But this relationship culminated during the Renaissance and began to decrease as the separation of church and state became greater around the time of the Reformation. The relationship between the church and the artist continued to gradually change on into the modern age, when artists were seldom commissioned by churches and so had to find a role in the wider society.
“It is not surprising that at the beginning of the twentieth century Christians looked at the arts more as a field for evangelism than as an ally in expressing and living out their faith. Becoming an artist was not considered … a viable option for the serious Christian, and those Christians who did manage to go to art schools encountered an environment that was not encouraging to their faith,” remark Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens, editors of The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity: An A-To-Z Guide to Following Christ in Every Aspect of Life (Intervarsity Press, 1997). “The result,” they continue, “is that, outside of music (mostly classical or Christian) and an occasional drama, Christians do not typically give much thought to the arts in their everyday life.” As to the source of the separation between faith and fine arts, Laurin traces it to a misconception about art among believers.
“They see contemporary art as something they don’t understand. The way art has developed, you can’t just walk into a contemporary gallery and understand what everything means. People that usually come in to an evangelical church want to understand things, have things laid out and explained, but the nature of art is very ambiguous, based on perception. It can mess with people’s emotions. It can stir up some truth and cause reactions; it’s provoking.”
“Because of this,” Laurin explains, “there’s a misunderstanding and fear about art, making art and the church kind of at odds. Often there’s a fear that it’s going to have naked people or stuff that is subversive, like something children should not see. Often [believers are] really skeptical at first, but once they allow artist[s] to do their thing, they’re pleasantly surprised and realize that art is a great gift.”
In fact, the church has been more accepting of art in recent years, seeking to be more relevant in culture and making the acknowledgement of art a big part of that endeavor.
“Some communities have been more accepting, usually the relevant, emergent churches or the more structured Eastern Orthodox church. Offering a place for contemporary and traditional art, there are both expressions,” says Laurin.
But artists still feel a tension. Laurin shares, “Being an artist and being a Christian, you often wrestle with a lot of things because you’re put in a tight spot. You’re between two worlds and have to find out why you’re called to art, what God wants you to do with it and how that fits in the church community as a whole. I see the church community as members around a banquet table, and everyone brings their different gifts and fill[s] a different role. Like a flambé dessert, the artist’s gift [is one] not everyone understands. Why would you light a dessert on fire? But once you try it, it’s delicious, amazing, and enriches the quality of the entire meal and brings something to the experience that makes it so dynamic and impacting. Art really has the power to engage people’s minds, to help them think and consider things they might not consider otherwise.”
“I can’t say what every artist’s role is,” she continues, noting that “some might feel called to do biblical illustrations, others called to be immersed in the contemporary art scene or [to play] a more commercial role, like graphic design or web design. It’s something every artist has to figure out.” But regardless of their particular niche, Laurin affirms that “[m]ost artists need encouragement or support in their practice, because it’s a really competitive world”—where the artist who is a Christian must face “not being completely understood either as a Christian in the art world, or as an artist in the Christian world.”
Banks and Stevens further encourage, “If God has given particular talents in the arts, these need to be developed and put in God’s service—whether in the church or in the larger world of culture. But even if we do not feel a particular call or interest in the fine arts, we can still seek to make our lives into vehicles for God’s own beauty.”
Laurin expresses similar sentiments. “As an artist, God has given you an amazing gift that I think a lot of artists don’t realize. It’s something that can reach people in a unique way.” So much so, Laurin says, that, as an artist “you must be conscious of what you’re creating, because you’re creating an image that affects people. You have to consider what your message is, your goal, why are you creating art and what you want it to say, because in doing so, you can bring God and Jesus with you into your art world and then into the art culture as a whole.”
After a moment of feverish paint slinging and hand motions, Matthew Bivens sets down his supplies to behold a finished piece. He has just completed a live art session.
Bivens had interest in the arts since he was a child, tuning into PBS shows that showed basic drawing concepts and spending his allowance on how-to-draw books through elementary school. In high school, Bivens had the opportunity to take an art class that expanded his knowledge of techniques and materials. When he went to college, he gradually shifted from a desire to make comic books to a deeper understanding of the variety of fields in the arts. When Bivens found out that he liked helping others to make art, he began to pursue a career as an art educator.
A teacher by day, painter by night, Bivens is often a part of a variety of art scenes, including live painting art shows. In these shows, the artist performs the creation of a work of art in front of an audience. Bivens’ experiences have all included a sculptural aspect and performing alongside another act: the two most recent shows he’s done have been to music, but his first experience doing live art was accompanied by a lecture on “Where Is Heaven?”
God often inspires his creativity, and that first lecture experience of sculpting and painting sticks with him as particularly pertinent to his identity as a Christian artist because the concept of heaven was addressed through the abstract concept of the difference between a two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) world, providing an analogy to the difference between where we are and the where Heaven is.
“God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.” – Pablo Picasso
“In my painting/sculptures I seek to express my understanding of the difference between Heaven and Earth, while listening for God to speak to me. The recent works I’ve done have shown me how the abstract 2D shapes reflect my sinfulness and the 3D forms swirling chaotically reflect my limited understanding of the glory that awaits me in Heaven,” says Bivens.
Bivens recognizes the challenges that confront artists who follow Christ. “Being a Christian in the art world can be tough,” he admits, adding that he has felt his faith and belief sometimes attacked by the works of others. But he does what he can to use those times to share how God is active in his own life. “The art world is a place where a Christian needs to remember to be in the world, but not of it,” Bivens cautions. “Gallery openings and art events can offer both positive and negative things at times.”
But working as a Christian artist has its upside, too. Within the variety of reasons that motivate Christian artists’ expressions, their shared purpose provides a common foundation for fellowship and encouragement. “It is awesome to be in a studio with fellow Christian artists creating works and discussing our relationships with God or just enjoying fellowship,” Bivens reflects.