Stop Saying Christian Artist.
The term “Christian Artist” sounds simple and its meaning seems obvious. Intuitively we think we know what it means. But well intended language often gets in the way of clarity. Everyone wants to discover their life purpose, and to find joy in doing the very thing they believe God designed them to do. We search for words that help us understand ourselves and help others understand why we do what we do. We want to share with others what brings us joy, and what we do for a living. Also, we want to share with others the joy we have found in our faith. Becoming a Christian is life changing.
As we begin to connect out faith with our creative work, we see the two as interrelated instead of compartmentalized. We find our identity in both being a Christian and in being an artist. Thus, people combine the terms to express their spiritual and creative life into one.
There’s A Problem
It is often a distracting term in the mainstream art world or entertainment industry because it makes no sense to your Jewish, atheist, or agnostic colleagues. Some of them are afraid of religion or are hostile to religion. Often their art professors have only described Christians as the people who protest great art and hinder creativity. Using the term Christian only closes doors professionally in the mainstream art world and entertainment industry.
The other problem is they don’t know how faith and art intersect. They assume one is primary and the other is an afterthought: they wonder if you are a Christian who just wants to evangelize and you do a little art, or if you are a serious artist who has a little religion in your life. Most people have seen very few examples of a passionate Christian who is also an amazing artist (outside of examples from centuries ago).
If you are a Christian, that term describes your faith, and how you live your life.
If you are an artist, that term describes your field of gifting and expertise.
Your faith should inform the work you do and the art you create but it does not define your job. When you put the two words together and call yourself a “Christian Artist” you invite tremendous confusion. Besides, these two words put together often present expectations which the Bible doesn’t even meet.
Consider just a few factors:
1. Does a “Christian Artist” need to create work that explicitly speaks of God?
Problem: Even the book of Esther doesn’t do that.
2. Does a “Christian Artist” need to create work which is explicitly evangelistic?
Problem: God’s own artwork of Creation wouldn’t even qualify because John 3:16 isn’t written on the rocks, trees, or various animals.
If we take a few minutes to think about this, we realize calling artists who are Christians, “Christian artist”, doesn’t bring clarity. It brings confusion. Curiously, God doesn’t need a “Christian Artist” in order to pursue peace, to expose injustice, or to speak to the human heart. He can, and always has used both Christians and pagans to glorify his name and to bring truth to the forefront of our culture. Pablo Picasso was not a Christian, but God used his great work Guernica to expose the evil perpetrated on that innocent village. God will use whatever and whomever he desires. Thus, the term “Christian Artist” doesn’t set us apart in history as the only ones God can use to glorify himself.
So what should you do?
Let’s utilize some of the principles we teach at our Arts and Entertainment Institute to illuminate these issues. First, we should seek to grow and become a mature Christian whose faith invades all of life–including our life at home, our work and our art. This is true for all of us. Don’t compartmentalize your faith, and don’t ever stop living in community with other Christians, reading the word, praying, and striving to mature more each year. You should always be growing in your faith!
Second, seek to always keep growing and becoming an excellent, deeply creative artist. God did not give you talents in order for you to be lazy and waste them. Developing your gifts brings honor to God, the one who gave you those gifts. This will increase your appreciation for your artistic discipline, bring humility as you see there is always room to grow, and gain the respect and interest of non-Christians.
Third, let your work speak to the world in the unique way God has gifted you. Whether it is priestly or prophetic, therapeutic, or shocking, overt or subversive. Strive to honor God in the unique way he has gifted you. Think carefully about your audience, and how God can use you to speak to them. Some people need a painting like Picasso’s Guernica to wake them from their passivity and lack of concern over evil. Others needs a more therapeutic approach to be a salve to their wounds. For example, if you are creating art for a hospital or a counseling center, it would be completely insensitive to create cutting edge, gritty and violent work. There is a time and place for all kinds of art.
Fourth, remember that the degree to which your faith is seen through your art depends upon your audience. If you are making art for a church, you can be quite explicit and use well known symbols and metaphors from the Bible. If you are making art in the mainstream culture for atheists and people skeptical of the gospel, you will need to be more nuanced and share truths in more implicit ways. You need to adopt a missional or incarnational approach to your art – connecting with your audience where they live.
Fifth, if you are primarily focused on a particular message (trying to evangelize your audience) you are making propaganda, not art. That may require knowledge of design and art, but your goal is quite different. The problem I have seen with people who are always focused on a message alone is they truncate the creativity of God and denigrate the value of beauty. Instead of seeing the beauty of a sunset, a great film, or a wonderful art installation in a museum they demand everything to preach. Psalm 19:1-4 shows us that this is unBiblical (the heavens declare his glory, and John 3:16 is never sky-written over them), and not even God adheres to such a utilitarian, reductionist approach to life.
God doesn’t expect lawyers and doctors to evangelize every client or patient, and he doesn’t have that expectation of you as an artist either.
What is the real cost of using the term “Christian Artist”?
To be honest, if you are making art inside the Christian sub-culture and you use the term Christian Artist it only tends to lower the bar of excellence, under the guise of “ministry’. People will tend to buy your art because of your faith not because it is great art. It is one step above your aunt Miriam buying your artwork simply because she loves you and not because she loves the artwork. The history of Contemporary Christian Music has experienced this for decades. There was a time when they would predict an album’s success by how many times “Jesus” was on the album. It has only made it harder for others to pursue excellence or to impact the mainstream culture. Christian bookstore art can occasionally be decent, but more often it suffers from this same dynamic.
If, on the other hand you are working in the mainstream and you call yourself a “Christian Artist”, it only serves to alienate you from the people you are called to reach. There is no quicker way to make an art gallery or film set awkward than to announce you are a Christian to people who never asked. They don’t want to know about your faith until they see the love of Christ in the way you treat people, and excellence in your work that comes from honoring the one who gave you those gifts. Either way, the term is not helpful in becoming salt and light where you live and work.
If you want to communicate the connection between your faith and your art, you may want to say something like you are an “artist of faith”, or to share how you find great inspiration in your faith. Sometimes it is best to simply say you are an artist, filmmaker, musician, dancer, et. al. and let your faith become a part of the conversation at a later time. After all, no other profession expects you to announce your faith up front. Jesus himself just loved people and let them figure out who he was later on. He didn’t start talking to the woman at the well by announcing who he was. Jesus loved people, healed people, and then engaged their doubts and questions. He knew exactly who he was, but he didn’t feel the need to broadcast that to others.
When in doubt, it is often best to go back to the basics. Let’s imitate Christ. Let go of the emphasis on labels like “Christian Artist” and focus on loving God, loving others and creating great art.
Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.