Imagine for a moment that the sermon and musical worship where both taken out of the church service. Imagine then that the only way left to experience God in church is through the work of Christian artists. It doesn’t matter the form of art. It could be through paintings, poetry, or prose. It could be through any form of visual media or a well composed piece. It could even be through newer digital media. Now imagine if a stranger walked into the church and their first experience would be the work of an artist. Would this stranger be able to learn about Christ through the work of the artist? Does the artist himself even know how to integrate his faith and craft? Having a solid understanding of where faith and art intersect is vital. It affects how a Christian artist creates his work and the kind of message told through the work. Madeleine L’Engle, author of Newbery Medal book A Wrinkle in Time, explains her views on the intersection of faith and art in the book Walking on Water.
Christian artists need to know how to reconcile their faith and art. Will their faith play an important role or no role at all in the art they create? L’Engle approaches those questions from two angles. First she tells a story about one of her friends who taught at a denominational school. A student was having issues with the reading material that a guest professor was assigning. The problem was that the student didn’t feel comfortable confronting the guest professor because he was Roman Catholic. It was as if coming from this faith background made him less Christian or made him unable to have a Christian perspective on the reading material. Being able to see Christ in artwork is not necessarily tied to the artist’s Christian perspective. Being Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or any one of the various Protestant denominations doesn’t make an artist’s work any more or less “Christian”. She has a great point but the issue is that she doesn’t go far enough with her claim. An artist’s faith background doesn’t necessarily determine if their work is Christian or not, but is does very much affect their worldview and approach to their art. When creating art about the Incarnation, someone of a Catholic background will have a very different perspective to it as compared to someone from a Protestant background. The same could be said about the person consuming the art. Their faith background will very much affect the way they consume art.
Her other perspective to the questions about Christians and their art is if being Christian, regardless of denomination, and creating makes the work created by default Christian. She had one of her students approach her about the very question. The student was struggling with how to reconcile her faith with her work. L’Engle tells the student clearly that by being a true Christian her work will be by default “Christian” regardless of how many times the student will use the name of Christ in her work. This is a claim that L’Engle makes throughout her book. Though there is some validity to that, it is too broad a statement. God could easily use any and all art to speak with His own creation. He is not limited to the intentions of the artist to be able to be seen through a piece. But there is something to be said about a piece of art that is made for the sole purpose of glorifying him. To look at or read a piece that was made for the sole purpose of glorifying him and know that was the purpose adds a new level of appreciation for the piece. A prime example is the icons of the Eastern Orthodox. She brings them up as an example earlier in her book. Yet in her push for trying to show how any art could point to God, she misses an important point. She points out that icons are made with much prayer, discipline, intentionality, and anonymity. An icon is a piece of work that was made to intentionally point to God. Viewing an icon of Christ will provide a very different experience then looking at a painting of Christ that was made with little intentionality. Being Christian and creating is not enough to make the art Christian.
A well written story isn’t a random collection of words. It is a grand adventure into the unknown.
There is a lot of controversy in the Christian community about the validity of fiction stories. Should children, or anyone for the matter, be allowed to read stories that are full of lies and contradict the Bible? But do they really contradict the Bible? L’Engle sees the value of fiction and she sees even more value in fairy tales. L’Engle grew up with a fear of upcoming war. Her father was sick because of war and so the horrors of war where real to her even in childhood. She was able to find courage in stories and they helped her heal from the fear of war. L’Engle is also thankful that her parents allowed her to read the Bible with the same joy that she would read other fiction stories. She read the Bible as a story. At face value that seems sacrilegious. The Bible is more than a collection of stories. It is truth and the very word of God. But looking deeper into what she says, reading the Bible as a story is actually a beautiful way to read it. She is grateful that she was able to read the Bible with the same “wonder and joy” that she read other stories with. There can be so much excitement in reading a fiction story. A well written story isn’t a random collection of words. It is a grand adventure into the unknown. There is discovery and lessons learned from stories. Even more, a well written story take the reader into the lives of the main characters. They become alive and a part of the reader’s own life. The character’s experiences become real and personal. The Bible is very much also a story. It is a story of the love of God and the redemptive work of Christ. It is a story filled with real adventure, pain, love, and hurt. It is a very true story filled with impossible things.
The role of story isn’t just important when trying to consider the consumption of story. It is also an important question in regards to the kinds of art that Christians create. Whether it is visual, print, or digital art, a Christian artist could very well impart Biblical truth through story. There is so much beauty in story. The struggle of Good versus Evil that is present in most printed stories is such a great representation of the Good verse Evil found in scriptures. L’Engle bring up the fact that Jesus told stories through parables. His stories could well have been classified as lies. They were not true but they did very much contain truth. Likewise, Christian art doesn’t always have to be “true” but should contain truth in it.
It is vital that before a Christian artist starts creating that they first figure out the intersection of their faith and work. Does the Christian believe that everything they create is Christian simply because they themselves are Christian? Or will they created something that intentionally points to God. Simply starting to create without solidifying a world view on the matter is not excusable to a Christian artist. The Christian does not live life in a vacuum void of others and likewise the Christian Artist does not create in a vacuum void of other Christians and people. Their view of faith and art will greatly affect how and what they create.