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The Artist’s Defense: Can religion and the arts happily coexist?

The Artist’s Defense: Can religion and the arts happily coexist?


Ted Barnes, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, argues the two actually work together toward the same purpose.

By Ted Barnes

I have been an artist all of my life; I could not have been anything else. As a child I really didn’t need toys, because I was always making things instead. If I was given a toy, I would tear it apart and then put it back together, making it into something different; for me, that was much more fun than the original toy. During high school, I put together model car kits, always modifying them into outrageous hot rods. I began to take my painting seriously but with a preference toward a bohemian abstraction. I wrote, directed, and acted in 8mm movies (usually a parody of some historical narrative). I played rock ‘n’ roll in garage bands, trying to merge rock-a-billy and soul music. It seems I have always wanted to create and look at things differently.

I like being an artist; it has advantages. It allows for being quirky and eccentric. I can walk across campus with these funny looking tortoise shell glasses on, wearing loafers with no socks, and most people will say, “Hey, it’s all right, he’s an artist. They are always a bit different.” I consider myself a lucky guy.

Artists and the works they produce play an important role in our lives, especially in religion, faith, and worship. The arts serve as a mediator in the human religious experience—a fact which has been overlooked now for too long.

In the Genesis creation account, we learn God is the Divine Creator and we are made in His likeness. My faith affects who I am; it governs my whole being—the intellectual side and the imaginative side. I believe we were created in the likeness of a creative God. We were made with the distinct impulse to create.

Personally, I can’t fathom not being an artist, or what my life would be without the presence of the arts to enrich every part of my existence. And I have never felt that my faith has kept me from the freedom I have needed to pursue being an artist.

I have never felt that my faith has kept me from the freedom I have needed to pursue being an artist.

Actually, my faith has given me the freedom to search and explore more openly not only as an artist, but also as an individual seeking God’s truth. This rich spiritual life has enhanced my artwork and has helped me become closer to God, like the old hymn by C.B. McAfee, Near to the Heart of God.

Many of us, day in and day out, no matter what we do for a living, struggle with the question, “Is what I am doing worthwhile?” This has never been a problem for me. Believing that I have been created in God’s image as a creative being, what could be more natural than being an artist and teaching others to be artists as well?

God is the Divine Creator and we are made in His likeness. We are made to be creative and experience the fruits of creativity. We were designed to be “near to the heart of God.”

This question presupposes that the arts are a waste of time, a self-indulgence instead of a calling from God. I argue instead that experiencing the arts brings us closer to God.

The role of the artist is to portray what the camera alone cannot capture, to capture what the eyes of others do not see. The artist’s mission is to help all of us to see better. Artists do not merely make objects that can be seen through our eyes, but they uncover for us something that we have not seen, or something we have only imperfectly realized. Art is not merely an illustration of reality; it is the illumination of reality unseen. The 20th-century painter Paul Klee once said, “Art does not reproduce the visible. Rather, it makes visible.”

The artist’s mission is to help all of us to see better.

Our Christian faith has always affirmed the belief in the visible and the invisible. In many ways, this is the quintessential definition of faith. The artist lives out that definition by making visible the invisible.

Artists are able to capture a vision or an idea in ways that focus our attention more specifically. Art helps us to celebrate and to offer praise in new and profound ways. It can prompt us to think and explore and work out ideas, to see things we hadn’t seen before, to better understand the mysteries of life. We need art because it adds meaning to faith. It seems to me that artists and the church have common goals.

I think that there exists today a divide between the Christian community and the arts, which runs opposite to what I believe God intended. This is not only the church’s problem. Our society suffers from a divide between the arts and the public. This can be seen not only in the church, but also in our educational and political systems today. Why is it that music, theater, and art are the subjects cut first when funding is down in the public schools?

From its beginning Protestantism (which had a founding influence on America) has always had a mistrust for the fine arts. My guess is because of its openness to personal interpretation, which is different than the written or spoken word used in church where, more often than not, words are understood in a straightforward or literal manner. Understanding meaning is much easier with words than with images or sounds that use interpretation for understanding and appreciation. Personal interpretation and the ambiguity of the arts have always been a little unnerving for the church. The Reformation focused on words; it has always denied and suppressed our intuitive nature, that part of us that hungers for the imagination and the creative.

From the Reformation on, the church, and especially Baptists, have viewed the arts as unimportant rather than central to conveying the gospel and have placed word over aesthetics. If considered at all, the arts have been viewed as only decoration, and usually then in a trite, mediocre way, rather than in any substantial or intelligent manner.

I see a terrible dilemma in the church’s suspicion of the arts, because as soon as we move outside the walls of the church, we are saturated with visuals and sound-bytes. I see the church needing to recognize that it doesn’t stand a chance of reaching a generation that has grown up with TV, movies, iPods, and computers unless we bring the arts back to the church. I believe we need to encourage our denomination to embrace the arts again with imagination and purpose, as I believe God intended us to do.

So how, as Christians and educators, do we embrace the arts again? How can we draw “near to the heart of God?” We must approach the arts with an open mind and be willing to experience what happens.

As Christians we can gain much by approaching the arts with curiosity. The challenge is not to settle for sentimentality or mediocrity but instead to expect artworks that are rich in substance and meaning—works that are challenging. It is time again for us to reengage the idea of truth and beauty. Leon Alberti, the most important art theorist of the Italian Renaissance, said, “Without beauty, God cannot manifest Himself.” Our challenge is to be open to looking for beauty in the arts in ways that are creative, inventive, and unfamiliar.
Openness to art in this manner is important because it helps us to better understand God’s civilization. Learning to appreciate, understand, and be aware of different cultures and cultural values helps us to see ourselves as part of a larger culture. It cultivates and broadens our view of the world around us and helps us to define and understand better who we are.

When we seriously encounter works of art, we learn that the more we put into it, the more we will derive from it. The more we explore, the more we will discover and understand about the world and ourselves. One of the paradoxes involved in this activity is that the more you learn about the differences of art culture, the more you see the similarities in your own culture.

Art helps us to expand our ability to express and communicate. It introduces us to concepts and perceptions we could not have acquired in any other way and demonstrates human communication within and across cultures. It makes the invisible visible.

We as human beings are unique from other life forms because we capture our experience through expressive and symbolic means. We cannot adequately convey the human experience through just the written or spoken word alone. Think about this. How can we truly express our religious beliefs or our deepest joys and sorrows without the arts?

The act of creation demands enormous self-discipline and teaches us to handle failure and frustration in pursuit of an idea.

As playful as it may seem, the act of creation demands enormous self-discipline and teaches us to handle failure and frustration in pursuit of an idea. It requires setting goals, determining a technique, figuring out how to apply it, developing craftsmanship, and continually making evaluations and revisions. Art requires divergent, rather than convergent thinking—it teaches us how to think and solve problems. In other words: there is more than one answer to any particular question or problem, and differences in ideas and opinions should be welcome. Experiencing the arts in a serious manner teaches us to think through ideas. I believe this is how God allows us to understand and have faith within this complex world that He has created.

Exposure to the arts helps Christians to replenish our spirit and affirms our humanity; it strengthens our relationship with the Divine Creator. The arts helps us define who we are and understand our special sense of being. Art brings us “near to the heart of God.”