Walking the fine lines of “Christian” and “artist”
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
Being a “Christian” is a loaded identity in today’s world. But add “artist” to the mix, and a whole other load of pre-conceptions start to weigh down on us. Christian artists don’t have an easy time navigating the present culture, and this reflects in our struggle to “make it”, both financially and in our respective art and Christian circles. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have it figured out. This article is part of me trying to figure it out, and I challenge you, the reader, to really think about these issues and how you might respond in the places of your influence.
Disclaimer: Sometimes when I use the word “Christian” here, it’s in a negative tone. In these instances I’m not questioning anybody’s faith; instead I’m questioning the culture that is built around the faith. To be Christian culturally and to be a Christian as a Jesus-follower are sometimes very different things. Please understand: what Western Christian culture says and does is not the definitive reflection of who God is, or what He wants for the world.
First, I want to explain the particular struggles/tensions I’m facing as a Christian artist. Later I'll share about why these tensions are worth navigating. (Note: If you’re a Christian artist and you want to add to my list, please add to the comments!)
Tension #1: Preconceived notions of who I am & what I should make. Because both “Christian” and “artist” carry specific images and stereotypes with them, I find myself feeling boxed in on all sides. At the same time I feel like I can’t really fit into either category (ie, I can’t be a stereotypical “artist” if I want to be respected as a Christian, and I can’t be a real Christian if I want to be respected by other artists.). It’s rare to find someone who carries both identities well. In terms of what I should make, Christian culture at large has grown up with too many cliche Sunday School images in their heads. Jesus was never a white man with blue eyes, and I’m positive he didn’t wear white everyday (and if he did, it did not look freshly bleached and ironed). When I portray Jesus in my work, I’m caught. I simply can’t make myself use the stereotyped white Jesus, but if I don’t, will the Christian viewer understand who I painted? And will they be willing to see Jesus in another way? Hanging my work in their house is also a risk, because what if Christians coming to visit think that artwork is heretical or wrong?
Tension #2: The problem of audience. “For whom do I create?” This is a tricky question, because the Christian artist must respond, “for God alone.” Yet the Christian artist encounters a difficulty that Christians in other professions don’t face. If I make computer circuit boards, is the required answer still the same? Is it a sin then for a technician to create something their buyers will want to use (“I make this for our customers”)? So why is the Christian artist’s work measured only by the question, “Does it give glory to God? Does it make others want to give glory to God?” Further, as a working artist, I’m learning it’s absolutely necessary to choose and market to a specific audience, rather than trying to appeal to the whole world. The problem here is I can’t figure out what kind of audience I should market to:
If I choose to market to Christians, I find my work doesn’t appeal to the majority of them. Traditional Christians tend to display traditional Christian art (think Hobby Lobby Bible verse quotes, Thomas Kinkade scenes, or the stereotypical “white Jesus” painted in typical Bible attire) - that is, if they want to display Christian work in their home at all. Christians also tend to be more conservative with their spending when it comes to luxuries, and so I have found that while many do like my work, very few are willing to buy (more on this later).
If I choose to market to people who don’t identify as Christian, my work may have a certain appeal at face value. But how am I to market to them? If the subject matter is inspired by spiritual things, wouldn’t I be dishonest if I made it about something else? If I speak in general spirituality terms, I end up appealing to a general spirituality that has little substance or character. Then who am I really appealing to? Marketing feels pointless when it loses the true nature of the story behind it.
Tension #3: Cheap Christian Culture. (Note: This is a broad generality in which I’m included, so please know I’m not calling any specific person or church out.) I don’t know if it’s the particular areas I’ve lived in or not, but Christians I meet at art shows - if they like my work - don’t seem to want to buy. (If anyone has insight on this as a customer, please fill me in on what’s behind this!). Many Churches are run as nonprofits, and while they will pay for roofers or custodians, many expect the contributions of the artists to be pre-bono. I can’t tell you how often I have felt “burned” by the church wanting both art and art labor for free. It’s so sad, when historically the church was the greatest patron of the arts in Western culture.
Tension #4: Humility and Pride. I imagine the worship leaders navigate a similar struggle. Great art takes learning, practice, and also talent. When someone compliments my work, I used to struggle so much saying thank you or feeling proud. Feeling proud felt dirty, like I was being prideful (gasp! the sin that leads to all others!). So I hid behind self-abasement or a shallow, “it’s all glory to God.” But if I’m honest, I wasn’t really glorifying Him in those moments - it was all about fear then. Later on, I learned that selling my work requires marketing. Marketing necessitates a degree of “showing off”. I spent years afraid to post my work out of fear of “impure motives”, and kept most of my paintings hidden in stacks beneath my desk or stuffed in a closet. If I couldn’t post something and be 100% sure it was not prideful, I simply wouldn’t post it. BUT! The fear of sin became a paralysis that God later convicted me of. He had given me specific messages to carry through my art, but because I was afraid to be “unspiritual” those messages remained hidden and unhelpful to the Kingdom. Was that more selfish than posting my work with a tinge of pride? You tell me.
Tension #5: Fear of Hypocrisy. We all hear about great Christian leaders or influencers who were public about their faith, and later failed morally. “Another great witness fell today!” I remember when Amy Grant and later, Switchfoot, decided to change their messages to reach a more secular audience. The Christian culture responded not with support, but by questioning their personal faith and commitment to Jesus (and I’m a part of the problem - I remember I judged them too!). But if I cry, “only God is my judge” and ignore the critics, I also set myself up for failure. True accountability listens to wise counsel, not rejecting critique or warning that is given out of truth and love. So sometimes it feels like its “safer” to not give a public stance, because the Christians will judge me by how they think I should be. But is “safe” really what I should be going for? “Safe” never changed anybody’s heart; a quick look at the Jesus of the Bible will show anyone that.
Positives of being a Christian artist (AKA, why these tensions are worth navigating):
While the tensions mount, it’s so easy to run in fear. As I write this, I’m still not sure where I need to take the art business in terms of marketing message and target audience. But I have this deep feeling (still discerning if it’s from God) that somehow, someday, I’ll see that these tensions were worth navigating. For now, here are the positives about being a Christian artist in today’s world:
1.) The arts help others navigate the greater tensions of being human. Christians believe that we are in a sort of “world between worlds,” that we were created in perfection and for perfect relationship in the Garden of Eden. When sin entered the world, it was creation that fell - not God himself or his purposes for us. At the end of all time, we will be in perfection again, in another Garden, with all tears and fears and suffering wiped away. The tension I feel as a Christian artist reflects that in-between for which we were all created. It’s how I can lament the pain and suffering of the world and yet still learn to recognize that “God is good.” The Psalms of David navigated this tension in ways that still speak to us today. Solomon’s beautiful hand-crafted temple served to mediate this same tension between God and man, heaven and earth. The arts are not black and white; they are able to hold and express paradoxical realities. Therefore, Christian artists can bravely press in to this tension, find unlimited sources of inspiration, and actually help lead a generation of dissatisfied and disappointed people to something better.
2.) My art speaks back to me. I often create work that is inspired by what God is doing or speaking to me. Sometimes in prayer, he shows me an image that I then paint. This isn’t a magical power; it’s simply because the Creator of me knows how to speak to me - using visual language. Truth is more than 2D; it’s 3D and not subject to time. As a Christian, I believe that “my truth” (little t) is not the same as “the Truth” (big T). So because part of the art inspiration was outside of me, after I externalize these deep things on a canvas, I often find a new thing I had not known when painting it. Looking back at old artwork, God will bring up things he has taught me before, or point out something I had missed. I love how the paintings we co-created continue to influence and mark my life after painting them.
3) The deep wonder of creation. I LOVE Bible verses that speak to God’s talent and innovation as a creator. When I root my identity in being creat-ed, the pressure to create is a little lessened because I recognize that I am not the source of all things. But I believe that when I create, I am also exercising something divinely implanted in me. And I can also look at creation with amazement, because I know how hard it is to paint that tree, I can wonder at the skill it took to create it from nothing.
4) I can speak the Gospel in fresh ways to someone who’d never walk into a church. As a Christian artist, my paintings can become live illustrations of gospel truths. I will never forget a time when I showed “Divine Romance” to a public group. I told one viewer what the figures represented, and this man responded with: “this painting contradicts everything I believe about a Higher Being. I don’t believe he can be known like that. But I do see you painted it that way.” I presented a gospel truth that enabled him to think a little differently that day! There have been so many times I’ve been able to shown “He Knows My Name” to a woman browsing an art show, and she bursts into tears when I tell her even though she can’t feel God right now, he sees her pain and has never left her side.
Navigating the tensions: It’s worth it after all. There are many tensions for a Christian artist to navigate, and sometimes it feels like the tightrope is narrowing, and you might fall. But hey, we’re creative people who serve a creative God! He - and we together - will find a way.
To the Christians reading this, I’m asking for extra grace as I figure out how to live well in the place God has called me. I’m also asking for your financial support (ie, buy work from Christian artists!) - not out of pity, but out of belief that God is and will continue to work out his will through that artist’s life.
To the non-Christians reading this, I never ever want to sound like I’m bashing you on the head with a Bible. I’m sharing honestly from my own perspective, and I expect it to be a dialogue, where I get to hear honest sharing from you, too. All I’m asking is for you to hear me out. I know you’ll do this for me, and please call me out if I ever fail to do this for you.
May God bless you on your creative life journey,
PS: I imagine people in careers outside the arts also have tensions to navigate. What would you add to the discussion? Are you responding as an artist, art enthusiast, Christian or non-Christian?