The Relationship Between Faith and Art

May 23, 2016

As an undergraduate art student, stranded in a snowstorm somewhere along I-80 in Indiana, I had a life-changing encounter with four Baptist ministers – a conversion of sorts. I was told that faithful Christians could not like Andy Warhol’s artwork because of his “life choices.” Instead, Christians must pursue the “good, true, and beautiful”1 and make only “Christian” art from biblically inspired content. In their estimation, my love of Warhol put me decidedly beyond the Christian pale. And yet, while I deeply disagreed with them, I was not able to give any sound biblical, theological, or art historical response to justify my position.

That inability to utter a coherent response pushed me to care deeply about the relationships between faith and art. Ultimately, it brought me to seminary and on to a Master of Fine Arts program. This unique educational path has helped me explore the idea and possibility of “Christian” artists and art. I want to suggest that labels of “Christian” and “non-Christian” are not viable paths, and to be honest, I think they are detrimental.

A few years ago I was talking with John Hitchcock, professor of printmaking at the University of Wisconsin, about often being labeled as a “Native-American artist.” John’s visceral reaction and rejection of the term “Native Artist” recall my own issues with the label of “Christian” artist.

Categories such as “Native”, “Black”, “Feminist”, or “Womanist” arts are a double-edged sword, obscuring as much as they reveal. Certainly some labels are chosen, yet others are imposed interpretive structures given by the powers of the art world. For John, the label of “Native Artist” was tied to a controlling white, Western, colonialist, art world. While such terms may help us mentally order and engage the arts, they also function differently than other stylistic terms like cubism or realism, which point to the product. Categories like “Native” or “Black” relate to an inherent nature of the artist and reduce that nature into a peripheral niche of the art world. While there are important distinctions that should be made between labels of “Christian” and those of race and gender, I sense a parallel with the label of “Christian” art.

There is something unsettling in this process of defining the arts as “Christian” that compromises both the artist and the art. Such categories have a ghettoizing effect that pigeonholes the artist and product. More importantly for Christians, it ignores central doctrinal teachings on God’s relationship with creation, God’s sovereignty, and the Incarnation to name a few.

My truck stop interrogators divided their world into two rigid spheres: sacred and secular. For them, Warhol’s life and work was decidedly secular offering nothing even potentially redemptive. Perhaps it is this hardened dichotomy that troubles me about certain corners of Evangelicalism’s cultural affairs.2 The divide disrupts our perception of God’s creation and reorders it by making categorical distinctions between things, people, and places that are holy and those that are not.

However, as Christians, we do not need to live under this self-imposed dichotomy. Let me suggest a few ways to bridge the divide.

Presbyterian theologian Douglas Ottati, draws upon the Psalmist and St. Paul’s claims, “The earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof”3 to articulate God’s stance toward creation. He argues that nothing is truly godless or profane because “God always stands in relation to all.”4 In this, all things, including the arts, exist as part of God’s “intricate and encompassing web of divine power, presence, and grace.”5 Nothing stands wholly apart from God’s presence regardless of how we may try to define who and what is part of God’s redemptive plan.

Likewise, H.R. Rookmaaker also looked toward creation in one of the modern classics on art and theology. Rookmaaker argued “art needs no justification” and is intrinsically worthy of our attention because it is part of the created order.6 Art, and human creativity come from God, reflect God’s purposes for humanity, and thus need nothing extra to sanctify them.7 Artists glorify God and serve humanity, not by heaping Christian content into their work, but by pursuing the fullness of their talents with their heart, mind, and spirit.8 Rookmaaker suggests that while the arts express many things, they are a good unto themselves and should be enjoyed for their own sake.

While Rookmaaker roots the validity of the arts in the created order of the world, and Ottati in God’s own disposition toward creation, another well-worn path places the arts under the redemptive nature of the incarnation.

Madeline L’Engle is widely known for her fiction work, A Wrinkle in Time, but during her life she also wrestled with her faith and calling as a writer. She reminds us that God has often acted in peculiar and unsuspected ways. One of God’s surprise moves in the story of redemption was to enter fallen creation through the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. The incarnation suggests that nothing, including human flesh is too fallen for adoption into God’s purposes. L’Engle argued, “there can be no categories such as ‘religious’ art and ‘secular’ art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore ‘religious.’”9

She warns that we live in the comfortable sacred/secular boundaries at our own peril. Codifying God by demarcating spheres of presence and absence closes us off from surprise movements of God’s Spirit in the world around us. It closes our eyes and ears from seeing Christ at play in 10,000 different places.10

If the earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof, everything in it belongs to our Creator and Redeemer. For culture, and particularly the arts, this means we do not need make judgments upon what is and isn’t Christian. Whether it is Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ or Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, art is simply art. It all stands under God’s created order.

How ought we to engage this expanded world of art? In addition to the usual forms of art criticism or evaluation that begin with thinking about the form, content, and the artist, perhaps Christians ought to follow up with another line of questioning.11

Does it resonate with or illuminate some aspect of our faith?

Does it cause us to see the world and God’s people in new ways?

Does the work of art challenge or critique our lives, faith, or the church?

Does it nourish our hearts and minds?

Does it cause us to pick up our cross and follow?12

This way of approaching and interpreting art takes hard work. We must go beyond shallow and literal interpretations that scratch no deeper than the surface. Instead, the imagination must delve into what the artist is attempting to say (which is not always apparent). We must then work to make meaningful points of contact among our faith, the work of art, and the artist. In doing this, I believe we will see traces or hear echoes of God’s far-reaching presence in the world. Many are likely to see God’s presence in great works of Caravaggio, Rubens, Byzantine mosaics and icons but we may also catch glimpses of God calling for justice in Daniel Heyman’s gut wrenching interview portraits of Abu Ghraib prisoners. We may sense the cloud of witnesses and the communion of saints in Christian Boltanski’s installations of clothing and found photographs. Edward Burtynsky‘s photographs may lead us into deeper conversations on stewardship of the earth. We may look at these works with our eyes, but the challenging work begins with connecting them to our hearts and minds formed not in fear of the world, but by the beauty and power of the Gospel.

About the Author
  • Originally from the farmlands of northwest Iowa, Ryan Stander is a transplant to central North Dakota. He’s alternated his education between art and theology with a MFA from the University of North Dakota, MA in Theology from Sioux Falls Seminary (SD), and a BA in Art from Northwestern College (IA). His theological interests draw upon liturgical theology and the religious imagination to evocatively engage contemporary visual art. As a printmaker and photographer, his work has been exhibited internationally in South Africa, China, Central and South America; nationally in New York, New Jersey, and Texas; and across the Upper-Midwest. Ryan is currently an Assistant Professor of Art at Minot State University where he teaches photography. Stander also directs the Bachelor of Fine Arts program and Flat Tail Press.

  1. A reference from Philippians 4.8-9

  2. Our concepts of sacred and secular are a standing legacy from the Cartesian shift. Originally, the “Latin saeculum did not refer to a space or realm separate from the religious or sacred, but to the temporal period between the fall and eschaton, and thus to the here and now the church thought of itself as the civitas peregrina, the city of God whose pilgrimage through this temporal order marked the period of the saeculum. According to this account, everything that happens in the realm of time and space – every person, community, and event, every institution, practice, and disposition, every rock and tree and rabbit – finds its place and significance within the narrative framework of biblical protology and eschatology.” Barry Harvey, Another City: An Ecclesiological Primer for a Post-Chrstian World, (Harrisburg, PA, Trinity Press International, 1999), 103. 

  3. Psalm 24:1, 1 Corinthians 10:6 

  4. Douglas F. Ottati, Reforming Protestantism: Christian Commitment in Today’s World, (Louisville, KY., Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 65. 

  5. Ottatti, 65. 

  6. H.R. Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification, (Downers Grove, IL. Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), 32. 

  7. “Things and actions and human endeavor only get their meaning from their relationship to God; if Christ came to make us human, the humanity and the reality of art find their foundation in him.” Rookmaaker, 30. 

  8. Rookmaaker, 33. 

  9. Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York, North Point Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 25. Most of L’Engle’s second chapter is an attempt to dismantle the divisive tendency of the sacred / secular divide. 

  10. Kingfishers Catch Fire”, In the Poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins, ed. W.H. Gardner and N.H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 90. 

  11. The order here is very important or it becomes a matter of placing the cart before the horse. Interpretation of art combines objective and subjective aspects. We must let the art speak for itself without imposing Christian interpretations upon it. To do so, co-opts the work. Instead, we look to name resonances, rather than to try to possess the work. 

  12. A question might follow, “what do we do with art that does not lead us to deeper faith?” L’Engle provides an initial response. She states, “What is a true icon of God to one person may be blasphemy to another…The smarmy picture of Jesus which I find nauseating may be for someone else, a true icon. (L’Engle, 48-49). 

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  1. I appreciate the intricately constructed argument based on fundamental doctrines– creation, God’s sovereignty, and incarnation. As Christians, we tend to lose sight of these truths when we engage the arts, and we are certainly missing out on some great things when we categorize art as “Christian” and “non-Christian.”
    That being said, some questions come to my mind based on another fundamental doctrine–that of the fall and human sin. How does human sinfulness play out in artistic expression? Is there some art that reflects more sinful tendencies than others? If every part of creation was tainted by the fall, then it must have some effects on art as well. In your argument, the fall is not specifically mentioned–not that it has to be, but I am wondering how you would respond to the aforementioned questions. These are not intended to be “gotcha” questions, but ones that I have a hard time working through myself when I try to engage the arts. I would appreciate any of your insights. Thank you for helping me think through this topic.

    1. Hi Cole…You ask some good questions…ones that were beyond the scope of this article but let me mention a few thoughts…
      “If every part of creation was tainted by the fall, then it must have some effects on art as well.”
      If we accept the radical nature of sin tainting everything, as I think we should, the arts but also everything else including our attempts at church, missions, etc. are caught in it. But the wonderful thing about the incarnation, is that while God does not accept and casually brush away our sinfulness, God is able to get past it, work around it, work through it. This is what L’Engle is pushing on when she says, “The incarnation suggests that nothing, including human flesh is too fallen for adoption into God’s purposes”. God can be revealed in anything anywhere that God chooses.

      “How does human sinfulness play out in artistic expression? Is there some art that reflects more sinful tendencies than others?”
      The arts certainly contain their fair of sinfulness…greed, lust, ego, etc. I wish I could tease out a little more of your thoughts behind the questions. Let me share one sense where my ethics comes into play. I teach photography…which means I am way too tied to technology and particularly Apple and Adobe products. I simultaneously love and hate them! They are wonderful when they work together, however they don’t always work together especially over time. As technology progresses, old technology becomes outdated and obsolete, but they do so in leaps in planned obsolecence. Both could continue to update things so that they work together, but they dont. We who are tied to these things now become slaves to keep them updated or lose our ability to work and now with the cloud, even lose our work. The consumers are being abused. I am sure that this in no way answers your intent, however its what came to mind. Let me know if you have something specific in mind and I will try to respond. Thanks again for reading.