A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 9: Losing My Art-Wary Religion


It is said that God is in the details. That may be so. But in Montreal it occurred to me that God just might also be in the decor; and that, for many, the greatest way to a profound spiritual experience is through art. Yet for me in my upbringing, art so often had little to do with God and, subsequently, my gift seemed to me to have little value.

My family and I recently returned from a trip to the city of Montreal, the sublime and engaging jewel of La Belle Province. For someone who is aesthetically inclined, Montreal is an artsy wonderland. On our final evening, we went to St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. This is what is called a “minor” Basilica in the Roman Catholic Church but it is massive and imposing. Just climbing up the various stairs, a feeling of continually ascending, is a spiritual exercise (in more ways than one). You can’t help but feel like you are rising up to something beyond the mundane of your life. I’m sure that effect is intended as the Basilica bids millions of faithful pilgrims per year to climb its heights.

For me, as I continue to reflect on my own artistic sensibilities, on creating, on the way these things impact my life and my world, I was struck by the use of art in absolutely every aspect of this place. From the soaring architectural design that is equal parts Gothic, Renaissance and Contemporary, to the countless paintings, statues, bas-reliefs and mosaics; from the asymmetrical and abstract cast iron gates to the stained-glass windows; from the various miscellaneous artworks that fill the place to the use of museum-like dioramas; from the subtle use of light and shadow to the warmth of wood against cold stone – St. Joseph’s Oratory is an impressive testimony to the role art and artists have in creating a spiritual environment and experience. There seems to be no corner, no wall, no doorway, no opportunity lost to use the creative arts to communicate the Divine.

The display of artistry and craftsmanship is very impressive but it remains foreign to me. Though I am a Christian, I am of the Protestant variety that has more of function than form in its worship spaces; i.e., many of the churches that make up my brand of Christianity are uninspiring, utilitarian places. I am currently part of a church that meets in a large, chilly school  gymnasium. It is about as spiritual a place as a warehouse. Let’s just say that the atmosphere of the building has rarely played a role in the experience of my faith, that is, in the elevation of my spirit or the growth of my spirituality. As an artist who also happens to be a Christian, my aesthetic sensibilities have taken a beating over the years. And I have often thought that my gifts and points of view, and those of my fellow artists, are not given much weight in my tradition.

Dating all the way back to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, it could be argued that many babies were tossed out with the bathwater. Protestants take a wide birth around iconography, the use of statuary and relics and icons in prayers and worship. To many it is idolatry and akin to the occult. To some it is downright Satanic. This fear of idolatry and a belief that iconography is a sin led to extremely Spartan worship spaces and continues to influence architectural choices and decor in church to this day. In some ways, the Protestant church has been afraid of art. True, in the last couple of decades things have improved and more thought and creativity has gone into the use of art in Protestant worship. But it remains something not in the DNA of most churches and denominations.

I don’t really want to get into a theological debate on the subject or dive into the divide that has existed between the two big camps of Western Christianity for so long. But I do wonder if part of my assessment of my own artistic gifts has been influenced far too much by the Christian tradition I am a part of. That is, have I always subconsciously shelved that part of myself over the years because I felt it was less important, less viable, less of what I was supposed to be? Because I grew up in an aesthetically wary Protestant context, did I grow up believing my gifts and points of view were not as valid, as worthy, as spiritual as others?

This is going to take some thought. If there is truth to these feelings in my own life, then there are decisions and choices I have made that have definitely been influenced by it. And not just for me but for millions of other artists who grew up in a Protestant context, be they visual artists or musicians or dancers or playwrights, etc. If we have felt in any way that we have been marginalized or misunderstood, or that our gifts and sensibilities have been minimized or compartmentalized by the institutions that we were raised in, then we have all been deeply impacted and the church has suffered because of it.

I am an artist and I am a Christian. So often that has felt like a necessary tension. Does it have to be? I’m not sure. I would be the first to say that God has given me the gift of being an artist. It would follow, then, that he would want me to use that gift in my role as his image-bearer. Yet there are times when creative expression doesn’t seem accepted in my religious experience; when a kind of leash is placed on artists, giving them only so much room to create for fear that they might go too far. But keeping any kind of artist tamed and toned down mutes the impact of their art. And this is not right.

For me, this is a topic I am going to have to explore further. It is getting at the very heart of who I am and the uncomfortable dichotomy I have felt for many, many years. If you are an artist reading this, and also someone who follows God, I wonder if you have felt similar things, either consciously or unconsciously? Maybe it’s time to lose my aesthetically wary religion and embrace a way of following Christ that embraces me and my artist brothers and sisters.  This will take some serious thought. Stay tuned…




To Be Nobody But Yourself


To be nobody but yourself –

in a world that is trying its best, night and day,  to make you everybody else –

means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;

and never stop fighting.

e.e. cummings

My wife bought a piece of artwork with this quote on it for me many years ago. She knows me very well. She understood then and she understands now that the “hardest battle” of my life has been the fight to be truly myself. She loves who I am and wants me to experience that and, more so, wants other people to experience who I am. Yet there are times I’ve felt crushed by the weight of other people’s expectations. And times when I’ve felt that who I am was slowly disappearing.

A friend of mine recently commented to me that it seems I’m going through a “mid-life revival”. I really liked that sentiment. He was referring to the fact that I have been delving back into artwork, posting my creations on Facebook and also writing the very blog you happen to be reading right now (thanks for that, by the way).  Edging closer to 50, I am putting myself out there more than ever and expressing myself in these ways more than I have for many years.

I am an artist. And like so many artists, I’m not content to stick to one area of creative expression but tend to dabble in multiple areas when I get the chance. I have always felt most fully alive when I am making visual art or making music or acting on stage or writing prose. I made the decision to enter the blogosphere because I wanted the impetus to get back into writing for the shear creative joy of it.

For many artists, the act of creating is almost as natural as breathing. But it has not always been so for me. I have had long stretches in life where I felt I was becoming someone else and that artist side of me was fading, fading away. There are a number of factors that contributed to this but most of it had to do with a Twofold set of realities in my life: (1) I am a Christian; and (2) I am a Pastor.

The evangelical Christian world is not always the most welcoming and accommodating world for the artist. Artists, when they are remaining true to their creative impulse, like to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, challenge themselves and others to view their world from different angles and in different tones and hues. This impulse is not generally encouraged or fostered in the evangelical Christian setting. The mysterious, the mystical, the grey areas, the fringes – these are not places where the Evangelical mind and spirit tend to go. Yet they are precisely where the Artistic mind and spirit go on a regular basis. The Artist doesn’t mind ambiguity, uncertainty. The Evangelical minds it a great deal and much prefers clarity and certainty.

I am generalizing, of course. But I stand by these generalizations because they are so often the way things play out. And so often the Artist feels very much a stranger in a strange land when he or she dares dwell among the Evangelicals. I have dwelt in that place and felt strange indeed. I have sensed the tension. When I did have the Jones to create, I’d find myself self-editing, concerned that I might offend someone. Or I’d have to defend myself for acting in a play in which the character I was playing said “Oh my God.” Or I would get the less than enthusiastic responses that spoke quiet volumes of displeasure about something I had created. And often I found myself tucking the artist in me deep down somewhere where it would not rock any feathers or ruffle and boats.

Yet, ironically, I ended up in Christian ministry, a Pastor. I won’t get into how that all happened because, frankly, after almost 20 years I am still bemused by it. Imagine, if you will, already feeling on the margins of Christian life and then ending up as someone who people look to for leadership in that Christian life. My artistic sensibilities took a beating from my own sense of responsibility to “the Call” and from the expectations of the Flock. When these things conspired together the Artist in me became almost undetectable and I no longer felt the natural impulse to create. I would continue to be creative, of course, and find avenues to do so, but it became a sidebar to my life, not a main part of the story.

I was doing good things for people and trying my best to remain faithful to what I felt God was asking me to do. But my wife could see that who I am and what made me feel most fully alive were not being given adequate expression. So when she came across the quote above, she thought of me.

I do not blame my Christianity or my role as a pastor in the Church for this fight to be myself. If anything, I have found over the years that I have no one to blame but myself. It was my choice to hide things away, to bury the Artist deep within; no one forced me to do these things. If anything, this Mid-Life Revival is showing me my own responsibility in all of that and also challenging me to no longer allow that to happen in my life. And it is my faith, and the belief in a God who created me exactly the way I am supposed to be, that gives me the motivation to be nobody but myself. In fact, I have begun to see that it was the Artist in me, the part of me that liked to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, not be content with simplistic answers, and continually embrace challenges, that has made me most effective in my years of Christian ministry. I look at the Bible and my faith from odd angles, as an artist would, and that has given a distinctiveness to what I do as a pastor.

To any of you out there who also exist in this tension-land of Art and Faith, I would ask you to take heart. You do belong. You do have a role to play. People will not always understand you. You may offend some. You may confuse others. And there may be times others question your faith or you yourself do the questioning. But as artists we’re here to give expression to alternate realities, to be on a continual quest for compassion, to make people feel a bit uneasy in order for them to see God where they hadn’t seem him before.  That is a scary but fabulous calling.

The Great Artist made you an artist for a reason. So be that artist.

To those of you who are not artists, know that we will sometimes freak you out, whether you are a Christian or not. We will sometimes offend you. We will certainly confuse you. But if you let us speak, sing, act, write, draw, paint, sculpt, dance – create – you will be opening yourself up to a much bigger world. And that expanse in your spirit and mind and heart will make it that much easier to embrace all of Creation. You, too, are unique and uniquely gifted. And you, too, help people see God.

From now on until I die, I want to be unashamedly myself. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel I’m on the right track. I have steeled myself for the fight. Bring it on!