Being an Artist and a Christian

The first thing that God tells us about Himself is that He Creates. Before He was King, before He was Savior, He was Artist. A lot of His great work was done before the Fall…you know, nature, animals and the few people who didn’t have to use their creativity to process the angst of life. Nowadays God spends quite a bit of His time directing what (from His perspective) are miniseries-length features that follow the trials and tribulations of each of the seven billion people on this planet. We know from Romans 1 that most folks believe they are self-producing these works. I certainly thought I was the proverbial Captain of My Fate for two-thirds of my life.

But even in those years of unbelief I worked with words and color and form – kinda like I was created in the image of a Creator or something. I used these things to explore my Inner Landscape, which is not the most scenic territory. I had to put on the mud boots of art and slog around in there. It wasn’t glamorous like being an archaeologist or anything; it was more like being the person who runs the dump. If that person is an artist, and there are any beautiful things in with the trash, she will find them. If there is not anything beautiful, she will take things that are ugly and repurpose them into some kind of work with meaning and power. Or, at the very least, she will solder all the junk together and make a cool lawn ornament that looks like an alien with a car muffler for a head.

goddessWe know that God has the ability to create out of nothing, and some people who are not God can even face a blank canvas without having a panic attack. I have never been one of those people. For most of my creative life I have needed some kind of jump start to get going, which led to pursuits that combined words and images in some way. This worked well with my propagandist tendencies, or rather my bad habit of thinking art always needed to Make A Statement. In my early creative years, The Statement was usually some pseudo-deep affirmation that The Answer Was Within, and various feel-good variations of that answer looked great written in gold pen on brightly-painted watercolor paper cards with Goddessy-looking women on them. I didn’t learn until much later what the question actually was, and so whatever answer I proposed was invariably wrong.

My greatest works of propaganda are found in my earliest self-published zines. I used those as an artistic platform to be as obnoxious as possible in my libertarian beliefs. Not necessarily because I wanted to be obnoxious, but because my naturally excessive focus on “issues” (plus that lovable in-yer-face attitude of youth) gave me many years of comfortable emotional repression. At some point I got tired of being repressed and was ready to try feeling things at a beginner’s level, so I started creating zines about my own life.

Initially, those read like I was my own psychiatrist, writing about myself with professional detachment for a scholarly journal. Then I got brave and wrote an article called Adventures In Impurity, about the effects of my very early and extended exposure to pornography. That was illustrated with classic nude paintings made edgy black-and-white, complete with bars covering the erotic areas. I was slightly transparent in this one, although I never did make it through to the nitty-gritty of my brokenness in the love-and-sex arena of life. But despite falling short as a gut-wrenchingly honest memoir, this article was the catalyst that got me thinking about the relationship between my Christian faith and my art.

A friend called me and said I really shouldn’t have written that article. And those illustrations were just too racy. And I thought…wow, I barely even scraped the surface of the truth with that one, and here a friend is telling me I shouldn’t have even shared the scum off the top. Understand, this piece was not pornographic, so the message I got from this not-so-constructive criticism was that some parts of my life – my actual life which we reformed folk affirm came to me directly from the hand of God – were simply not appropriate for the light of day. This censoring of negative experiences is just one kind of limitation Christians have put on the making of art. Kinda like that old idea that the rock music beat just might be of the devil. Or pursing lips at Christians taking life drawing classes because they will see nude bodies they are not married to. Or insinuating that every creative work a Christian does has to be properly evangelistic or moralistic so as not to be a waste of time that could be better spent winning souls.

For a while I bought into that last idea, which is just a baptized version of my Statement Art problem. I mean, as Christians, everything we do should be an anvilicious statement about what God has done for us, right? Or better yet, what we have done for God. So when I was at the height of my Godly Woman/Proverbs 31 Phase (which has been exhaustively documented elsewhere), a lot of the creative stuff I made was centered on that theme. My zine at that time was called Eclectic Domestic, and it propagandized in a fun and quirky way the Homeschooling-Wife-and-Mother life that I still live. So, with every zine order I included handbound Proverbs 31 journals that had little pictures of happy women with brooms on every page.

Not long after this, cracks started appearing in my Proverbs 31 facade, and as that crumbled I was slowly starting to understand the gospel – that radical idea that my standing with God did not depend on what I did for Him. Which was impressive, you understand, because I made Him look good by binding these journals that would inspire great piety and/or encourage more frequent sweeping. But I knew in my heart that I was a hypocrite, because my kitchen floor was often left unswept while I made judge-y blog posts about how a Godly Woman looks well to the way of her household, which includes having clean floors.

I finally got it through my thick skull that I bore the title of Godly Woman because God had made me look good by dressing me in the nice white robes of Christ’s righteousness – much, much cleaner than I could ever get my laundry. I mean, I don’t even sort anything or own any bleach. Plus, all my righteousness is as filthy rags which are always falling apart in the wash anyway.

Now, I am absolutely not saying that a Christian artist should avoid having overt references or allusions to faith in their work. I am saying that I personally did not get the concept of calling – that liberating notion that doing things to the glory of God does not mean that everything has to be a sermonette. So, a Christian plumber does not have to have a slogan like “Clearing Your Drain For Jesus” on the side of his truck. A Christian artist doesn’t always have to paint gospel narratives or make films without any gay characters (unless, of course, they are there as a sad cautionary tale). And with my growing understanding of that idea we find ourselves back at the phone call about my inappropriate article.

At first I took the criticism personally, like my article was just poorly written or something. Then for all of five minutes, I wondered if she might be right. Finally, I remembered that I wasn’t a propagandist anymore. I was an artist and a writer, and those people tell the truth.

One of my favorite books is Chaim Potok’s novel My Name Is Asher Lev. The main character is a Chasidic Jewish boy who discovers at a very young age that he is an artistic prodigy in a culture that distrusts art at best, and at worst, thinks it comes directly from the Sitra Achra, or Other Side (the bad side, of course). Despite the fact that my artistic talent is meager, I relate to Asher Lev. We are both Jewish, we both have somewhat stereotypically Jewish mothers, although I have never yet made a huge oil painting of mine nailed to a cross. Asher does this scandalous thing because his mother has lived a life of suffering, and he found no image in his own tradition which captures suffering so well as the crucifixion. As you can imagine, his parents and the entire community are scandalized, and Asher has to leave. The phone call from my friend was different from Asher’s experience only in degree, not in kind. We both created something that didn’t sit comfortably with the people in our community, and we had to ask ourselves whether the real problem was in the work itself (or, by extension, with ourselves as creators of the work) or in the reactionary response of others.

I guess a lot of Christians have a “life verse” from the Bible, but I think the verse of my Inner Artist has always been from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.” God has given us our particular lives. He has given us our personalities and our talents. My personality is melancholy, introspective, temporally cynical but eternally optimistic. A lot of my talents reside in the right-brain sphere which likes stuff many Christians find questionable, like psychology, hippy-looking clothes and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like a lot of creative types, my inner life is often in some turmoil and my life outer life looks more bohemian than BIble Belt.

I got that phone call from my friend about 6 years ago, and it has taken a lot of those years to accept that I don’t need a personality transplant and that there is a place for artists in God’s economy. But what exactly is my place, my niche? If my job as propaganda minister is no longer available, if I don’t have to give up bookbinding and zinemaking to go into publishing tracts (or better yet, a more womanly art like sewing matching clothes for my five children) what should my life as an out-of-the-closet Christian artist look like?

Initially, I was kinda disappointed that it didn’t look much different than my usual life. The reason Rilke’s quote is my verse is not because I embody it in such an impressive way, but rather because too often I am absolutely not poet enough to call forth the riches of my life. Normally, I don’t find piles of laundry, mounds of dirty dishes or constant chatter and/or bickering from children to be inspiring. But as Rilke reminds me, that is my problem. Then there is the fact that someone greater than RIlke – namely God – tells me to be content, in addition to having prepared all these good works for me to do…which I assume consist at least partly of the aforementioned things which don’t inspire me. I waste a lot of time being annoyed by those things and seeing them as something to get through as fast as possible so I can get to the art and the writing – ya know, the good stuff. But you see the paradox here. The good stuff is supposed to flow from my life, right? And I am supposed to be faithful in small things before I will be entrusted with more.

Recently I was reminded how working “little and often” can really add up. I sorted through all my writing and creative work spanning the last two decades, and I was smugly (I mean humbly) pleased that I had an impressive little stash that was made in fits and starts during twenty years of nursing babies, changing diapers, cooking meals and (insert futile-seeming household task here). There were my old propaganda zines and my more recent memoir-type zines. Dozens of hand-bound and illustrated letters to friends. At least half-a-dozen handmade art journals, handmade rag dolls, and a few mediocre specimens of my recent foray into actual painting (most of which – thankfully – have no underlying message).

I was encouraged because not only had I managed to keep everyone in my family alive for twenty years and also prevented the house from being condemned, here was all this cool stuff I had made. And if anyone ever goes through it all, I am most proud of the fact that it documents God’s great grace in my life. I mean, all you have to do is look at one of those first zines and you will believe that God can indeed do miracles within the human heart.

I think that my creative work in the world has more to do with helping others develop their own creativity than it does with people seeing or buying things that I make. This might be because I am a pretty good example of the “those who can’t do, teach” maxim. Eventually I see myself developing and teaching art journaling workshops that will help people make peace with their own lives by ideally coming to see God’s hand in it all. I believe I have a somewhat unique perspective in the art journaling world, being that I hold to the doctrine of original sin and so positive affirmations like “Dream” or “Soar On The Wings of Your Own Awesomeness” or (insert heartwarming morale-boosting statement here) don’t really resonate with me. What is kinda humorous and/or ironic is that although I have come to this perspective without any hidden propaganda motives, I might find myself pigeonholed as a Christian Statement Artist in that medium.

A creative life is our birthright as humans created in the image of God, but in this day and age, non-Christians seem to grasp that truth better than believers do. Maybe we Christians fear art because we know that our creative faculties are fallen just like every other part of us, and so we are afraid not of making bad art, but rather of making art that exposes how we have both done and endured many bad things in this world. This may be behind the type of concern my friend expressed about my shocking article, or behind the common idea that novels or television shows that portray sin and conflict are somehow “not edifying” at best, or at worst are glorifying sin. I’m not sure about you, but there is no way anyone could make a television show about my life without showing all kinds of sin and conflict, which too often originate with me.

They say God is a God of order. Some of His creatures manifest this attribute by having an alphabetized pantry. My pantry isn’t exactly terrifying, but if you start looking for a can of tomatoes in there, you will quickly realize that I work better with the intangibles. Some artists do a great job depicting the beauty in the world, in people, in nature. I can do beauty. I have painted lots of pretty red-haired women, but believe me, they all have issues.

We know that God will make all things new, and in a very real sense we who are in Christ are already new creations. But my personal Ms. New Creation has to spend a lot of time decluttering and rearranging the stuff left by Ms. Old Creation, who happened to also have a lot of boxes and things handed down from her family. My job description seems to include making some order out of all that and relating it to the general human experience, hopefully in a way that is at least somewhat humorous. We Jews love to laugh in the midst of suffering.

The fact that we are all a veritable stew of issues is Part One of the gospel. The paintings that are not beautiful, the gritty television dramas, the disturbing songs about depression that make a lot of Christians uncomfortable – these are all telling the truth about the hard edges of the human condition. Even after someone is regenerated, they will keep bumping into those edges. Some of us are totally covered with bruises and bandages because we hit one of those stupid things whenever we turn a corner. But the art of love and beauty and inspiration also tells a part of the story.

There doesn’t need to be a war between the Christian creatives – the hip cynic going up against those wearing rose-colored glasses. The battle belongs to the Lord. So get in ranks, people. Pick up your paintbrush, your camera or whatever – and remember, while there are all types of art to be created and shared with the world until the end of the age, you are already on the side that is victorious.