Previous | Next

Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 101–8 

Faith, Art, and Reconciliation

Sarah Klassen

In a discussion of Christian faith and the arts it is necessary to include a third element—the context. We make and experience art in a world that is damaged and thoroughly secular, rather than whole and faithful; a world in which we are strangers and aliens. How can the artist make art in an unreconciled world? And what, in such a world, is a proper response to art?

If we believe that the truth can set us free and bring us reconciliation, it follows that we will encourage all the manifold ways of entering the realm of truth, including the way of the artistic imagination.


The world’s brokenness strikes us at times as so overwhelming that, as people who desire to live by the teachings of Jesus, we may feel compelled to expend all our energies and skills on practical tasks of healing and reconciliation, tasks that could consume us entirely. The making of art and any involvement with it must wait. Does not feeding the hungry and clothing the naked come first?

Recently I visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery where a series of drawings of the crucifixion was being exhibited. There was a crowd because the artist—Tom Lovat considers himself “tentatively Christian”—was scheduled to talk about his work. I suppose all of us could have been engaged in some philanthropic endeavor that morning, but instead we spent the time looking, closely and with guidance, at one artist’s {102} expression of Christ’s, and humanity’s, suffering. Included in these exquisite, unorthodox drawings were images from history and from earlier art as well as from the contemporary world. I think no one left the gallery unmoved and empty. The energy and illumination gained from that interaction with the artist’s masterful depiction of suffering had the potential, I believe, to alter us in hard-to-measure ways as we returned to our various lives.

We will not escape the tension of balancing the world’s need for healing and its need for art. The two may not be irreconcilable. Anyone who has read Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son has to be grateful that the author spent hours in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg simply looking, patiently and with full attention, at Rembrandt’s painting by the same name. The book that grew out of Nouwen’s faithful contemplation calls the reader to look as deeply into herself as Nouwen did at the painting and to be open to a spiritual reawakening.

Philip Yancey has pointed out in various writings the importance of art in a broken world by reminding us that, while writers as disparate as Leo Tolstoy and T. S. Eliot were moved after conversion to redirect their energies into writing that was overtly edifying and didactic, writing that addressed the world’s social ills, it is their imaginative works that endure, fiction and poetry with lasting power to disturb and awaken as well as delight us. Who knows whether C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles might not outlive his classic apologetic, Mere Christianity?


Being created in the image of God the Creator means, in part, that we have been given both the ability and the desire to make things. We have been endowed with imagination. In consequence, as Madeleine L’Engle puts it, we have the privilege and responsibility to be co-creators with God. Even when the things we make are intended to be utilitarian, like houses and quilts and oak desks, we are not content unless style and design satisfy us with their uniqueness or beauty. We are constantly transforming new or used materials in ways that surprise and enrich us, whether what we make is meant to be consumed, like a meal, or to last, like a steel bridge, and whether it will be classified as art or as craft. (I am not saying there is no distinction between art and craft, but the boundaries are blurred.)

There is in us an urge to make something that has not previously existed. Circumstances may set limits to our creativity and may squelch it entirely for periods of time, but it will surface again. We will always make music, pictures, stories—and ornately patterned sweaters that {103} would be as warm if they were plain.

Making things is part of being human in a flawed world. Each piece of art, springing out of fresh snatches of understanding, is an act of faith in a world in which we are often lonely and frightened. One of the characters in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X says:

The world has gotten too big—way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it, and so all we’re stuck with are these blips and chunks and snippets on bumpers. . . . Either our lives become stories or there’s just no way to get through them.

Michael Edwards puts it less despairingly in Toward a Christian Poetics. “The need for stories,” he says, “comes with exile from Eden” (Edwards 1984, 73). Does this mean that when we get to heaven we will not be telling stories of “remember when,” because there will be no need for that, as there will be no need for theology or religion? Edwards says further, of stories:

By their matter they may lament and counter [the] fall. . . . Story offers otherness, of unity and purposive sequence. It also offers, in particular, beginnings and ends (Edwards 1984, 73).

He applies his argument not only to writing, but to other of the arts as well:

Painting has a peculiar force, therefore, in terms of the dialectic of our desire, for this world and for another. Poised, like writing and like music, between two worlds, the fallen and the possible, it is a hint of what the world would look like if . . . , while at the same time being steadily engaged with what the world looks like already (Edwards 1984, 210).

Looked at in this way, artistic activity can be an expression of hope, and hope is urgently needed in our, and any, culture.


In May 1997, I spent a few days in the town of Sudak on the Black Sea. My friend and hostess arranged a meeting for me with several local writers and visual artists, all of them struggling, in varying degrees, with economic survival. The space in which we met was a small studio where children were encouraged to draw or paint. A small girl came in, alone, walked to the shelf where she selected paper and paint from the modest supply, took her materials to a low table, dipped her brush in paint and proceeded, with utter concentration, and patience—and I believe even {104} love—to make a picture. I will never forget that small artist and her amazing vision: flowers bloomed freely, pink and purple and orange, wanting to spill past the limits of the paper and into the world.

Of course, children’s art also expresses the pain of suffering. In the same studio a teenager expressed her view of women’s suffering in the former Soviet Union in a drawing of a crucified woman, and a collection of children’s art about the Chernobyl disaster had been awarded a prize.

Sudak, like other places in the former Soviet Union, is struggling to rebuild. Although most homes had gas stoves, there had been no gas for five years; water was available for only one hour when it flowed, cold, through the pipes and the people rushed to fill all available containers; teachers were not being paid. Yet at our small meeting I spoke with individuals who continue to engage enthusiastically with painting, poetry, music.

One man—a former opera singer who knew no English—asked my hostess if he could sing for me. He sang a lovely aria in his rich tenor voice with as much care as if I were an entire concert audience. Later, at the high school, I watched as a teacher rehearsed a drama with her students. And somewhere in Sudak, I was told, an excellent dancing teacher offered instruction. In the midst of uncertainty, and discouragement, art was thriving. Imagination was not dead. Recovery was beginning.

I also discovered that in Sudak three Evangelical churches had opened in the last several years. My hostess, a free lance journalist and English teacher, was actively involved in one of these, helping with small group Bible studies. In a place where political, social, and economic change had robbed people of their former security, both practicing faith and making art seemed as natural and necessary as breathing.


The artist, like the believer, experiences a strong sense of calling, a calling to bear witness. At one time western art was rooted in the soil of the Christian church. In giving their witness, artists painted religious subjects; the best architecture was employed in the construction of churches; plays performed by the guilds dramatized sacred stories or at least stories that reflected Christian morality; music was composed to the glory of God; the first English novel, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, was intended as spiritual instruction. The fruits of centuries of creative activity remain with us to be marveled at and contemplated, but also as a witness, both to particular cultures and to the artists’ attitudes to those cultures.

Contemporary artists may choose other subjects, but their purpose is {105} still to clothe what is invisible and intangible in visible—or audible or tactile—forms. In a complex and troubled world, their work can be a lonely and dangerous business. And a lot of hard work. Of this process Virginia Stem Owens writes in And the Trees Clap Their Hands: “To spy out the reality hidden in appearances requires vigilance, perseverance. It takes everything I’ve got” (Stem Owens 1983, 3).

In order to best give expression to what is going on—in the world, on the street, in the mind—the artist/witness relies on images. Any reading of the Scriptures reminds us of the power of images: fire, water, the journey, bread, the cross. Ezekiel’s bizarre, apocalyptic images, and those in Revelation, ought surely to have prepared us for outrageous images in modern art galleries and modern film. Images can infiltrate our thinking and change us, for better or worse. Making art is a subversive activity that artists continue to engage in. It takes courage, and the support of the church, for the believing artist to bring his or her vision to this arena.

The contemporary Christian church exists in a culture where the arts, despite government cutbacks, are flourishing—and here I refer to quantity, not necessarily quality. Contemporary art is, for the most part, secular rather than sacred; it is art for art’s sake and not for worship or for the glory of God; it is pushing at the edge of what has been done, rather than staying with what is traditional; it reflects society’s values and structures, speaking to them in ways that are sometimes baffling, sometimes violent, and sometimes even blasphemous. In a world that lacks order and where many doubt the possibility of truth, such art is to be expected. The church, more comfortable with tradition than with innovation, pronounces judgment.

Flannery O’Connor, the southern Catholic writer, has tried to explain the violence in her often-criticized stories this way:

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work (O’Connor 1957, 112).

Is it possible that the public, too, needs to be hit on the head before they are capable of perceiving reality, and ultimately become prepared to receive grace? An artist moved by honesty and integrity will show life as it is. Even when the artist is not informed by faith, the art can still have integrity.


The community of the faithful, however—especially Evangelicals— are frightened by contemporary art when it takes on iconoclastic forms. {106} Is there a better response to it than fear? Our faith determines our response to art, whether we are makers or consumers of it. Does the extreme wariness often displayed by Evangelicals indicate a failure of faith? Or a failure of the love that drives out fear? A failure of imagination?

Once or twice I watched Sister Wendy Beckett on public television. This woman has written meditations on art and undertook the grand tour of European art galleries for the BBC. She approaches the visual arts with eagerness and joy, perhaps sometimes naivete, and—this is my impression—completely free of fear. I hope that the church is also becoming less defensive regarding art. I think Jesus is not interested in defending himself against controversial art that makes obvious and questionable reference to him. But could he be disappointed that the community of faith does not seek out its own artistic resources and does not enter the dialogue out there, instead of condemning or raging or cowering in fear?

Not that fear is inappropriate where art is concerned. It is very appropriate provided it does not spring from ignorance but from awareness—awareness that images, sounds, words have power to open our eyes and shake our complacency, to lift us up or cast us down. There is such power, for instance, in Michael Finn’s contemporary sculptures of the crucified Christ. Cynical art, too, exerts its power. It matters how an artist works with the available and chosen tools and materials. It is also necessary to be aware that art, and the calling to art, will always seek to be sovereign. To be God. This is a strong reason why the church should be concerned for the artists in her midst.

In his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll takes twentieth-century Evangelicals to task for having abdicated in the realm of academic intellectual activity, leaving it to the secular thinkers. He writes:

Despite dynamic success at a popular level, modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life. They have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of “high” culture (Noll 1994, 3).

Is this abdication by believers happening as well in areas that engage our senses before our intellect—the fine arts? I do not mean only in making art, but in interacting with it. Is there sufficient encouragement for Christian critics who speak to this? Evangelicals have been more comfortable exploring popular culture—hockey, movies, fashions, the {107} shopping malls, the internet—than investigating serious art, perhaps with the exception of music. Serious art demands something of us: it demands the involvement of our senses and our intellect. It is not easy entertainment inviting us to forget or escape. It is work of a kind that we are sometimes unwilling to do.


Believers are moving aggressively into our culture in a variety of areas: business, politics, technology—the whole range of professions. Let us assume, naively, that a main concern is the transformation and redemption of those areas of society. The arts are no less in need of transformation and redemption. It seems to me that Christians must move into these areas in faith, and with the affirmation of the church. As Virginia Stem Owens writes:

The name of this country we all live in is Time. It is my mission, and that of those who are also implicated in this intrigue, to colonize Time, to salvage what portions we can, to haunt it with memories of its origins, to subvert the population who were all, at one time, spies (Stem Owens 1983, 6).

The subversiveness of art runs parallel to the subversiveness of a Christian presence. The early Christians, we are told, turned the world upside down. The part of Canada where I live has spawned Mennonite writers, some of whom speak from within the church, others from a position outside of it. They have written frankly about their personal, often discouraging, experiences in the Mennonite community and have raised their voices in criticism of the church.

The shock and anger that such subversive writing has evoked suggests, once again, an underlying fear. Anger and fear, it seems to me, are not especially helpful. Is the church so easily confounded by artists who speak as truthfully as they can about their world and may in the course of doing so put a finger on the flaws of the church? A better response might be gratitude for a fresh, honest, view—however angry and incomplete. It is healthy occasionally to be upset. Sometimes it is the necessary prerequisite to healing. The language of art and the language of faith are equally capable of creating uproar.


When I began teaching literature to high schoolers, I expected that students from Christian backgrounds, raised on the Bible, would have a head start on understanding the language of image and metaphor. I was disappointed when this was not always so. Had the church failed in {108} uncovering and celebrating the Bible’s art treasures?

Recently, though, I’ve noticed how often a sermon begins with a story rather than with the outline of an expository message to follow. Instead of dispensing truth only by means of the three-point approach and literalistic readings of biblical texts, the church is beginning to trust scriptural metaphors. It is embracing the Bible’s way of telling truth through story and song, image and vision—concrete means that reach the heart through the body.

Artistic expression works that way: the best art seeks to embody intangible truth, to give shape and sound to vision. The imagination, an entrance to the domain of the spiritual, has received less attention in the church than the soul or the conscience. Flannery O’Connor says:

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader (O’Connor 1957, 83).

The word “writer” could be replaced by “painter” or “composer” or “sculptor”; it could also be replaced by the word “preacher.” If we believe that the truth can set us free and bring us reconciliation, it follows that we will encourage all the manifold ways of entering the realm of truth, including the way of the artistic imagination.


  • Coupland, Douglas. 1991. Generation X: Tales for an accelerated culture. New York: St. Martin’s.
  • Edwards, Michael. 1984. Towards a Christian poetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Noll, Mark A. 1994. The scandal of the Evangelical mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • O’Connor, Flannery. 1957. Mystery and manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Stem Owens, Virginia. 1983. And the trees clap their hands: Faith, perception and the new physics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Sarah Klassen is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and is a member of the River East Mennonite Brethren Church. She has published several collections of her work and recently spent two years teaching English in Lithuania.

Previous | Next