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Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 123–31 

Why We Are Afraid of Art

Jean Janzen

My journey with art, particularly as a practicing poet, has been somewhat lonely. As a Mennonite Brethren Christian I have had little encouragement to see art and faith as connected. Along the way, however, I have found a few kindred souls who walked with me, convinced as I am that faith and art are close companions, and who also sense fear, mistrust, or indifference in our churches and communities.

To pretend that we can know the spiritual without the physical is to deceive ourselves.

In this essay I propose that we are afraid of art for both wrong and right reasons. And I propose that the arts could move us into a stronger faith. In a time when much of modern society has lost a sense of divine, holy space, when our worship tends toward the familiar, feel-good style, we need to hear a new and stringent call to encounters with God that recognize his immensity and his intimacy. The making and experiencing of art in our lives can be a powerful vehicle to recover what we began to lose during the Reformation, a true sense of awe. And I propose that the power of art to reveal truth about God, our time, and ourselves becomes an effective tool for change, the kind of change which is needed for effective kingdom work.

I offer my experience as a poet as testimony and as a metaphor for what I believe we need to recover in our understanding of God, something which the arts particularly offer us. I will show that terror does reside at the edge of beauty, and that such terror can become the kind of {124} awe which can change our lives, deepening and enriching us in our journey of faith.


Many of us grew up with little exposure to the arts, except for our love and respect for traditional choral music and hymn singing, and the making of quilts. Most of us have not chosen painting, sculpture, drama, dance, or great literature as a way to grow. We choose to be comfortable with what is already known and what fortifies us in our settled beliefs.

To be engaged with the arts is fearful because we often do not understand it. Moreover, the twentieth century has broken away from long-held traditions and moved into explorations of the obscure, abstract, and absurd, areas which tend to exclude and alienate the general public. The postmodern position that we cannot know, that no absolute exists, and that there is no hope has tended to predominate. And so we stay away. As Christians we fear that we could be tainted by these philosophies, and thus weakened in our faith.

I believe that people of faith can be bold to enter and be present with the arts, and need to be. For as we allow ourselves to look at a great piece of sculpture, for instance, we are standing before a truth about our time and about ourselves. We need not understand the theory or process, or the history of art, to be present with it. Looking at art takes time, but it is time well spent in growing more fully in our whole beings. A poem, or a novel, calls us to simply be there, to enjoy the cadence, the colors, the music of words, to let it come in. Like the Psalms, the language will sit with us and whisper deeply, “This is how it is.” The same is true for a painting or a symphony.

We are afraid when art is unfamiliar. We are afraid because we may know something new which could disrupt our comfort, something which may require us to change.


I took my first breath on a December day in a small teacherage on the Saskatchewan prairies. My first sensual experience after the trauma of delivery was the warmth and heartbeat of my mother’s body. And over her shoulder the light of early afternoon, a glare from sun on snow that caused me to squint. Cold light and body warmth, a paradox of intimacy and distance that lies at the core of the need to write, to make art.

Everyone of us has the capacity to respond to life with that “need to squint,” to know the wonder of being alive. Some of us are driven to {125} give expression to that wonder, to acknowledge the Mystery with its immensity and intimacy.

Sometimes when I seek words for the holiness of God and the response of awe, I have chosen the image of snow—its purity, its gloss, its hushing effect. But I also remember harsh winds, the numbing cold, and the need for the scarf which my mother tied around my nose and mouth before I left the house. I can see the fox-and-goose circle game, and remember how I could not make an angel in the snow unless I was willing to fall backward. Nature and experience. The hymns we sang, the prayers I heard, the Scriptures which were read all added to the sense of awe. And then awe became laced with fears about the future, war, and a major move for our family from Saskatchewan to Minnesota. The snow does not stay. It melts into a worrisome murmur.

I write because life is awesome, because it holds beauty, and at the edge of beauty, a sense of terror. It calls me to risk opening my eyes, to look into the glare. It is an act of faith, for not only must I look into the light, I must look into the dark. As Elizabeth Dewberry writes,

The artist . . . has to be willing to go into that place in her soul which is so deep and so dark that she can’t see her way around, where she can’t rely on traditional knowledge or conventional ways of knowing, and she has to open her eyes to whatever’s there. That is in itself an act of faith. 1

The movement of art on the path towards mystery offers pleasure as well. The making of art engages in a search for shape and order, for the beautiful, no matter what joy, despair, or chaos might drive it. Although I write in mostly free verse, rhyme and the music of rhythm and language is an integral part. This is the delight we feel in being present with art, that shape has been found for our swirling emotions.

Sources for me were hymns, Scriptures, the cadenced orations of sermons in both English and German, also the harmonies of choral singing. In our home the radio was kept low in volume. We sang around the piano, we talked ideas and theology increasingly as my father moved from teaching grade school to pastoring. And through the rest of my years at home, I witnessed over and over his greatest joy; he would come out of the room where he studied to tell my mother about his discovery in the Scriptures, his face shining.

That is the greatest reward of making art and being present with it, a clearer, deeper understanding of this amazing life. It is the sound of melting under the snow. It is the assurance that the encounter with the sacred is intended for our final good, even as it can carry us into threatening spaces. {126}


Poetry, and all art, requires body work. It says that body and soul are united. We are afraid of our bodies because we have been taught to see them as deterrents to spiritual life. Our hungers and urgencies for intimacy, for sex, and for the beautiful are suspect. Food seems to be permissible, as evidenced in our feasting, and sometimes gluttony. Surely the shadow-side of the physical is clear, but to pretend that we can know the spiritual without the physical is to deceive ourselves.

More and more I recognize that my thoughts and my faith are filtered through the senses. It is in the naming of concrete images, real objects, that our emotions and memories are evoked. I say the words “canning peaches,” and those summer days return with their steam and fuzz, the mouth salivating, and my mother warning me not to eat a single peach fresh. I smell the California dust dissolving in rain, and the roots reach down to the recognition of my vulnerability, my own impending death.

My experience with hunger, sexual desire, birth giving, parenting, the death of family members—all things physical—have profoundly shaped my spiritual journey. And in church the starched white linens unfold like doves’ wings, the pastor’s hands pour juice, the fragrance of bread broken is released, the light pours in through the dome, and the pattering rain accompanies our prayers and tears.

Scott Holland, a Brethren pastor and theologian, writes that he is learning about the interconnectedness of earth, body, self, and God from “our artists who invite us to shamelessly sing the Lord’s song, even by the rivers of Babylon.” He calls for theologians, pastors, and artists from the Anabaptist heritage to seek to overcome “the unproductive dualisms” of Christ and culture, kingdom and creation, body and soul, by recognizing that “the aesthetic experience of humankind may indeed reflect the revelation of God.” 2

Abstractions without physical grounding tend to fly up and disappear. The Bible is grounded in stories, parables, and metaphors. The holiness of snow comes near and collects under our feet. It melts, makes puddles and mud. To this richness of physical and spiritual united we are called as the disciples of Christ.


The artist is one who tells the truth about our lives, both the deepest self and the world in which we live, both past and present. Often indirectly, with images and understatement, the truth is explored and {127} offered, and we stand in new light, sometimes to our discomfort.

As one who has witnessed the changes and vicissitudes of two-thirds of this century, I raise my voice. I have witnessed a river of discovery, war and peace, and drastic changes in society. I have felt the immense swells in the seas of the woman’s role; my boat is rocking. I have seen war on television, have travelled behind the Iron Curtain before and after it fell. In Europe I have stood at the places of our Anabaptist martyrs. I am witness to atrocities and injustice in my city, state, and nation. And also I am witness to God’s intervention and grace in my own life, my family, my church, and community. Some of us are gaining courage to look and listen, and to record with language and the visual arts.

Some Anabaptist historians are beginning to include poets and storytellers in their conferences; we are learning to respond to the biblical admonition to remember. Not only the victories, but the whole story is God’s way, the way it was given to us through the writers of the Bible. The unadulterated version, including David and Bathsheba.


Being witness to experience as an artist requires imagination as well as faithfulness to what is true, and we are afraid. I see this in the Christian publication world which tiptoes around anything that might offend or cast shadows of reality which are “not nice,” or tests our dogma. Katherine Paterson, fiction writer, said in a recent interview in Image, when asked about this fear, “We can’t control it: the imagination is not tamed or tamable. Therefore we can’t be sure how it’s going to come out. It probably won’t come out safely.” 3

Certainly Rudy Wiebe with his publication of Peace Shall Destroy Many and subsequent novels has experienced reactions of fear and mistrust to his work as witness. Art asks us to walk fearlessly into its spaces of imagination so that we can be awakened, illuminated, and challenged to be transformed.

Much of the writing that is sold in Christian bookstores these days is considered safe, at least not offensive to the people in the pews of Evangelical churches. James Calvin Schaap, a Christian fiction writer, recently commented in Poets and Writers magazine,

In many CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] stores the only potentially scandalous fare on the shelves is the Bible itself, whose seamy stories always manage to get by, creating the impression that it is the only book in the store not written by a Christian. {128} 4


In my most recent collection of poetry (which is seeking a publisher), I explore the California landscape in which I have lived for forty years. Its grand scale and vast empty spaces have seemed daunting to me since we arrived, pregnant, in a 1954 Ford packed to the gills. As a child of immigrants and a pastor-father, moving was nothing new. But to settle in an area so near mountains and ocean offered both beauty and the challenge of how to live here with all that wilderness bordering our fertile valley. Raising children in this environment of wildness and experimentation in culture has been a gift and a test of faith. This is home, yet truly not the “abiding city” to which we are going.

By writing poems I learn about my spiritual journey, the wildness of God, the wildness of me, the fertility of the fields which are the mountains broken and washed down, and that pure, melting snow singing its way into the rivers like grace.

Frederick Buechner writes that we come upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage, where we glimpse a destination that we can never know fully until we reach it:

Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for. 5

At the end of a chaotic century, in the midst of community and in isolation, in the midst of wildness and cultivation, I write because we are not yet home. On the journey I celebrate truth, forgiveness, healing, and the presence of God, and I also cry out for those same things when they are absent. Much about our culture evokes a sense of homelessness. Writes Elizabeth Dewberry,

Art is a prayer for a home in God’s universe. It’s also a cry for attention and divine intervention and immortality and an implicit apologetic for a universe whose apparent chaos means something, must mean something. 6


The deeper I go into exploration of the soul, the more I am connected to others. Therefore, my task is to write down what might even at times be visionary, to be a prophet. The artist is often an outsider, one who stands apart and delivers a challenge to the community. Gregory {129} Wolfe writes that “the prophets of old employed many of the same tricks used by writers and artists: lofty rhetoric, apocalyptic imagery, biting satire, lyrical evocations of better times, and subversive irony.” Prophets have been called disturbers of the peace and revolutionaries, he reminds us, and the Bible also tells of false prophets.

But the true prophet proclaims not his own message, but that of the Lord. “The prophet and the artist may seek to disturb the existing order of things, but they should do so in the name of a deeper order, not in the name of their own genius,” Wolfe continues. 7 The artist will serve the community best by keeping enough distance to be able to see, to maintain enough autonomy to speak the vision, and yet be connected to the community in vital ways.

Sarah Klassen writes in Sophia,

We have always had among us people with vision, and sometimes that vision is artistic. However, in Mennonite communities the artist’s vision has received much less attention than the preacher’s words. But the artist’s work, too, is prophetic, and artists feel called to make art that celebrates or informs or critiques.

Klassen adds that the church has not encouraged artists in the same way that it has given to workers in other professions. She asks if we have been too suspicious “of the subversive nature of art, afraid it will challenge our way of looking at the world.” 8

If Mennonite Brethren would begin to value and trust the arts as an important act of worship and faith and vision, we would encourage our artists and the making of art. We would invite more writers, musicians, composers, actors, and visual artists to our conferences. We would display their work and publish it. We would commission work for special occasions and for the everyday. We would enlarge our departments in our colleges and give art more attention in our seminary.

In the United States and Canada, writers who are Christian are on a threshold of opportunity. Major publishers are becoming more open to work that is informed by the Christian faith. More than a thousand people attended the “Christianity and Literature Conference” at Calvin College this spring. Authors like Kathleen Norris are on the bestseller list. A rise in interest among Mennonites has been dramatic: more than three hundred people attended the “Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S.” conference in Goshen, Indiana, in the fall of 1997. Every two years a small congregation in Cincinnati hosts a Mennonite arts festival. Last year I read poetry at a weekend arts festival in the Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, B.C. {130}

A central force in the revival of interest and respect for the arts and Christianity in the U.S. is the Milton Center organization which produces the journal, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. The journal’s editor and publisher Gregory Wolfe writes,

When one thinks of religion in connection with contemporary art, one tends to think of rancorous political battles over scandalous art . . . . We’re recovering the great tradition of art that wrestles with the big questions about God and his ways with man. 9


To grow as God’s people individually and corporately, we have the arts to assist us in powerful ways. To enter freely into the world of art, we must shed our fears of being challenged by what may be new and/or disturbing.

But we also have good reason to be afraid. Art is subversive. It works against power, pride, selfishness, deceit, and division. It has the potential to change us. But it is awe, not terror, in the end which God evokes through art. Martin Marty quotes Jerome Miller in a lecture recently:

Awe, unlike terror, is not awakened by something that threatens my survival; it is awakened by a reality that threatens my ordinary sense of being important. And that means that it affects my way of conceiving of my personal worth. Awe reaches all the way into my most intimate sense of myself. . . . If the Sacred is worthy of radical self-effacement . . . then it cannot be right for us to resume our ordinary lives after we have encountered it. 10

Great art, great writing, opens doors to the immensity of life and of God. It allows us to sense more nearly how close and intimate God can be, and it can lead to transformation. I want to grow more courageous in my journey with art and faith. I want to pass it on.


  1. Elizabeth Dewberry, “Praying for a Home,” Image 15 (1996): 64.
  2. Scott Holland, “Experience,” Kairos 1 (1996-97): 5.
  3. Katherine Paterson, “A Conversation with Katherine Paterson,” Image 13 (1996): 53.
  4. James Calvin Schaap, “Singing and Preaching: Christians in Writing,” Poets and Writers 26 (1998): 23. {131}
  5. Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 168-69.
  6. Dewberry, 66.
  7. Gregory Wolfe, “The Artist as Prophet,” Image 18 (1997): 4.
  8. Sarah Klassen, “Do We Need Two Hundred Pomegranates?” Sophia 4 (1994): 3.
  9. Wolfe, 4.
  10. Jerome Miller, quoted by Martin Marty, “Beauty and Terror: Rapture in Art and the Sacred,” Image 17 (1997): 82.
Jean Janzen is a poet living in Fresno, California. She teaches poetry writing at Fresno Pacific University and Eastern Mennonite University. Four collections of her poetry have been published and she has contributed hymn texts to recent hymnals.

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