Art and Faith (and Mental Health)

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First, I’m a writer. I’m not a fine artist, though I have utmost respect, admiration, and bitter jealousy of/for them. No, I got over the jealousy a some time back, but I did struggle for a while with how some people can pick up a pencil and magically bring forth life while I stick out my tongue, grab the crayon in my fist, and struggle to stay within the lines. I once watched a friend draw cartoons while we were bouncing along on a train. It seemed to make no difference whatsoever, as if the art required only his hand and the materials and images would translate to the page regardless of conditions.

I’m exaggerating, but I think God gives artistic expression as a gift. God is a creator, an artist. That’s the second thing we learn in the Bible about God. We learn first that God exists; second, we discover God is an artist. Those who make things, who create, reflect the image of an Artist God. Iraneus taught us that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. When we experience all of who we can be, when we live to the utmost, we glorify God. Jesus said he came that we may have life to the fullest.

I’ve come to define “artist” expansively. Your art form may be decorating, organizing, putting together an outfit you love. You might sing in front of people or just warble in the shower. Your art form may be building homes, repairing cabinets, landscaping. You may be a gardener or a surgeon. You might work in origami or drywall. My late step-father-in-law had the spiritual gift of driving. I didn’t know driving was a spiritual gift nor that it could be performed as artistry until I saw what he could do. I’ve said for years that playing ultimate is a means of worship for me. Ballet, figure skating, synchronized swimming, ultimate. Works for me. So I do mean nearly anything can be your expression of art: Does it employ your gifts and your creativity? Does it satisfy something in you? Does it make you feel a little more alive?

Some of my writer friends may have choked on that last sentence. “Does it make me feel a little more alive? Does it make me feel like choking someone? Does it make me feel like pounding my head on the keyboard?” Maybe all three.

Track with me for a second: It sounds like I’m idealizing art when I say that creating makes us feel alive. I absolutely believe it’s true. Some people find their form of artistic expression therapeutic, instantly and consistently. If you garden because getting your hands in soil makes you happy and gives you a peace and connection you can’t find elsewhere, you may have found your art. My dad gardened. We had a huge garden. I have vivid memories of his shouting at robins. I don’t mean jokingly. His gardening didn’t always look peaceful. But he found some deep satisfaction in growing food. So does my wife, though I’ve never heard her yell at a bird in my life.

Some of us wrestle with our art forms, and that, too, can be therapeutic, though it may look less peaceful. A brilliant friend of mine produces art that others label “dark,” but it’s exactly what my friend needs to express. My friend doesn’t merely scribble like I do but sells these pieces, puts on exhibits, and conveys something deep and true and hard about our human condition. That’s not always pretty or tranquil.

If we’re going to define art broadly, we then must recognize that we might experience being creators like my friend on the train whipping out a new sketch, apparently effortlessly, or, at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, like a woman giving childbirth. We live in this crazy world in which some of us can carry a human being inside us and create. You, also, born of God, born of a woman, are creation as well as creator, both art and artist.

I am now going to give my opinion on a controversial point (for some) about art: we can glorify God with our art without explicitly trying to make our art “Christian.” A landscape painter does not have to find a way to sneak in a cross nor footprints in the sand in order to reflect God in the painting. In my view, art need not be reduced to one point nor to “saying something,” in terms of a blatant message. I’ll go further and say that preachy art may lose something. Preaching is, itself, an art. When I preach, I’m preaching. When I write, I’m not preaching. I may be persuading or exhorting. But when I’m writing fiction, I’m telling a story and trusting that the truth of the story comes through.

This could be a longer discussion which I may take up more in a subsequent post (and if you’re interested, I highly recommend reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water). For now, consider that a garden speaks of God. So does a person singing, because a singing voice is an instrument given by God and using it reflects who God is. If you desire to glorify God with your art form, pour your heart into your expression, be it ultimate or construction or weaving, writing or painting or dance. Find your way to create with integrity.

If God gave you artistic gifts of any kind, use them. Just that. Don’t worry if what you do isn’t perfect or beautiful or–Lord help us–good enough. Let me say that a different way: Don’t let that worry stop you or paralyze you or cheat you. God, out of love for you, gave you gifts. Made you a co-creator.

Create.

5 thoughts on “Art and Faith (and Mental Health)

  1. A UX designer I came across named Frank Chimero used this line: “Art is anything that’s better than it needs to be.”

    I love that idea.

    I also tend to think of it as the creation of anything that is unapolagetically itself—despite not being pre-approved, defined, or validated.

    An artist follows threads of curiosity, joy, and interest out into the void, and makes something exist that never would have otherwise existed … just because the thing itself pleases them.

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