The other day, I was perusing the comments on a facebook post that my good friend Ben Harris had posted. A few comments in, one of Ben’s friends from his church had questioned the suitability of the piece of art that Ben had posted (something to do with Ben’s appropriation of some Eastern symbols in the work). Ben replied by linking his digital conversant to his excellent Sputnik article on pagan art and Christian art. There was a pause in the thread, and a few minutes later, Ben’s friend replied with continued wariness. There was some back and forth until the friend brought the online sparring to an end with the comment: ‘… as with much of art we must agree to disagree. love ya Ben’. Ben reciprocated the love. There were xs. There were smiley emoticons. It was beautiful (if I’m still allowed to use that word 😉 )
I’ll be honest, I thought this was one of the best things I’ve seen on the interweb for a while. To see people having a cogent, polite and meaningful discussion on social media that ends in disagreement but open displays of respect is so rare. What improved it further though was talking to Ben a few days later. Conversation veered on to church and some of the misunderstandings that can arise in a church towards those of a more artistic persuasion. Ben, unaware of my aforementioned stalking, mentioned this post as an example, but there was no sense of frustration or annoyance or even righteous indignation. He loves his church and is deeply committed to it, while recognising not only that people won’t necessarily have the same perspective on things that he does, but that they may not really understand his artistic calling at all. His intention was to pull more closely into the community and serve, rather than to pull back because of these differences.
It reminded me of a passage in Colossians that I have recently been meditating on. In the church in Colosse, there were a bunch of false teachers who Paul wasn’t very keen on, and in Colossians 2:19, he reveals their main flaw. They were…
‘not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.’
Obviously, Paul is expressing here his view that Christian growth comes from close connection to Jesus (the Head), but if you look closer, you can see that there is another element here. For the nourishment of Jesus to come to members of the body they need to be ‘knit together’. Growth comes from Jesus, channeled through close relationships within the local Christian community: the church. Actually, he uses the same expression in 2:2, making it clear these close connections are not just being members of the same club or sitting next to each other each Sunday morning, but his desire was for the members of the Colosse church to be ‘knit together in love’.
As artists, such verses can be quite painful to many of us. For many of us, we have tried knitting ourselves together with others in a local church, and we’ve found that it caused us hurt. People didn’t get us. We felt devalued and neglected. Sometimes even leaders have led us in directions our consciences wouldn’t allow us to go in. And so we’ve unpicked the stitching and unknitted ourselves from our churches. It is no secret that Christian artists are one of the groups of people who are most known for moving away from local church communities. Some start their own creative communities, others simply try to live out their faith, loosely connected to other friends, who may or may not follow Jesus.
I completely get it. I’ve avoided unknitting myself in the past, but not for very noble reasons. I was so arrogant when I was in my late teens and early 20s that I didn’t respect anyone else’s opinion in the church, so when I concluded that they looked down on me and thought I was a weirdo, I simply secretly despised them and didn’t let their view of me affect me. My attitude was terrible and I’m now very sorry for it, but it meant that it gave me something of a forcefield against rejection and I persevered with church in my own, partly oblivious, but mostly extremely conceited way. For those who have a bit of a better attitude than I did and truly value their church community and respect the people in it, such rejection can hit very hard and is difficult to bear. However, there is a cost from clocking out of church. Our connection to the Head will most likely be hindered. We will end up undernourished and our spiritual growth will be stunted.
Perhaps Ben Harris offers a third way. I know that this will embarrass him hugely, but as far as I can see, Ben is confident in who he is, both as an artist and as a child of God, and he is, at the same time, pushing forward in his artistic practice (seriously, this man is a machine!) and knitting himself tighter and tighter into his church community.
I think his example is really helpful for all of us. I’d appeal to every artist to resist the pull to unknit yourself from your church. If that bird has already flown, I’d encourage you to think about whether it’s time to fly it back! One of our explicit aims as an arts network is to facilitate relationships with other Christian artists of a like mind, to make sure you are connected to people who are like you, who understand you, who will value your creative self and hopefully help you to improve in your artistic practice. Sputnik is here to link you to people who ‘get you’. Is this then to replace church or to lead you away from your church? Quite the opposite! The plan is that, through connection with the other Sputnik artists, you will no longer need your friends at church to do the same. Even the leaders.
I’m spending more and more of my time communicating with church leaders and Christians who aren’t artists to try to help them to stop doing things that make our lives unnecessarily difficult, and, in the Catalyst churches most of our work is focused in, there is a real desire to learn and serve artists better. However, we’ve got to all settle on the reality that, if you are an artist, the majority of people in your church will never understand you as you may want them to. They will always glaze over when you talk excitedly about your new project. They will continue to be tempted to look at you with suspicion, like you’re up to something dodgy, just because you want to be excellent at what you do.
However, with all this said, unless you deliberately and proactively knit yourselves in with these people, there is very likely to be a disconnect with Jesus himself. This is a terrible price to pay and we’ve been paying it for too long!
My appeal would be to knit ourselves in again to our churches. With people who may well disagree with us, but who love us and ultimately will help us know Jesus better.
Featured image By Turris Davidica – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,