More artists are openly exploring spiritual themes. More churches are willing to exhibit and embrace their work. Conferences and books are plumbing the relationship between the arts and religion. Behind it all seems to be the acknowledgement that art and religion both have the power to transform people. "Faith is a way of seeing. And the function of the artist is to teach us how to see differently. Right?" asks the Rev. Kent Miller, pastor Denton's Trinity Presbyterian Church, which hosts six exhibits of sacred art every year.
When people think of art and religion, two extremes often come to mind: the sun-dappled crosses of Thomas Kinkade pantings or the disturbing images that have drawn headlines and protests in recent years. But a growing number of artists say that most "Christian" art is somewhere in between and that it deserves more attention from churches and churchgoers. "The time is ripe for the Christian artist to be a presence seen," writes Sandra Bowden, president of Christians in the Visual Arts.
For centuries, many Protestant churches frowned upon the use of visual arts, said Louis Waldman, an assistant professor of art at the University of Texas at Austin. The churches were distancing themselves from Catholicism, and, at the same time, taking literally the commandment not to have graven images. "The fear that Protestants had was that having images was one step away from idolatry," he said. "They feared people would worship statues instead of what they represented.
But they're finding today that visual arts can be used to enrich their faith and spirituality." Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have long used art as a way to enhance faith and tell the gospel stories. Said McLeary, "These churches have used works of art as a way to make the gospel more vivid to people."
Artists say they are seeing an increase in the use of Christian iconography, but many also say Christian art must also be broader. As an art-show juror, Texas artist Mary McCleary said she does not look specifically for fishes or crosses or even obvious biblical themes. Art ought to deal with goodness, but it should also explore truth and beauty, which aren't always reassuring or pretty, she said. Her painting "Children of the Apple Tree," for instance, deals with the fall of humans into sin in the Garden of Eden. It has an ominous quality and no overt Christian symbols, McLeary said.
Shrugging off the idea that Christian work can't be edgy, or that its purpose ought to be evangelistic, doesn't always sit well with conservative churches. Seattle writer Jeffery Overstreet said fellow church members often see his talent as a tool for winning people to Christ, while he sees it as a means of discovering. "Most artists are trying to explore something that they can't explore in regular didactic language," said Mr. Overstreet, who reviews movies for Christianity Today and is writing four books of Christian fantasy.
Nothing is more important than his Christian faith, Overstreet said, but as an artist, "my job is to be honest and use my talent as best I can. If I butter that up too much, it will go down easy, but is that the right thing to do?"
Even artists who stay outside organized religion may have lessons for more traditional Christians. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow examines the lives of 100 artists in a new book, "Creative Spirituality" (University of California Press). At a time when Americans struggle to fit worship and prayer into their lives, Wuthnow suggests there are important lessons to be learned from the way artists who imbue their work with a sense of the sacred practice their craft daily. For many artists, said Mr. Novinski, "the creative act itself is part of a larger spiritual picture. There's an awful lot of very modern art produced by people with the idea that the work is essentially contemplative."
One indication of a resurgence in mainstream Christian art is the number of Christian artists creating Web sites, forming groups and writing essays that discuss their need for artistic freedom. Art & Soul, a February conference for Christian writers and scholars at Baylor University in Waco, drew 2,500 people, said its organizer Greg Garrett. "Art & Soul is a place to ask hard questions, to share experiences, and to work hard on one's craft, knowing that ultimately there are more important questions than whether one gets published or becomes famous and gets to hang out with Matt Damon and Cher," he said.
Mr. Overstreet founded the Promontory Artists Association (www.promontoryartists.org), which publishes an on-line magazine called The Crossing. He founded the group because "we felt lonely," said Mr. Overstreet, who attends Seattle's Green Lake Presbyterian Church, which sponsors juried community art shows with themes such as longing, laughter and beauty. What's deemed acceptable covers a broad range. "They could be really bizarre stuff to more traditional material to nudes," said the Rev. Michael Kelly, who leads the congregation. "We've had a breast. There was no scandal."
A growing number of churches are actively encouraging all sorts of art dance, music, video, sculpture and paintings. Journey, a church sponsored by Dallas' Gaston Oaks Baptist Church, provides canvas so that worshipers can express their feelings by painting as the Sunday service progresses.
The Catholic Diocese of Dallas encourages the creation of original art for every new church building, said Dr. Novinski, who is on the committee that oversees diocesan building programs. Arlington's First United Methodist Church sponsors a community exhibit of Christian art every two years. "If it's not obscene, it pretty much gets in," said last year's chair of the fine arts council, Carolyn Strickland.
When the main sponsor left the church, there was talk of ending the exhibit. "But the artists love it and find so few places where they can show their work in a church-related atmosphere," she said. At Trinity Presbyterian Church in Denton, faith and art come together in six art exhibits hosted by the church every year. The church displays only sacred art, which the church's pastor, Kent Miller, defines as art that pertains to the spiritual journey or sacred themes. It may or may not have explicit Christian symbols, Mr. Miller said.
Last year, one exhibit featured the work of Edward Knippers, whose paintings of nude biblical scenes were turned away from Dallas' Biblical Arts Center after a test audience was disturbed by their content. Mr. Knippers' work didn't cause controversy, the pastor said, but it did raise hard questions. And that was good, he said. "We would ask, 'What's going on that the artist is triggering in you? How is God's Spirit speaking to you through this work?' "It's been a process of education," Mr. Miller said. "When we first started, the public wasn't particularly educated about how to view art. As we've done this five, six years, we're becoming more educated."
Disputes between art and religion have been exacerbated in recent years as modern artists have made it a goal to shock, even offend, notes Crossroads: Art and Religion in American Life. The new book presents sociological studies and scholarly articles that were financed over seven years by the Henry Luce Foundation. One chapter interviews Dallas art and religious leaders about how religion and art interact in the city.
American Christians who attend church at least once a week and conservative religious people are far more likely than other Americans to believe that art's purpose is to portray beauty, according to a study in the book. Even so, the amount of conflict in the relationship between art and religion has been overplayed, the book's co-editor concluded.
"The notion that there's some kind of unbridgeable divide between art and religion turns out to be untrue in the lives of most Americans," said Glenn Wallach, a senior associate scholar at the Center for Arts and Culture. "In fact, the scholars in this book find that there are all kinds of ways in which art and religion are being brought together in people's lives. I don't think the fact is new. I think the fact that they found it out is maybe new."