Religious art by non-believers

I read an interesting column in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, How Can Skeptics Make Convincing Religious Art? Terry Teachout wonders how it is that a non-believer can create such powerfully moving works of religious art. And for that matter, he asks, why does such an artist even want to make religious art?

It’s a fairly short column, and Teachout doesn’t attempt to give any kind of comprehensive answer to those questions. He only gives a few examples (and I have to admit that I don’t find Édouard Manet’s “Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers” as “wrenchingly powerful” as Teachout does); I would be interested in a longer and more in-depth treatment of the subject.

In the end, Teachout simply concludes that when it comes to producing great art, even on religious topics, belief in God is optional. Belief in the power of faith (which clearly is life-shaping and sometimes life-changing, regardless of what you think of its validity) and in the power of art seems to matter much more.

Thinking it over, I decided it doesn’t seem all that strange that unbelievers should be able to create great religious art. Religious art, like any other art, reflects human experience. It doesn’t take belief in God to feel suffering, awe, fear, delight, zeal, or other feelings common to religious experience.

Nor is it necessary to have a subject one considers factual to depict it well. Actors specialize in convincingly depicting the experience of another person, most often in a story that exists only in the writer’s mind until the actors bring it to life for an audience. Novelists and illustrators do the same in books.

What is required is that one think of faith as a good thing, even if one does not share it. If someone thinks of religion – of any type – as inherently toxic, I expect such an artist’s depiction of a religious topic would show how it poisoned a person’s character and experience.

Of course, there is the question, “What is religious art” Or, for that matter, “What is religious experience?” I found one web page that addresses the question, pointing out that religious art need not have an explicitly religious theme. After all, Trotter says, “Religion is the human quest for coherence and meaning in the understanding of the world.” Virtually all of life is included in such a quest.

When I took classes on art appreciation and literary analysis in (a fundamentalist Baptist college), my professors made it clear that neither life nor art should be artificially divided into “sacred” and “secular.” What was important was not that art should depict religion in a positive way (after all, even the Bible is sometimes scathing in its depiction of religious people).

Rather, it is truth that is important, along with mastery of the principles of whatever artistic form one is using. A work of art that depicts a life of faith as an easy one, or that shows people making bad decisions and never suffering the consequences, is not true to life. A work that depicts life as ugly and hopeless may be true if it is showing life apart from God – not a complete truth, but true as far as it goes.

The other question that often comes up among Christians discussing art is why there are not more people of faith producing great art. One comment to Teachout’s column in the WSJ says that it is because “those who try to prove their beliefs via their work, end up producing polemics.” He suggests that artists produce much better work when they are challenging their own beliefs.

There are certainly devout believers who have produced great art (Johann Sebastian Bach comes to mind). But it seems that all too often, believers want to use art as a tool to propagate the faith. One of my disappointments with the church I attended as a teenager (and where I came to faith in Christ) was that when I expressed my ambition to be a writer, the reaction was “Great! You can write Sunday School materials.”

There are other possible reasons for people of strong faith not producing much in the way of great art. A devotion to art often does not mix well with devotion to family and community, and people of faith are likely to put other people first, rather than art.

There is also a history of distrust between religious communities and artists. Partly, I think, this is because of the idea that art = fiction = untrue, and partly because religious groups tend to expect obedience, while artists tend to be rather independent-minded.

I have no idea how many stories I have started writing and never finished. Partly this is because I don’t spend time writing on a regular basis, but also because I get stuck trying to figure out how to include my faith, if at all, in a story. If I include it, I seem to end up including more of my doubts than my faith. If I leave it out, I am not depicting life as I – and most people I know – experience it.

So instead I write blog posts. Not very artistic, but I can write about faith sometimes and other times just focus on science, or words, or strange news, or whatever is interesting to me at the time.

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One Response to Religious art by non-believers

  1. Stephen Kahn says:

    Although you are a religious believer and I am not, I find your blog posts interesting and filled with useful and accurate information. I am not sure that labels convey much useful information. You would, I guess, have a label for your belief system, for your denomination, for your position and role in your family, etc., but none of these labels quite captures who you are or why you are a worthwhile person.

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