Christian contemporary artists work to bridge the gap between faith and popular culture

Elizabeth Kleberg. Photo: John Robinson Elizabeth Kleberg. Photo: John Robinson

What if I were to tell you that here in Charlottesville there is a nucleus of artists who self-identify as Christians, who are on the cutting edge of the scene, and who have no interest in converting you? We’re talking honest-to-goodness churchgoers exploring creativity with no evangelical intent other than to create works of art meant to be evaluated on their own terms. Sure, they hope to cut through the alienation of everyday life in contemporary society by fostering a sense of community. Yes, they believe faith and grace are part of their process. But they also just want to be normal, to find a way to bridge the decades-old divide between the church and popular culture.

On May 5, for example, local nonprofit New City Arts is teaming up with Trinity Presbyterian Church to present a talk by Daniel A. Siedell as part of the church’s “Faith Seeking Understanding Forum” series. The 2012-2013 New City Arts Scholar in Residence, Siedell is also the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. New City Arts Executive Director Maureen Lovett is one of the leaders in the local Christian art movement and has embraced faith-based programming as an important aspect of her nonprofit, which has Christian roots, an ecumenical makeup, and a secular mission.

“We’re not trying to force any one denomination to disregard their theological beliefs,” Lovett said. “We’re also not trying to force the civic arts community to embrace the Christian message. We’re trying to find common ground we can work on.”

She’s not alone. I recently spoke to several prominent local Christian artists and found them all ready and able to embrace the tension between the popular art world and their faith. I was raised a conservative Christian, and I eventually left the church in my late 20s, pulled away by some of the questions these artists say they have resolved. Can a Christian love art created by a nonbeliever? If you’re a Christian artist, does your art have to be Christian? More to the point: Can you worship John Lennon and Jesus?

A failure to communicate

When I was 3 years old, my atheist father knelt on the floor of our living room in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and asked Jesus Christ to be his Lord and Savior. It was 1974, a crucial moment in the life cycle of American Christianity. Since mid-century, the overt influence the Protestant religion had held on American culture had slipped gradually away. Supreme Court rulings had removed prayer from public schools in 1962 and ’63, and the sexual revolution followed up that lead punch, widening the gap between generational attitudes in what had been a very churchy nation.

In response, mainstream Christianity retreated from the cultural space that occupied the popular art world, which was increasingly viewed as dangerous. Painting had become too abstract, for instance, while popular music was downright licentious. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were a trifecta of sin, and at the forefront were the Beatles, who first alienated Christians in 1965 when John Lennon proclaimed that his group was “more popular than Jesus.”

By 1967, all four Beatles had long hair and espoused the benefits of LSD and eastern religion. Lennon became the de facto face of atheism (ironic considering his own Messiah complex) with songs that proclaimed that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” and lines like “imagine there’s no heaven” that seemed designed to provoke Christian insecurities.

This was especially problematic for my father. A child of the ’60s, he was as serious a Beatles fan as there was, revering them in an almost religious sense. Lennon was his favorite naturally, and a big influence on his own worldview until then.

What to do then with Lennon and Jesus? With the zeal of a new convert, he boxed up all of his Beatles records—along with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (until his weird Jesus period). Classical music—Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Handel —took their place. Not a 5 or 6 year olds’ ideal scenario—especially considering my love for the syrupy pop tunes of Paul McCartney—but as my father’s oldest son, I accepted the new life, one where I was expected to live according to a strict moral code. While other kids were listening to KISS or watching Scooby-Doo, I was bopping to the golden oldies (when I was with my mom) or laughing at the slapstick violence of Looney Tunes, products of a more innocent and far less threatening era.