“I write fully persuaded that art, in its most exalted form, can be used by God to transform women and men, to extend his common grace to the world and to lead the church to worship,” writes Cameron J. Anderson in the introduction to his book The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts, the second in IVP Academic’s Studies in Theology and the Arts series. Based on the title, I wasn’t sure whether the book was meant for me, a nonartist, but I found that it speaks to the evangelical church at large, whose ambivalent and sometimes hostile attitude toward art is kindheartedly challenged by this insider to both worlds. How Christian artists can faithfully pursue their vocational calling in contemporary culture is a major concern of the book, but so is how Christians of any professional background can pursue art as worship.
Since 2009 Anderson has served as executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), a North American organization founded in 1979 with the mission of weaving serious art and serious faith into whole cloth. (It was recently announced that at the end of the year he will be retiring from this position, while continuing to be active in the organization.) Born and raised in the postwar evangelical subculture, Anderson encountered tall barriers to his vocational pursuit of the visual arts. First was his church’s utter disregard for art—their ignorance of art history and palpable disdain for modern art—which left him without a mentor. But just as formidable was the art world’s hostility to sincere, conservative religious belief.
In chapter 1, “A Double-Consciousness,” Anderson describes his dual identity as both an evangelical and an artist and the alienation he felt from both communities while attending art school in the 1970s. He says it seemed his only two options at the time were to either privatize his religious identity in the art world or produce sentimentalized art for the church—neither of which were tenable to him. Why the impasse? Part of it is due to competing stances: while evangelicalism embraces absolutes and is determined to safeguard tradition, modern art aggressively dismisses absolutes and is given to renouncing tradition. But an even bigger factor is the stereotypes each world perpetuates about the other: artists are narcissistic, profane, rebellious, elitist, while evangelicals are unsophisticated, superstitious, naive, irrelevant. Rather than seeking to interact with or understand each other, the art world and the church simply characterize each other as ridiculous.
Combating the assumption that modern art is completely devoid of any signs of faith, Anderson discusses Wassily Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and other canonical artists who regularly probed spiritual reality (including, in some cases, the Christian story) in their work.
In chapter 2, “The Body They May Kill,” Anderson explores the theological significance of our embodiment, challenging the assumption held by some Christians that the spirit is good and the body is evil. “A biblical understanding of the self,” Anderson writes, “must regard physical being as an essential component of true spirituality. . . . Corporeality is not the enemy of one’s spirit but rather the stage on which moral goodness and evil are both acted out and acted on” (69, 77). He looks at how the clothed and unclothed body has been treated in the visual arts over time and in popular culture. He also reflects on the ongoing discord between faculty and administrators at Christian colleges and universities over whether art students should be allowed to draw unclothed models (figure drawing is a fundamental building block of art education), and whether such works should be displayed on campus.
Chapter 3, “Secular Sirens,” highlights how “the biblical narrative accredits substantial virtue to our sensate being” (88)—our ability to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. We know the world through our senses, and yet evangelicalism too often bypasses a role for them, save for music, in many cases fearing that the senses can enflame sexual desire. While acknowledging that an unrestrained indulgence of the senses can lead to vice, Anderson also warns that hard-and-fast resistance tempers our ability to enjoy God and his good creation. He insists on the need to hold ascetic discipline (the denial of one’s senses for some greater spiritual good) in concert with aesthetic delight (the stimulation of one’s senses through the arts).
In chapter 4, “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See,” Anderson discusses the place and meaning of religious images in biblical history onward into Protestant culture. He examines God’s commands to tear down idols against those to construct an image-filled tabernacle, a bronze serpent, and stone memorials, and Christ’s command to remember him through bread and wine. Continue reading “Book Review: The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson”