Dealing with difficult subjects as Christian artists

By Kendra Johnson, Arts Editor  (Courtesy photo/The Bison)

Christian artists often find themselves faced with difficult subject matters and struggling to find ways of responding that are honest, safe and bring glory to God.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of simply avoiding difficult subjects and condemning the arts as sinful.

However, engaging with difficult subjects and ideas is important for Christians.

“I often point out to Christian artists and readers that Philippians 4:8 says ‘whatever things are true’ not ‘whatever things are pleasant,’” professor of literature and English, Dr. Benjamin Myers, said.

“Either, one, we just say that’s terrible and we walk away and not have any involvement in it, or two, we engage the conversation robustly because we understand truth and beauty from a Christian perspective and we’re not afraid to talk about those things,” dean of the college of fine arts, Dr. Christopher Mathews, said.

According to the OBU Mission Statement, “OBU transforms lives by equipping students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.”

In order for students to learn to “integrate faith with all areas of knowledge” and “engage a diverse world,” students must interact with ideas and subject matter that challenges them in the form of mental work, but also in the form of emotional or spiritual growth.

Students may find themselves studying songs or plays that were written by artists with vastly different, atheist, or anti-Christian views.

“I think by and large– not a hundred percent of the scripts that are out there – but by and large, the greatest number of scripts that are out there should be allowed in the context of a Christian liberal arts institution, at least at the level of a dramatic reading or something,” Mathews said.

“Because we need to understand what’s there; we need to be preparing others for the world of what’s out there. Now there may be many of those that we would not feel comfortable with producing, but at the same time the text may be things that we not only need to read at a cursory [level] but we need to try to wrestle with what the characters were feeling and try to understand what’s going on, at least at that level.”

At other times, students may need to study or perform works that deal with themat-ic elements such as sexual assault, racism, violence or situations that involve their own vulnerabilities. All of these risks are applicable to acting students.

“For actors, it’s very much everything that person is as a human is on display, not just their body, their physical, their face, their stance, their posture, but also there is an emotional commitment,” assistant professor of theatre Matthew Caron said.

“Acting is a very vulnerable craft, you know. They’re creating relationships on stage that can sometimes potentially feel real even though they’re not, you know, so there’s just a lot of risk for an actor to go out there and embody a character and do all of those things that need to happen to create a credible and compelling performance.”

Yet artists can maintain safety, both spiritually and emotionally, if they are thoughtful in the way they approach these situations.

Rather than ignoring difficult subjects, they can actively seek the appropriate Christian response.

“In poetry engaging a diverse world can often mean trying to understand the experiences of people who have different viewpoints or experiences than you do. It can also mean giving honest expression to human experience,” Myers said. “The Psalms are a wonderful model of this.”

When students seek out what they have in common with an artist’s work, even if they disagree with it, they can expand their knowledge of the human condition.

“Art of all kinds should reach toward beauty, but it can’t get to beauty without engaging reality truthfully and meaningfully,” Myers said. “This is as true of The ‘Lord of the Rings’ as it is of more realistic work. Redemption is beautiful, but you can’t see redemption without really seeing the need for it. That takes honesty. In this, the artistic path is a lot like the path to salvation.”

Studying challenging works as Christian artists requires students to actively engage in their faith in a way that they might not have done otherwise.

“Some of these risks have the benefit of keeping us before God on a regular basis,” Mathews said. “Lord, you’ve called me into a profession. Lord I believe that you have a desire and a plan for me in that profession. But I also know that that profession is going to cause me to interact with people that will potentially be harmful for me internal or external, or interact with subjects. And so, I need to daily come before you for wisdom in how I interact with that, for the courage to draw a line if I must do that and to separate for myself, for the courage to continue going if I must do that. But I’m going to regularly come before [God] for guidance in wisdom for how I do that.”

Another important aspect of maintaining safety is open, honest communication. For this to work, both the faculty and the students have to deliberately choose to discuss any concerns or difficulties that might arise during the creative process.

As students learn, they can also be encouraged to find their own boundaries, through safe practice, and classroom work, and then learn to communicate their boundaries clearly and openly.

“The thing I think is about being aware of your own boundaries and not being afraid to communicate that,” Caron said. “And that’s what I mean by creating a safe environment. So that if, you know, Jack and Jill are doing an exercise together. Jill can say to Jack ‘okay we’re doing this exercise but I want you to know it makes me really uncomfortable when people touch my shoulders, you know, I just want you to know that.’ And then Jack’s response is ‘okay I’m not gonna touch your shoulders.’ And then Jill has to trust that Jack’s gonna do that. Jack is not going to accidentally touch her shoulders because that betrays Jill’s trust and then once you betray that trust with the two actors then creating any kind of relationship on stage becomes that much more difficult because the actors don’t trust each other.”

OBU classes and activities encourage trust by creating an atmosphere that allows open, faith-based discussing of all aspects of life.

Christian artists can face the challenges of the art world they live in by learning to communicate in a way that is filled with grace and empathy and is firmly grounded in technique and a solid understanding of their faith

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