“Why is Christian art so bad?” This question was posed to me on live radio several years ago when I was doing a book tour for The release of my first book, ”Unlocking the Heart of the Artist”. There I was, live before millions of people around the world on a big time morning radio show in downtown Chicago. I was trying to encourage artists and at the same time felt that punch-to-the-gut sort of feeling that said “what in the world am I going to say to this?” Fear, anxiety and anger and a little bit of laughter all bubbled up at the same time. I’m not even quite sure what I said at this point but throughout the years, that question has stayed with me and informed everything we try to do in equipping artists at The Worship Studio.
What would lead someone to even ask that question? I mean frankly, we don’t like to ask such hard questions in the Christian community. Most of the time, we like to stay all positive. It’s kind of like those kids on American Idol that can’t sing. Think about it. Somebody’s mama told them they could sing. Their whole life they’re thinking “Wow, I am awesome” and then they get up on national TV and everything changes. (Just in case you need a break, here’s the 10 worst American Idol Singers. Enjoy!)
In church, it can be like that for an artist. All you hear is how anointed, talented and called you are but rarely do artists hear really great constructive critique that can enable them to grow. Sure, we all like to edify, encourage and strengthen each other but sometimes we need to have a little bit of iron sharpening iron. Sometimes, somebody’s got to call a spade a spade. I guess today, that’s me.
You see, I believe if we’re honest we know the answer to this difficult and sometime offensive question; “Why is Christian art so bad?” Much of what is deemed Christian art or “prophetic art” today is much more spiritually-based, spontaneous expression or spiritual processing than it is skillfully created art. (That is not a slam on spontaneous expression or spiritual processing through art by the way.) In that context, the artist may seek to communicate passion, desire, vision and prophetic unction but because of immature artistic skill that only comes with time, preparation, creative development, mentoring and creating tons of work, the result does not carry the transformative power which the artist seeks to convey. The result is not inherently bad, it’s simply the immature expression of an emerging artist.
The challenge for all of us artists who are Christians and who desire to have our work release the light and life of God – to release transformation and change the atmosphere – is to move beyond the simple transcription of spiritual inspiration to the place where we treat those inspirations as seeds; seeds of promise, seeds of potential, seeds that must be planted in good soil and go through the maturing process before they can bear fruit.
Believe me, as you mature both creatively and spiritually, your interpretation of inspiration changes drastically.
Unfortunately, that process of development is often looked down upon or minimized because of the tendency to over spiritualize this creative process. I call it “playing the God card”. Sometimes if an artist inherently feels that the inspiration they carry is from the Holy Spirit and that their responsibility is to communicate that inspiration through their artwork, there can be a real resistance to constructive critique. You’ll hear defensive responses like “God gave this to me” or “This is what the Holy Spirit said to do” when in reality, that is the artists’ interpretation of what the Holy Spirit said to do based on their own spiritual and creative maturity. When any of us lose the ability to be teachable and what we do whether it be creative or otherwise and we miss the opportunity to mature. Believe me, as you mature both creatively and spiritually, your interpretation of inspiration changes drastically. Why? Because you have more options; more techniques, mediums, processes and ideas. As your creative capacity expands so does your ear to the Spirit.
The question for all artists is “How do I skillfully create art and grow in artistic maturity while nurturing an authentic spiritual connection?”Here’s five things that I hope all artists will incorporate into their artistic development as they grow into creative and spiritual maturity:
I was a 1 talent artist looking for 5 talent results (Matthew 25).
“Go Back and Re-Learn Your Craft”
When the Lord began to speak to me about the next season of my life in 2008, the first word I got was not about raising up an army of artists or being a father to artists or writing books or speaking at conferences around the world. The first word I got was “go back and re-learn your craft”. Although I have been making baskets for probably 15 years at that point, the Spirit spoke a very clear Word to me. As I interpreted that Word, it became clear that even though I had done basketry for a long time they were key things that I was missing, key techniques that I had not mastered, core understandings that I had yet to incorporate into my creative process. Until I gained mastery in those areas, no matter how much passion or desire I had to release the light and life of God through my work or to have influence as an artist, it just wasn’t going to happen. Why? Because I was a 1 talent artist looking for 5 talent results (Matthew 25). Yes, I could have rebuked the devil and prayed for a miracle – and that may have made me feel better – but as I have found throughout my whole creative and spiritual journey, God is more concerned about the process then he is about the outcome. He’s concerned about stewardship, faithfulness and tenacity. I begin to understand that if God could trust me with the responsibility to develop his creative investment in me then he would trust me to pour out his Spirit through my work.
Plant the Seeds of Inspiration
Creative inspirations are like seeds. In and of themselves, they are worthless unless they are planted in good soil and allowed to come to maturity. The tendency for many artists is to paint the seed, sing the seed, give away the seed or even try to sell the seed rather than plant the seed and wait. For seeds to come to maturity, they must be planted in good soil, die and then give way to life. You must also die to your own preconceived notions of what the art should or should not look like based on how you interpreted the seed.
You must give inspiration the soil it needs to mature into fruit. You must also die to your own preconceived notions of what the art should or should not look like based on how you interpreted the seed. Rarely does the seed look like the fruit and unless you allow the seed to die and then come into maturity, you’re probably missing much of what Holy Spirit is actually trying to speak in and through your creative process.
What does this mean practically? Leave room for mystery. Journal your inspirations, record them on Pinterest, create a vision board, meditate on them with the Holy Spirit. Allow them the time and space to come to fruition. Otherwise, you’re giving away simple seeds or fruit that’s not yet ripe.
Find a Mentor
Hello! This is huge and yet so many people resist this part of the journey. All of us need people to speak into our creative journey and they don’t always have to be Christians. Yes, I said it! Can you believe it? Consider Bezalel for a moment. Yes, he’s an incredibly talented, Godly, Spirit-filled artist in the Bible but in reality, mosts of his artist training came from master artisans in Egypt. God can and will use anyone he wants to in order to build us into the mature artists He’s designed us to be!
Most of the mentors in my own creative journey have been people whose work inspired me. I paid – and continue to pay – attention, asked the Spirit for opportunities to connect with them and then before you know it, our paths intersect. Follow the breadcrumbs and the favor. Expect divine connections.
“Christianese” messaging overwhelms and weakens the creative expression.
Create and Let God speak
Artists should quit trying so hard to ‘say something’ with their art and simply create. Create with skill? Yes. Create from deep inspiration? Yes. Create with the Creator? Yes. Just create and believe me, the work will speak for itself. So many times overt “Christainese” messaging overwhelms and weakens the creative expression. The creative process is about trust; trusting yourself, the materials, the mystery all the while believing that the work will live and give life to you and the viewer.
In my own journey. most of what God has used to speak life and light to others has usually been in spite of my creative intention going into a piece. Because of that, I always encourage artists to let the work you create speak. Let the process speak. Don’t always come into a piece of art thinking “this is what this is about” or “this is what I’m going to say”. For me, that just robs the beauty of the process and the experience of the viewer from enjoying. The beauty of art – the supernatural essence of what and how we create – is that our creativity is much more than simply what we bring to the studio. We bring all of us and mix it with all of what Holy Spirit wants to do in and through us and boom, all of a sudden what we create goes WAY beyond whatever we had in mind or could ever have done on our own. If we come into the process so convinced that “this is what this is about” or “This is what I’m going to say” we can easily miss the mystery of the Spirit’s journey through us; the exponential result of our creative expression.
Be a river of giving, not a stagnant, fearful puddle who is satisfied to live off of yesterday’s revelation.
Filled, Skilled and Spilled
No matter how gifted or talented an artist is, it’s all for naught unless they nurture their connection with the Father. Being filled with the Spirit of God should always draw an artist into skill development so they can enlarge their capacity to be a conduit for God’s Glory. Likewise, being filled and skilled should also lead artists who are growing in maturity to see their lives spilled out in the service of others. Teach what you know. Give outrageously. Teach your secrets. Be a river of giving, not a stagnant, fearful puddle who is satisfied to live off of yesterday’s revelation.
Grow as You Go!
The promise of the Father is that He will order our steps, light our path, give us the secrets of the Kingdom and allow us to participate in the divine nature through His precious promises. My prayer for each of us who calls ourself artist is that as you go, you would grow in stature before God and man, that people would see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven, that light and life would flow from your art, that Kingdom transformation would be your legacy.
Matt Tommey is a world-class sculptor, speaker and author who is passionate about helping artists to thrive spiritually, financially and creatively.