Once wary of high art, evangelicals seek greater role as ‘creators of culture’

DENVER (AP) There are no crosses in Makoto Fujimura's paintings. No images of Jesus gazing into the distance, or serene scenes of churches in a snow-cloaked wood.

From staff and wire reports
August 02, 2007 at 3:54 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 


AP Religion Writer

Fujimura's abstract works speak to his evangelical Christian faith. But to find it takes some digging.

After the 2001 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center, three blocks from Fujimura's home, his work explored the power of fire to both destroy and purify, themes drawn from the Christian Gospels and Dante's ``The Divine Comedy.''

``I am a Christian,'' says Fujimura, 46, who founded the nonprofit International Arts Movement to help bridge the gap between the religious and art communities. ``I am also an artist and creative, and what I do is driven by my faith experience.

``But I am also a human being living in the 21st century, struggling with a lot of brokenness -- my own, as well as the world's. I don't want to use the term ‘Christian' to shield me away from the suffering or evil that I see, or to escape in some nice ghetto where everyone thinks the same.''

By making a name for himself in the secular art world, Fujimura has become a role model for creatively wired evangelicals in the United States. They believe that their churches have forsaken the visual arts for too long -- and that a renaissance has begun.

On the grass-roots and institutional level, evidence is mounting to support that view: Art galleries are opening in churches; prominent seminaries are investing in new centers exploring theology and the arts; and graduates from evangelical film schools are making Hollywood movies.

These artistic evangelicals, though still relatively small in number, are striving to be creators of culture rather than imitators, said Dick Staub, a Seattle-based radio talk show host and author of ``The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture In an Age of Christianity-Lite.'' There is a desire, he said, to avoid inventing a parallel arts universe with Christian knockoffs for Christian audiences.

``They want to make art that connects to everybody,'' Staub said. ``The call is first and foremost to make good art.''

That doesn't necessarily mean overtly religious art, but rather art informed by faith. Fujimura, for example, shares more with abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock than with Thomas Kinkade, a self-described devout Christian whose brushwork of idyllic landscapes, crosses and churches are big sellers.

As a result, Fujimura _ whose work has been displayed at museums in Tokyo and Washington, D.C. _ gets questions from his fellow believers dubious about abstract and modern art.

``The Bible is full of abstraction,'' said Fujimura, an elder at a church he helped start in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood. ``Think about this God who created the universe, the heavens and the earth from nothing. In order to have faith you have to reach out to something, to a mystery.''

It isn't always an easy sell.

Evangelical unease with the visual arts dates to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Andy Crouch, editorial director for Christianity Today's Christian Vision Project, which examines how evangelicals intersect with the broader culture, notes that Protestantism traces its origins to an era when noses were snapped off sculptures in a rejection of Catholic visual tradition while the word of God was elevated.

Attitudes began to change in the 1960s and '70s, when Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer and Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker challenged believers to emerge from their cocoons and engage the culture, including the arts.

Now, Crouch said, those ideas are resonating with a younger generation of believers who live in an image-saturated culture. They sense a disconnect worshipping in churches bare of anything that's visually arresting.

``The very parched nature of evangelical visual culture is making people who have grown up in this culture thirsty for beauty,'' he said.

Increasingly, that ground is being explored on seminary campuses. One of the most ambitious examples is the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, founded in 2001 and bankrolled by a $15 million (euro10.9 million) donation from a Virginia couple that earned a fortune in information technology.

The center aspires to be an evangelical arts think tank, with five stand-alone institutes focused on worship and music, film and moving images, art and architecture, drama, journalism and creative writing, preaching and the study of the ``emerging church,'' which incorporates painting, dance and other fine arts into worship.

Craig Detweiler, co-director of the center's Reel Spirituality Institute, said students are fascinated with finding the sacred in the mundane and exploring life's mysteries. In other words, themes with far-reaching appeal.

``Maybe 20 years ago, young filmmakers wanted to tell stories for their own audience,'' said Detweiler, a screenwriter. ``Today's young filmmakers ... find holy moments within mainstream movies and want to create more of the same.

``For too long, Christian art has implied pale imitation,'' Detweiler said. ``We're trying to get back to the days of the Renaissance, where the church was the patron of the finest art.''

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