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.
Matt and Elizabeth Kleberg are both working artists who met at UVA and took classes with Dean Dass. They approach their art from a Christian perspective but don’t feel the need to express explicitly religious themes. Photo: John Robinson
Matt Kleberg’s spiritual journey also began when he was a small child, after his father converted to Christianity at a Billy Graham revival. Raised in Texas, Kleberg eventually attended UVA and after graduating in 2008 stayed here in Charlottesville where he now thrives as a painter. Over a piece of pizza at the Downtown Christian’s, he spoke emphatically of how his dad grappled with the same seemingly irreconcilable contradictions my father had, and plunged into a similarly theological project. Instead of gravitating towards fundamentalism, though, “his faith became about asking questions,” Kleberg said. “So I wasn’t brought up to think that there was only this certain set of things that constituted a Christian life.”
That doesn’t mean the 27-year-old didn’t have his own struggles growing up Christian, especially in high school when most young people are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe about the world. “I’d come to some kind of philosophical impasse and be like, ‘Oh shit.’ If it teeters this way, everything will be lost, but if it teeters this way we’re all good,” he said.
I felt like this, too, especially once I left Liberty University after my sophomore year and transferred to the University of Arkansas. A thousand miles from our family’s home in Culpeper, I found myself surrounded by secular culture, both in the classroom and out. As an English major, I still read the Bible daily but was increasingly attracted to literature, music, and film, primarily that of the 20th century—which let’s face it—pointed to an absence of God. The result was that I felt like an alien in two worlds. I still adhered to Christian principles of living—I didn’t drink, curse, or have sex, and even went to church on Sunday—while identifying with loner heroes like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces.
I went on like that for the next few years, not really balancing my beliefs with my tastes, more compartmentalizing them. At the same age, Kleberg was somehow moving past the black-and-white worldview of fundamentalism that trapped me and he was embracing the same type of uncertainty his father had. “As I got older, I realized that leaving things with a question mark was O.K., not having to have answers for everything,” he said. “Doubt’s always been a big part of my faith.”
As a crowd dined on cheese and wine at a First Fridays event this March, Kleberg stood in between two of his outsized canvases mounted on the walls. Like most of his recent paintings, they address iconic themes of the American West: a cowboy on a horse or a group of ranchers standing in front of a pick-up. They’re not just straight-up renderings but contain an element of distortion that keeps the viewer off balance—maybe a cowboy’s face is muted or a Ford Mustang is partially framed by a strawberry shaped Matisse-like cut-out.
As we talked in his studio space a few days later, I gazed at an unfinished painting that depicted a cowboy holding two dead buzzards. Looking at Kleberg’s work, I saw nothing that would indicate the artist was a Christian. No signs of grace, redemption, sin, or guilt. If anything, the paintings exuded a sense of ambiguity. “Good pieces of art end in a question mark more often than a period,” he told me.
I was puzzled. In my experience, a Christian artist expresses his beliefs in overt ways, in an almost dot to dot fashion, “more like a diagram than a piece of art,” Kleberg said. There is the forced literalism of Christian rock, for example, or “didactic cheesy kitsch”—as he called it—like Thomas Kinkade’s treacly depictions of God’s benevolent presence in everyday life.
Kleberg is working from an entirely different frame of reference. “Christian art is afraid to be honest about the world, and afraid to acknowledge that things are fucked up,” he said. “We are marked by a sense of hope that God is making all things new, ultimately everything broken will be made straight. Instead of that being the impetus to gloss things over and make really pretty art, that’s freedom to tell it like it is and call a spade a spade.”
To get to this vantage point—a radical one in my experience—Kleberg told me he’d had to internalize his beliefs and come to terms with them, doubt and all. “My faith shifted from something I had to do or become and it turned into something where I looked at myself honestly,” he said. The theology isn’t unbroken ground, but it’s not consistent with the born-again virtues I was taught. For Kleberg, God is “mysterious,” ultimately unknowable. As Apostle Paul said, “now we look through a glass darkly.” The world is not black-and-white. Yet, if there is a God who loves his creation then he must be “merciful” enough to accept man’s sinful nature. “As a Christian, I would say that God responds to our need and intervenes himself,” Kleberg said. “The only way out from the human condition then is outside of ourselves.”
Believing in doubt
“At some point in that process, you’re confronted with the hard things that are realities in the world,” said Elizabeth Kleberg, Matt’s wife, who is also an artist-in-residence with New City Arts. Like me, the 25-year-old Elizabeth was raised in a religious household and attended the same type of church-run schools that I did.
“As Christian artists, we struggle with how to reconcile the harsh realities that we face in our real life with our faith and hope in why we’re here. Those things come into tension all the time,” she said.
I was immersed in a literal and Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. I was taught that Adam and Eve were the first human beings. Noah built an ark to survive the drowning of an immoral mankind. A prophet named Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and spit out three days later, and so on. Then, a man named Jesus who was actually the son of God died for our sins only to be resurrected and redeem the chosen from his seat at the right hand of his heavenly father.
At the time, my parents and many members of the Christian nation also saw public schools as an enemy, a place where secularism was recklessly inculcated. And so I attended church schools, run primarily by Virginia Baptists who embraced something I came to know as “legalism.” This meant that my education emphasized facing Jesus in the most minute details of life, like whether I wore a belt in my pants or the back of my hair touched my shirt collar. It also led to a similar focus on the dangers of popular culture. In eighth grade, for instance, my class examined the lyrics of Van Halen’s “Jump” and decided it was a song about suicide.
I remember a separate episode at my high school when an outside group performing at one of our assemblies played Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” in which she sings the lines, “I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs/A lonely place to be/So I learned to depend on me.” After the group left, one of our administrators got up to refute the humanistic message of this song. We should and could always depend on Jesus.
This type of tension is as old as religion itself. As people try to rectify their faith with what they see in the world, it necessarily calls into question the guidelines religious institutions put in place to caulk over the apparent inconsistencies. For the seeker, the rulebook starts to look like what it is: a man-made attempt at oversimplification. That conflict is fundamental to the Christian narrative. It’s what caused Jesus to war with the Pharisees and Martin Luther to nail his theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. It’s also what drives artists.
Jesus, Luther, and Calvin all maintained that a personal relationship with God was more important than following the rules organized by their religious hierarchies. Following the story, that’s what got Jesus killed and led to the creation of Christianity, or, in the cases of Luther and Calvin, to the Reformation.
Dean Dass, a UVA art professor, wrestled with the restrictive mindset of “orthodox Christian” frameworks before finding a way to unify his faith and artistic motivations. Photo: John Robinson
“Luther starts that process of internalization, that the only thing that matters is what’s inside of you,” Dean Dass told me. “Do you have a pure heart?”
Raised in a Lutheran church in Missouri, Dass is an art professor at UVA where he taught both Klebergs. He is also a celebrated printmaker and painter whose work has oscillated from the darkly abstract to light and almost literal.
As we sat at a table outside Para Coffee —with his copy of Harold Bloom’s Romanticism and Consciousness in between us—Dass told me the same type of thinking was taken to its logical extreme by the Romantics in the 1800s. That artistic movement placed an emphasis on the personal, leading to the established notion of the modern artist whose work is measured by whether that expression is an honest reflection of the self. “It doesn’t occur to anybody that art can come from anywhere but inside—what I think and feel—that kind of subjectivity,” Dass said.
This conflicts with the notion that Christian art must necessarily carry an overt Christian message. Rather, it should honestly reflect what the artist feels inside him- or herself. So if you’re down and out, your art should reflect that. If you’re feeling happy, make a happy painting. If you want to praise Jesus in your art, then by all means, but it doesn’t always have to be fueled by a Christian narrative. Growing up, nobody ever told me that was an option.
“I think a Christian’s duty in whatever sphere they exist in is to be truthful and do their work faithfully,” Kleberg said. “If you’re a musician you don’t have to sing songs about Jonah and the whale, you should just make real good music. God is very mysterious. In the Bible, he shows up in bushes that are on fire, or he’s in clouds hovering over tents. To presume that as a Christian you can have all these answers about God and then teach people through your music or whatever is pretty presumptuous.”
That thinking also provides a way for Christians to approach art whether it’s made by a believer or not. “Artists make work according to their understanding and experience of the world,” Elizabeth said. “I wouldn’t make the same art because of my different experiences, but I would want to understand that work in terms of that artist’s experience.”
Maureen Lovett, executive director of New City Arts, runs an organization with Christian roots, an ecumenical makeup, and an arts-focused mission. The goal is to create a space for artists from faith-based backgrounds to engage contemporary art and popular culture. Photo: John Robinson
All things to all men
As I got older, the process of picking art apart for offending elements made less and less sense to me, and coincided not only with my own intellectual growth, but also with my father’s spiritual development. As he grew into his faith, his beliefs became more of a natural part of himself. This was in part due to the teachings of theologian Francis Schaeffer, who was particularly influential in the 1970s for arguing that Christians should engage with art.
So gradually and then fully, the Beatles made their way out of the box in the closet. By my teenage years, they took an exalted place in our house. Posters of them were all over our walls, their music rang out from the stereo in our living room and in the car. My father was also exposing me to filmmakers like David Lynch or painters like Pablo Picasso, great artists but people with worldviews that aggressively challenged Christian paradigms.
My father made this integration work, but I never could. Part of this was because my father already had experiences to draw on and reconcile, so he was able to work popular culture back into his life, whereas I was coming from the opposite end with literally no frame of reference. As a result, I always felt an inherent conflict, even a sense of guilt, between a devotion to the Bible and someone like the Beatles. I was torn by a dedication to my orthodox teachings and those espoused by the rock and roll gods. Jesus Christ battled John Lennon for my soul.
The struggle for my faith reached a peak about the same time as the Christian right wing’s war over government funding of the arts in the late 1990s. One of the more contentious moments of that struggle centered on Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine. Catholics and Protestants were outraged and Congress even intervened. As recently as 2011, a print of the photograph was vandalized in an exhibition in France. “That image is totally ethereal and beautiful,” Kleberg said. “There’s a part of me that wants to say that it’s just trying to ruffle my feathers as a Christian, but another part that says if art is about taking humble materials and transforming those into something that transcends them, then taking piss and creating something that mysterious is incredible.”
I had the opportunity to see a print of “Piss Christ” in a small gallery in D.C. in 1997 at the height of its controversy, and I was also awed by its overall beauty. At the time, I had just started working for a magazine called Gadfly, which my father had started in the belly of the Rutherford Institute. Originally devoted to exploring Christianity’s place in the arts, it gradually, under my helm, grew devoted to exploring the arts and culture of the times. Long gone were feature articles on the religion of U2, replaced with takes on the larger significance of the works of Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Gore Vidal, William Burroughs, and other dedicated sinners.
Within the context of the magazine’s staff, though, debate raged. Not all of our staff was Christian, but those who were questioned whether we were glorifying the immoral. I wondered also, but was enjoying myself too much to change directions. I loved these artists and they felt much more relevant and true to me than King David or Apostle Paul. Whereas much of my upbringing seemed mostly like a list of “don’ts,” these iconic auteurs presented a world of tantalizing possibility. It felt right in a way that my Christianity never had. I wanted to be like them, to live and breathe the arts in a way my rigid dogma would not allow.
At the same time, my religion was not easy to put aside. It was what had defined my identity for two decades. For a year or so, I struggled with what was an increasingly obvious realization. I didn’t fit inside my old belief system anymore, and at the age of 28 I abandoned it. John Lennon had finally won.
It’s a well-worn tale among Christians of my age. Older artists I spoke with like the 57-year-old Dass also left the church over similar struggles. “Orthodox Christianity just doesn’t feel right,” he said. “That’s what really turns people off, especially young people who just want to think for themselves and find their own identity.”
Finding your own identity can be a lonely process. As a young Christian trying to work in the arts I felt doubly alone—mocked by the secular world and reviled by the religious one. I can’t help but feel that my transition from orthodox Christian to whatever I am now would have been a whole lot smoother—maybe even different—if I’d had a support system.
Fifteen years later, New City Arts (NCA) aims to provide that exact type of succor. According to Lovett, the non-profit has an official mission of “fostering engagement with the arts in the greater Charlottesville area.” While her board is ecumenical (made up of representatives of a body of churches) and Lovett herself is Christian, “the art that we are attempting to support in the community and the art that we’re encouraging folks to make is excellent artwork on its own.”
This echoes Matt and Elizabeth Kleberg and that’s no coincidence. Founded four years ago, NCA—and by extension Lovett —have become the ringleaders of the Christian art movement in Charlottesville. Not by superimposing a Christian worldview wherever they can, but by encouraging art in a general sense. So while Elizabeth is one of its artists-in-residence, they have also sponsored atheists at their space in The Haven. There’s also the distinct possibility that you can or already have attended one of NCA’s events—maybe one of the regular exhibitions on First Fridays at the WVTF/Radio IQ gallery or at one of their forums as I did—and have no inkling a group of Christians is behind it.
At the same time, the organization offers some explicitly Christian programming, like the upcoming May 15 lecture by poet Christian Wiman “And I Was Alive: Faith in a Faithless Time.” Wiman is editor of Poetry magazine and his essays on faith have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker.
By reaching out to the broader community with content-neutral activities while concurrently providing programs tailored specifically for believers, NCA is trying to bridge the gap that has divided Christian artists from art’s mainstream since my father knelt down in the living room in Arkansas. Hopefully, as Lovett sees it, they will create an overall sense of community where artists and audience can all “come together,” as Lennon sang, and “break bread,” as the early church did in Acts.
In the 20th century, art’s incredible focus on the self resulted in a form of ego-centricism (think Picasso) that resulted in transcendental works produced by characters whose moral example left much to be desired. I think this has always been one of the profound tensions for the Christian artist. At its purest, Christianity is about selflessness, as taught through Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan or laid down in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Will merging these two seemingly opposed notions pioneer a path for the modern artist—whether Christian or secular—to connect with popular culture in ways that they haven’t for decades? Can it even bring about change in society?
“The new model is collaborative,” said Dass who has found a way back to Christianity in recent years. “At a certain point in my career as an academic, everything was going well, I felt on top of everything, but it felt inadequate.” The professor decided he needed to do more, and then found a church that had a strong sense of social justice (they built houses through Habitat, for example). “I thought that’s lived faith. That’s what I want to do,” he said.
Lived faith is what attracted Dass to NCA. “They’re out in town, and they’re engaged,” he said. “NCA wants to work in the community and do something, to go from in here to out there and still feel like they’ve held onto some integrity and truth.”
One of the ways it engages the community is its presence in The Haven, where its studios occupy parts of the third and fourth floors. Since September, an NCA artist-in-residence (who asked not to be identified in this article) has used much of her time there to work with the homeless guests downstairs. At first, that meant getting to know the guests by volunteering in the kitchen and at the welcome desk, but it eventually led to teaching a two-hour weekly drawing class. It’s community building through the arts and Christianity in action, but the artist doesn’t identify as a Christian.
Back in the 1990s, I was unable to express my artistic self within my Christian context, and I simply gave up trying to resolve that conflict, because what I was pursuing creatively felt more real and good to me than what I was practicing under the constraints of conservative Christianity. It took almost a decade for me to find a group of Christians who operated outside of those restraints but shared many of the values they were designed to protect.
In 2010 (after a frustrating year of writing for C-VILLE Weekly about the homeless), I joined the staff of PACEM, our local revolving homeless shelter, which operates out of The Haven. The network of churches that feed and house the needy made me feel better about my old belief system than I had in years, maybe since I left the church for the sanctuary of art.
A haven within The Haven, New City Arts and the movement it is fostering plays a similar role for Christian artists, at least symbolically. That I can stumble into an art gallery and view work by the Klebergs, for example, or sit in Lee Park and listen to music pouring out of the Garage (a music venue affiliated with the Episcopal Church), and not be preached to is both refreshing and inspiring.
At the same time, I know that there are still young Christians out there going through what I did, afraid to go where their hearts and minds are telling them. If there’s one thing I’ve learned along my journey, which by the way continued to unfold as I wrote this article, it’s that you have to follow your faith to its darkest corners (in a way that I was hesitant to do for too long) if you want to find its bedrock. Only by burrowing deep inside will you discover who you really are and emerge pure in heart, capable of expressing to others in an honest way what you are about. That is the source of great art, whether it depicts Jesus or a man in a gutter with a needle in his arm (in Matt Kleberg’s words, “the dual glory and fuckedupness of the world”). It’s also the only baptism you really need. As Christ proclaimed, “The truth will set you free.”