Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why the Christian Church Is Not a Safe Place for an Artist:

I am growing more and more uncomfortable with organized religion, and I think it has a lot to do with beginning to really accept who I am as an Artist.

It's been a process... and not an easy one.

As the child of missionary parents I was raised, after all, in an arrow shot from the beating heart of North American Protestant Evangelicalism. But perhaps that played a role, too -- the fact that I didn't grow up in the thick of it, but off in the periphery, where a great number of the fervent intentions of NAPE culture were forced to rub up against some of the other wild varieties of human experience.

It might be necessary for a guy hoping to translate the bible into Machiguenga in the rainforest-foothills of the Andes to court the affections of a megachurch pastor in Southern California, after all, but the two share very little common ground in terms of faith-application. I was raised in the company of the former, and was therefore as baffled by my later-in-life encounters with the latter as one of them would've been at a monkey-brains-banquet in my more-or-less home country, Peru.

So I'm an artist, and a faith-outsider.

The four years I spent as an art teacher at a private, Christian high school were therefore doubly uncomfortable for me, because not only was I required to interact daily with what was to me a somewhat-foreign religious culture, I was also at the time beginning to slough off some of the fear that had kept me from fully accepting my identity as a Creator-for-Life -- an Artist. Divorce had kicked my butt-and-teeth-and-kidneys, and I had begun to realize that the only thing keeping me from attempting to spend the moments of my life Making Things was, well... me.

I nonetheless believed at the time that I could pursue this new Artist-direction, while at the same time continuing as a Teacher of art at that Christian school. I thought I could be independently-creative in my free time, while at the same time acting as a sort of burr-under-the-saddle to the religious culture I was in.

That culture was a kissing-cousin to the one of my childhood, so I was quite familiar with it. But as I changed and became more fully Me, I began to grow more uncomfortable with a lot of the presuppositions of my childhood culture as well. Still, I felt I could straddle that line. They hired me, after all, and kept me on despite a number of complaints from very influential patrons of the school. They, too, wanted this marriage to work.

The thing about burrs-under-the-saddle, though, is they don't really belong there. They're annoying. And if you leave them there long enough, they form painful boils. Fact is, somebody's gonna get bucked off.

That somebody was me. 

I'm not here to talk about that, though. By the time I was booted from my teaching position, I'd long been aware of the possibility that my contract might not be renewed. I was also aware that all I had to do to keep my job was to stop writing the sorts of things I was writing on this website... make it a bit safer, I guess, for Christian-kid consumption. Nobody ever told me I had to stop writing. They just made it clear that the sorts of things I was writing didn't fit with their Idea of a Christian School. And with the number of students and former-students who were reading my stuff, well, hasta la vista, Barkey.

I was okay with that. Mostly.

It was their prerogative to build the sort of school they wanted, and although most of the parents and other teachers and (as far as I know) students were completely cool with what I was writing and how I was conducting myself in my classroom, it only takes a small-but-critical mass of disgruntled people in that sort of environment to end a career.

I was by then ready to take the risk and go for a glide into the forever-uncharted airspaces of Being-an-Artist (mostly writing screenplays), and I am grateful for the love, support, and money that they gave me whilst I was there. The love and support helped get me through my divorce-and-aftermath. The money paid for my current two-year sabbatical. For all that, I will be forever grateful. In the words of some little hamburger joint you've probably never heard of, "I'm lovin' it."

The only reason I'm not happy with how it went down is because of what it said to the kids.

What did they learn from my dismissal? They learned that it is not acceptable in Christian culture to write short stories critical of problems in the church. They learned that it is not acceptable in Christian culture to answer certain questions with "I don't know," or to suggest that people who tell you they do know are lying, if only to themselves. They learned that divergent theological opinions are to be tolerated only up to a point, after which the person who holds them is to be ejected from the community.

But most importantly, they learned that if there are things about yourself that the Establishment has deemed dirty or inadmissible, then it is your job as a Good Little Christian to keep those things to yourself (or at the very most, to only ever express them over a box of kleenex in the school counselor's office). What you must absolutely never do is to put them into your artwork. I mean, you can, but if you choose to do it, then your work must be hidden away, out of public view.

Like your dirtiness.

Like you.

The reason I bring this up is because I've been thinking about a project I did with my mostly-Senior class of Graphic Design / Photography students in my final year as a teacher. I got the idea from an Art Teacher conference I attended in New York, and the gist of it was that my students had to produce a number of photographic self-portraits based on prompts that I gave them. It was a time-consuming, difficult assignment (I know, I did it myself), and as a result, there was plenty of the usual high school procrastination and avoidance.

But something else happened over the course of the project, as well. Something beautiful. A number of the students really got into it, and began to turn in self-portraits that were breathtaking in their beauty, power, and honesty. When we reviewed them in class, I swear that windowless,* darkened, rectangular space turned into something sacred.

Not a church, so much as what a church really ought to be. More like an AA meeting, maybe.

Someday, perhaps, I'll write to more of those students and see if they'd be willing to let me share some more of their work, here, but for today I want to focus on one of the pictures from that series that was created by a lovely young woman named Emily. The prompt was "Lost You," and what Emily found made me want to cry.

Here are Emily's thousand-and-twelve words:




Beautiful, right? And heartbreaking. And honest.

Too honest, apparently, to be shown on the walls of the church-hallway where we did our yearly art show. The church to which our school was attached. The church that was supposed to be encouraging people to come just as they were, and to share who they were openly and honestly within a loving, accepting community.

Unless, of course, how they saw themselves (or believed others saw them) happened to sometimes include the word "slut." 

Several pieces from that series (and a number of other works as well) were censored from the show, and while I do not begrudge the church or the school the right to decide what their public face will be, I do feel that their decision in the matter was antithetical not only to art, but to the actual spirit of who that Jesus-cat is, as well.

They seemed to be saying, "Come as you are, and then either publicly pretend to be who we want you to be until you are that person, or leave."

In other words, if you want us to love you... lie. 

But both good art and healthy living demand the Truth -- ALL of it. The truth about the times when you're joyous and grateful and in love and happy and excited, yes... but also the truth about the times when you're depressed and self-loathing and anxious and horny and selfish and murderously angry. All of it, with all of it equally valid and important. And if you've created a culture where it's not even safe to place some of the less-pleasant Truths about your human condition into your art (where at least they're being contextualized), well... I'm sorry, my friends, but you've made it impossible for an artist to exist within your walls.

For the Truth to set you free, your commitment to it must be total. You can't be cool with the truth most of the time. That's true for art, it's true for faith, and it's true for life in general.

It's sad to me that the Evangelical Christian Church (on average, in my experience) has created this sort of inhospitable environment for Artists. I know there are exceptions. But I also know that for the most part, churches are more interested in sounding like they're cool with art than they are with really opening themselves up the uncomfortable lessons it might have to teach them. Stick around long enough in almost all churches, and any artist will eventually run up against the Censorship Wall. It'll have a lot of other names, sure, but that's what it'll be: censorship. You'll say a word you didn't know you really weren't allowed to say, or express a thought you weren't allowed to express, and BAM! you're outta there.

Artists are free to attend church, but there are just too many times when they know their input is not welcome. So most of the real ones leave, and organized Christian evangelicalism in this country dies a slow, artless death.

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*Seriously... who makes the only room in the whole school without windows be the art room???

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A FINAL NOTE: Good writing isn't magic. It's hard work, and the greatest reward for that work is to share it with others. So if you enjoyed this little (ad-free) piece of my brain... please share the love on your social internets. And pick up a copy of my Short Story Collection, whilst you're at it. You can get it as an ebook for less than a fancy cuppa coffee, and it'll last waaay longer.

18 comments:

  1. This post expresses many things that I have been wrestling with over the past few years moving from so called "missionary" to a truer version of myself. In my experience its not only the artist who is strangled in this environment, but all of the true-who-we-were-created-to-be selves of all the people. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Monica. And yeah... I figured it could have broader applications -- especially since, in my opinion, we're ALL artists.

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  2. I am always impressed by those who are willing to question and rethink their inherited assumptions and ideologies. An uneasy relationship with institutions of all kinds is the hallmark of the artist and the independent thinker.

    BTW, I live in Asheville. If you're in, around, or nearby and would care to meet up some time, I'd be glad to converse in person one day.

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    1. Thanks, Nina. I pretty much go nowhere and do nothing on my current shoestring budget... but I'll keep it in mind :-)

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  3. Again, this is stellar...

    As I've allowed it to digest a little more, I have a few thoughts. It may not merely be the artistic types that have this problem. The pain of realizing this incompatibility belongs to any individual that displays and expresses the turmoil and sufferings of the human condition in messy ways. And the reason it hurts more and does a lot of potential long-term damage is because we are all spiritual beings on varying levels. I know from experience.

    I wonder if the problem may lie less in the rejection of truth for truth's sake and more with the fact that artists PAUSE and STOP. When you stop and sit in suffering long enough to be comfortable (perhaps even excited) with allowing it to shine through in all of its horrible, raunchy, radiant glory, you offend the very notion of movement. Go, go, go. That's the church most of the time. No time to stop and sit in philosophy, pain, and contemplation. Artists, by their very nature, create a rub that just won't work there. Just another layer of thoughts to what you so beautifully communicated here. Thanks again.

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  4. Hey Mr. Barkey,

    Fantastically written article. I think I am beginning to go through some of what is talked about in the article. As a musician I am playing for my last year in the youth praise band at the megachurch I attend (the big pink one shaped like a crown) and I have run into the same "Censorship Wall" that you talk about above. We are not allowed to play certain songs at church. One such example would be "How He Loves" by John Mark McMillan (David Crowder does his own version you may be familiar with). This song was "officially declined" at my church because it contains the "sloppy wet kiss" line; even though I wanted to play Crowders version in which he changes it to "unforseen kiss". It seems so petty to me to decline a song because it has a single word that might sound slightly passionate/romantic/suggestive/whatever. I have become more and more frustrated by problems I see in the church. I just wanted to let you know I feel empathy for you and agree with your statements. Even though I only had you as a teacher for one year at the aforementioned private Christian school I can definitively say you were my favorite. Your honesty and openness to share things of personal nature is not seen much today. I wish you the best of luck in your further endeavors as an artist.

    - Landon Brower

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    1. Thank you, Landon. I'm sorry that your church is making it hard for you as an artist.

      My first year as a teacher, someone gifted the senior class with a special book that had a picture of each graduating senior and a few quotes from them. They also asked each teacher to write a letter to the graduating class, and since my last name ends with "B," mine ended up being the first in there (after the Principal's). I feel like maybe a piece of what I wrote to them might be useful to you, so here it is...

      "God is bigger and more wonderful than all the flawed ways your teachers and parents and pastors have tried to describe Him, and great enough to handle your questions, doubts, mistakes and fears."

      Keep on rockin' in the free world, amigo :-)

      Josh

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  5. Hi Josh,
    This is really powerful. I'm not an artist, but what kept coming to mind as I read this is how close art is to prophecy, exposing uncomfortable truths that interrupt and disrupt the piously comfortable. This is a sacred duty, but it also seems to be one that carries a heavy social cost. The biblical prophets, and Jesus was a part of that gang, clashed with the religious establishment. They were ostracized, persecuted, lonely. That clash seems to be a part of the artistic, prophetic burden.

    But this: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

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    1. Thank you, Dr. Beck.

      I agree with you that the prophetic role is an important aspect of what artists can do for/in the church, and I think that does come into play here. But I think that perhaps what is more specifically going on is the problem you outlined in your book "Unclean," where a disgust-based fear of contamination leads people to suppress anything seen as undesirable.

      This leads to the sort of witch-hunt-insanity that Landon describes in his comment up above, where one of the largest churches in this area will not allow him to play a "worship" song because it ONCE had a phrase in it that sorta-kinda vaguely used a sexual(ish) metaphor to describe the way God relates to people.

      It also leads to this persistent, endless dichotomizing of sacred and secular that I've just got absolutely no time for, anymore.

      I think it's fair to say that organized Christianity has lost ME, at least, as an artist willing to play a part in their in-fighting cluster-cuss. Life is just too short and there's just too much joy-potential available to let myself get lost in the morass of a holier-than-thou competition that no one can win -- and that no one should be TRYING to win, because it completely misses the point.

      Who knows? Perhaps one day if I'm popular enough and it's convenient enough for them, they'll co-opt me back in, like Bono :-)

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  6. As a Pastor in the non-denominational world I tried to create a church world that would be very open and welcoming to artists. It didn't work. I am no longer Pastoring. I have found that there is much much more room for artists in the Anglican world.

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    1. And perhaps among the Orthodox, as well. Although the closest Orthodox or Anglican church to me is nearly an hour away.

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  7. Interesting read. I too am an artist and can understand where you're coming from. I encourage you not to let the views of man dictate or change the plan or destiny that God has for your life; and I'm hoping you haven't lost all hope for the church, because as imperfect as it is, it is still important. Don't forget that we are created in the image of the greatest artist of all and despite our imperfection God's desire is to be a part of or lives and to work through us! And even though Jesus too was shunned, as was pointed out, it was for those same people that he died for in the first place. It really is the plight of the artists or out of box thinkers to be misunderstood but sometimes walking as Jesus did means having grace for those who mistreat and shun us. we are also the movers and shakers and the ones who change the world in the end. I have been fortunate enough to find a church that i believe supports the artists and is more concerned with people than image. I hope you can find somewhere that you feel you fit as well.

    Josh Mcc

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Josh.

      Sweet name :-)

      I haven't lost hope for the church... but I also don't really divide the world into church and not-church any more. So that which is good that exists within what people like calling "church," I affirm that. That which sucks... well, I damn that there suckiness to the pits of hell!

      Metaphorically speaking.

      Yee-haw for goodness, grace, truth, love and all that jazz -- wherever you may find it. And yee-haw to you for finding a people-clump where you feel supported and loved just the way you are.

      I actually do often go hang out at a people-clump of the self-monikered-church variety, myself, a super-chill place where so far nobody's judged me worthy of excommunication. Then again, they haven't seen much of my artwork, either ;-)

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  8. I can't really speak for perceptions of gender since I'm not a woman and I can't really speak for the pressures that they feel or do not feel. I think it's dangerous to generalize. Just as a human being and a long-term observer of human beings (and the fact that my 2 best friends are women), I can say that the spectrum of how women experience a world vary so widely it's impossible to generalize how they perceive modern culture and the modern depiction of the female body.

    I can tell you that from a modern TV culture point of view, women are depicted as smarter, more capable, more powerful, and more astute than men. The male father figure, in particular, has been reduced to less than a caricature. Sitcoms are the worst offenders, but even in the dramas and crime dramas, the men often are partnered with a smart, wise, levelheaded female that keeps the man in line.

    For example, the recent animated film FROZEN constantly depicts men as conniving, greedy, stupid, inconsiderate, or at best a nose picking oaf that (as the trolls sing) is a fixer upper – that is, broken but fixable. No mistake, misandry is alive and well in our society.

    I don't really know the details about the art show at church which you are referring to since you don't really spell out in the original article whether the works of art would've been hanging in church all week or on the weekend or before during and after Sunday service. In my mind, there's a difference when the church is used as a venue just like any other venue, like one would use a gymnasium, or when the church is used as a place of worship.

    We had a similar situation at our church last year. Our elders decided to let a Canadian native artist put up some of his paintings in the entrance hall of our church. The paintings were depictions of various events in the Bible like Noah's Ark, the crucifixion, Pentecost, the rapture but the depictions also included images of aboriginal spirituality (animism like the owl spirit, coyote, etc.). I thought it was an interesting interrogation of the idea of religious truth, specifically the Christian claim of the True God. I didn't have a problem with the paintings. It's art, it's supposed to question, criticize, create discussion. I didn't have a problem with using the church as a venue. But I did have a problem with the fact that these paintings hung just outside our place of worship for a couple of months. I had a problem with having to look at paintings that problematized my sense of Christianity on Sunday. I actually wrote a letter to the church leaders asking them to take the paintings down on Sundays or to find another venue for them.

    I don't see a problem with designing our worship spaces with a sense of serenity, sacredness, and reverence. One could say it's monotonous or banal or mindless in that it's not challenging enough or edgy enough or even celebratory enough. But as a Christian I exist all week in a world that challenges my beliefs, that interrogates them, that challenges me with images of violence and sex and questions of truth in questions of reality. I look at the church as an oasis from the world, a quiet place to worship.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. Not sure exactly what to respond to. Um... I guess you and I probably have differing opinions on what a church is. And I'm not sure if I quite see the parallel between art you had an issue with because it was for an alternate religion, and art someone had a problem with in my case because they were uncomfortable with the "moral content" or whatever. Even so, though... I guess I wouldn't care, much.

      I see a church building as just a building, and the pertinent question being, are we willing to let people come into our building and express opinions that are at odds with our own? Me, I'd say, absolutely!

      Of course, if it's your building, you can answer that question however you want.

      Also, I disagree with you about FROZEN. I don't think that by having one or two conniving, greedy, inconsiderate male characters, they're automatically saying that all men are like that. I think they're saying that just because a guy's pretty to look at and you like how he's treating you, that doesn't mean his character's in the right spot.

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  9. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting!

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    1. Ha-ha! Well, if this is the Katie Spata I think it is, then I'm glad to hear that. Very interesting. Hmmm. And good luck with dealing with all that... stuff. I hope you have more courage than I did in standing up for free creative expression.

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