Art and faith: Never say “Mission Accomplished”

Virtually everyone involved in Christianity and the visual arts know of the organization Christians in the Visual Arts. Since 1979, CIVA was at the center of the art and faith conversation. The organization shuttered operations this year. That was a big hit for many of us.

I found it particularly troublesome that their website declared, “CIVA has accomplished its mission.” Many of us remember how poorly it went when George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished.” History certainly rhymes.

The irony for me personally was that when I found out about CIVA shutting down, I was actually in the middle of writing a paper that is now expanding into my dissertation on the history of art and Christianity in the 20th & 21st centuries. It was clear from my research that while progress has been made in both the academic and artistic worlds there is still plenty of progress to be made. That doesn’t even consider progress to be made within the church!

A Little Rant

The more I thought about it, I became increasingly frustrated. I had to rant a little about this on a Facebook group that grew out of an old CIVA group. The rant is edited slightly for the sake of my vanity.

I’m finding myself getting angry today.

I teach a class called Art & Christian Faith at the evangelical university where I am employed. I’m reading the student’s final papers where they often get very personal in reflections about the tension they feel between their faith, their art, and the reception they receive from Christians and the church.

Are things in the art & faith world better than they were almost 30 years ago when I was the age of these students? It is hard for me to say. I went to a secular art school in NYC so I felt very disconnected. I don’t know how students at evangelical universities felt then. But I honestly don’t think that the church environment, in most churches, is much better for these students.

Yes, there are more art and faith organizations and the scholarship in the area has picked up but it is still a fringe academic sect. Major art history texts still neglect the issue of religion in art and honestly, I’m not convinced that authentic Christian spirituality is accepted in the broader art world. A post-secular religiosity or spirituality is fine but traditional orthodox spirituality is still anathema.

So why is it making me mad? It comes down to the statement from the website, “CIVA has accomplished its mission”. No. It hasn’t. How can the mission of fellowship and discipleship for artists ever be accomplished? Now these students don’t have an organization like CIVA to be a cultural force for them within the Church. They still have hearts and challenges similar to what I had 25-30 years ago and similar to what the founders of CIVA had 45 years ago.

I don’t know all the reasons why CIVA shuttered. But it wasn’t because the mission was accomplished. And that claim, while seeing the continuing need in my students, is making me mad.

Double Isolation

The closure of CIVA has left a hole. I feel it as do many I have talked to around the country.

Yesterday, I received an email that brought the situation back to my mind. The email came from a minister in Southern California who works for a small church. Both he and his wife are artists. Even in Southern California, they feel isolated. He reached out to Randall Balmer who sent him my way. This artist/ minister is looking for encouragement as, in his words, “we are drowning out here.”

I have plans to Zoom with the artist and minister in the near future. But my frustration once again began to rise. The mission that CIVA embarked on in 1979 is NOT accomplished. Artists and Christian creatives are still in need of fellowship and discipleship. In some cases, they are still in need of things as simple as friendship.

I do not know how much a conversation or even a continuing conversation will help, but I hope they will. I do however believe it is important to acknowledge that the mission is not complete. We still have artists of faith who feel disconnected, isolated. Early members of CIVA spoke about a “double isolation” where they felt isolated from both the Church and the art world. The reality is that the mission of art and faith can never be accomplished until the mission of the church is accomplished.

Yes, there are now programs at academic institutions and other organizations that focus on the relationship between art and faith. I celebrate those organizations and the progress that has been made. But I want to still acknowledge the loneliness and isolation that many of us feel.

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