Faith, Art, and Vocation: An Interview with Nate Risdon

Editor’s Note: The Washington Institute had the opportunity to ask Nate Risdon, Associate Director of the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary, a few questions about faith, art, and vocation.

Adam Joyce: What is your current read on the faith and art conversation within the North American church? What are your hopes for it? What are your laments?

Headshot ThumbnailNate Risdon: When I survey the faith and art conversation in the Church, I have mixed feelings. I have seen a lot of progress and if you ask folks that have been in the conversation for longer, they would certainly express a great amount of delight in how far things have progressed. That gives me hope.

I see a lot of churches diving into the conversation. Some, perhaps reluctantly or initially awkwardly, but at least they are making an attempt. For many reasons, a division still exists, but I see many churches and artists working hard to break down this odd barrier that persists between artists and the church. I like how Makoto Fujimura describes the dichotomy that the church created between reason and faith in an open letter he wrote to the churches in North America:

“As a result of this dichotomy, you began to exile artists whose existence, up to that point, helped to fuse the invisible reality with concrete reality. An artist knows that what you can see and observe is only the beginning of our journey to discover the world. But you wanted proof, instead of mystery; justification instead of beauty. Therefore you pushed artists to the margins of worship, while the secular world you helped to create championed us, and gave us, ironically, a priestly role.”

Mako’s perceptive insight is important for the church to hear and I am sure emerges from his own experience and years of conversations with other artists.

Time and time again, I have seen artist taken to task for creating a work that they created out of devotion. Typically, an artist’s work is an expression born out of an understanding of their vocation, yet it is dismissed because it doesn’t quite fit into the traditional definition many churches have for “vocation.” Artists of different stripes express the mysteries of this world with the concrete material of this world. This is why they are important for the church. There is no dichotomy between faith and reason – there is just being and living into what it means to be fully human.

BeethovenGhostManuscriptWhen a composer picks up a pen to mark a notation on her score, this act is hard fought, an act of deep devotion on her part. The task of creating can be arduous. Artists do it because they ultimately know they must do it. Something drives every artist to create, and many times artists create because of that driving force, to make meaning of it. This is why it doesn’t matter if an artist claims a faith, they will always describe the act of creating and performing as spiritual or otherworldly. Almost any artist you speak with can describe a moment when something else took over, when they were lost in themselves, and the world around them ceased to exist. As a Christian, I call that a transcendent moment shared with the God of this universe—these moments happen when I have fully committed myself to this work, when the work and I have become one in some mysterious sense. I am certain that God honors our wholehearted devotion to doing work that is pleasing and good. God models this for us in the Genesis story. He recognized his work was good and he celebrated that goodness.

Artists, like others doing work for the common good, need to be celebrated for what they do. Their devotion to their vocation pleases God just as much as the work of a missionary in the field or a celibate nun devoted to the poor.

AJ: What is the local church’s calling amidst this conversation? Are there activities or practices that they should be engaging in? What is the local church’s responsibility to the artist? 

NR: It’s hard to paint with broad-brush strokes and describe a responsibility that is unique to each community and each artist. Having said that, I would say that a local worshipping community needs to do the following:

  • Be Hospitable

Work hard to be a place of hospitality and love for the people in your community, for those in attendance on Sunday mornings. If a church can pull this off—and this is difficult to sustain and be consistent with—then artists will feel welcome as well. For example, if you have an artist or group of artists in your community, ask them what they would like to contribute to the community.

  • Provide Resources

Be an advocate for artists in the church and larger community. Find them space to create, time to create, and a place to perform, display, etc. Give them the resources necessary to create. I mention space and time to create, but it would great if you could even provide materials. Especially if you hope to have their art incorporated into the church. Good works take a great deal of time, effort, and additional resources. If you don’t have a budget for this, then be very clear about this up front.

1391045289_a0af694f5c_zI know a young pastor in North Carolina who, inspired by a course on theology and art that he took in New York last summer, went the senior leadership and elder board. He submitted a proposal to fund a series of projects to enhance the presence of the arts in his church. The board accepted the proposal and he spent the next year meeting with a group of artists planning and commissioning them to do various things at the church. The results were amazing – permanent installations, a more theologically-thoughtful use of the space, liturgical dance, and new music. The church was so pleased with the results that he received a promotion in order for more work like this to be done.

Also, hold artists to a high standard. There is nothing wrong with asking them to produce their best work, because in a way, that is a gift—a resource as well.

  • Don’t Think in a Utilitarian Fashion

Do not think of the artists in your community solely in a utilitarian sort of way – what can I get out of them to help the church? This is a mistake that churches often make with people that hold a certain skill set. It is not healthy for the church or the individual to be boxed into a particular category based on their profession and then asked to only contribute based on that skill set for the betterment of the church. Such a model of engagement operates with a thin definition of a person and their vocation. It is better that people understand that their work in and out of the church’s life is an offering to God.

  • Build Trust

Be prepared to have your artistic palette stretched. You may have a limited view of what you believe to be “good” art, but be open to new expressions and forms. I have found that I better understand something new, when I have an artist explain the process of creating to me. That conversation can only happen if you have their trust.

If you don’t have trust as a foundation, then anything you begin won’t be sustainable.

  • Embrace Ambiguity.

This is related to building trust. The church in North Carolina had to trust the young pastor and the artists to do good work. Any church that wants to embrace artists in their community must embrace a degree of ambiguity. Artists naturally think differently about many things and that is good. Give them that space, even when you feel a certain amount of discomfort and perhaps worry. If you are feeling particularly anxious about a project that you have commissioned, then take the artist(s) to coffee and ask them how things are going. Ask to see the work and don’t be afraid to share your thoughts, gently. However, like most of us, artist need and welcome feedback on their work. However, you will be heard only if you have built up a level of trust.

AJ: And likewise, what is the artists responsibility to the church? To the local Christian community? 

IMG_0205Both the church and the local community need the voice of the artist. When thinking about their responsibility, artists need to remember that actively participating in their worshipping community is an important part of their vocation as a follower of Christ. As Steven Garber put it, “The word vocation is a rich one, having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities.” You are called as an artist is to create great art for the common good. And in the process of creating, you work with a sense of responsibility to all of those in your life – your neighbors, your community, your family, and your sisters and brothers at your church. That responsibility or good stewardship of talent and time is a wonderful discipline that is in and of itself and act of worship when oriented properly. All of this should be done with the constant belief that your work is fundamentally pleasing to God.

AJ: What resources and individuals have been formative in your own understanding of the relationship between faith, arts, and the church?

NR: Both in times of tremendous exuberance and in times of my deepest sorrow, I have found art to be a welcome companion on the journey of faith. There are works of art—songs, books, movies, paintings—that serve as significant markers in my life thus far. Haven’t we all got that list of deeply meaningful works of art that we find some deep emotional connection with? For example, whenever I listen to “Naked as We Came” by Iron and Wine, I think of my parents. I imagine this to be their anthem as my mother was weakened by and eventually died from her cancer. I imagine these words and the way Samuel Beam arranged and sang them as a manifestation of the sometimes unspoken dialogue between my mother and father during her last days.

She says “If I leave before you, darling 
Don’t you waste me in the ground” 
I lay smiling like our sleeping children 
One of us will die inside these arms 
Eyes wide open, naked as we came 
One will spread our ashes round the yard

Beam’s words give me a sense of great comfort and connection to my parents and their devotion to one another. Part of why this happens is because Samuel Beam, like other gifted artists, have this amazing sense of the ephemeral and the infinite. Like Beam, there are many times where there is no separation between the two. He sings of moments grounded in earthly reality and yet when I listen I have a sense of something more beyond the here and now. These moments, as my friend and filmmaker Lauralee Farrer puts it, are moments when we become fully aware of God’s kairos time, a time which is “infinite, uncountable, and always fully present—it means grace, where every moment offers a chance to start anew in a fresh Eden.” The Psalms serve this same “function” if we let them. They are written in beautiful, metaphorical line. When read slowly, we pause and meditate on single words, passages, thoughts, maybe even a moment to lift up a single prayer. We step into God’s time, and our finitude momentarily tastes the infinite.

AJ: What resources do you recommend to someone who is interested in learning more about the relationship between faith and art?

NR: Here are a few books that I would recommend for someone who is interested in learning more:

AJ: Nate, thanks so much for your time and thoughts.

NR: My pleasure.

Nate Risdon is the Associate Director of the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. He holds a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. Cultural expressions of all sorts have and will always be a source of joy, curiosity, and theological wrestling for him.  He is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education where the focus of his dissertation will be on student thriving and its post-academic implications for human thriving. He currently lives in Southern California with his wife and three children, but will always be a Northern California boy at heart. 

Photo Credit: Adam Joyce, Thor, and Wikipedia Commons

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  • Joan Udell

    /super interesting questions and dialogue.