Words By Josh Tiessen

I am a contemporary artist and an evangelical Christian. This appears to be a conundrum – like saying I am a “married bachelor.” Surely both cannot be simultaneously true! As a young evangelical I care about both sharing the gospel and positively influencing culture. The question is, how did we get to a place where society views these as logical contradictions?

To answer the question whether the label “evangelical” is relevant for today, we must examine history. While evangelicalism is often reduced by North American media to a conservative voting bloc, most Christian scholars prefer the kind of definition put forward by British historian David Bebbington and others influenced by his work: evangelicals are Protestant trinitarian Christians who believe in the Bible as the highest authority, the saving work of Christ, evangelism, personal growth in holiness, and social transformation. 

The history of modern evangelicalism began with 17th century German Lutheran pietists who believed that cold doctrine was not enough; that a personal relationship with Jesus was essential to the Christian faith. The baton was picked up by 18th century revivalists John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and by Phoebe Palmer who founded the Holiness-Pentecostal movement in the 19th century. Social action was essential to early evangelicals such as William Wilberforce in Britain, who helped abolish slavery and stood against animal cruelty. 

Conversely, contemporary evangelicals are known in the public consciousness for their culture wars, from vitriolic picketing of Pride parades to boycotting red Starbucks cups. Megachurch pastors have recently been called out for wearing $5,000 kicks, as documented by the Instagram account PreachersNSneakers, and flying in private jets funded by their congregations.

No discussion on evangelicalism can omit the long shadow cast by fundamentalism, a strain within this movement that reacted against Protestant Liberalism in the 19th century. On the positive side, these were stalwarts conserving the fundamentals of the faith. According to theologian Roger Olson, the first official articulation came in the 1860s from the “Niagara Creed,” formulated in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, affirming biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and the second coming of Christ. Later fundamentalists became militant, separatist, and anti-intellectual. In 1925 the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee entrenched the public perception of fundamentalists as being strongly against science and culture. 

That same year, the United Church of Canada was formed, a denomination that would go on to become one of the most liberal in Canada. It now even allows “atheist” ministers to retain clerical office. Down the street from my studio gallery there is a United Church with a dwindling senior congregation. They are very engaged with the town and are always happy to display invitations for my art exhibitions, which are met with less enthusiasm by evangelical churches. According to arts theologian William Dyrness, the liberal-fundamentalist debates of the early 20th century caused many evangelicals to distance themselves from modern culture. There are exceptions, such as Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker, but overall the world of modern art became increasingly estranged from faith.

I am part of a contemporary movement of evangelicals in North America engaging culture and calling the Church back to an appreciation for all that the arts contribute to faith. Some organizations that have championed this cause include the Toronto-based group Imago, Artists in Christian Testimony (ACT), and Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). Through my experience exhibiting in galleries from New York to Los Angeles, there is still much work to be done outside Christian circles when it comes to Christians having a presence in the broader art world.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s personal disillusionment with fundamentalism helped to rebrand evangelicalism. Graham struck a more charitable tone, distinguishing evangelicalism from fundamentalism. He helped found Gordon-Conwell Seminary, following his earlier contemporary Charles E. Fuller who founded Fuller Seminary, thereby raising the academic profile of the movement. Along with Carl F. H. Henry, Graham also established Christianity Today in 1956, which became the new magazine for evangelical laypeople.

Billy Graham shared the simple message of the gospel to millions, and came to Canada multiple times for evangelistic crusades. He had a rare lapse in judgment with his public support for close friend President Richard Nixon, who became infamous for Watergate and living a double life. Instead of evangelicals learning a hard lesson, movements like the Religious Right went on to further align evangelicalism with the Republican Party. 

Arguably the biggest blow to public opinion of evangelicals came from a popular 2016 statistic from Pew Research Center, claiming 81% of white evangelicals voted for controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump. Talking with my pastor-friends in the U.S. I discovered many American evangelicals were voting to secure Supreme Court seats, yet in retrospect some wonder whether it was worth selling the soul of American evangelicalism for political control. Young pastors like John Mark Comer and Jon Tyson who lead churches in secular cities but hold to evangelical theology, now describe their churches as “orthodox” since the term evangelical has accrued so much baggage in the American psyche.

Canadian evangelicals are not as aligned with one political party, since the party they vote for is not as central to their identity as it is with American Republicans or Democrats. Overall, North American evangelicals tend to vote more conservatively, but there is considerable difference between the right-wing in Canada and their counterparts in the U.S. Although many Canadian evangelicals share a pro-life stance with our neighbours to the south, along with support for freedom of religion, many are also concerned about other issues that the media doesn’t easily associate with us, such as social justice, indigenous reconciliation, the refugee crisis, and the environment. Yes, our faith can inform how we vote, but our Christian identity comes first. I would like to think Canadians tend toward the Reformation-era evangelical motto: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.” Political party must remain a nonessential for the health of evangelicalism, otherwise politics will have more influence on evangelical values, whereas it should be the other way around. In an age where politics threatens to become the new religion, whether right or left, evangelicals must resist this temptation.

We live in a post-Christian society, and one where there is increasing skepticism toward evangelicals. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently told Pastor Steve Long that evangelicals are the “worst part of Canadian society.” Why are Evangelicals such a maligned group? In John 15:18 Jesus said to His disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” Jesus was not speaking about public disdain for hypocrisy, such as turning a blind eye to pastors’ moral failures as seen in the recent #ChurchToo outcry. He was speaking of the genuine persecution that His followers would experience for taking up their cross daily and following Him. I believe that true persecution for evangelicals comes when they “go public” with their faith and resist compromising on pro-life values, new definitions of sexuality and gender, and doctor-assisted suicide. As evangelicals we should not believe everything that the media spins about us, taking the worst of evangelicalism and claiming this is the whole of who we are. 

As an artist who is an evangelical, I was heartened to read in the book Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, that historians believe Vincent van Gogh and Alfred H. Barr. Jr., first director of the Museum of Modern Art, were likely evangelical Christians. In times when we are persuaded to think evangelicalism is synonymous with racism and sexism, we must remember people like Charles Finney, a theology professor during the Second Great Awakening, who admonished his students toward civil disobedience against slavery and admitted women into ministerial study. 

Today respected evangelicals engaging the culture for social change include philosopher Nancy Pearcey, continuing Francis Schaeffer’s legacy of developing the evangelical mind, and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, persuading evangelicals to take on climate change grounded in biblical stewardship of creation. Along the same lines of creation care, visual artist Makoto Fujimura advocates for ‘culture care’, reminding us that culture is not a territory to be won, but a garden to be tended.

This brief examination of past and present evangelical engagement and relevance in culture calls us to reclaim the spirit of evangelicalism, which is the radical good news of Jesus. In Colossians 1:15–20 Paul describes Jesus as the reconciler of the cosmos, since through Him all things were created. For evangelicalism to move forward we must recognize that the “good news” is more than just saving souls and then escaping to heaven. The cross is the means by which we are being made whole, and all of creation is being redeemed as the kingdom of God expands. This is why we engage with and care for culture – art, science, politics, etc. – with the assurance that when Christ returns, He will bring this good work to completion, restoring both us and the earth, “renewing all things” (Matthew 19:28).

If the word “evangelical” has become a barrier due to negative associations, then some may choose to drop it, but we should not stop being truly evangelical or forget the contributions evangelicals have made in society. Terminology may change for describing Bible-believing, culturally engaged Christians, but we will always be called to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15), motivated by love for God and neighbour.

I was a missionary kid in Russia before moving to Canada when I was six, an experience that offered me an outsider perspective. I have noticed that Canadian evangelicals understand we are part of a wider world. We take a characteristically humble approach in our neighbourhoods, our country, and the broader Church community. If evangelicalism is to be relevant in Canada it must continue to be aware of the global evangelical movement. We must keep our eyes wide open to the rapid growth of the Church elsewhere, to its deeply held convictions, and unprecedented persecution. We evangelicals are part of a much larger story, HIStory unfolding around the world. That really is good news.

Josh Tiessen is an international award-winning artist with a studio gallery in Stoney Creek, ON (www.joshtiessen.com). He is in the final year of a Bachelor of Religious Education in Arts and Biblical Studies at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, ON.