Written by Josh Tiessen
Do you bristle at the term “Christian artist?” I know I have. Many creatives prefer to simply be called an artist who happens to be a Christian since they don’t want to be associated with sentimental faith-based content. The narrow definition of “Christian artist” can be seen in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry, where Christian music is synonymous with worship/church music. It’s also evident in visual art. For example, we see the landscape artist as painting secular subject matter and the Christian artist as someone who paints Biblical scenes.
As I have pondered the “Christian artist” quandary I’ve come to realize that the “artist who happens to be a Christian” approach can also be problematic, as it assumes that we can dichotomize our Christian worldview and artistic practice. Some Christians have seceded the narrow definition of “Christian artist” and polarized, insisting their work has nothing to do with their faith, and that their art is neutral. However, we all have basic beliefs, values, and narratives, which consciously or subconsciously permeate our work, so it cannot technically be neutral.
For me, being a Christian artist is more than the content I paint. It is about having the eyes of faith to see the world’s brokenness, as well as hope for its redemption. Furthermore, it is about conducting my artistic practice in a way that honours Christ, whether that be in encouraging other artists, caring for my art collectors, or having integrity in the business side of my career.
But there’s not just one way to be a Christian artist. If you have felt like you don’t fit the typical mould, I hope these five suggestions help free you to be what God has called you to.
1. The Bezalel
When Moses received plans to build the Tabernacle, Bezalel was the chief artisan commissioned to create God’s dwelling place. Today, the “Bezalels” take the form of worship pastors, videographers, and graphic designers who serve local church congregations or other ministries. Christian artists can also serve as volunteers, like my brother Zac who is a composer and electric guitarist on a worship team. Others are mural painters, iconographers, choir and drama directors, etc.
2. The David
King David composed poems that became the hymnbook for the Hebrew people. Poets and hymnists throughout history, and contemporary songwriters and liturgists today, are called to serve the broader Christian community. Their art may be experienced on a Sunday morning, but it is also for Christians to benefit from throughout the week, now readily available on streaming platforms. These are the authors and spoken word artists like Jackie Hill Perry, the film directors like Dallas Jenkins (creator of The Chosen series), and the Toronto-based literary journal Ekstasis, founded by former Love Is Moving editor Conor Sweetman, which strives to “revive the Christian imagination.”
3. The Translator
This is any Christian artist who makes creative work for a general audience with little to no church background. These artists translate their faith for their respective contexts, often drawing on areas of common ground. It can take the form of symbolism, such as C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which has resonated with Christians and non-Christians alike. Other “translators” draw on universal themes like love, suffering, and purpose, such as the band Switchfoot. Some advocate for social causes, like August Burns Red and their organization Heart Support for addictions/mental health, Lecrae speaking out for racial reconciliation, and for me personally, inspiring environmental stewardship through my art.
4. The Lifestyler
According to Martin Luther, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Many artists who work for secular creative firms do not have the freedom to express Christian themes through the content of their art. This is my friend Steve, an animator who fulfills the wishes of screenwriters, my brother Zac, an audio engineer who mixes and masters other people’s music, and my friend Monica, an architect who designs to fulfill the needs of her clients. Their Christian witness is largely through lifestyle––creating quality work, respecting their bosses, and showing the love of Christ when interacting with clients.
5. The Dickinson
Emily Dickinson penned poetry in secret as an offering to the Lord. As a Christian artist, you do not necessarily need to make public art. It can simply be for your own edification—personal art shared just with God. For instance, my friend Heather enjoys Bible art journaling. Your creations may also bless your family and friends after you are gone, like in the case of Dickinson.
Which type are you? Maybe you see yourself in a couple of them or at different seasons. With the diverse ways we can be Christian artists, I hope we gain a greater perspective for the unique calling and context that God has gifted each of us to serve in.
Josh Tiessen is an international award-winning fine artist, speaker, and writer based in Stoney Creek, ON. In 2020 he graduated with a Bachelor of Religious Education in Arts, Biblical Studies, and Philosophy. He has had solo exhibitions in galleries from New York to LA. His latest art monograph book, Streams in the Wasteland, was released in fall 2021. www.joshtiessen.com