How Ekstasis magazine supports Christian artmaking

Conor Sweetman, former editor of Love Is Moving, is special projects editor at Christianity Today and the founder and editor of Ekstasis magazine. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Hannah, and enjoys thinking about artistic and literary things. He studied English literature and has a Bachelor of Arts from Tyndale University and a Master of Arts from York University. He was interviewed by current Love Is Moving editor Ilana Reimer.

Ekstasis describes itself as a digital cathedral, language that mixes an older tradition with a newer one. Why do we need a space like that?

I think people are longing for a digital space that goes a lot deeper than what’s [offered] algorithmically, so I see it as kind of a bridge between them and the thoughtful, spiritual, and literary work people have been creating in niche cloistered areas for many years. A goal of mine is to create a gallery of this work that’s being created in workshops and bedrooms and give it a platform.

And so with the idea of a cathedral, so much work is put into building this elegant, beautiful, spacious atmosphere where you can encounter the more ethereal and kind of lofty concepts and works of God. It’s trying to create a home for [art and literature] that can otherwise feel like it’s floating in the wind. We want to capture it in a place that’s easy to engage with but also lifts your eyes up to the majesty of God.

So it’s curation, but then also a way of presenting it, similar to how a cathedral brings people together to worship.

Yeah, the digital world is very individualized, atomized. You’re scrolling on your own feed. You can be intentional with those communities, but in our hearts we want to be with people—worshiping, talking about the same things, and getting that creative spark going. So I think that image of a physical space bringing people together—even if they’re not gathering in one place—they are gathering of one mind and worshiping together in a way.

Given how noisy and anxiety-inducing the digital world often can be, what are some ways Ekstasis goes about creating that space?

When we were first acquired by CT [Christianity Today], we were showing it online to an art director for a major firm in the fashion industry. He made a comment that’s really stuck with me ever since; he essentially said that the imagery and the atmosphere of Ekstasis doesn’t put the visual or emotional burden onto the viewer. It adds a spaciousness and a peacefulness inherent to the design of sparse letters, a little bit of elegance around the font. And then it’s the grand photography that captures the starkness and beauty—whether it’s landscape or interiors or architecture or whatever.

But I think that graphic design element as actually a big part of creating that refuge where we’re so visually bombarded, it allows you to kind of take a visual breath when you see it. I love imagining someone, [after reading a piece] taking a deep breath and feeling like, Wow, that was surprising and delightful in a way I don’t usually encounter on digital platforms.

And so allowing engagement through using graphic design principles, but then walking people into a deeper reflective experience. In my experience, it stills my soul a little bit.

That emphasis on the beauty of images, the design, the physical magazine, is a striking element. Why is beauty important?

On a metaphorical level, I think beauty is the avenue that stories are formed in. And I think beauty is a thing that creates an emotional climate that then allows narratives to be threaded within that climate.

Beauty is used by Netflix every day, and by your podcast app. Beauty is used in very “secular” ways because it draws us into an experience, whether it’s negative or positive. Beauty on its own is not good, but it is an avenue to turn our attention. And hopefully Ekstasis turns us toward the good, the true, and the beautiful intertwined.

Reviving imagination within Christians seems to be another important theme. Is imagination something that’s diminished or that we’ve lost?

I don’t think it’s something we’ve lost, because we are imaginative creatures. The expectation of something happening tomorrow, the anticipation for it, is based on our faculty of imagination. And that’s uniquely human. Animals can foresee a reality that hasn’t happened yet.

But in our current cultural moment, the general perception is that we can let our imaginations be lazy. We don’t have to work that hard at cultivating it. We don’t have to direct it towards craftsmanship. We’ve gotten lazy in our storytelling capabilities, opting for something that is propaganda. The message is the only point, and that message is aggressive and simplified.

So for reviving the imagination, I really hope to bring people into a recognition that nuance and the development of the imagination are possible and that we’re invited into that. But in our kind of hypercommercialized world, we can forget that the imagination can be vivified—that it can cast a new vision for what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ.

There are so many people doing the slow, hidden work of creative revival that is really high level, really skilled, but often there’s no economic structures around them to let [their work] actually reach the light of day. So I would love for Ekstasis to be a part of bringing this work to more people, because it is happening. We can’t just lament the loss of it all the time.

What are some obstacles that you’re seeing as you’re identifying this good work and helping bringing it to the light?

Most of us aren’t taking the time and effort required for really good and life-changing art and books and conversations and gatherings. That requires us to be uncomfortable, it requires us to have patience, it requires us to have nuance.

In our social media age, it’s very hard to have all of that because our brains are rewired toward instant gratification and always thinking about the new thing. Whereas truly the things that change your life, both aesthetically and spiritually, are long and slow and intentional. And while I’m not saying most people aren’t intentional, they don’t have it on their radar that they can go to these depths that are available to them because we’re so used to swimming in the shallow end all the time.

There’s a lot of polarization and sharp disagreement between Christians, and we see a lot of that online, especially. Do you think places like Ekstasis, which uses the lens of art to reflect on faith, can help us get better at talking to each other?

Definitely. Because we’re so drawn to beautiful narratives and storytelling, we can go straight to the storytelling and talk about the complexity of our human experience and both the triumphs and trials. We get to bypass a lot of the buzzwords and trigger words that are going to automatically set up walls against each other.

As the editor, I see who is submitting, I see who’s engaging with the magazine. Maybe this is a bold claim, but I think certain people who are drawn together through the beauty of this work might not—at a political rally or even on a university campus—might not want to be in the same room because they disagree with each other so strongly and aren’t willing to have the charity or the willingness to talk about it. But I think because Ekstasis is trying to elevate the complexity and the beauty of stories and humanity and poetry, it allows people to enter into a space of listening rather than telling.

There’s a kind of hopeful resistance in choosing to create art in the midst of the tensions you just mentioned. Can you speak a bit to the role of art in cultivating hope?

I think it goes back to the faculty of imagination. I’m going to butcher it, but there’s a C.S. Lewis quote (or it might have been [G.K.] Chesterton I don’t know), but essentially he says, the organ of imagination is necessary to our own knowledge and wisdom just as much as information.

The hope in developing the imagination, engaging with the arts, and creating art is that it speaks to all not being lost. That there is inherent goodness that can be seen. It shows that there’s something worth doing and there’s something worth working towards.

The small steps of creating art speak to that hope that things can be different, but not only different, but that even in the now, even in this moment, there is beauty to be found.

What’s your dream for the next generation of Christian artists?

Again a bold statement, but I would love for the general conversation to be steered away from supporting the arts and move towards recognizing the essential role of the arts, creativity, and imagination in our day-to-day life and as shaping agents of our souls.

People tend to talk about the arts as being a tangential thing: Oh, that’s nice that they’re doing that. Maybe I’ll donate something or go to a gallery or whatever. But I go back to the reality that we are so shaped by what we listen to, what we watch, what we engage with in our online environment. And all of those things are using the same tools that Christian artists and Christian writers use, but they’re directed toward different ends.

And so, it’s not about supporting the arts, it’s about this need to build economically safe structures and rewards so that people can actually make a living off of devoting themselves to the arts, and so that beautiful work that shapes our hearts and souls can continue to be created. Not just as an afterthought—once we do the important stuff like politics, we’ll get to the arts—but recognizing that politics are shaped by the imagination.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.