There are no crosses in Makoto Fujimura’s paintings. No images of Jesus gazing into the distance, or serene scenes of churches in a snow-cloaked wood.
Fujimura’s abstract works speak to his evangelical Christian faith. But to find it takes some digging.
After the 2001 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center, three blocks from Fujimura’s home, his work explored the power of fire to both destroy and purify, themes drawn from the Christian Gospels and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”
“I am a Christian,” says Fujimura, 46, who founded the nonprofit International Arts Movement to help bridge the gap between the religious and art communities. “I am also an artist and creative, and what I do is driven by my faith experience.
“But I am also a human being living in the 21st century, struggling with a lot of brokenness — my own, as well as the world’s. I don’t want to use the term ’Christian’ to shield me away from the suffering or evil that I see, or to escape in some nice ghetto where everyone thinks the same.”
By making a name for himself in the secular art world, Fujimura has become a role model for creatively wired evangelicals. They believe that their churches have forsaken the visual arts for too long — and that a renaissance has begun.
On the grass-roots and institutional level, evidence is mounting to support that view: Art galleries are opening in churches; prominent seminaries are investing in new centers exploring theology and the arts; and, graduates from evangelical film schools are making Hollywood movies.
These artistic evangelicals, though still relatively small in number, are striving to be creators of culture rather than imitators, said Dick Staub, a Seattle-based radio talk show host and author of “The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture In an Age of Christianity-Lite.” There is a desire, he said, to avoid inventing a parallel arts universe with Christian knockoffs for Christian audiences.
“They want to make art that connects to everybody,” Staub said. “The call is first and foremost to make good art.”
‘The Bible is full of abstraction’
That doesn’t necessarily mean overtly religious art, but rather art informed by faith. Fujimura, for example, shares more with abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock than with Thomas Kinkade, a self-described devout Christian whose brushwork of idyllic landscapes, crosses and churches are big sellers.
As a result, Fujimura — whose work has been displayed at museums in Tokyo and Washington, D.C. — gets questions from his fellow believers dubious about abstract and modern art.
“The Bible is full of abstraction,” said Fujimura, an elder at a Greenwich Village church he helped start. “Think about this God who created the universe, the heavens and the earth from nothing. In order to have faith you have to reach out to something, to a mystery.”
It isn’t always an easy sell.
Evangelical unease with the visual arts dates to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Andy Crouch, editorial director for Christianity Today’s Christian Vision Project, which examines how evangelicals intersect with the broader culture, notes that Protestantism traces its origins to an era when noses were snapped off sculptures in a rejection of Catholic visual tradition while the word of God was elevated.
Attitudes began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, when Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer and Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker challenged believers to emerge from their cocoons and engage the culture, including in the arts.
Now, Crouch said, those ideas are resonating with a younger generation of believers who live in an image-saturated culture. They sense a disconnect worshipping in churches bare of anything that’s visually arresting.
“The very parched nature of evangelical visual culture is making people who have grown up in this culture thirsty for beauty,” he said.
Increasingly, that ground is being explored on seminary campuses. One of the most ambitious examples is the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., founded in 2001 and bankrolled by a $15 million donation from a Virginia couple that earned a fortune in information technology.
The center aspires to be an evangelical arts think tank, with five stand-alone institutes focused upon worship and music, film and moving images, art and architecture, drama, journalism and creative writing, preaching and the study of the “emerging church,” which incorporates painting, dance and other fine arts into worship.
Craig Detweiler, co-director of the center’s Reel Spirituality Institute, said students are fascinated with finding the sacred in the mundane and exploring life’s mysteries. In other words, themes with far-reaching appeal.
“Maybe 20 years ago, young filmmakers wanted to tell stories for their own audience,” said Detweiler, a screenwriter. “Today’s young filmmakers ... find holy moments within mainstream movies and want to create more of the same.
“For too long, Christian art has implied pale imitation,” Detweiler said. “We’re trying to get back to the days of the Renaissance, where the church was the patron of the finest art.”
‘How can I be a Christian and an artist?’
In another sign that institutional evangelicalism is taking the arts seriously, a Center for Theology and the Arts was founded last year at the flagship seminary of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The center’s work begins modestly this summer with a workshop drawing parallels between the art of drawing and Bible study, arguing both are about seeing and observing.
“If we as Christians believe that creativity and imagination is a gift from God, why have we neglected it for so many years?” said center director Steve Halla, a former Dallas Theological Seminary professor and a woodcut artist.
Already, evangelicals are exerting greater influence in the film industry.
Even before the success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Southern California was home to a Christian screenwriting factory called Act One, an on-the-rise film school at the evangelical Biola University and a film studies center sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.
More recently, evangelicals have turned their attention to the contemporary art world. For the past two years, students primarily from Christian colleges and universities have studied and interned at galleries and graphic-design firms through the New York Center for Art and Media Studies, a satellite of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn.
“We are not trying to recruit missionaries into New York City or anything like that,” said James Romaine, an art historian and the center’s director. “We’re helping young artists grow and become the best artists they can be.”
Echoing others, Romaine describes an evolution in evangelical thinking about the arts.
“For people of my parents’ generation, there was always a question of, ’Can you be a Christian and an artist?”’ he said. “When I was a student, the question was, ‘How can I be a Christian and an artist, in a philosophical sense?’ Now, there’s a sense of, ‘Let’s get to it. How can I be a part of this art world?”’