Cameron J. Anderson on How Beauty Reveals God
Some churches think of beauty - apart from nature - as superficial, or a distraction from how God calls us to live. Cameron Anderson makes a case for how beauty and visual arts can help us encounter God more deeply.
Cameron “Cam” J. Anderson is executive director of CIVA|Christians in the Visual Arts in Madison, Wisconsin, and author of The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts. In this edited conversation, he talks about visual art, Christian faith, and the premiere of CIVA’s exhibit The Beautiful.
What overlaps do you see between an artist’s studio work and their journey with God?
There’s a powerful connection between what happens in the studio and in our journey with God. A lot of it boils down to our practices and the way we manage our lives. Much of faith is about patiently waiting, living and working toward the hope God promises. Studio work also involves expectation and delayed gratification, as we wait to complete a work, show it to the public, and invite a response.
Artists, Christian or not, need to be attentive to their materials and the nature of those materials. And, if they’re Christian, they realize that God made red different than blue, canvas different than steel. That’s what Christian artists mean when they say that the material speaks to them. Similarly, Christians, whether or not they are artists, need to be attentive to God’s Spirit so they can sense what God is doing in the world right now.
You write in The Faithful Artist that evangelicals often value word over image and value goodness and truth over beauty. What’s an example?
Well, a simple way to illustrate this point could be something I sometimes say to pastors and church leaders: “Look at your church budget.” Churches that put a high value on preaching make room in the budget to hire people who’ve studied and gone to seminary. They hire church musicians who have degrees, training, and skills in music. But few churches hold to the same standards for visual artists. We don’t ask leaders to donate their preaching and music skills on Sunday. So, if you want comparable visual beauty in worship, you should budget for that.
You see a similar value discrepancy when you look at church library shelves. Simply compare the shelf space (measure it, if you like) devoted to truth, apologetics, piety, and public justice compared to that devoted to visual arts and beauty.
How did this imbalance come about?
Ancient philosophers thought of goodness, truth, and beauty like a three-legged stool. If any leg was missing, the stool no longer functioned as a stool. But the arts suffered during the Protestant Reformation, even though some reformers, like Martin Luther, remained a true friend to artists. For example, Lucas Cranach the Elder painted an altarpiece in Luther’s church. He made 117 dazzling, hand-colored woodcuts for Luther’s 1534 German translation of the Bible.
What are the consequences when worship ignores visual beauty?
The first thing we’re trying to do in worship is to meet God. The first thing we learn about God in Genesis is that he creates beauty. Romans 1:20 reminds us that the whole creation exists to bear witness to God. It follows that if we don’t encounter beauty, we don’t fully know God.
Similarly, the book of Exodus devotes twice as much text to describing the tabernacle compared to describing the law of Moses. Look at the attention paid in the narrative to the materials and artisans involved in building the tabernacle. Remember that the tabernacle was God’s idea. He asked Moses to commission artists to create a dwelling place for his beauty and glory. If you’re an artist and read Exodus, you notice the attention God pays to beauty.
How else does lack of respect for beauty affect Christians and congregations?
Beauty—not just visual arts, but also poetry, architecture, dance, music, and so on—helps us understand God’s transcendence. Beauty gives us a means to access a God who is invisible. It’s important not to pit beauty against truth and goodness in worship. So, good preaching, good Bible studies, yes! Good architecture and arts, yes! Serving the community and caring about justice doesn’t mean we can’t be interested in beauty as well.
How can visual art by Christians build bridges with those who are not Christian?
I completed my BFA and MFA at secular institutions. My whole life I’ve been in conversation with artists inside and outside the church. As a follower of Christ, I enjoy talking with artists who don’t necessarily share my faith. We already share so many interests in common, from talking about and making things to exhibiting and selling art. Conversations about what we have in common remind us of our humanness and create a bond of safety and mutual respect.
Our CIVA office space is in a historic neighborhood with lots of artist studios, even in our building. Our office has gallery walls, and we participate in citywide gallery nights. People walk in knowing full well that we’re a Christian organization. They often say, “Wow, this is not what I expected. This is high quality art and innovative use of materials by real artists.”
What do you hope people will experience through The Beautiful, the new CIVA-sponsored exhibit?
For this juried show, 150 people submitted 500 images. Juror Mary McCleary pared these down to about 35 contemporary works in a variety of media and genres. The Beautiful showcases objects that are truly beautiful—but maybe in unexpected ways, like shadow shapes on a wall on a bright morning, or carefully painted little landscapes. In the shadow of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace there exists what some describe as a “broken beauty”—beauty that still captures heart and mind but contends with the fallenness of our world. We hope viewers experience them as bearing witness to beauty as it appears to us in the complex landscape of contemporary culture.
Where can people see The Beautiful?
It premieres at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from January 12 through February 18, 2018, so you can see it during the 2018 Calvin Symposium on Worship. After that it goes on tour. CIVA exhibits usually circulate for three to five years, and each exhibit is shown, on average, six times a year. We have six or seven traveling exhibits available each year.
Hear Cam Anderson speak on teaching and learning in congregations and Christian organizations. Read his book, The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts. See or book The Beautiful CIVA art exhibit.