By Luis Coelho
“So, you want to be an artist?” – he asked. “Yes, sir.” – I responded. “So, you don’t want to study theology anymore?” – he asked. “No, sir, I still want to study it.”
The man who asked me those questions was a parishioner at the church I served as an intern the whole year of 2007, back in the Anglican Diocese of Rio de Janeiro. Like many, he could not see the manifold interrelations between art and theology. I thoroughly explained to him how the Church has always used art as a means of retelling stories about the People of Israel and also about Our Lord Jesus and all the saints. And then I told him about my earlier attempts to start art school and how I felt called to incorporate art and ministry together. Still, he was puzzled. And then, only God knows why, I eventually told him: “I want to pursue this vocation because I firmly believe that God is the source of all beauty, and as part of his creation, we enjoy being able to create beautiful works to praise Him.” He finally settled, albeit a little disturbed with how obvious and still how unnoticed those words were to him.
More recently, I found myself giving a similar explanation to a completely different audience: art students. While having a meeting with a professor at Savannah College of Arts and Design-Atlanta, we were invited to show some of our art and explain why we had chosen that field. Most of us in that room were visual artists, or at least visual artists-wannabes. We showed our art to our peers and also to the professor. When my turn came, and I finally got to show some of my pieces, a student noticed how commonly religious themes were present in my artwork and asked why. I told him – to the awe of some of my peers – that since I believed we were made in the image and likeness of God, not only were we gifted with creativity, but we also could use our creative abilities to praise him through the resources he has given us.
I wonder how, or when, art and faith got disconnected from each other – at least to the wider public. In art circles, this is often true. It is still impressive to me to notice how many artists and art students, who in many cases are people of faith, do not perceive how precious the artistic creative process is and how blessed we are to have the opportunity of doing it. Even churchgoers fail to see how natural it is to praise God through art. When I finally communicated my intention to come to Atlanta to pursue a BFA in Painting at SCAD, and therefore to combine it with long-distance theology studies at one of the Brazilian Anglican seminaries, some people in the Church found that complicated arrangement to be a very difficult one. After all, to them, either you are an artist, or you are a priest.
I refuse to accept this exclusive definition of ministry, and many of you already know why. In your communities of faith, you probably have had the joyful opportunity of feeling God’s presence through the beauty of lovely choirs, through the glooming light that crosses stained glass windows, through various art exhibits, and even through well-chanted liturgies. All of these have something in common: they are the fruit of the human creative process, with the sole purpose of worshiping the One to whom all glory and honor should be given.
As children of God, we are part of his beautiful creation. God has also entrusted this creation to us, and has made it available for us to enjoy and use in order to generate beauty in the midst of this broken world. It is true that stains of sin sometimes cover our beauty. However, through Christ our Redeemer we are always able to recover our inner radiance. As Christians, we are called to spread the redeeming message in many forms; and art is one of them.
So, the next time you find yourself appreciating a work of art, do not forget it is also a prayer: a plea from the human spirit to its Divine Creator, and also an opportunity to engage the original beauty of God’s creation.
Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.” He is currently a steward at the Lambeth Conference.