The Naked and the Nude. *


In December 2010, WORLD magazine did a feature on Ed Knippers, a Christian artist who paints nudes. Some “concerned believer” vandalized his exhibit. Extreme example, but it illustrates the question here: How to remain true to God and the vocation He’s called you to.

I’m not going to question Mr. Knipper’s calling or convictions. From all accounts, his work isn’t prurient or pornographic. After all, God made the different genders, made sex, made beauty, intimacy, and the human form. Navigating those issues in this fallen world as a Christian is akin to a trip down IED Alley. Beset on all side, I genuinely hope Ed makes it in one piece.

Set aside hi-minded rationale like ‘ministry’ or ‘cultural evangelism’ for a second. Created in God’s image, people are made to create. In some form or another, that desire to work, to build, to accomplish, is wired in us. Now it gets twisted out of proportion, misused, neglected, but that doesn’t diminish its legitimacy. Read the Bible, actually think about it, trot out the obligatory vocation quotes from Luther, Lewis, even Calvin, and it becomes apparent our service, our devotion, must manifest itself in every human endeavor; no less so in the arts.

“…No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself…. work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work…” ~ Dorothy Sayers

The artist’s imperative to depict, to evoke, to invoke, to communicate, remains in force. Yet in no time flat, the Christian artist can find themselves in the inevitable dilemma: the call to be sanctified and separate, yet engaging and authentic. Treading that taut wire over Niagara, you put anything out for consideration and dogs on one side or the other start howling.

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

Tension and Balance

Before anyone accuses me of license or moral equivalency, I’m really addressing the tension and balance between the call to sanctification and the call to influence. Christians are to “go into all the world”” and somehow “come out from among them”. We’re supposed to be “in, and not of…”

The Christian artist is caught in the crossfire of dueling responsibilities. Even worse, navigating the artificial standards imposed by self-appointed experts. Symphonies without minor notes, night skies with limited amounts of black… If he/she portrays reality honestly, the accusation of casting stumbling blocks is soon leveled; but if they ‘tidy it up’ to accommodate delicate sensibilities, they are perpetuating a fantasy and violating their calling.

Should a Christian doctor avoid all mention of cancer and only treat the flu instead? Should ministers never preach on sin and hell and opt for the easily digestible ‘hakuna matata’? How can the Christian effectively portray the remedy without an honest depiction of the disease? The potency is trivialized. Lost. Disregarded.

Now I’ve always taken those verses (and others) to mean God is primarily concerned with our character, the inner issues of our heart – as opposed to a dress code or grooming standard. The predatory, hedonistic mindset so prevalent in our culture is put to death and a new person in Christ re-made in the image of truth, compassion, and redemption is expressed. My understanding is that the original meaning of the word “holy” is ‘to separate or set aside for a distinct purpose.” The Temple instruments were used, not vacuum sealed behind museum glass. Linen needed the rinse cycle, knives got bloody, bowls got dirty, candlesticks were encrusted with wax. They were put to use. I could expand that thought, but I want to stay on fiction here.

Factoring in variables such as the intended audience, publishing house parameters, organic themes, consistent plot and characterization, motivation and intentions, I believe the Christian writer has to have the liberty to employ whatever tools necessary to tell the story. In doing so, they remain true to God and the task He’s given them.

“When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

* props to Robert Graves. His poem by the same name

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