Artists Struggling with Evangelicalism 1

Hempton.jpgOn this blog we have given lots of attention to faith and science and the struggle scientists have with the orthodox Christian faith. What about artists? I read this statement not long ago and want to have a conversation about it: “For all the well-known and oft debated problems associated with reconciling faith and science, the ability to reconcile artistic creativity with Christian orthodoxy has proved to be a much bigger stumbling block for the evangelical tradition.” And by “artistic” is meant literature, the stage, painting, etc.

So the statement of David Hempton in his newest book, Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt
. Hempton studies these figures: Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Francis Newman (J.H. Newman’s brother), Theodore Dwight Weld, Sarah Grimke/Elizabeth Cady Stanton/Frances Willard, van Gogh, Edmund Gose, and James Baldwin.

He investigates why these folks, one-time committed evangelicals, became disenchanted.

Why do you think artists may struggle more with the evangelical faith than even scientists?

It is standard among evangelicals to define “evangelical” with David Bebbington’s famous four points: conversion, Bible, cross, and active Christian living. But Hempton appeals in this book to another set of factors drawn from W.R. Ward, who finds these: experiential conversion, mysticism, small-group religion, vitalist conceptions of nature, a deferred eschatology, and opposition to theological systems. These characteristics Ward finds in the earliest evangelicals of the 18th Century. He draws this conclusion: “An infallible text read with wooden literalism, an instant millennium, an absence of mystery, a lack of interest in nature, priestly personality cults, and modernist soteriological systems are not what the early evangelicals had in mind” (5). This is no small conclusion and I’m keen on seeing how this way of framing “evangelical” will shape the concerns of this book.

The disenchantent of the people Hempton studies “did not usually result in complete abandonment of their religious faith and an embrace of atheism.” And “it would be a mistake to conclude that the subjects examined here ended up as defenders and purveyors of an insipid moral relativism and behavioral libertinism” (17).

I have myself studied “apostasy” (Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy
) so this book naturally interests me. I believe pastors and college professors and chaplains, not to say parents and siblings and friends, could have some serious interest in Hempton’s studies.

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  • I’ll be curious to follow this thread. I think I have more practical ministry experience to draw on than any academic thought. For my church for a number of years I was the “director” of artists/lead artist, and my close friend served in the same role prior. Initial reaction: I’ve found many artists in evangelical churches to show intense loyalty to the church, especially if their gifts are recognized and are paired with other artists, but so-often-it’s-dependable a worldview breakdown occurs that leaves them into serious doubt and cynicism. The transition can happen in 2-3 months.
    I think I’ve often attributed this to certain temperaments that have decently strong correlations with “artistic” people. But that might not be the whole story.

  • Tim Gombis

    I’ve thought about this for a while because I’ve seen so many artistically-oriented students struggle mightily in a contemporary evangelical context.
    Seems to me that the artistic vision — the ability to ‘see through’ pretensions and the capacity to unmask them through music or literary expression — needs an appreciation of mystery and of the complexity of nature. Artists especially probe the inherent darknesses and pretensions of communities to which they belong.
    But in contemporary evangelical settings, we are not really willing to toleratre this for this reason — there’s too much at stake. We don’t have time for this sort of pursuit when the crying felt need is to win the culture war. We cannot admit weakness and we cannot tolerate self-examination.
    I think this fear of losing ground in the culture war is one huge reason artists cannot find homes in contemporary evangelicalism. Tragic. Because we lose the blessing of their great gifts.

  • RJS

    Well, I could quibble with some of the statements – especially the use of “more” and “bigger.” But – a broad brush statement: in the academy one finds Christians, evangelical Christians, in engineering, business, music (artistic right?) and the professional schools (business, law, medicine,…). Numbers drop dramatically in “pure” science, the social sciences and the humanities. And it appears to be true that the lowest numbers are in the humanities.
    I will be interested to hear what others have to say from experience. But for some – especially writers – is it possible that the room to grow, think, explore, create is constrained by boundaries that won’t hold?

  • Your Name

    Scott, do you have a reference of Ward’s characterization of early evangelicalism? It would be very helpful for my struggle to define evangelicalism in the Netherlands. Thank you very much.

  • Scot McKnight
  • This is truly an important topic and one that affects many people inside and outside of the “church.” My own journey as a Christian (and human, I should add) includes my passion for the arts as a catalyst to re-evaluate my Baptist background and make some radical changes in my faith. The irony is that the arts helped me to appreciate truth more than a philosophy of ministry that abandoned serious/modern art for the sake of truth – which, I discovered, is a kind of denial of the truth and one of the reasons I walked away from evangelicalism (to a point).
    I have a good friend who wrote a piece on what he calls the “critical zone” – that place where many Christian artists (or anyone) find themselves caught between the world and religion. You can find the piece here.

  • I think one of the tensions for serious artists is that the arts are deconstructive by nature. Like Tim (#2) said, real artistic vision involves seeing through pretensions. I think artistic vision also involves honest expression of fear and doubt. Well, what is the popular evangelical subculture except a bundle of pretentious platitudes?
    Another problem, I think, is that evangelicalism tends to be pragmatic and instrumentalists. We’ll cultivate “arts” such as music and drama if they are being “used” for a purpose such as missions or evangelism. Of course, it’s good to employ such arts in missions and evangelism, but I think we reduce everything to its usefulness and thereby strip it of any intrinsic value.

  • Mike Hickerson

    As one who has a degree in Christianity and the arts, I’m not sure if I have greater insight, but I think the struggles of Christian artists have much to do with evangelicalism’s weak doctrine of creation (and therefore a weak view of culture). The arts have to justify themselves pragmaticly from the outsight (which is why worship music has long been a strong suit of evangelicalism). However, it’s difficult to start from that point as an artist, when so much of good art is characterized by playfulness (i.e. apparent purposelessness), long attention to craft, “impractical” career and education choices, etc. Fellow believers, well-intentioned, try to get young artists to use their gifts for the church, by designing posters, directing church plays, playing in the worship band, when the artists’ time may be better spent focusing on honing their craft. And, of course, it’s a vicious cycle. Since there aren’t many evangelical artists, young artists don’t have good mentors to show them the way. It’s an Asher Lev-type situation, where you often have to go outside the orthodox tradition to find good artistic mentors.

  • Your Name

    I’m glad Mike mentioned Asher Lev. For those unfamiliar with Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev, it’s about an orthodox visual artist who grapples with this tension. I almost named my first child after the character.
    I hear him saying evangelicals can tend to have a utilitarian view of the arts. Yes? They also want it sanitized, and with a happy ending. Artists tend to be more sensitive to the world around them, sometimes to a debilitating degree. I think our experience in the world doesn’t always line up with the formulaic tendencies of our evangelical communities, and that causes problems for us.
    However I agree with RJS in that Hampton’s characterization is a bit unfair in that it generalizes the worst tendencies. I’ve not been in an evangelical church that doesn’t value beauty and mystery to some degree.
    In fact, the current pastor of the Baptist church where I grew up is an amateur artist and has turned a concrete box of a building into a warm inviting space with his gift. Yes, his murals depict Bible stories, but that’s not all. He painted the concrete walls a warm beige, added a colorful faux stained glass border and replaced industrial doors with glass ones that bring light into the building. It’s quite a transformation.

  • cas

    #9 was me. the timed-out sign in thing regularly trips me up.

  • RJS

    As I’ve thought about this today let me throw out a thought. Artistic vision really means creative thinking – creative thinking can be expressed in a number of ways; in writing, visual arts, music, drama, it can also be expressed in other disciplines (including sciences). Perhaps, in fact, it was Darwin’s creative soul that both precipitated a loss of faith and enabled him to see with “new eyes.”
    Evangelicalism is a difficult arena for creative thinking in any permutation. There is always an undercurrent of difference – a realization that one simply does not think the same way as most of those around. The evangelical community tends to assign value and set boundaries in a way that can become constricting, leaving one adrift and looking in from outside.

  • cas

    RJS, It doesn’t surprise me to hear you say this. Researchers in particular are extremely creative and thus, can struggle too with ethical boundaries. Theoretical mathematicians might have the same problem.
    Side note, in #9, when I said “I hear him saying evangelicals can have a utilitarian view of the arts,” I was talking about Mike #8, not Hampton.
    Having been in and sometimes not exactly of evangelical communities, I think that when one is able to accept the brokenness as we do elsewhere, it can help us love and appreciate our fellow pilgrims more.

  • Dianne P

    RJS, to your comments in 11, but especially in 3…
    I agree that there is some type of inherent difficulty in evangelical churches with creativity, with mystery. Yes, a little bit is nice, but careful, not too much!
    My husband, the scientist, is also a painter. Hmmmm. To your point in #3, it was “ok” to be an engineer, a physician, a nurse – any practical application of scientific study – but scientists were pretty scarce in our former evangelical church. Especially odd, as that church was a stone’s throw from 2 fortune 100 pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps the science/engineering paradigm is analogous to the artistic/ fine arts paradigm. While it’s “ok” to have artistic skills that are useful to the church – music, crafts, drama (to a limited extent), pretty pictures – any artistic gift that went deeper, into the more creative rather than the more pretty, useful direction – well, not so much.
    I also think (broad brush warning) that the more intensely creative types of scientists and artists are more tolerant (I hate that term) if you will of different types of experiences and different types of people. They are more keen to look hard at difficult or complicated things rather than to label them “wrong”, and look away.
    One more comment on the concept of “beauty”, which I think is distinctive from the concept of applicability – though I agree that has its own sense of beauty… A doctoral student at TEDS once shared with us a paper that he was presenting at a conference on Christ and beauty. It was a bit dense for me, but fascinating nonetheless given my eastern Christian roots. The paper addressed the concept of beauty in Christ, comparing and contrasting the vision of St. Augustine with the vision of St. Gregory of Nyssa. (My friend, if you are out there, I apologize for my inevitably clumsy and less than accurate interpretation of your fine work.) His work on Augustine and beauty was largely derived – there was very little that Augustine wrote directly about beauty. OTOH, SGN had a very well developed Christ-based philosophy of beauty.

  • cas

    Mathematicians might have the same problem with boundaries, not ethics, though I know little about math difficulties.

  • This looks to be an interesting series. Like others here, I too have “artistic” credentials. One-time Arts Concerns Chair at Fuller Theological Seminary (right at the period when Fuller’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts was getting off the ground), active in drama (as actor, director, and technical director on various occasions), editor of the college literary magazine, I could go on….
    Although I would by no mean say this is true of everyone, I definitely noticed even in those early college years, and this certainly held true even in seminary, that my artistic colleagues tended to be less “traditional” in both their actions and their beliefs (both college and seminary were Christian contexts) then others in those institutions. I’ve developed a few of my own ideas on this over the years, which I’ll probably talk about more as the series continues. For now, it’s enough to note that the Ward definitions of “evangelical” definitely seemed to be at play; and be aspects my artistic colleagues felt the need to run from.

  • Dianne P

    cas, I like your use of the word boundaries. Some artists and some scientists are drawn to the boundaries like a bee to honey. To be successful in their genres, I think that they must have this drive as part of their makeup. And I also think that attraction to the boundaries somewhat explains why we have this same conversation about both scientists and artists.
    While neither an artist nor a scientist myself (a nurse), I’ve always felt drawn to the boundaries and thus did not always align very easily with the quick and sure answers of evangelical circles.
    BTW, how does Madeleine L’Engle fit into this group of artists?

  • Dianne B,
    Interesting that you mention “mystery.” A friend of mine, who is also definitely of an artistic-bent, was reflecting just the other day on how (as he sees it) the word “mystery” has often been used as a boundary, a conversation-stopper, rather than as an indication that there is more to “wonder.”

  • Tim

    After 13 years working as a pastor in local churches, I finally “saw the light,” jumped ship and pursued a full-time career as a visual artist (shameless plug: I returned to school with 3 kids and a wife in tow to earn my BFA and currently work as a studio artist, public muralist, and assistant director for a contemporary art gallery in Cincinnati ( I also serve on the preaching team of our current church (very part-time). So… I’m living out the tensions being described in these posts.
    Where evangelicalism has failed as a home for artists (in my humble opinion): Much that has been posted seems fairly right on: lack of appreciation for mystery, constricting theology, asking artists to be “illustrators” (not creators) of our projects, etc. Yet, I don’t think this is a problem limited to artists. Much of evangelicalism has become a flat space, beige and mauve, with an overly-confident period at the end of the sentence. Anyone with an explorative approach to life will find much of evangelicalism a “quick read.” (That said, I realize much of evangelicalism has great beauty and rich history – however, it seems to be buried deep beneath the surface in most circles. Something to appreciate… but not necessarily live out today)
    Where evangelicalism has succeeded as a home for artists (in my humble opinion): It is incarnational in the most un-interesting of ways. The transcendent is brought low to stale coffee and doughnuts, utilitarian buildings, Sunday School lessons. But, there is beauty in this banality – for those who have the eyes to see it. We would like for Jesus to appear in the stained glass (and often he does), but he also is visible in the cracked pavement of the church parking lot. The interest of painters like Vermeer was their ability to make the mundane sacred. Many artists are interested in this shift: from the transcendent to the imminent. One of the most “spiritual” painters was Giorgio Morandi – he painted muted pictures of white bottles all day. But those bottles have become a metaphor of a still, deep, even prayerful way of seeing things. If evangelicals could develop this sacramental/incarnational dimension in ways that were more aesthetic, open-ended, and less-confident, I think more artists would find a connection.
    An aesthetic approach to faith is often lacking in most churches I know. However, seeing is a way of knowing. Most artists I know agree that drawing is a way to know your world. For me, drawing has always been my most sacred practice.
    Possibly we would see some things begin to change if churches and seminaries took seriously the idea that artists are not the decorations of culture. Artists are often seen as periphery – marginal to the “real work” of this world. The artist is to culture what the painting is to the couch in your living room.
    But what if churches and seminaries began to take seriously this idea that art in its various forms has a potent, poetic, prophetic contribution to make? (How’s that for a tidy evangelical alliteration?) Can we imagine intentionally seeking to enlist artists into the idea-centers of our various groups? Not just asking them to design or express OUR ideas, but rather, invite them to help shape and influence the ideas at their source?

  • Tim

    I realize that my comment “a wife in tow” was probably a bit insensitive. 🙂 Actually, it is my wife who strongly encouraged, supported and continues to support me as an artist. In many ways, she was the voice who gave me permission to think outside my narrow understanding of “calling” to ministry.

  • cas

    You’ve said so well what I was thinking. I smiled at this observation:
    “Where evangelicalism has succeeded as a home for artists (in my humble opinion): It is incarnational in the most un-interesting of ways. The transcendent is brought low to stale coffee and doughnuts, utilitarian buildings, Sunday School lessons. But, there is beauty in this banality – for those who have the eyes to see it. We would like for Jesus to appear in the stained glass (and often he does), but he also is visible in the cracked pavement of the church parking lot.”
    Congratulations on taking the plunge!

  • The Protestant Reformers’ aversion to artistic expression in the church has held sway in the Protestant tradition(s) in general, not least evangelicalism, so I blame them in part. As to the contemporary plight of artists in the church, I think it is a reflection of the larger cultural phenomenon in which art has become wholly commercialized in the way of McDonaldization. Today’s artistic geniuses are employed in the marketing field, writing jingles and designing logos (obviously, far too many wannabes are employed there as well!).

  • Diane

    In my work as a religion journalist, I was intensely interested in the struggles of evangelical artists. My focus was mostly on the struggle of Christian artists to be taken seriously as artists in the wider culture.( I do agree with issues of pushing boundaries and embracing mystery. Van Gogh, for example,wanted to live the faith and was censured for it by the church. So he left.) One thing that does come to mind, however, to explain (if not excuse) the tension between evangelicalism and the arts: the arts can be seen to distort (not reflect the truth of) reality. Science can also be seen this way. So churches fear art “luring” weaker minds into destructive lifestyles. What’s ignored is creating a hermeneutic for dealing with this tension, though some churches are engaged in this process. I also think the church needs to be less threatened by art–what comes to mind is–what was it called “piss Jesus,”??– a painting of Jesus in a bottle of piss, that churches became quite alarmed by. I thought, however, that if they had embraced the painting, it would have opened a conversation about the reality that Jesus IS pissed on by both the culture and the church … but then I like to push boundaries too.

  • BeckyR

    I have been a visual artist for 30 yrs. I have many years of reading, listening to lectures taped, and thinking of what it means to be a christian and an artist. I began thinking I had to portray the glowing wonderful being in God. I thought I was to use my art to push a message, a message about the good stuff of christianity. Frank Schaeffer, himself providing for his family through his visual art, has done great things to my thinking of what it means to be a christian and an artist. His taped lecture : Art Forms in a Christian World View helped me tremendously. I would listen to it over and over for probably 10 yrs and each time get something out of it. He basically says the whole of christian experience is what is to be in our art – the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. Doing so is communicating the truth.
    What are we to do with our art? First of all is to get off the track that it must have a message. Yes, art pieces do portray, communicate something, but that need not be the primary purpose in creating. Also, get away from thinking art has to push a christian message. I can paint a flower just because I want to paint a flower. My christian world view will show through in the body of my work but I need not have the purpose of creating to be about making a christian message. The bad and the ugly must show in my art as well because there is bad and ugly in the christian experience. Frank says that things in the arts changed with the Industrial Revolution. The overall thought became : what can we do with it. Therefore art had to be something utilitarian. In the christian culture it became that art had to have a message, and a right message. We are to let go of such thinking.

  • I hope that I’m not stepping on any toes with this one, but it occurs to me that there are, of course, artists that have widespread acceptance within evangelicalism. Thomas Kinkade comes to mind (he grew up in my parents’ hometown of Placerville, CA, so we’ve followed his career from a very early point). Almost without exception, however, my artistic friends hate Kinkade’s work for a variety of reasons, not all of which I disagree with.
    However, if nothing else, Kinkade’s work is technically proficient and often quite attractive. Surely the fact that such work is appreciated by evangelicals is worthy of discussion.

  • cas

    Mark, I think plenty of us would argue that Kinkade is an example of the worst kind of commercialism of both art and the gospel.

  • BeckyR

    In the fine art world, Kinkade is known as kitsch. Kitsch is made to evoke emotion or something that’s been made a lot, like seascapes that haven’t an original aspect to it.
    Being a visual artist, the degree and all, I don’t understand folks who think Kinkade is christian art. I understand he evokes a warm fuzzy feeling, but so my point in my first post, art with a christian world view must include the bad and the ugly too because we see those things in the Bible too, plus it’s the reality of human beings.

  • RJS

    D. Michael Lindsay in his book Faith in the Halls of Power has an enlightening discussion of the relationship between evangelicalism and the arts – and the opinions of evangelical artists.

    One of the biggest problems for the evangelical subculture is that it discourages creative freedom for the artist. Erik Lokkesmoe, founder of Brewing Culture, a faith based organization that supports the artistic world, refers to this as soggy material. He writes “Do we really want art that never challenges our convictions, wrestles with our beliefs, or questions our faith? Let’s not forget: beauty is hardly safe, truth is never tame, goodness is anything but trite.” Because the evangelical subculture values “safe” content, anything deemed “unsafe” gets little support, even if it is produced by evangelicals. p.124

    Fits nicely with yesterday’s post on Smileys…
    Good art – creative art – is always a little dangerous, and this will not get a good reception in much of our evangelical community. There are many reasons why people struggle with faith – but I think this active opposition – because it goes beyond lack of acceptance in many groups – plays a significant role. Peer pressure and finding acceptance in other communities also plays a role.

  • RJS

    Oh – and the quote and discussion in Lindsay’s book only echoes what BeckyR has already said above.

  • Doug Allen

    Let me give this one a try…generalizations that are mostly true of the evangelicals that garner the most publicity (TV and radio E’s for instance) and less true of the emergent sort-
    Artists value imagination and new or original interpretations.
    Religious doctrine is old interpretation.
    Artists tend to be nonjudgmental. E’s tend to be judgmental.
    Artists value imagination and freedom of thought. E’s promote predigested thought that excludes (and damns) those who don’t have the same understanding as the E’s.
    Artists value stories/music/art which evoke interpretations based on the life experience of the reader/viewer/listener. E’s promote one size fits all.
    Artists are wired to think with metaphor, symbol, theme, story. E’s usually seem to think literally.
    Artists are experimenters. E’s are often threatened by experimentation.
    Artists often feel underappreciated and identify with the marginalized. E’s often seem to be more concerned with legalisms than with suffering and injustice.
    As a writer and poet, but with a lot of science in my background, I find the literal interpretations of the bible offensive to my common sense and especially to my sense of metaphor, symbol and story. I find way too much emphasis on defending boundaries and legalisms and way too little on love. I find many E’s just don’t get it. I suppose they feel the same about me.

  • Tom

    Very encouraging thread. Thank you all.
    Seems like most here make two important points (explicitly and/or implicitly):
    1. Folks with highly creative vocations or world views often don’t feel comfortable with most current versions of American evangelicalism.
    2. This thread would probably never happen as conversation or discussion in the vast majority of real life evangelical churches. Thank God for blogs and the remarkable creativity of the people who came up with the world wide web.
    I think that last point says everything that needs to be said about why especially creative types often avoid or eventually leave evangelical churches.
    I’ve often thought that Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful book ‘The Mind of the Maker’ says so much about this topic. She tries to illuminate the Trinity by using the artistic creative process as a kind of metaphor for God and for all human vocations. Hard to imagine that book being written now in the belly of our current conservative American religious beast. But with God’s always up to something new, so you never know….

  • You know, I’m not really looking for MORE people to pile on Kinkade. Like I said, I see that all the time, and don’t necessarily disagree with the reasons (the ones cited here so far are certainly ones I’m familiar with). What’s worth discussing is the fact that lots of people do like his work. I don’t think this should be dismissed. There’s good here, too.
    To push back a little, although I certainly think that art should not be considered “non-Christian” for daring to tackle difficult subject matter (actually, I don’t think art can be considered “Christian” at all. People are, or aren’t, Christian. Art can be done by Christians, but the art is not “saved,” or has a faith of its own…), I think that there should be a “place at the table” for art that is beautiful, too.

  • cas

    Mark, You might find this treatment of Kinkade helpful:
    It begins:
    In 1980 Thomas Kinkade – the now-legendary Painter of Light™ – received a vision of Christ and was born-again. He renounced his depictions of dark landscapes and the destitute, and began painting cottages, gardens, and lighthouses, all glowing with light representing God’s presence. As he frequently explains, “when I got saved, my art got saved. The light came on.” 1 Believing God chose his art as a sort of ministry, Kinkade began mass-producing the images, hoping to save souls.
    Coverage in the press often skirts this religious dimension of Kinkade’s work. Although reports mention Kinkade’s Christian faith, they typically see his art as simplistic sentimentality or uncomplicated kitsch. Then again, save for a few images, most of Kinkade’s works lack overtly Christian content. Despite Kinkade’s insistence that he is a Christian painter, his religious art does not appear overtly religious.
    This paper uncovers the religious meaning in Kinkade’s art by considering the artist’s statements, viewer responses, and artistic antecedents against the work itself. While others contend that Kinkade offers a secular-based nostalgia with pseudo-religious qualities, this paper argues that Kinkade’s work merges missionary and mainstream marketing in order to convert evangelicalism into an all-consuming cultural identity. Kinkade’s work will be explained as a recent triumph in the maintenance of Protestant hegemony. …

  • Mike

    It sounds to me like the Christian view presented is a truncated one. I alternately masquerade my bondservant status with various artistic and creative endeavors. My degree was in the arts. Artists battle with their own self-image. It’s both a help and an enormous hindrance. Most of us struggle with the consequences of a relentless tug-of-war. It’s very hard to let go of this when you get saved. In Christ, this battle should end–we are no longer our own, we have been bought. Once you finally acknowledge that in your daily life, there’s a tremendous freedom. My take is that those who depart from the faith either haven’t experienced the freedom or can’t pry their fingers from running the show.
    I find it a bit odd that one thinks one would have to “Christianize” one’s artistic talent. Just do excellent work. Maybe some is to focused on ministry or religious things and you want to avoid scandalous art, but merely by doing one’s best glorifies God. A Secular/Christrian mindset sounds like a personality disorder.