Seeking entertainment and inspiration, Americans invest significant time and money in the fine arts. But are the arts inspired by God? While the visual arts, dance, theater and music appeal to the emotions, do they also resonate with the spirit? And can we also find God's grace in the art world?
Answering these questions with a resounding "yes," two unique Christian artists—Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura and Ballet Magnificat founder and artistic director Kathy Thibodeaux—have made it their life mission to integrate their gift for the arts with their belief in the sacred.
Painter Makoto Fujimura
Painter, author, speaker and "culture shaper" Fujimura dedicates his life to making art, and his art to the One who made him.
"I tell people all the time that my life is proof that God exists, and He is an artist," Fujimura said in a phone interview from his studio. "That I have been able to make a full-time living as an artist most of my life is an absolute miracle. I get to do something that is considered somewhat useless to society—create beauty—and God has sustained me and my family all this time."
Fujimura was born in Boston but spent much of his childhood in Japan. He found himself drawn to art from the time he was young, and his parents encouraged his creativity, an attitude he calls "unusual" for an Asian family. Fujimura returned to the U.S. when he was 13, and in middle school, a substitute teacher made a comment that, unknowingly, laid the groundwork for the artist's life's calling. After observing a painting done by Fujimura as an adolescent, the teacher asked, "You can't waste God's gift, can you?"
Although Fujimura was not raised in a religious family, the teacher's words struck a chord. The artist says he always felt his ability was a gift, an unexplainable force that expressed itself through him.
"I didn't know it was God," Fujimura says. "I didn't know what to call it. I thought everybody had this experience, of something glowing through you like electricity. I feel that way in the studio still. It's like it's not yours but something happening right in front of you that's so miraculous every time."
An artist and a scholar, Fujimura went to college in Pennsylvania and studied literature and the Bible in addition to his art. He went back to Japan and became the first non-native to participate in the Japanese painting doctorate program that dates back to the 15th century. Throughout his studies, he learned about God but did not accept Christ as his Savior until his mid-20s.
"My wife had a real renewal experience after we got married," Fujimura says. "We went to Japan for me to study, and her spiritual searching really affected me. We ended up at an interdenominational church in Tokyo with some missionaries, and that's when I heard about the Lord."
Fujimura chose to follow Christ and was baptized in 1986. As a result of his newfound faith, he says his artistic works also underwent a transformation.
"Everything changes," he says. "When you fix your gaze upon Jesus, your whole vantage point changes, why you do the things you do, what you're looking at, how you love the materials you are using. Things change not just in one area but in everything you do."
Fujimura's works, which often fuse abstract expressionism with the ancient Japanese art of Nihonga, have been displayed in galleries around the world. The artist has become a renowned speaker and writer, lecturing at prominent universities such as Yale and Princeton. In 1992, he founded the International Arts Movement (IAM) and established the Fujimura Institute in New York City in 2011 to encourage collaboration among "artists and thinkers."
The American Academy of Religion named Fujimura the organization's 2014 Religion and the Arts award recipient, and in fall 2015, he was asked to join Fuller Theological Seminary as director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts. Fujimura's goal is to "be part of a process of integrating theology, worship and the arts in a way that the world will rejoice in," he says.
"A lot of universities have abandoned theological inquiries," Fujimura says. "They are trying to solve problems without the narrative that allows them to believe that theology can be counted. Part of our effort is to re-inject the theological back into poetry, the arts, the sciences. When you offer this point of integration, people find themselves kind of having this awakening experience.
"We are to make things on this Earth, and that is somehow connected very mysteriously to the world beyond. We are artists of the kingdom regardless of what we are doing."
Fujimura says his writings, his speaking, his appointments and his business all come from the Lord.
"I can tell you for sure that all of these things are not from me," Fujimura says. "I am a very high introvert. I do not like to be on stage in front of anybody, and now I speak to very large audiences. But all of a sudden God presents an opportunity, and I pray, 'Lord, if you want me to do this, I'm willing; but Your will be done.' I have learned to be obedient."
Fujimura feels he was created with a gift of "reconciliation," of bringing together faith, beauty, creativity and people of all walks, beliefs, generations and backgrounds in ways that mesh rather than clash.
"Being a culture shaper is just being faithful to the call God has given you," Fujimura says. "If you are faithful, you are shaping culture. In all of the work we do, we should feel as though we are a conduit connecting heaven to Earth with that movement happening through the Holy Spirit."
Fujimura admits there is significant darkness in the arts today, but he strongly believes Christians should not turn away from art because of that darkness. Instead, they should appreciate both the beauty and the brokenness. His 2014 book is called Culture Care, and he speaks often on the need to bring faith back into the culture rather than turning away from it.
"In the art world, people actually admit to their darkness, their brokenness," he says. "That is what is so beautiful about it. Artists are often so candid and authentic; they don't deny their brokenness. In art, there is no pretension that it is solving the problems. It is just an honest place, and I actually enjoy that openness. God cares about us deeply in the very brokenness where we are."
Fujimura says God has given him the gift of evangelism, and he loves artists' willingness to ask hard questions.
"One of the greatest joys of my life (is) to see God's grace move in the eyes of broken people like me," he says. "It's not our work; it's God's work and the Spirit's work. I am just there to be available."
Fujimura says artistry, creativity and beauty should be important to people because we are the creative expression of the ultimate Artist.
"If you are not blown away by the very nature of how things work, then there is something wrong because the spirit is just allowed to sing with the ultimate Artist," Fujimura says. "He created you and designed you, and I think that's why there is something very transformative about the gift of art and transparent to what is going on inside the soul. This is what connects us to worship. Art is a very powerful way to show the beauty of God to the world."
Ballerina Kathy Thibodeaux
Ballet Magnificat founder and artistic director Kathy Thibodeaux grew up dancing. As a girl from Mississippi, she also grew up in the church but quickly found out many churchgoers didn't believe God approved of ballet. Yet Thibodeaux felt as though her ability to dance was bigger than herself. She knew it was a gift.
"I think it's every girl's dream to be a ballerina when they grow up," Thibodeaux says.
Her dream came true. She was taught by a couple who had danced with the American Ballet Theater, and she worked hard at her craft, training for hours daily.
"I kept studying all through my teenage years, and dancing became the god in my life," Thibodeaux says. "I had kind of grown up going to church, but I didn't really know Jesus as my Lord and Savior. Dance took His place in my life. I thought dancing was going to make me happy."
Thibodeaux achieved what few young women do. As a teen, she went to New York City in the summers to study. Soon she began to dance professionally. She had reached the top, but she wasn't satisfied. At 19, Thibodeaux met her husband-to-be, Keith. The two fell in love and married quickly, and it was Keith who introduced the young dancer to a real relationship with Christ.
"He started telling me about Jesus, and I thought, being from the South, I was already a Christian," Thibodeaux says. "But I didn't know what it meant to have Jesus as Lord of my life. By grace, I was able to surrender my life and gift of dance."
Thibodeaux had peace with dance but soon began running into many Christians who didn't. In the 1980s, Thibodeaux found herself under scrutiny by many believers.
"I had Christians all around telling me I could not dance anymore because being a Christian and dancing don't go together," she says. "But when I sought the Lord and what He had for me, I felt like He had given me the gift of dance and didn't want me to bury it. I wanted to lift up and praise His name with dancing to glorify Him."
Thibodeaux was dancing professionally in Mississippi, but when her contract came up for renewal, she and her husband felt God was calling her to leave the company. The couple stepped out in faith and began praying about starting a Christian ballet company, something they had never even heard of, let alone know how to undertake.
"We had never heard about other people dancing for Jesus and did not know what that was going to look like, but we knew we wanted to do it," Thibodeaux says.
When she left the ballet company, the decision made the newspapers, and a local university called and offered the couple office and studio space to help get their new venture started.
She only knew one other Christian who was a dancer.
"I called him and told him what we wanted to do," she says. "He gave me a number for another dancer, and I called her and told her about the vision for Ballet Magnificat. She said, 'I'm coming.' We didn't know her. She didn't know us, but we had the same vision."
Word got out about the little dance company that could, and Ballet Magnificat began to grow.
"We started in 1986 with just a handful of dancers who had the same vision," Thibodeaux says. "We had to practice, perform, book our own shows, address envelopes and mail them to different churches. We did it all with just that handful of dancers who came without a promise of any kind. We had no money for salaries. In the beginning, we would go to a church, and they'd give us a couple-hundred dollars, and we'd say to each other, 'OK, who has a need?' And we'd sort of split up any money we received that way. God just provided. We got to see Him work, see His miracles time and time again."
The company started traveling in a minivan to regional churches. They brought a home stereo system and performed for the Lord wherever He opened the door.
"People said, 'This won't work,'" Thibodeaux says. "But we've been going almost 30 years now. We are here only by the grace of God, and He has blessed us more than we ever thought possible."
Today, Ballet Magnificat has two professional companies that travel internationally. The studio operates a well-known school of the arts, and dancers from across the nation come to the Jackson, Mississippi-based company to train. They choose about 40-42 dancers annually, and some go on to the touring companies.
Ballet Magnificat has about 50 paid employees, including office staff and dancers. Its companies perform at churches, auditoriums and other venues. To make ends meet, Ballet Magnificat relies on honoraria and offerings from performances as well as on monthly donations. God has always provided.
"We say we're a miracle, that only by His grace, we're still here," Thibodeaux says. "Our prayer is always that we would decrease and He would increase. It is definitely our desire that God would get all the glory."
Thibodeaux says the influence of the Holy Spirit pervades the ballet company, from the administrative and business decisions to the way the company chooses and choreographs its shows. One powerful performance called The Hiding Place re-enacts the story of Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom.
"We couldn't do it without the Holy Spirit, for sure, and we wouldn't want to try to do anything on our own without the Holy Spirit giving us direction and understanding," Thibodeaux says.
She says Christians need to understand that dance and the arts can reach a place in people's spirits that reasoning sometimes cannot.
"It is hard to explain, but it transcends speaking," Thibodeaux says. "When we dance, we are speaking with our whole body, soul and spirit to express our love for the Lord. God says if we lift Him up, He will draw all men to Himself. As we are in Him, He does the work in people's lives."
Natalie Gillespie is an award-winning author, editor and speaker. She lives with her family in St. Petersburg, Florida, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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