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Finding God in Modern Art


I took a semester’s worth of art history classes at Mizzou ranging from the Renaissance all the way up through the 19thcentury. I found art history to be a fascinating way to think about philosophical ideas about God, humanity, and what matters in life—but in pictorial form. And it wasn’t only an intellectual exercise. I found myself religiously and emotionally moved seeing the art of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt.

Seeing ideas depicted in art invites me to feel or experience that truth, not just intellectually assent to it. 

The class I intentionally did not take? Modern Art.

My impression of Modern Art was what many say about it: "I don't understand it," "My kid could paint that," or "Can't we make that painting say whatever we want?"

Modern Art also seemed bent on destroying beauty, order, goodness, meaning, and religion along with it: Duchamp signing his name on a toilet and presenting it as art; Picasso turning his wife or lover into a horrific set of geometric shapes; Jackson Pollock just dripping paint on a canvas.

It seemed ugly and meaningless to me. Much of it still does.

Over the past several years though, I’ve tried to understand more about what Modern Artists were trying to do. While I’m still drawn to the art of the past, I’ve learned to appreciate and—dare I say—be religiously moved by some Modern Art.

After all, some Christians saw Modern Art techniques as way to express their Christian faith in new ways.

Three keys to understanding Modern Art:

  1. Modern Art is directed towards you feeling or experiencing rather than understanding.
  2. While most Modern Artists are capable of classic artistic techniques, they choose to use new techniques and styles they think better emote or pull you into an experience.
  3. No matter how simple the arrangement, the vast majority of Modern Artists have put an immense amount of thought into their work.

Why would Christian artists want to use Modern Art techniques? Can they be used to stir a religious experience?

Van Gogh wanted to showcase the dignity of human beings without using a halo, so he intensified the color:

“I’d like to paint men or women with that indefinable something of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.”

Van-Gogh_Joseph-RoulinVan Gogh, Joseph Roulin

Van Gogh also made you feel the awe and joy of creation with large, swirling brushstrokes of bright, joyful colors, which evokes something a realistic image doesn’t.

Van-Gogh-Wheat-Field-with-CypressVan Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses

Georges Rouault and Emil Nolde used expressionist painting techniques to make you feel the misery that humans wreak by our sin.

Georges-Rouault-MiserereGeorges Rouault, “Miserere”

Abstract art is sometimes the most difficult for Christians to appreciate. No human figures. No items from the real world. Just forms, shapes, colors…sometimes patterns, sometimes not. Some Modern Artists used this style to make viewers feel the world as a godless amoral purposeless chaos. But others strove to create an experience with spiritual realities that can’t be easily represented.

Makoto Fujimura, a Christian artist explained why he uses abstract techniques:

“Often I am asked about the abstract nature of my works. People see abstraction as esoteric and/or evasive, considering ‘real’ art to be works done in a realistic style. My answer to their inquiries tends to be more experiential. I preface my comments by saying, ‘Actually, we experience abstraction all the time. Fireworks, sunsets, and music (especially jazz and classical) are all abstract. And, I add, ‘My works are not pure abstraction, but they are re-presentation of the mysteries of Reality.’”

Makoto-Fujimura-Charis-KairosMakoto Fujimura, “Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)”

Perhaps, there is something more spiritually beneficial in Modern Art than we might initially think.


Artistic excellence helps us focus on God. Spectacle takes the focus of God. So where's the line when it comes to technology in modern worship? Crossing pastor Patrick Miller considers church history and biblical imagery to answer this question.