Marlita Hill is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, author – and much more – based in Los Angeles. We had the pleasure of talking to her about some foundational questions around her practice and approach to the worlds of faith and the arts.
Part two of this interview will be posted shortly.
Jonny Mellor: Hi Marlita. Could you introduce yourself to Sputnik’s illustrious readers?
Marlita Hill: Hello Sputnik! Thank you for having me. My name is Marlita Hill and I am a choreographer and author. I have a program called the Kingdom Artist Initiative that mentors professional artists of faith in building a healthy, undivided relationship between their faith and art career. I also produce a podcast called The Kingdom Art Life and in January, I published my third book, Defying Discord: Ending the divide between your faith and “secular” art career.
JM: There is an ongoing conversation about faith and art in the church at the moment, and in the UK at least it seems to be gaining some momentum. While this is good, I sometimes find that people are missing each other in this conversation and it can lead to churches supporting some forms of creativity, but at the same time actually alienating artists. I’ve found it helpful the way you frame this conversation to bring clarity to the different aspects of faith and art – could you share some of your thoughts on this?
MH: In the faith and art conversation, I believe it is important for us to recognize that when we say ‘artist,’ we are speaking to a remarkably diverse group of people – who are involved in different forms of art, who function in different contexts, who make art for different reasons and different audiences, who are in different seasons in their art life and have different needs. The artists in our churches have different experience levels, different expectations, and different ways they desire to be cared for and supported.
When we don’t acknowledge all this difference, we end up alienating artists. And while it is impossible for any one organization to serve all the needs of such a diverse group of people, acknowledging this diversity can help us approach the infrastructures we build to serve and support artists through a more inclusive lens.
JM: Not only are the arts often misunderstood in churches though, they are often simply not valued. Why do you think this is?
MH: I believe that the undervaluing of the arts in the church is due to several factors: value and usefulness, personal conviction and comfort level, and capacity.
In the local church, there’s generally a three-pronged focus: worship, evangelism, and doctrine. The church readily embraces activities and expressions that directly serve these three areas. Because they are where the focus lies, most everything that is done in church is a means to these three ends. And with that, usefulness becomes the measurement for value. So, if your activity is not a clear means to those three ends, the church struggles to find them useful. In struggling to find them useful, they struggle to find them valuable. If they have no usefulness and therefore no value, then the question becomes why should we engage with it?
Most everything that is done in church is a means to worship, evangelism, and doctrine.
This raises a question; because some artists of faith engage in their art in ways that do directly serve those three areas. They want to partner with the church in serving the congregation, using their art to lead and engage people in worship, to help illuminate Scripture, and to share the Gospel and make Christ known. Why, then, doesn’t the church embrace them? That, I believe, is where we get into the other two factors.
Personal conviction and comfort level.
Despite the presence of creativity and artistry in the Bible, and despite there being evidence that God communes with His people in and through the arts, there are those church leaders that simply don’t agree and don’t see the arts as a suitable activity for the church. They don’t see the arts as a credible medium for facilitating or engaging in the worship experience and spiritual growth.
Or, they only see certain artforms as credible mediums. Dancers face this a lot. Where pastors are comfortable having musicians and visual artists active in their churches, they are not comfortable with a dancer. Actors are only acceptable for Easter and Christmas plays. Even with musicians, only certain instruments, musical forms, and even musical notes are acceptable in different congregations.
But this has nothing to do with the artist. And it has nothing to do with God. Still, we both are subjected to the comfort levels of those in leadership.
There is the reality that you need infrastructure to incorporate any activity in the church, including the arts. Some church leaders don’t believe they have the capacity (time, resources, know-how, space, etc) to include the arts in their congregational life. Of those, some view the arts as a nice addition if it’s convenient; but it’s not a priority so there is never any real motivation to find a way to make it possible.
Very few artists are ever included in planning and infrastructural conversations, so their possibilities to contribute are never heard
Also, it rarely seems to occur to leaders that their artists are very capable of expanding that capacity when they are empowered to do so. Very few artists are ever included in planning and infrastructural conversations, so their possibilities to contribute are never heard. As leaders feel like they already have much on their plate, it is much easier to exclude the arts than it is to take the time to work through how they can be made an integral part.
JM: Coming back to your own experience, how do you think your own art life has deepened your relationship with Jesus? What have you learnt about God that you wouldn’t have done if you’d never been a dancer?
MH: My life as an artist has been an integral part of my relationship with God. In fact, I’ve gotten to know Him as I’ve pursued this life in dance.
There are two huge things I’ve learned that have liberated my relationship with Him. The first thing I learned is that the church’s way of seeing and interacting with me as an artist is rarely representative of the way God sees and interacts with me. I learned not to try to understand how God thought about me as an artist through the church. I had to get that straight from Him. I love the church. I appreciate the church. But I also understand they don’t often know how to care for me.
The second huge thing I learned is that God is not in relationship with me because I’m useful to Him. Nor is He in relationship with me because my gifts are useful to Him. He is in relationship with me because He loves me, and He has gifted me as an expression of His love.
I have learned that He gave me art for my life, not just my Christian service. My art is something He’s given me to engage with, and take space in, this world. He gave it to me to shape and form me. He gave it to me to release and receive. He gave it to me to commune with Him, to learn about Him and learn from Him. He gave it to me to enjoy.
I’ve learned that there’s not one thing about my artist-ness that I have to apologize for. I’ve learned that He takes great pleasure in it and gives me so much liberty to live in all the fullness of these things He’s gifted me to do. And this is what I hope to help other artists experience from their relationship with Him.
Read more about Marlita Hill’s work at marlitahill.com.