It’s easy to find stories of the church and the arts not quite ‘clicking’. It was refreshing, then, to come across the story of Hopera church in Rome, where a group of contemporary artists recently came to faith and joined the church.
To find out where things went right, we spoke to church leader René Breuel, singer Serena Ansidoni, and her husband Luca Papa, a contemporary theatre/art director.
Jonny Mellor: René, how do church and the arts intersect for you?
René Breuel: Before going into how church and the arts should intersect, let me give you the background for my outlook, because I can appreciate the arts both as a pastor and as a writer-artist. I planted a church in Rome six years ago, and I have written a non-fiction book, a memoir, a screenplay for the Italian cinema, and various blogs and articles.
In my view, the arts are at the heart of our mission as Christians. As co-creators with God, and stewards of his garden (Genesis 2), we are called to develop the potentialities of creation and manifest God’s vision for the flourishing of humanity through our culture-making. The Bible story starts with a garden and ends with a garden-city, where the best of human cultures is redeemed and included.
In the meantime, we are called to be storytellers that point to God’s grand story through our lives, words, and works of art. Our witness gains vigour, beauty and nuance when we use song, images and stories to communicate it.
JM: Did you plant the church in Rome with artists in mind, or did that develop over time?
RB: We started our church in Rome’s university neighbourhood, seeking to integrate our faith to all walks of life. Artists were not our exclusive focus but were among the people we hoped to serve. So the early seeds were there, but over the years I grew up in my vocation as a writer, and the church welcomed a number of artists, who brought a lot of life to the community. So we continue to grow in our use of the arts for worship, witness, and in our support of artists in their vocations in the city.
JM: Often in England, there can be an uneasy relationship between evangelical churches and the arts. Is this the case in Italy? How does the history of the church’s very active involvement in the arts affect how church responds to artists and artists respond to church?
RB: In Italy, as in other places, evangelicals have been eager to use the arts “at church,” especially in music, but have been suspicious of the arts “in the world.” The message artists often receive is that, now that they are Christians, they should produce “Christian art”, that is, art made by Christians for Christians, mostly in worship and conference settings.
“Churches: don’t be scared. The arts are a tremendous gift to faith communities. Artists stretch and enrich us.”
But we should encourage all kinds of art made by Christians, including those that do not explicitly address religious themes. We do not ask cooks and engineers to inscribe Bible verses on their food and buildings, after all! In the same way, artists can craft stories, songs and artefacts that address all kinds of themes. We may choose not to portray sin graphically or celebrate violence for its own sake, but our characters are sinful (we all are!), they are psychologically complex, and may end tragically, as our stories often do.
Luca Papa: I very much agree with René! The church sometimes demonizes what it does not know and is afraid to seek. The artist is by nature a researcher. I make art of protest, art that tries to shake hearts, tries to bring people to reflection. Originally I was focused on social issues but now my focus is on the search for truth.
My advice to churches would be: don’t close the doors to God’s infinite plan. Me and my wife’s conversion took place in the Canaries, during an artistic residence when a Christian took us to church so that we could hire actors for a project. This led us to a point where our whole lives were changed. If there had not been a willingness on the part of the pastor to welcome us for this purpose, I would not be here to talk about this.
JM: From your experience, what advice would you give church leaders seeking to make their church communities welcoming and nurturing homes for artists and creatives?
RB: First of all, don’t be scared. The arts are a tremendous gift to faith communities. Artists stretch and enrich us. Strive to understand them, even projects that sound enigmatic at first. They operate on different cultural horizons, maybe speaking to a niche audience. Artists may still be in development stages and be “trying to find their voice.” This process can be a bit messy but it is worth helping artists reach their potential and vision. Their words and stories will arrive in places where the “preached Word” does not arrive.
“To be a Christian artist is much more than working in a genre. It is to imbue a sensitivity, a quality of attention, into your work in any genre.”
Secondly, help artists think in a Christ-like way about their art but without putting them into boxes. For example, a songwriter who recently became a Christian told me that he now wanted to write Christian music. I encouraged him to do so – but to also write songs that are not worship songs or that may not be explicitly Christian. To be a Christian artist is much more than working within a genre. It is to imbue a sensitivity, a quality of attention, into your work in any genre.
Finally, celebrate them. Attend their concerts and exhibitions. Help spread the word. Let them showcase, say, their photographs or sculptures, at church settings. Quote from their work in your sermons. When artists find a church that embraces their vocations and values their work, they will feel at home.
Recently we organized an arts evening with food, music, dance and painting. A graphic novelist came for the first time. I asked her questions and complimented some of her samples, which were very good. Faith was something new to her, and I’m not sure if she’ll be back. But my sense is that she felt a bit at home.
Serena Ansidoni: We feel that we’ve been blessed in all this. My husband and I have had an extraordinary conversion and the churches we’ve been involved with have taught us to be disciples and always supported us in our art. The advice I would give would be to follow René’s example, making us feel welcomed and part of the whole, even in our “quirks” and exuberance, giving us our space without ever wanting to change us, but encouraging us to keep going, staying with us on our journey and advising us during the difficulties.
We know that an artist can have a very sensitive but, at the same time, complicated mind. The best thing churches can do is to make them feel accepted, understood, and involved in the church while giving them the right space to contribute with their gifts to the community.
Part two of this interview will be posted next week.