I have an art studio in a collective with a diverse lot of other artists. Every first Friday of the month, along with art galleries all across Fort Collins, we host an open house. Visitors can come by, have a cookie and a glass of punch and wander from studio to studio looking at our art.
Since I write icons it is pretty obvious that I am a Christian artist. I get a lot of different reactions to my work. Some people come into my space, ask me lots of questions, and sometimes talk about their own faith in little high-intensity blurts that will stay with me forever. Others are more wary, uncertain if my theology matches theirs – or, often, uncertain that the elders or pastors of their churches would approve of me. Still others are just curious about the art form itself, why I chose it and what it means to me.
The hardest question by far to answer, and I get asked this often by people who are not religious, is, “Why are you a Christian?” It’s awful. When someone directs that question at me I stutter and sweat, saying things that sound stupid, that I regret even as they are coming out of my mouth, while the people who asked stare at me blankly and finally wander away shaking their heads. The Holy Spirit does not take hold of my tongue and give me the right words – or any words at all, for that matter. I am left high and dry.
Ask me about the stories, on the other hand – why I wrote an icon of Jacob wrestling with an angel and depicted the angel as a whirlwind, or why I chose the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus – and I have no trouble answering at all. My eyes light up and my whole being is animated. I’ll tell a person anything they want to know, and I love every minute of it.
Is it, I have wondered, that I don’t myself know why I am a Christian? Maybe being a follower of Jesus is just an accident of birth – the tribe I was born into – the stories I learned as a child. Maybe I can’t say why I am a Christian because it doesn’t really matter.
After all, I do believe that Christianity is just one approach to God. Other households of faith have other treasures in their ways of understanding the Holy. Who am I to judge the relationships they form and their wisdom and work on behalf of the Mystery? Maybe I am not so much a Christian as a mystic who likes Christian stories.
It’s sort of appealing to think of it that way, truth be told. The religious right has hijacked Christian words and images to such an extent that it’s downright embarrassing to identify as a follower of Jesus. Knowing how my audience will hear the words, I am reluctant to speak them. Maybe being a sort of generic mystic makes more sense.
And yet, I have to say, I do have a personal relationship with Jesus. Isn’t that something? And that relationship isn’t to Jesus as Avatar or Jesus as prophet, but to Jesus as Son of Man. I pray to Christ, and so I have a relationship with him. It’s a deeply meaningful, intensely personal, satisfying and mystifying relationship. And what I learn within it always points me to God. So I have to say I am a Christian, through and through.
And that means I’m stuck with the stammering and the sweating, I guess. The people who are meant to know more about what being a Christian means to me will probably be those who stick around. They’ll probably be the ones who stay to hear my stories.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado