I remember the mixed feelings of setting up the nativity scene at home for Christmas. My mum was always so excited that she made a special appointment for us every year, and she would come up with creative ideas on how to build up Joseph and Mary’s cave. As my twin brother and I grew up, she let us help her in making the river and the sky more realistic, or in better securing the angel so it wouldn’t fall from the mountain. One of my favorite parts was the task of carrying the magi figurines every day closer and closer to the manger. For my brother and me, it was a special time and we used to fight for the responsibility because it made the story so real.
But I mentioned that I had mixed feelings, and that is because my dad didn’t like this tradition of ours one bit. Every year I saw his face, filled with worry for us, keeping a distance from these plastic dolls as if they were something dangerous, as if somehow they would put us all in trouble. I couldn’t understand why he told us we shouldn’t focus our attention on the scene or the images, why he was so worried we would end up worshiping that baby plastic Jesus. I was shocked to hear him say so, and I kept asking myself: Why would I worship a plastic thing? I knew that was not Jesus.
I knew this, but I also knew that his anguish was real.
Years later at art school, we studied artists in history who illustrated and decorated churches since the early times of Christianity. As some of you know, in Spain, there are Catholic churches in almost every town. Many of these buildings are ancient, and whenever I went to visit one I admired with wonder all the artistic finery. I couldn’t help but connect my childhood memories, those marvelous structures, and the emptiness my local church seemed to have in comparison. Added to this, while I learned more and more history of my country, some of this imagery became loaded with the civil war memories, and the scars of war that as a country we are carrying still. So, yes. I still have mixed feelings of wonder, terror, and sadness.
But in the midst of it all, a question started to form in my head, as I struggled to cope what God was calling me to do and be, what I was learning of art, illustration, and painting, what my parents and church expected, and what society was telling me I should do. And that is: why and when did being an artist become something wrong in the church? Why and when did only certain forms of creativity become acceptable in the church? When did we start thinking imagination was a bad thing? When did we become afraid of images, of figures, of color and gold and wood and structures made in the divina proportione?
I study with nostalgia all those artists who were paid to portray the glory of God, artists who impacted their culture and led the thinkers of yesterday to make changes in their society. Like me, many artists today long to live into the call to creativity while keeping our core beliefs. It is not an easy task. We struggle to pay bills or maintain ourselves and receive little support from our churches. Many end up quitting; others have to leave. Then I look at the men and women who actually are influencing the culture with who they are and what they do, and I wonder: Where are the Christians, followers of Jesus, sons and daughters of the most high king, priests and priestesses, church leaders, missionaries, created in the image of God? Where are those who should be the light of the world and not be hidden under a bowl? And when did we forget the first revelation we received from God: that God is a Creator?
Since deciding to follow Jesus at the age of 19, I have wrestled with understanding what it means to be who God has called me to be: an artist in this world in need of his light and his colors. I struggle because I feel what the prophets sometimes described. I have a torrent in me that shakes my view of the world, that wants to come out, but I have often had to silence it because it has brought me nothing more than suffering and incomprehension from my family, friends, and church.
But I cannot be silent. This call to participate in God’s creative work in the world is like a fire burning in me and I know that I cannot not write. I cannot not paint. I cannot look at the world through creative eyes and suppress how God created me. I am filled with imagination. For so many years, I have been taught that this was a dangerous business. But God is filled with imagination too! The universe and everything in it springs from the voice of a creative God. And graciously, we are invited to join in this very creativity. If everything God created was good, how can imagination itself be a bad thing? Sin has made things complicated, yes. But if leadership offered in reverence to God and empowered by the Holy Spirit helps to build Christ’s church, then why not imagination?
How might the church and the culture be different if we empowered artists and their imaginations to speak to this generation? Why not empower, support, and free creatives to be who God called them to be to impact the world? The world needs it. And the crops are ready.
Today, I still sometimes feel misunderstood. I also must tell you that my dad continues to worry (a little less though) when my mum, my brother, and I build onto Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus’s cave. But what I also will tell you is that as I embrace my artistic call, I see and understand God in ways I never could have imagined. I understand God’s heart a little more. And my own heart bends toward the world and the church, praying that we could grasp how deep, how high, how vast is the love of the Father, how kind the Spirit, and how creative the gift and work of the Son.
Noemi Navarro is an artist and the Administrative Manager of RZIM Academy in Spanish at Fundación RZ in Madrid, Spain.