This world is full of all manner of different people, and we have a long history of dividing ourselves into arbitrary groups and using that as an excuse to dehumanize and abuse each other. It’s a tense area, and as artists, we’re particularly sensitive to that, and we long in our hearts to make the situation better, not worse. But doing so properly is a great challenge.

The world has created an ever-shifting mess of rules that define who is allowed to be inspired by which cultures and who isn’t, as well as who has the right to tell which stories and depict which groups. The world also tells us which groups must always be treated positively, which must always be treated negatively, and which are open to multifaceted depiction. Yet, we as Christians are not called to wander in an aimless attempt to please the world. We dance to the tune our Heavenly Father plays, and that means we don’t look to the world for answers. Instead, our answers come from a higher place.

When I read the New Testament, I read about a kingdom determined to break down the barriers between people so that God’s love can flow through. Colossians 3:11 describes the Kingdom of God with the words, “Here, there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” The divisions the world is so obsessed with don’t matter in the Kingdom. We flout tradition and reach across societal barriers, and the tools we use are love and understanding.

Love is what should be driving you as an artist. If you love another culture, you’re in a position to convey what you love to the culture you come from so they can share your appreciation. If you love a person or a group of people, they’ll naturally find their way into your art, where you’ll depict them such that the audience sees them more like God does.

Conversely, I would caution artists against depicting people they hate. Artists can portray their subjects with extreme negativity. Many of the prophets in the Bible did so at God’s command, and Jesus Himself portrayed the Pharisees unflatteringly in His stories. But that criticism comes from a place of love; the artist sees what the subject could be and so awakens them to how far short they’ve fallen in hopes that they turn to God and become what they were made to be. And yet, I can think of examples of so-called Christian art where that love was not apparent, where a desire to get across a certain message led to a story where unbelievers are portrayed as cardboard cutout villains. And there’s no excuse for that.

Knowledge is also key in who you depict. Writers are told “write what you know.” Now, that’s not to say your art can’t incorporate the fictional or fantastic. In fact, that is often our job as artists, for we are gifted to see possibilities that don’t yet exist. But we also have the ability to see reality for what it is. Artists have a passion to take a closer look at reality than others do, to break it down and see it from every angle so we can depict it in realistic detail. Someone who draws people will learn anatomy as well as any surgeon, and someone who writes songs will examine the depths of their heart with more intensity than any psychiatrist could manage. As a storyteller, I’m constantly studying people, how they think and act, so I can depict a variety of characters in my stories and do so with accuracy that draws the reader in rather than stereotypes that push them away. But a mixture of cockiness and laziness can cause the artist to get sloppy in their observations. And when that carelessness is applied to depicting God’s beloved children, you have a recipe for insidious slander.

So, the next time you’re considering putting people into your artwork, consider whether you are doing so from a place of knowledge or ignorance. Consider whether you are doing so with love in your heart or hatred. And, finally, make sure that every person you portray is shown in the same light Jesus would show them in, to the best of your ability, even if the person you’re portraying is yourself.

Cameron Miller, writer
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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