Art is Fundamental
“There has to be a better way to love God and feel free.”
- Esther, Paradise Recovered
Throughout my life, I have been lucky to meet some incredible artists. Art runs in my family--my father was a successful baseball muralist, and one of my great-uncle artists (there were more than one) was a Disney illustrator for a few films including Fantasia and Snow White and The Seven Dwarves.
My first job as a teenager was an art gig at our local zoo and conservatory; I worked with the facility's artist in residence for more than four years.
After high school, I was determined to use my love for the arts to express my love for God. Back then, I was a conservative Christian--or at least, I tried to fit into that bubble in which I was raised--and I felt that art was fundamental to our faith. I enlisted in an internship for Teen Mania Ministries, and after going through their "Gauntlet" of military-inspired drills, training and testing, I was assigned to the New Business Department which oversaw the ministry's record label, ATF Music, along with a few other website projects.
It was there at the internship that I confirmed my love for all things artsy and creative. I was painting and writing up devotionals for the website and copy for the marketing team. I coordinated talent fairs and worked with a number of young artists who are still making incredible art today. Someone handed me a band demo for a band named Blyss and I tried to connect with them for a good month until it was discovered that Dreamworks had recently signed them on under the name Lifehouse.
It should have been an exciting and joyful time in my life as a young person. Instead, I wound up sad, empty, and depressed. As my intern year wrapped up, I had plans to stay on a second year and become a "lifer" as some did. Yet I found myself mentally and spiritually exhausted, so I dropped out of the Graduate Intern "Road" (essentially hazing) I was on and returned home once my year was done.
There's something so overwhelming about facing depression or mental illness in a conservative Christian setting. Even worse when you're being spiritually abused. But most young people have no idea how to recognize it.
I didn't know. When I went to my developmental instructor to tell her what I was going through, she blamed all depression on unresolved sin. So of course, I felt broken and ashamed. I trudged through the rest of my time there and tried not to think much about it in the end.
When I left the ministry, there was a distinct creative block. I couldn't write or paint like I used to. I couldn't even cry. I felt used up and broken, but I didn't really know why.
It turns out I wasn't the only lost alumnus.
Over the years, I stayed in touch with former interns, including many artists. As years passed, more alumni began to tell their stories, and more of us began to understand we'd been through spiritual abuse. I began writing for a blog about downsides of the Teen Mania experience, and was exposed to a good deal of art surrounding the concept of deconversion.
Some of my alumni friends became atheists, and many others demolished their foundation of faith to begin a new spiritual path. Through this network, I got to know the makers of Paradise Recovered.
Paradise Recovered is an independent film released in 2012 that follows a fundamentalist believer’s journey to freedom. Watching the film helped remind me just how much art matters in our healing, and I began to find my artistic self once again.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is at the heart of story, though here it is a church that has robbed our victim and left her for dead through spiritual abuse.
It's a film that has long resonated with me since I held the same blind faith for Teen Mania Ministries and bought into the legalism of the internship and conservative, fundamental Christianity.
Anyone who’s been through what we former interns went through with The Honor Academy and Global Expeditions can find something of their voice in this film. I’m sure of it.
As will most anyone who’s experienced any other type of spiritual abuse.
I am a firm believer in the healing power of art. There is something about the act of creation that taps into a hidden consciousness.
Art is fundamental because it allows us to assign a more tangible form to our ineffable emotions—the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Enjoying art created by others is a natural extension of this healing.
I spent practically all of my twenties in confusion and terror of losing my salvation, like an ocean wave constantly crashing back and forth from The World on one side and The Law on the other. That sort of tempestuousness left me with a battered and tormented soul.
I wouldn’t wish such distress on anyone.
Paradise Recovered ably captured that internal storm, and I admit that even now it reminds me my healing is not complete. Not quite.
Much like the film’s protagonist, Esther, I am still challenging my former prohibitions. Even now at 36, I test the waters and engage in things I used to believe (or was told) are wrong. Not to be rebellious or get away with something, but to work out the meaning of my faith. Whatever that might be. For now it's TBD.
I do things now to better understand what my faith looks like in action, and more fully explore love, to enjoy my freedom.
Initially, freedom for me meant dipping a toe in a long list of supposedly evil things: Like using profanity and simply saying OMG. Drinking alcohol or practicing yoga. Learning about Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. Getting acupuncture. Studying open theism. Attending the church of a previously blacklisted pastor who doesn't believe in hell. Allowing myself to hear or make sexual jokes. Reading books with liberal views on sex and the Bible. Dating people who would have been off-limits in the past because they are not Christian.
Perhaps I’ll take a cue from Esther’s story and go skinny-dipping one day. The point is that my future is open, because I’m no longer willing to let other people tell me what to think and how to live. I'm not nothing without my faith. I'm still searching, and I don't believe there's anything wrong with that anymore.
What strikes me most about Paradise Recovered is the way in which a non-believer helps guide a Christian into freedom. I’m kind of jealous of these fictional characters. I think about how amazing it would have been to have not been alone for so long with my own recovery. To have had a friend who'd helped guide me to live so freely.
I then consider the parable of The Good Samaritan and I ponder the roles that I have played, as well as my future part. Who do we want to be in the story? I’m not talking about labels of religious beliefs. I’m talking about action and love. Each person who has suffered abuse under the guise of godliness—all need healing and freedom, just like Teen Mania survivors. Will you stop for them? Will you inconvenience yourself to help set another person free?
Many offer help to the wounded, but do so with an agenda. They may seek to win a soul for the kingdom. They may confront a person with guilt or obligation and coercion. They may point out sin and faults, calling it love. Yet if God’s Love is pure Love, it must be is all about freedom. Free will. Free choice. Non-violence.
Real Love allows for questions, discussion and doubt. True Love does not seek to connive or convince or obtain a certain result beyond the act of loving.
Paradise Recovered demonstrates God’s Love as something not limited to those who call themselves Christian. Love is not owned by those who uphold the Teen Mania standard. And the Honor Academy leadership was not full of experts in the art of loving. The same goes for any religious group.
For religious cult survivors, that is a huge realization. Being able to see goodness and love in the secular world is a significant step to freedom.
My hope is that it is a part of your freedom as well.
And art? Art is something that can help bring healing and bridge the gaps across every religious divide. Which figures, because art is fundamental.