The art of telling the biblical narrative, at least to me, seems that it’s almost vanished. And so, being able to tell these stories… it’s like I have to.
–artist Kevin Rolly
Having grown up in the church and even studied theology and art in grad school, I’d all but given up on this question. It is what it is. For many of us, it’s not worth arguing about anymore. The culture wars are exhausting and painful for all involved.
But my old friend and now, colleague, won’t let me off the hook so easily. Kevin Rolly has been a fascinating exception to this rule. Film maker Steven Sproul recently completed a short documentary called “Within Darkness” to help us understand why – starting with his series, In the Time of the Judges.
Beauty and Darkness: The Book of Judges
Kevin, a passionate evangelical Christian, was reading Judges, one of the most dark and violent books of the Bible. Most of the stories from this book rarely surface in mainstream sermons, let alone Sunday School curriculum. But Kevin came across the story of Jephtha’s daughter, a beautifully visual and gut-wrenching story. He began to realize that the book of Judges is filled with epic drama – stories he felt still needed to be told.
So he began. He started with the photographs. He cast each part, gathered props, set the stage and had elaborate costumes created. “I can’t get away with bathrobes and bedsheets anymore,” he said in his interview with Sproul. “This thing had to be costumed. Props had to be in place. This thing had to look authentic. So I had to treat it more like Lord of the Rings than a church play.”
The Oilgraph Technique: Bringing Light Out of Darkness
Next he applied a technique he invented which he calls “oilgraphing,” applying a coat of black oil paint to the photograph, then rubbing away the oil in certain areas to draw the light out of darkness. The result is stunning. At times he draws the images out of the oil in front of a live audience, primarily in a church or worship setting.
The Evangelical Resistance
But Kevin hasn’t made his way into the Evangelical mainstream – at least not yet. Many within the church are very disturbed by what he does. He explains in Sproul’s documentary:
The greatest criticism I’ve had has come from inside the institutional church. I would say, even 100% has come from inside the church. This work just freaks them out because you see violence, you see sin, you see all these things. And it’s interesting because a lot of times, the things people would use as a scriptural criticism would be Philippians 4. They’d say ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely … think about such things.’ My [art] doesn’t line up with that.
But I say, the problem with that is ‘whatever is true.’ See, there’s the kicker. The problem is, truth isn’t pretty. Truth isn’t always beautiful. To not show the darkness with the light is really a lie. The resurrection needs the crucifixion, and the crucifixion needs the resurrection or both lose their significance.
Martin affirms this in her article – quoting Kemper Crabbe, a prolific writer on the subject of bad evangelical art, a self-professed evangelical, and Episcopal priest, “Evangelicals tend to disallow any portrayal of darkness, sin or evil in visual art but tolerate it in music and literature, I’ve observed. This is rarely if ever discussed in the church for some reason – as if it’s a foregone conclusion.”
She goes on in her own words, “The pink angel invasion portends seriously bad theology in Crabbe’s view. Refusing to grapple with unpleasant realities in art echoes shallowness elsewhere. We are ‘motivated by self-worship in pursuit of pleasure’ and in favor of ‘feel-good’ experiences…”
The Road Back from Denial
Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed a diverse community of art lovers embrace Kevin’s work for it’s honesty and boldness. And I know there are some within the evangelical ranks who appreciate this kind of bold-faced story telling as well. As Martin points out, there are many exceptions to the “bad evangelical art” rule. I’m confident that the tradition of telling the biblical narrative in the visual arts, I mean really telling it, hasn’t vanished quite yet. At least not if Kevin Rolly has anything to say about it.
Please take a moment to enjoy this 5 minute documentary by Steven Sproul, Within Darkness.