Christians in the Arts Panel: An Interview with Migueyli Rivera

Photo by Emily Lau

Photo by Emily Lau

This past Thursday, January 28th, a large group of students gathered in the Math Building on Columbia’s campus to hear about Christianity and the arts. Students entered the lecture hall to find the chalk boards clear of their typical dizzying array of equations, and instead saw four artists sitting on the raised platform at the front of the room. The event was facilitated by Columbia Faith and Action (CFA), a Christian ministry on Columbia’s campus, and hosted by Columbia College sophomore Migueyli Rivera. As the room filled to full capacity Rivera introduced the four guest artists: Andy Mineo, a Reach Records recording artist and music producer; Ben Cowan, a visual artist; Elias Popa, a visual artist and assistant curator at Waterfall Mansion Art Gallery; and Suleky Roman, an event promoter and planner. The event covered a wide range of topics, including the divide between Christian and secular art, how the label of “Christian” affects art, how God informs the creative process, and how Christianity shapes – if not restricts – art, among other relevant questions and issues.

Rivera prompted the artists to speak on the difficulties of being a Christian in the arts, and the panelists addressed the problems specific to their art forms. Mineo, a rap artist, spoke up first about the disadvantage of the “Christian label,” as he must constantly fight against the prevalent misconception that Christian rap is mediocre in comparison to mainstream rap. He commented that Christians are often poorly represented in today’s culture, and therefore having the distinction as a ‘Christian rapper’ can often hinder one’s popularity. Cowan, a painter, spoke up about how he often feels a “pressure to sanitize his artwork” by other Christians who might condemn him for the inclusion of something ostensibly secular. Artist and art curator Elias Popa weighed into the discussion, maintaining that profanity and nudity in art can often distract from the message, and therefore the artist should “scale it back” for the purpose of serving others. He argued that they are not inherently bad or against Christianity, but that there are limits to their uses. Mineo added that “Christianity is not the same as ‘family friendly,’” referring to how the Bible itself covers mature and difficult issues that are relevant to our daily lives. He summed up the struggle of appealing to both the mainstream and Christian crowd, stating, “When you walk in the middle, you get hit with stones from both sides.”

Highlighting a successful Christian singer and songwriter, Rivera showed a clip of Lauryn Hill’s speech when she accepted the 1999 Essence Award. Hill thanked God, testified of how He changed her life for the better, and spoke of how she wants to be a “servant” to the Truth. 1 Rivera then asked the panelists if Christian artists should be “unapologetically Christian in mainstream media.” Again, the artists elucidated the fine line that they must walk to engage both Christian and non-Christian audiences. Roman, an event planner, discussed how she must often be discreet about Christianity because it might turn people away from an event she is organizing. She did not advocate hiding her faith, but stated that she would not “decorate the club with crosses.” Popa added that one’s art “reflects one’s worldview,” which in his case is shaped by Christianity. He also commented that Christians should not “be afraid to make their stance known.” Cowan stated that his painting process informs him about his spiritual life, and that he can “tell the condition of the heart through paintings.” Andy also noted that “people want to see it [Christianity], not hear about it, but Christians often want people to state it. Thus, the panelists agreed that an artist need not be overt about being Christian, but that his or her faith will inevitably shine through their work. The art itself can oftentimes be more effective in sharing the Christian message than blatantly proclaiming that the work or artist is Christian.

Crown & Cross caught up with Rivera to talk about how she brought the insightful group of panelists together. The event was a culmination of months of planning and help from CFA ministry leader Yolanda Solomon. Below is the brief interview with Rivera:

Interviewer: How did you come up with the idea of organizing a Christian in the Arts Panel?

Rivera: I’m personal friends with Andy [Mineo]. I’ve been a fan for forever, and when I met him over the summer, I asked if he would be interested at talking at Columbia. He agreed, and we [Rivera and Solomon] had the idea of having an event, discussion, or talk that catered to artists in CFA. We were brainstorming what it would look like based on the panel discussion, Race and the Gospel, that happened last year. 2 So we began planning fall semester of 2015.

Interviewer: How did you end up selecting the rest of the artists on the panel?

Rivera: We wanted a really diverse panel. We thought about children’s authors, spoken word artists, and visual artists. I was really happy about getting Ben Cowan and Elias Popa. I know Suleyki [Roman] personally, and as an event planner, she offers a different perspective on the arts.

Interviewer: Why is the connection between Christianity and the arts important to you?

Rivera: There are a lot of creative people at Columbia, and there has not been much conversation between them and the church. My local church is very artistic, Suleky Roman goes to my church, and there are other people who are artists, rappers, etc., so I was embedded in that atmosphere. I came to Christ when I was about fifteen, and the first time I engaged with the Lord was through art and music. It was art and music that ministered to me. I listened to Andy’s songs in high school and that ministered to me.

Interviewer: Yes, the arts can be an evangelistic tool because it speaks to us in so many different ways, and it can be used to reach and change culture.

Rivera: Yes! I love expressing myself through writing and poetry. I was looking through my journal from about three years ago when I began walking with the Lord, and a lot of my poetry was inundated with the gospel. Whether you’re a Biology Major, a business or finance person, or whoever, the Lord can infiltrate your craft and living. Faith is not just relevant to art, but to every vocation. Everywhere you go, He will be with you, and His power manifests itself through every sphere.

Interviewer: Right. As Christians, the product of our labour, art included, might not need to be expressly Christian to honor God. What seems to matter most is the state of our hearts during the creation process. During the panel, Mineo and Cowan discussed the idea of “sanitized” Christianity – referring to the pressure on artists to keep their work G-rated. Could you expand on that a little?

Rivera: I was really glad that they brought that up. Because I didn’t grow up in the church, I wasn’t exposed to that sanitized Christianity, and then I went to church and saw that mentality present. But I feel like it is damaging to authenticity. In my walk with the Lord I say, “Lord I’m sorry I had this thought or that” and I’m honest. And I say, “God I am broken.” When people offer that sanitized Christianity, they are not offering an authentic view of God or ourselves.

Interviewer: What was the most meaningful moment for you during, before, or after the panel?

Rivera: Well, I was mad nervous. I’ve never really done any public speaking, and I’m usually behind the scenes serving. So the most meaningful thing for me was definitely the Lord’s hand in it, His orderly hand, and people encouraging me beforehand and afterward. Also, the quality of the conversation was amazing. I knew we were going to have a really good conversation but I didn’t expect or foresee the gems that would come out of the conversation. I was expecting the answers to be more friendly, but it was very real. It was raw. So the content of the talk was phenomenal, and it exceeded anything I could have expected. I was kind of overwhelmed, in a good way.

Interviewer: I agree, it was a really insightful discussion. Coming out of the event, what role do you see Christian artists having on Columbia’s campus specifically?

Rivera: The artists on campus that profess Christ haven’t been as visible as I would like them to be. I hope from this conversation, they can see these other artists serving the Lord, and perhaps make a short film about what it means to serve Christ on campus, or publish a poem, or something else. I really want to challenge the idea that Christian artists only have a voice in places like Crown & Cross. I wish there were more visibility of Christians on campus.

Interviewer: Right. Crown & Cross is a great platform for Christian artists, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the only one. There are so many opportunities at Columbia for students to showcase their art in both Christian and secular settings.

Rivera: I love that we’re having this conversation because I think that it circles back to this whole idea of the secular and sacred binary. But everything points to Christ, even the most mundane. It all points to the Lord somehow.

The panel discussion stimulated a lot of conversation that continued well into the night. It raised many important questions that could not be addressed in the allotted time. Hopefully, this dialogue can continue and encourage Christian artists to have a more active role in both the Christian and secular communities.

Notes:

  1. [Bassline!!!]. (2010, March 16). Lauryn Hill 1999 Essence Awards Speech [Video file] Retrieved from
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbTnMH5jph4.
  2. Link to Event Review of “Race and the Gospel Panel”: http://www.crowncross.org/2015/02/15/event-review-race-the-gospel-a-student-moderated-panel-hosted-by-cfa.