How an Apostolic Artist Can Survive a Liberal Arts Education (and Stay Apostolic)

College is not without its snares and pitfalls. Many people come out the other side with a head full of wacky ideals. But I’m of the belief that Apostolic Christians can make it work as long as they follow a few good principles.

Know Your Boundaries

I’ve always had an obsession with the arts (due, I’m sure, to the fact that my parents made a lot of music during my childhood and that my father produced and performed a lot of dramatic productions over the years). They permitted my involvement in a school play every now and then, as long as the content was wholesome and it did not conflict with church services. Ours was a principle-based home and I’m thankful for it, because it allowed me to practice using my Holy Ghost, my “feeler”, as Dad sometimes called it.

Ryan as Young Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (2010)
Ryan as Young Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (2010)

In college, I did a few Charles Dickens plays (that was about the only thing a Christian could be involved in). But I remember a turning point. It was a Sunday matinee. I didn’t like being pulled away from our afternoon church service (somehow this performance date had escaped me), and I remember some particularly flamboyant cast members being even more flamboyant than usual — aggressively so — and there was a lot of coarse language involved too. I finally turned and said, as respectfully as I could, “You know, I’m usually in church at this time on Sunday. I’d like to keep my sabbath in some way today. Would you mind keeping it down a little?”

I remember feeling dirty and compromised by association. I put on my tailcoat, sat down and turned to the mirror to tie my cravat. And something happened then. I looked in the mirror and said to myself — under my breath, but aloud — “This is it. I’m done.”

your walk with god is more than a checklist or event schedule – it’s a lifestyle!

After that, I didn’t do another play during my college years. You’ve got to know who you are going into college. You’ve got to be on a Godly trajectory and know your boundaries, or you may end up adopting the world’s value system.

Hone Your Craft

As I spat out the bones I was bound to find in a liberal arts education, you may be surprised to know that I also found plenty of meat. I was involved in a few plays, took marvelous writing courses and even dabbled in film. While I didn’t pursue acting as a profession, I learned so many practical elements about theatrical production — all of which I brought to the table when I wrote a passion play for our church. And we’ve got a director and stage manager with professional theatrical experience too. So our team is made up of people who’ve had secular training, then brought that knowledge back to the church to raise the bar. That play, which we’ve performed annually for nearly a decade, has impacted thousands in our community.

Production photo from “Christ and His Companions”

I’ve learned, though, that not everybody wants excellence. In some of my English courses, there were Christian writers who didn’t take criticism well. They’d say, “Well, this story is really for a Christian audience. You guys wouldn’t get it.” That, my friends, is the most disgusting cop-out ever. If what you produce has no appeal to an outsider, then you’re not being evangelistic with your gifts.

I believe there’s good writing and bad writing. Simple as that. I didn’t use the “God card” as an excuse to be lazy with my craft. I hounded my professors for six years. “Would you read this if you didn’t have to grade it? Could you see this on a bookshelf?” I even said to the MFA program director of Creative Writing, “Look, you know my values. Is this too preachy? Does it have appeal to people outside of my religious microcosm?” And each time I spoke this way to my professors, I only ever felt encouragement. They knew I cared deeply about getting it right. When I see all the bonnets, all the Amish romance novels in the Christian fiction section, I just think, “We can do better.”

Screenshot from Ryan's new short film, "Citizenship".
Screenshot from Ryan’s new short film, “Citizenship”.

In my senior Film Directing class, our professor encouraged us to work with writers, actors, etc., to pull our short film together. I went to him and said, “I’m planning on writing, storyboarding, directing, acting, and scoring it.” He laughed and said, “You won’t be able to do all of that.” Well, I did it. And at graduation, he walked up to my parents and said, “Your son had the best film in class.” I don’t say that to brag, but to encourage our readers. Too many Christians sell themselves short. You’ve got to decide you’re going to represent God well in all you do. Not just by keeping the content wholesome, but by tackling your craft with excellence. Study to show yourself approved, right? (2 Tim. 2:15)

So in college I learned something about craft, excellence and artistic merit. Then I said, “Okay, Christians! Let’s roll up our sleeves and bring our A-game! The devil doesn’t own the arts!”

Be Accountable to Your Authority

No matter where your path takes you, you must operate within the principles of the local church body. You can’t run off and be a free-agent. You’ve got to have a pastor to which you are accountable. Involve that person in your decisions, communicate about areas of struggle. During my college years, I lived with my parents and my father was my pastor, so I had a safe place to go at the end of the day. I talked with my parents about everything (the sociology class I walked out of because my professor showed a film with nudity, the girl who propositioned me). Um…yeah.

I was never really distracted by many of the temptations students struggle with in college. I was focused on graduating college with valuable skills. And that’s just what I did. And you can too if you stay principled, know your boundaries, and keep the lines of communication open with your pastor.

College has it’s obstacles and rewards. The same is true in Christian education. But I challenge you to see college as an opportunity to pursue and hone a craft or art form that you may not have the chance to explore otherwise. I am happy to say, I am now an English Lecturer at Urshan College, sharing what I learned from my own education and being the change I want to see in the Apostolic Church.