VIOLENT GRACE: How do we address controversial religious themes?


In 2016, Ed Knippers was invited to exhibit, Violent Grace, a collection of 9’x12’ oil paintings of biblical scenes in our gallery and sanctuary. The exhibit was designed to provoke the complex cultural and biblical perceptions we have of our bodies and explore how this impacts our understanding of The Incarnation. A controversial artist because of his use of the nude in a Biblical context, Knippers has had exhibited paintings destroyed, and shows closed because of public outcry. Yet, Knippers insists; “Heresy results when we try to minimize the presence or preeminence of the body and the blood. Yet even believers have become comfortable with our age as it tries to disembody reality. Physicality is messy; it is demanding and always a challenge to control.”

The exhibit featured a panel discussion, an interactive art making event (link to download) and a conversation series in our Sunday night worship gatherings. We spent time researching the way that museums and galleries have managed controversial exhibits and prepared by posting large placards with a description of the purpose for the exhibit as well as several articles written by the artist to give context to the work and its place in the gallery and in worship. We notified all arts partners and space users of the content of the artwork and invited them to share any concerns they might have. Many of the organizations cater to children and families and all have a diverse make up of faiths and perspectives. By taking time to show images and talk in advance, we were able to make adjustments for the worship time of the other congregation in our space in a way that did not dishonor the artist’s work or our intention for the exhibit.

Our Approach:

Hosting artwork in a public space that includes adults as well as children of varying faith perspectives provides a particular challenge. At Convergence, our curatorial criteria is exercised primarily at the beginning of the process; in choosing the artist. In some cases, we choose artists whose work naturally stimulates deeper thought on a particular cultural or spiritual issue. In other cases, we look for art to evoke deeper questioning on a subject we are exploring in worship. In all cases, the artwork must be of professional quality and the artist is someone who has approached their work in a deeply thoughtful way.  After that, Convergence feels it is important to provide artistic freedom to the artists we choose even if their art is challenging or provocative. Once we have selected the artist to work with, we do not censor their choices. We simply ask them to consider what happens in the space and the themes we wish to address.

This is an important (and difficult) choice for a church – to allow artwork that does not always affirm the status quo, but also challenges. While we enjoy and feel moved by artwork that resonates with us, the work that challenges us (even offends us) can help draw attention to things we might otherwise choose to ignore. Even understanding more specifically why a certain piece offends us can help to name something deeper about ourselves, the human condition and our relationship to God; and is therefore a worthwhile experience.

Violent Grace was a way to get the “issues” about body image and theological questions about incarnation out on the table straight away. Interestingly, parents whose children came to Convergence to participate in arts programming told us they were not concerned about the nudity because nudes are seen in galleries and museums everywhere, whereas the Anglican congregation that meets in our space was concerned about conversations they might have to have with their children if certain images were not covered during their services. We felt like this discrepancy in response highlighted the value of our exploration; why does nudity in art become problematic when placed in a religious context? These conversations with our Anglican neighbors as well as our arts partners served to enrich our conversation as a congregation.

I want viewers to reconsider the Scriptures in very human terms that might shock them out of their complacency about the things of the spirit.  The nude is my way of aiming at the deep and saving Truth given to us by Christ. It is an attempt to strip away our hiding places.”

Ed Knippers

By providing context, space for conversation over disagreement and contingency plans we were able to have controversial artwork in our space that allowed us to have meaningful explorations about living a more “embodied faith” while inviting our arts partners and neighbors into a more complex and immediate experience of the Bible.

Together, we were able to:
  • Model how a church can successfully approach controversial subject matter through the arts in a positive and constructive way.
  • Elevate the perception of our gallery by exhibiting a notable artist.
  • Have rich, theological conversation with congregation members and visitors to the gallery about difficult topics.
  • Begin a relationship with a local theatre company and other local artists who were curious about our willingness to explore cultural conversations from a theological perspective.

Additional Resources: