"I will take you anywhere in Beijing you want to go, but not to the area where artists are displaying their work. It is too dynamic, too dangerous there."

I was one of the first Americans to go into the People's Republic of China after the so-called Cultural Revolution, and this is what my government host told me. In Prague, I was openly tailed by the Czech secret police. I later found out they were instructed to let me go anywhere in the city I wanted to go except to an area where art was on display.

Traveling behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains during the height of the Cold War gave me particular insight into the power of art. Totalitarian governments have always made very strong attempts to censor music, the visual arts, architecture, drama and literature. Why? Because the arts have power.

Unfortunately, most American evangelical Christians have seen art from the totalitarian government point of view -- seeing it as something to be controlled rather than created. This failure to acknowledge the great potential power of the arts has been very detrimental to individual believers and to God's Kingdom.

As the ones on Earth closest to the Creator, Christians should be the most wonderfully creative --participating in all the arts, glorifying Christ through them. Sadly, Christianity's artistic muscle has atrophied to the point where Christians and the Church have become marginalized in the arts. Our only discernible role is as censors and critics -- not creators.

A case in point is Christianity's relationship with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) -- a federal agency most Christians love to hate. Established by Congress and funded with tax dollars, the NEA was organized to support quality art in the United States. All too often, though, it has funded projects considered by many to be offensive, blasphemous and pornographic.

But one of the reasons the NEA has funded so little art that's pleasing to Christians is that Christians have hardly been involved except in protest. Few Christian artists have submitted proposals for NEA funding and very few have sought to be a part of the NEA machinery. Is it any wonder the agency doesn't reflect Christian values? It has rarely seen any.

This negative role for Christianity was galvanized when the works of Maplethorpe and Cerranos were being displayed around the country. Christians mounted protests, picketing selected museums and galleries displaying the works. However, protesting without offering an alternative is never effective... usually it only draws more attention to what's being protested against. The bottom line is, if our only artistic presence is as censors, we will never occupy the artistic high ground. We are dismissed as "Philistines," which is what the press did in the Maplethorpe and Cerranos incidents. A much better approach would have been to supplement protests with competing exhibits of God-honoring art in every city where Maplethorpe and Cerranos were shown. Christians could have then said, in effect, "Take your pick. Choose the good or the grotesque." Unfortunately, the public never got that choice. The Christian emphasis in the arts shouldn't be to tell how bad the world's art is, but to reveal through creativity and excellence how good God is.

The first step is simply to become familiar with the arts. For most American Christians, art is most often an afterthought, when considered at all. In Roaring Lambs (Zondervan), I include a simple test to help readers determine how well they are doing with Jesus' admonition to be "salt." By far, the question that evokes the most comment - even wonderment -- is "Do you own at least one work of art?" The average Christian just doesn't see how understanding and appreciating art has anything to do with a life of faith.

And that's too bad. If individuals can't acknowledge the benefits of the arts, how can our churches? It's rare for the arts to be given much attention in American evangelical churches. Few buy and display Christian art or have Christian arts festivals. Few have budgeted support for Christian art. Perhaps most damaging, few evangelical churches have programs to support and encourage artistically talented young people to pursue careers in art as a ministry, as an integral part of a life of faith. Given this state of the Christian church, one of two things frequently happens. Artistically talented Christians either give up their artistic vocation, or they give up their faith. Either is tragic. The result is wasted God-given talent and a severe lack of Christian witness in the arts. Working Christian artists should have the opportunity to share and demonstrate their work so that Christians may realize how the arts are an honorable and productive way to serve God. And those with artistic ability should be encouraged to pursue the arts -- not separate from their faith, but as a vital and integral part of their commitment to Christ. Through competence, class and commitment, Christian artists should earn the right to be seen and heard. Their work, whether or not all of it is necessarily of a "religious" nature, should glorify God. And even the most worldly and blasphemous artists should be seen not as enemies, but as people for whom Christ died.

Art is powerful and could be powerfully used to glorify God and to build His Kingdom. Christians should move with the power of God to reclaim the arts and to testify to the beauty of Jesus to all who live inside, as well as outside, the arts community.