Connoisseur for Christ: Roberta Green Ahmanson
She found the answer "painfully" at Calvin College, from which she graduated in 1972 before earning an M.A. in English at the University of Michigan in 1974. "When I was 21, I admitted that there was a God and that I believed Christianity was true, that it was the best description of reality. That's how I think of it, and if there were a better description of reality, I hope, with C. S. Lewis, that I would embrace it. But it keeps proving itself to fit.
"Once you start on that path, you want to understand the world. It connects to my journalism, because what we believe shapes what we do. It shapes the art we create, the buildings we create, the institutions we create, the governments we create. All those things grow out of what we believe to be the nature of reality. So it's the biggest question."
Ahmanson taught (unsuccessfully, she says) in Canada before moving to California to pursue journalism. At Calvin, she had become aware of the biblical theme that we become what we worship. "We worship dead things, we become dead. We worship the living God, we become alive," she says. "And one of the attributes of that living God is beauty. Beauty leads us to him. We really cannot live without it."
A mutual friend introduced her to Howard in 1984, when she was working at The Orange County Register. They married two years later. Conversations with people who minister to the poor taught her that beauty can inspire the downtrodden to improve their lives. Additionally, she says, "We live in an increasingly visual age, one in which art museums have become the new temples, art an alternative to religion. Art can serve God or be an idol. Given who God made me, it seemed that I had a responsibility to get involved in the work and the larger conversation."
This is not to say that the art she supports is saccharine or safe. Quite the contrary. The Caravaggio exhibit featured work from the 16th-century painter's final years, after he had murdered an associate. The same newspaper that vilified its sponsors published an admiring review that said, "There is a frisson of the transgressive about Caravaggio's art, a morbidity as much spiritual as it is—to modern eyes—sexual and social."
Dawson Carr, the exhibit's curator, researched online about the Ahmansons after they had approached the museum to fund Christian exhibits. The art historian was apprehensive about what he found. "I got all of the ins and outs and ups and downs and vitriol and the like, and I just thought to myself, Oh my goodness, what is this going to be like?" He discovered that the couple "may be doctrinally conservative, but in point of fact these are not ignorant, mean-spirited, nasty people the way they're often portrayed."
Carr also says their sponsorship of Christian art is vital and that they never tried to influence the content or presentation of the show. mobia director Ena Heller echoes Carr's sentiments. "I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that when it comes to religion, people get very personal, very defensive, and slightly illogical, and I have never seen that with Roberta."
Ancient Christian Vision
Early in their marriage, the Ahmansons befriended Methodist theologian Tom Oden. Some 20 years ago, as they were sitting on their front porch overlooking the Pacific, Roberta asked Oden a question that would lead to one of their most significant projects: "What do you want to do with the rest of your life?" He was taken aback, but had been thinking for several years about a major scholarly project on the ancient church fathers' Bible commentary. He recalls, "Right quickly I said, 'Well, this is the project that if I really could do it, I would feel I'd been most useful.'"