Divine Inspiration: This Journalism Grant Explores How Belief Affects Creativity

Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." The Sistine Chapel. Handel's Messiah.

History is replete with examples of great art inspired by religion or wealthy religious benefactors. But much of this history is ancient. (We blame the Enlightenment.)

Then again, we imagine that for grantmakers like Fieldstead and Company, Inc., creating a piece of art on par with Raphael's Madonna di San Sisto isn't the point anyway. They're less concerned with end product as much as the extent to which faith traditions inspire artistic creativity in our complex modern world. And it's this concept that's at the heart of its two-year journalism grant to the University of Missouri's Religion Newswriters Foundation (RNF).

During the course of this project, the Religion News Service will create 30 news stories that explore the ways in which art, both historic and contemporary, is inspired by sacred texts, the faith of artists, ritual practice, private devotion, and theological debates. "Nuanced stories about the role religion plays in the creative impulse are under-reported in the mainstream media," said RNF Executive Director Debra L. Mason. "This grant gives the public access to RNS stories and photographs that will illuminate artistic expression as a testimony of faith. It also provides vital source guides so that thousands of journalists will have access to everything they need to report similar stories in other markets."

The Fieldstead and Company is a private company that manages the assets and Christian-oriented philanthropic programs of Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. Which brings us to the interesting backstory behind this Irvine, California-based grantmaker.

Family patriarch Howard F. Ahmanson, Sr. was a pioneer in California's postwar savings and loan industry. When he passed away in 1968, his estate split between the Beverly Hills-based Ahmanson Foundation — profiled on IP here — and his son, Howard Jr., who at first rebelled against his inheritance. Yet he eventually had a change of heart and founded Fieldstead and Company, which donates roughly half of Ahmanson's trust fund income to Christian-focused philanthropic and political projects.

In an interview with Philanthropy Roundtable, Ahmanson expounded on the influence of Christianity in his philanthropy, noting that his beliefs "mean I have to be concerned with the whole world, as well as my own community." To that end, Fieldstead and Company has supported everything from Watts Christian School in inner city Los Angeles to sponsorship of Caravaggio: The Final Years, an exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

As for Fieldstead and Company's gift to the RNS, it represents another component of much a broader trend: how we understand the ever-evolving role of religion in society. The Fieldstead gift comes on the heels of last year's news about the Lily Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation supporting expanded online religion coverage at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Lilly awarded $1 million for a project titled "Remapping American Christianities," while Luce awarded $250,000 to pursue an effort called "Innovating Coverage of Theology."