Christians used to argue bitterly and angrily over works of art. The Puritans of England, cursing Rome's "idolatry," took deep and pious pleasure in smashing and defacing old statues of the saints. The Roman Catholic painters of the Counter-Reformation joined the battle gladly. Their vivid, violent paintings -- of pierced and roasted martyrs and whipped and bleeding Christs -- often look as if they were intentionally designed to make non-Catholics blanch.

That such passions have long cooled is made abundantly apparent by the grand baroque collection at Bob Jones University and by those images of Jesus -- with His neatly barbered beard and His robe of spotless white -- that frequently accompany the religious shows on TV. That tepidness is also seen in the 1987 National Juried Exhibition of Christians in Visual Arts, now at the Foundry Gallery, just behind the Phillips at 9 Hillyer Ct. NW.

The CIVA exhibition was chosen -- from submitted slides -- by Washington's Frank Getlein. He picked some 50 objects by as many artists. Though most of them are born-agains, and all are professed Christians, one detects that only distantly in their works of art.

It is an amateurish show. Much of what's on view is cautious and conservative or merely mediocre. And yet the exhibition is somehow oddly touching. And peculiarly familiar. If you've ever seen an art club show in any midsized U.S. city, or an art fair in a public park, you will recognize the spirit that prevails here.

It is thoroughly conventional. True, a Christ of neon tubing (made by Theodore Prescott) greets one at the entrance, and Kate Irwin's color-pencil drawing does show chapel doors, but their lead is rarely followed.

Richard M. Mikkelson's well-made watercolor depicts midwestern barns. Dean M. Larson, who paints nicely, too, shows us in his still life a seashell and a lute. Leigh Morgan shows a woman without clothes, perhaps an art class model, seated in a chair. Deborah Garbee Stanton, a conventional photo-realist, depicts laundry on a laundry line. Timothy Van Laar's diptych, one of the strongest works on view, shows a mortar and pestle and a telephone.

Sometimes Christianity is detected in the labels. Esther K. Augsburger's bronze, nude, female figure, who is clearly in distress, might well have been titled "Pain" or "Grief" or "Anguish": Instead it's titled "Martyr." Patricia Grace Voss' photograph of lobster pots and rowboats might illustrate a brochure on picturesque New England. Instead it is called "Awaiting Fishers of Men."

I am willing to accept that all the objects here (even those whose subjects -- apples on a plate, a coal mine or a nude -- appear completely secular) reflect faith. But then I tend to think that most earnest, heartfelt art is to some degree religious. Art is aspirational, it makes the unseen visible, it is tied to praise and awe. Art, this show reminds us, is an ancient form of prayer. The CIVA show, which accompanies that organization's summer conference at Marymount College, closes June 20.

Leslie Exton at Henri

Once upon a time, when Gene Davis and Tom Downing were teaching at the Corcoran, half the painters at that school were soaking thinned acrylic paints, one color at a time, into yards of unsized canvas. Washington's Leslie Exton now heads the Corcoran's painting department. Her current show at Henri's, 1500 21st St. NW, suggests how much things have changed.

Though she once made abstract paintings, she never cared for staining. Instead she built her surfaces with thickish oil paint. Her oils are still layered, her pigments still encrusted, but her imagery has changed. Her new paintings aren't abstract. Each one shows a tulip, a single giant tulip; they stand as straight as soldiers, their heads as large as yours is, their stalks as stout as clubs.

Exton's monumental blossoms have none of the fragility of those of Charles Demuth, and little of the lushness of those by Lowell Nesbitt. Their mood is stern and gloomy, as if they somehow managed to bloom without the sun. The darkish colors seen behind them, purples, greens and blues, suggest still-wet mud. These are something more than flowers. They have some of the portentousness of those flying things and serpents that haunt the symbol-laden oils of Washington's William Willis. They have his night-dark colors, too.

Though Exton now paints flowers, her pictures remain rooted in the realm of abstract art. Those stalks divide her paintings nearly as precisely as Barnett Newman's "zips." Her thickly built-up surfaces, her layerings and edges, suggest those of Brice Marden. Her well-made pictures have about them a peculiar hint of menace. They stand around the viewer like so many guards. Her show closes July 8.

Mati Klarwein at Govinda

Mati Klarwein's oils at the Govinda Gallery, 1227 34th St. NW, make one feel a bit embarrassed for the New Age and new drugs of the visionary '60s. The '60s are long gone, but Klarwein's with us still.

In those days, writes the painter, "I was scorned as a psychedelic artist -- especially when seen in the company of Tim Leary -- too close to LSD for the straight culture vultures of Madison Avenue." These days he seems too close to Madison Avenue. He makes album cover art.

Literally. Klarwein did the cover art for Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" and for "Abraxas" by Santana. He likes to fill his pictures with spooky arcane symbols -- lions wreathed with light, large half-naked women in mountain landscapes, rocks that drip fresh blood, little golden people from worlds beyond our own, and crumbled sheets of lead that glow a radioactive red. He paints saints and angels, too.

Though Klarwein paints with skill (many years ago, he studied with Ernst Fuchs, the Viennese magic realist) his spirituality has gone stale. His works do not suggest supernatural visions. Instead they call to mind illustrations published in Omni magazine. His show closes July 11.

L.A. Art at Brody's

Brody's Gallery, 1706 21st St. NW, is showing "L.A. Art," a handsome show of well-made prints from Southern California. Richard Diebenkorn, Bruce Nauman, Jonathan Borofsky, witty Ed Ruscha, David Hockney and the late Philip Guston are among the well-known artists represented. Though the competition's stiff, Vija Celmins' etchings somehow steal the show.

They're both magical and modest. Her etchings are not large, but they feel vast. The stars of the Big Dipper, and wind-raised ripples on the ocean, are among her subjects. One of her small etchings, "Constellation Uccello" (1983) presents a starry sky and a sort of august spinning chalice. Many are the artists who strive for spirituality. Celmins effortlessly succeeds. Looking at her prints one can almost hear the music of the spheres. "L.A. Art" closes June 20.