Art - essential to mission or a luxury?
[from Ed] Since attending the European Baptist Federation conference Arts in Mission, I have been pondering the 4 questions under consideration by delegates. Below is an attempt to open up one of the questions to further discussion.
Does God communicate in non-verbal ways that do not totally translate into words, so that art is essential to mission and not just a luxury?
As millions struggle to make enough money to eat, creatives struggle to make art. This is why every serious creative, at some point, questions: Is what I do useful or relevant to everyone — or is it simply luxurious?
To the artist, whether a creative with a faith or non, these grand questions are felt profoundly — the human condition, the way we see the world and how we seek to interpret or comment on it is our stock in trade, even if it’s incredibly privileged to ponder it as one’s profession.
Beauty, identity, discussion, recording, exaltation, or even just exposing injustice or lack of care, does indeed benefit humanity. But with rapidly changing climate, refuges from war increasingly unwelcome in most places, and political leaders increasingly justify abusive power, it’s easy to question the value of creative works. After all, what does a painting give to the world? How can a dancer take on a government? How does Art contribute to the mission of the church?
If we consider that mission is to express and share a held-view, or as John Stott puts it; “we understand mission as a partnership of evangelism and social action”. With peoples of cultures different to those seeking to engage in mission; to what extent does or can art contribute to ‘mission’?
Whether the area of mission is into a different nation or your local neighbourhood, it seems it has always been accepted that to effectively witness and cross the cultural divide acquisition of ‘language’ both linguistically and culturally is imperative. This can take time, even when the language spoken is understood, the culture to be engaged may have little or no reference to translate of the ‘language' of the Church.
As an example of my own observed experience: James & James (1980) explored the value of art to hearing impaired students. Because artisan area in which visual, not verbal communication is of primary importance, hearing-impaired students can quickly comprehend the visual formation required for success in this area. Art provides an opportunity for language learning because students are actively involved in the experiences around which language is generated and because the language can be related to concrete objects, processes, and events.
Language learning and cultural assimilation are no doubt essential, but what if we open ourselves to other approaches such as using Art.
Art has a way of connecting people at a deeper level, whether emotional, aesthetic, or spiritual. This emotive language can be readily found in the creative arts of all types: Music, dance, mime, drama, media, design, fashion, and cuisine, among others. If you feel connected with people at an emotive level, are you more inclined to learn more about them and their culture?
Robin M. Jensen presents 4 usages of art in Christian history as follows: (1) art as decoration; (2) art as didactic; (3) art as devotional; and (4) art as prophetic. Of these, it is the prophetic usage of art which seems to be the most promising prospect for transformation of culture and society. [ RM Jensen. The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 75-100]
As both verbal and non-verbal in terms of language, aesthetic and spiritual, art can be instrumental in bridging the gap between the “word”-oriented modern generation and the “after-word” post-modern generation, between natural sensuality and spirituality, ethnic identity and international diversity, the gap between creative nature and redemptive grace.
Far from being a luxury, art if understood as God-ordained is an essential element to support mission in terms of evangelism and ministry to a disconnected and broken world.