Engaging in Art with Missional Intent in Paris
Art, as a human artifact, has value in and of itself, being created and produced by people who are themselves made in the creator’s image. This is part of God’s intentional design, part of what he labeled “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Art produced by men and women who become Christians will gradually reveal a change in values—a worldview shift. These values may cause little or no change in the style; however, the content may well reflect changes, reveal
ing, for example, a renewed hope, joy, or new ethical concern. The work of all Christian artists, given the body of their work over time, will reflect the values of the Kingdom of God.
The focus of the reflections below are narrower, however. The thoughts expressed in this article concern artists in France who feel called to intentionally testify to God’s grace within French culture through the expression of their art.
Art in French History
Art is recognised as an important integral part of French history. It is a highly valued element of the social and cultural context. The call to mission by engaging in art with missional intent may be quite new to most Christians. Yet given France’s long established love affair with the arts, cultural shifts taking place, and the renewed spiritual interest being expressed, the time for this kind of missionary activity is now.
The use of artistic gifts presents a significant God-designed
opportunity to open doors to the heart of French culture that have been shut for a very long time.
For most of human history the arts have been centred in the urban sphere of influence. Artistic expression is a public expression. Art depends upon groups of people for its production, distribution, and appreciation. In France, Paris has been (and is) the undisputed centre of this artistic interest with its museums, concert halls, art schools, theatres, and galleries. In addition, the commercial production and distribution of a wide variety of media (which depend upon art such as film, music, literature, radio, and television) are city centre businesses. The arts together with the city function as one to communicate and influence the values of society.
The Church and Mission with Artistic Gifts
And it is not just individual artists who are called to engage in mission with artistic gifts—it is the Church as a broad community of believers (including artists) who are called to labor together. For missionaries to be effective in ministry, whether they be evangelists, apostles, artists, teachers, or administrators, they need the multifaceted support of the whole Body of Christ.
Those who are part of this support network do not all need to be versed in theology, art, or business; they simply need to be convinced that these gifts are vital to the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. The use of artistic gifts presents a significant God-designed opportunity to open doors to the heart of French culture that have been shut for a very long time. There are several reasons why the use of art as a way to witness for Christ in France is ideal.
First, a Christian witness through the use of Art is a public witness.
Mission thinking in France will need to be expanded in scope with a renewed appreciation for cultural and societal changes, which the gospel brings. Art provides creative access to public forums and public institutions, with which French churches historically do not have much experience. When the Church is absent from this public dialogue, the salt and light are missing.
However, if the Church is willing to embrace it, art can give it a public voice that it has not had before. To do so, new attitudes must be adopted. Art is capable of touching large numbers of people through its subtle, indirect, metaphoric communication of truth. For many people, however, an artistic presentation will be one of the first steps in a long process of seeking spiritual answers.
A unified multi-ethnic Church which is arts-oriented
would be a powerful hermeneutic in French society before the first word is ever spoken.
The French Church must allow God to broaden its understanding, and learn how to nurture the sometimes slow process of kingdom growth. That process needs continued cultivation long after the first individuals become Christians. Mission includes individual transformation, but is not limited to the gospel’s private impact. The goal of the gospel is transformation on all levels of society; the gospel is public truth. It is not, as French culture would have us believe, limited to private belief. Art will have an impact on individuals, but it will also have a public, society-wide impact over time. The transformation must be both bottom up and top down.
Lesslie Newbigin writes that the Church is the hermeneutic of the gospel.1 French society is beginning to pay attention to what the Church does and thinks. A Church that is not afraid to take a thoughtful public stance will attract attention, and the arts will facilitate the process. A unified multi-ethnic Church which is arts-oriented would be a powerful hermeneutic in French society before the first word is ever spoken. Direct verbal presentations of propositional truth have been prized by the Church as the only faithful way of communicating the importance of the gospel. Communication implies a mutual understanding of shared points of reference, even when there is not agreement. In France, however, the commonly shared experiences, symbolism, and points of reference in the spiritual realm are often missing, so real understanding between two individuals does not take place. A verbal expression, no matter how clear, does not guarantee that communication has occurred.
Second, Art by its very nature is indirect.
A majority of French people are not yet ready to interact with God’s truth directly. For this reason the indirectness of art can be very important for mission. Art, as a metaphor, is capable of disclosing truth for the first time; it can lead to the first steps on a long spiritual journey. Art’s allusiveness suggests, prods, points, and indicates truth subtly and consistently. Art can, at times, become God’s “still, quiet voice” speaking to the French soul. French culture, like other Latin cultures of southern Europe, emphasises indirectness as a value in communication. It is a way of prompting the person to discover something on his or her own without an offensive direct confrontation. By contrast non-Latin Europe and North American culture emphasise directness, efficiency, and getting right to the point.
Because of its indirectness, art can prompt reflection and invite dialogue. Art can raise questions in the mind that require a response. Being asked a question and choosing not to answer is like trying to stop a sneeze. It can be done, but only with conscious effort. The questions raised can push people toward revelation. Art engages and invites dialogue; it pushes toward active participation.
Third, Art asks questions. It does not give answers.
Many forms of art can do precisely what Jesus did with parables. They can simply be offered to the crowds for reflection. Discussions can be initiated later with those who take time to ask questions. Artists can determine what people really want or need to hear by asking a question rather than making a statement or describing what they were supposed to perceive. Art can naturally enter into a dialogue with French culture, thus allowing for the gospel to become contextualised and be heard in new ways. The artist who senses God’s call to produce art with missional intent must first humble him or herself and become a learner, as was the Apostle Paul in Athens.
He or she must also be active and intentional about his or her dialogue with culture and his or her artistic c