Art has Often Been Used by God to Decrypt Truth

[Written by Andrew Park in 2010]

What we believe theologically has a direct influence on what we do in ministry as creative artists.

Last night (29 May 2010) Lucy and I attended a celebration of Mary Jones’ 70th birthday in Mosman, a suburb in Sydney. Many friends who had collaborated with Mary in dance ministry over the past 50 years were there with her. Some described her journey back to her over that time.

Mary’s artistic and social activism was birthed from early childhood, having been born into an Anglican family – the famed Guinness family – with a very strong history of and passion for social justice, evangelism and mission. This was a very well-travelled family having a significant impact in reaching others for Christ both in the UK, Sydney and overseas.

From birth, Mary was (and she still is) an extremely creative innovator, explorer and courageous minister to others in very ground-breaking and contextually relevant ways.

Try this for size – entry as a young Bachelor of Education student into a NSW University beauty pageant, after listing herself as a Evangelical Christian Union representative – a quite brave and bold act in taking up a then controversial missional initiative God called her to do then.

Try also – collaborating with another Aussie lady friend in Minnesota in the 1960’s to start up a creative movement/exercise program for students during winter months to address an urgent social and health needs.

During a late 1960’s and early 1970’s period when many of us thought just wearing flared jeans, coloured shirts, longish hair and playing slightly folksy-rocky gospel songs (e.g. Light Up The Fire, The Proclaimers Baptist Gospel choir, or hippy-stylised Larry Norman songs etc) was “really radical” and innovative, Mary was quietly doing something we would have regarded by far as way more revolutionary then us – dancing and bringing creative movement into the worship ministry and mission expression of the church.

This was a time when many Churches – particularly the more conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist ones – misinterpreted all or at the very least most dance, as a morally dubious influence which would ultimately sexually corrupt their teenage children and cause them to fall away from the Christian faith and into teenage pregnancy, and promiscuous lifestyles.

However, in spite of some opposition from various leaders of the church, Mary boldly pressed ahead with her vision from God to reclaim dance as well as the wider creative arts for the Church and its Gospel mission toward others. She approached this not only as an artistic issue, but as a prophetic, theological and as a social justice issue.

Artistic freedom – the freedom of Christians to enjoy, explore, and if they wanted to, practice art as a ministry form – especially in dance – was a passionate social justice issue for ICDF’s founder, Mary Jones. And she is still a highly energised activist and practitioner of dance ministry and worship today.

Along the way, Mary has taken a great many of us with her in this journey. The result is that dance ministry is widely accepted all over the world by many churches, and we are all in some way “fruit” of her dedicated and courageous labour of love.
During that long journey – that road hard travelled – Mary and her colleagues frequently had to confront and dispel many false myths, ignorance and fears, and erroneous claims about dance and creative movement ministry.

Just as in The Reformation, old theological truths such as – justification by faith, the Royal Priesthood of all believers, the importance of accessibility in their own vernacular language for all people to the Biblical text, direct personal relationship and access with Christ through things like repentance and prayer – were rediscovered for the many through the passionate efforts of a few such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other Reformers, so the importance of a major art form for ministry – dance – was also rediscovered through the passionate efforts of one person in collaboration with, at the beginning just a few others.  As time moved on, many others grasped a hold of the truths these pioneering few taught them, eventually resulting in new artistic freedoms for the people of Christ in ministry and mission. These changes, although spearheaded by major individuals initially, grew into theological maturity and substance within the context of deeper faith community dialogue and debate with others.

Good theology develops ultimately out of good community with others. Mary recognised that fact and hence a fellowship of creative artists from diverse backgrounds theologically was born, which ultimately became known as the International Christian Dance Fellowship of which many reading this are now members of.

Theological conversation, often presented through seminars and talks about dance, as well as through the artful presentation of the dances themselves, were used to communicate the real truth about dance. That is, if dance is so ungodly, then why does God do it too? If dance is so sexually corrupting, why haven’t ICDF conferences run over 20 years all turned into great sexual orgies of dance? What did Israel do when it crossed the Red Sea – orgy in dance, or worship God in Spirit and Truth through the ministry of dance?

Dance, like any other art form used by humans, can be used either to glorify God in moral ways, or it can be used to blaspheme against God and to corrupt and defile God’s creation in sinful ways. It is the human element which determines which occurs, not the actual artistic type it’s self.

Dance, like any other art form, has a positive, and a highly important to role to play in acknowledging, discovering, exploring and rediscovering biblical and theological truth, especially in relation to humans locating where God is present when seeking out spiritual meaning and direction for their lives both individually and in community with others.

Art has often been used by God to decrypt, convey, and to explain important theological truths and concepts which seemed previously utterly encrypted and problematic to us when approached from a purely rational and logical deductive way of thinking.

Some truths about God can only be grasped through an act of faith. Good Christian art can facilitate that journey from logic-based scepticism to faith by using helpful metaphoric language and by describing alternative narratives to help people accept new truths required by them to navigate those liminal thresholds of reasoning they need to cross in order to accept propositions such as being “born again by the Holy Spirit”, “the virgin birth”, “the cross and resurrection”, “Risen Christ”, “the Incarnation of Christ”, and so on.

In fact, missional author and writer Alan Hirsch said to me last year that art, because of things like its explorative, imaginative, innovative, other-sidedness thinking, investigative, counter-cultural, life and reality-reflective, prophetic and critical qualities, often helps to build deeper theological substance into missiological ideas and visions.

One of our roles as creative artists is to use our art to help others to re-imagine Church, faith and mission into being something ever closer toward what Jesus envisioned those would become in his Gospel teachings (e.g. the Sermon on The Mount, in his prayers, his parables etc) as they journey further together in The Jesus Way.

Eugene Peterson provides a good example of how this can work when talking about art depicting the virgin birth of Christ.

“Artists, poets, musicians, and architects are our primary witnesses to the significance of “virgin” in the virgin birth as “a summons to reverence and worship”. Over and again they rescue us from a life in which wonder has leaked out. While theologians and biblical scholars have argued, sometimes most contentiously, over texts and sexual facts and mythological parallels, our artists have painted Madonnas. Our poets have provided our imaginations with rhythms and metaphors, our musicians have filled the air with carols and anthems that bring us to our knees in adorations, and our architects have designed and built chapels in which we can worship God”

…. Madeleine L’Engle’s poem “After Annunciation” tells us why:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.”ii

Art is not separate to the society around it which generates it. And there are moral implications and responsibilities that apply to art, what it celebrates and investigates, values it explores, communicates and proffers to people about the world they live in.

Dutch Theologian and Professor of Art History, Hans Rookmaker once said, “Art is not autonomous. “Art for arts sake” was an invention of the last century to loosen the ties between art and morality; that is to give art the freedom to depict all kinds of sins as if they were not sinful, but simply human”. iii

What Rookmaker argued in terms of relevance to the community and world around it has some truth in it concerning Christian art’s missional task. “When artists cease to consider the world in its manifold forms outside the artistic domain, their art withers into nothingness, because it no longer has anything to say”.iv

Christian creative artists, whether Psalmists, musicians, actors, painters, singers or dancers have an important role to play in a world which is increasingly growing silent and cold toward human pain due to “compassion fatigue”. v

Walter Brueggemann says that there is “a counter-truth that surfaces in Christian worship” today. However, he laments that “it is a small counterpoint without great voice or muscle. It has been a minority perspective for a very long time”.vi

Brueggemann suggests that if we can “imagine a world totally silenced, no prayers uttered, no hopes voiced, no hosting of human condition and, consequently, no miracles of newness or healing”, then we can also see how “the dominant world culture and its narrative account of reality go a long way toward such silence”.vii

One of the ‘antidotes’ Brueggemann suggests, and which I hold Christian artists and theologians should be doing prophetically, is to re-embrace and preach about more socially-just and corrective counter-narratives of such texts such as:

  •  “Exodus 15 as an alternative to the claim that oppressive power is forever” (includes the dance of Miriam, which sees its counterpart in the dance of Easter celebrating the resurrection of Christ defeating the power of death on behalf of humanity.
  • “Psalm 136 as an alternative of fidelity to a social vision of comparative greed”. Shatteringacquisitiveness through radical generosity, gratitude to God.
  • Psalm as an alternative cry to a social coercion of enforced silence.” viii

Brueggemann argues that one way we can prophetically voice our dissent against “the dominant culture all around [as} one of self-indulgence without fidelity, manipulation without gratitude”, is to protest in song like the singers of Psalms 136 when faced with the same sort of situation. “The loud narrative of acquisitiveness is shattered and shown to be false. The powers of manipulation and monopoly are broken. The singing itself is a dangerous protest of dissent from the dominant culture that does not sing, for everything is reduced to formulae; but then this body sings its spirit-led alternative”.ix   In doing so we not only stand up for God’s counter-narrative of hope and justice against a dominant system which offers little or none, but we also confront the social amnesia of the Church when it comes to confronting its sinful abrogation from its calling to stand up with and for
the victims in their fight for social equity and justice.x

But guess what? This is not just something to do only if we are Psalmists – they clearly don’t have or probably want the sole monopoly on doing it if they are already doing it. We can also do it as Christian dancers, painters, violinists, guitarists, sketchers, poets, book writers, comedians, circus performers or just artists in some other sort of way. So let’s do this sort of stuff, both individually and together. Let’s commit to promoting Christ’s alternative narrative – one of truth, genuine compassion, honesty and mercy, and which authentically loves the poor and the victim in word, art form and love in real good deeds – as a majorly important function within overall context of our wider Christian mission.

Other smatterings of thought along the same lines as those thoughts outlined above.
Through the incarnation God “in Christ” interprets Himself into the `playing fields’ (metaphoric term) of our lives, and by Christ’s Spirit Presence living in us – through the Trinitarian communion in which we participate celebrated through shared bread and wine as His Body, the Church – we interpret our lives into Christ’s. It is artistic event, as well as work in progress, as we journey in The Way with the Risen Christ.

Remember Ezekiel’s field of dry bones, brought back to life by the breathing into them of the Holy Spirit – it is the transformational and sculpting miracle of turning once lifeless hearts of stone into life-filled “hearts of flesh”, actioned by the Holy Spirit in response to the Father and Son’s imparting of divine grace toward a people re-engaged with them in faith, and renewed by the re-enlivening and empowering of the Holy Spirit. What was once dead now lives. This is a work of art by Creator God.

i For instance, the often brash, argumentative, confrontational and angry Martin Luther benefitted greatly from being counselled wisely by the more reasonable and humbly influence of the gentle scholar and theologian Melanchthon. Scores of other small “r” reformers also were involved in toning the reformation into being a far more reasonable process (e.g. Erasmus).

ii Peterson, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places. 2005. Grand Rapids, Wm B Eerdmans P.57. Citing poetry from Madeleine L’Engle, 1998. The Weather of the Heart. Wheaton, Ill. Harold Shaw P.45

iii Professor of Art History, Hans Rookmaker, 1966. As cited in Christianity Today. Quote taken from Card, Michael. 2002. Scribbling in the Sand. Leicester, Intervarsity. P.138

iv Ibid.

v Bruegggemann, Walter. 2007. Mandate To Difference. John Knox Press, Westminster. P.136.

vi Ibid.

vii Ibid.

viii Ibid, P. 133, 135.

ix Ibid.

x Ibid.

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