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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can Art Be Kingdom Missional and Remain Art?

I grew up around and have been involved in art since I was 15, as a drummer/musician and writer. My grandmother was a big band singer and grandfather, a maker of weird wall collages. My first cousin was a painter (until he was mugged and murdered in NYC). My dad was a mechanical designer, jazz guitarist, singer and furniture maker; my mom painted icons and furniture. My brother is a guitarist and singer/songwriter. My wife, Tricia, is an illustrator, designer and chef. Her older brother is a painter and her younger brother, a film director, writer and photographer. My son is a drummer; my oldest daughter is a singer, artist, writer and chef. My youngest daughter is a singer. Almost all my nieces and nephews are artists in one way, shape and form as well. It's in the blood, stitched into the fabric of my family's life.

As a Jesus-follower immersed in Kingdom mission, art shapes my sensibilities to a degree nearly equal in depth and passion to my Christian worldview. They've walked hand-in-hand for decades. Over the years, I've had scores conversations about what art is, and how the contemporary church used it in its life. Often they've been tough conversations about the scandalously poor quality of much "art" done by Christians over the decades. There are many notable exceptions today, and artists who are Jesus-followers have had the benefit 40-year dialogue over the issue. Believe me, in the 70's when I was in ELAN, a touring Christian band, the topic was a hot one around the country. Ours' was an innovative group, ahead of its time, and in our travels we ran into all sorts of aspiring Christian writers, dancers, artists and actors who could find no place in Christendom for their work. People like Frank(y) Schaeffer, Hans Rookmaker, Calvin Seerveld and Bill Edgar were at the forefront of learned discussions over Christ, art and the Church during those days. People were asking very important questions about faith and art.

Thank God much headway has been made.

Given the fact that imagine/Northampton, the church I am helping to plant in Northampton, has as part of its mission to engage and serve the artistic community here, it follows we are deeply interested in the intersection between being authentically Kingdom missional and making art. We think much about whether the two can coexist beneficially without adulterating one or both? We want to be faithful to our missional call to bring the Kingdom through loving and serving, and we want to make or support great art if it is in us to do so. We desire neither mediocrity nor artifice.

Before I get any further I need to say the art I will refer to is never deliberately formulaic, cheesy, kitschy, propagandist, corny, mediocre, contrived, simplistic, maudlin, commercially-driven or "the Emperor's new clothes." Kingdom missional art will be able to stand on its own merit as art: thoughtful, well-executed, perhaps as good as anyone's art in the world. It will be a product of skill, even mastery, careful thought and hard work. It will be of substance, even if it makes you laugh. 

So here are a few thoughts on the matter:

1.  Art is Kingdom missional when it hints at or points to the transcendent STORY of the Creator/Redeemer God who became one of us - the STORY beyond everyone's stories, and in which our deepest meaning resides. Whether music, visual art, poetry, theater, or dance are the media through which the STORY is revealed, God's STORY of creation and redemption is brought into view, evoking or provoking engagement beyond mere entertainment. People can peer into the revelation of God With Us. God's STORY becomes the context in which we can frame and fill in our stories to get our surest bearings.

2.  Art is Kingdom missional when it tells the truth about the human story/condition against the backdrop of the design of life God is creating, and the Trinitarian culture of love he summons people to embrace. Art which uncovers horrors crushing the human spirit, which unsentimentally portrays human inhumanity and obdurate selfishness against the cross of Christ serves to marry the reality of death to the reality of LIFE overcoming death. If art never pulls the mask off the reality of pandemic sin infecting each person in the world, causing untold misery, it's in danger of misleading, or ends up being merely whistling in the dark while dancing on the head of a cobra.

When art arouses in people a deep empathy causing them to feel the pain and horrors of human cruelty or indifference, and moves them to do something, it reflects the essence of the Kingdom. Art which motivates people to action fulfills a major facet of God's purpose for art. Sure, art can be sheer celebration; it can be whimsy; it can be pure expression in abstraction; it can even be gesture reflecting creative impulse. God gave artists complete freedom to express what they think, dream, hear, see, taste, touch, and feel without alluding to his STORY. Nevertheless, I think when artistic expression creatively aligns with Kingdom values, however directly or indirectly, it fulfills the redemptive Kingdom mission right near the heart of God. 

3. Art is Kingdom missional when it elevates forgotten and despised humanity and offers the forsaken dignity borne of hope. Because art has a unique power to move the heart toward compassion and the mind toward justice, it can unlock people toward action or change. The missional Kingdom of God has a special place for the "least of these" of Christ's brethren so when art elevates the lowly around the world it reflects God's heart toward them. Art can courageously confront unjust power and undermine evil by bringing to the fore hidden corruption crippling entire people's. Propaganda distorts for selfish ends; Kingdom missional art exposes to free the crushed in spirit.

4.  Art is Kingdom missional when it ignites wonder because of sheer brilliance and excellence, exquisite design, intelligent innovation, breath-taking beauty which opens people to notice glimmers and whispers of the UNSEEN REAL animating all of creation. Such art captivates people because they are taken a step beyond what they thought possible. It can be exquisitely simple or dazzlingly complex, but its meaning deliciously points to something/SOMEONE infinitely greater. Wonder turns the heart to the transcendent and ineffable. Kingdom missional art so well executed can bring people to recognize the Author or Wonder even if they don't know his name just yet. Such art delights, provokes, unsettles, intrigues, refreshes and moves people to look past what they've been able spiritually to apprehend before. It beckons them to the Mysterium Tremendum where they can be undone and reborn.

5. Art is Kingdom missional when it motivates people to think beyond simplistic cultural assumptions and sacred cows, or the political propaganda of the day. We live in a hypersaturated media Babel where ideas, images, opinions and perspectives come at us relentlessly, 24/7, skillfully manipulating our shifting attention and allegiance repeatedly. Art tied to the STORY helps ground our attention and get our bearings focused on eternal verities which can guide us through the flood of new information and ideas. The mission of the Kingdom is redemption, vivifying relationship with the Living God, and existential freedom, now and forever. Art which creatively points in those directions, however subtly (and subtly can be astonishingly powerful), fulfills the deepest meaning for artistic expression, without ever looking or sounding "religious." It doesn't need to.

6.  Art is Kingdom missional when it evokes exuberant celebration of Creation and the astounding genius of its Creator. When delight in God and what he has made fills the heart of the artist with such delight that he or she cannot but express wonder on canvas or in a poem or through food design, that artist celebrates the Kingdom and the exquisite architecture of what God has made. Such art is wild applause and joyful shouts of "yes" to the God of New Mexican sunsets and Cape Cod sunrises. Gazing in silent awe at earth and sky is worship joining heaven's eternal celebration.

Celebration and tears are both sides of Kingdom missional life.

Art must speak each, and all the time.


"Lord Jesus, Brilliant Creator of the heavens and the earth, Magnificent Savior and Redeemer, Humble Friend of the friendless and forlorn, Supreme Artist of all that has been made, inspire artists all over the world this day to creatively reveal overwhelming beauty and convicting truth. Whisper your ideas into their souls and guide their minds and imaginations, eyes, and ears, voices, hands and feet to artistic expressing which will unlock hearts to wonder and celebration.  Lead them to the place of tears where people's cries will help them tell stories that unleash healing and freedom from oppression and slavery of every kind. Open us all this day, to the STORY you began telling before the foundation of the world and continue to tell humankind, and lead us to lives of deep, abiding WORSHIP such that your mission on our watch is fulfilled once and for all."

Make it so, Lord. Amen.

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