Editorial: Mission and the arts

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Editorial: Mission and the arts: Reflections from practitioners | ANVIL vol 37 issue 1

by Sarah Clarke

For Art’s Sake goes to print

I was largely drawn to CMS because of the marriage of the practical and academic. One of our key considerations is how to encourage and cultivate creative thinking and imagination for the sake of mission. One of the directions this takes me in personally is an exploration of the arts and mission.

As an artist myself I was delighted to host our Conversations Day “For Art’s Sake” on arts and theology on 3 March 2020. The Conversations Day is a conference designed to create a space for dialogue, a space to share and get involved.

We considered questions such as: What is art? What is a work of art? Does art have to be beautiful? Is it subjective or objective? These are basic questions we have been trying to answer for centuries. But I want us to consider how we largely relate to art in our modern Western societies: we tend to think of art as an elitist activity presented to us by specialist artists. However, the ancient Greeks considered “the artist” as someone who could do a whole range of creative activity, from blacksmithing to painting, from crafting to cooking. Most of us, if asked, do not call ourselves artists and yet under this Greek definition, any time we engage in creating or making something we are artists.

This edition is not seeking to offer a definition of art, but rather to stretch the boundaries that have narrowed our idea of what art making is, and by doing so provide a framework for engaging with the arts and recognising the power of art in mission.

I would like to suggest there are three ways to help us on this journey. Firstly, I would like to suggest we all possess the “creative impulse”. Thomas Aquinas said that art was transcendent. Art and beauty come from God, the creative impulse comes from God. As image bearers of a creative God, we all have the ability to create, and perhaps we want to reconsider our idea of what it means to be creative and artistic.

Secondly, art and creativity make paths that can create connections for self and community. By this I mean art has a unique ability to communicate and reach us in ways words cannot. We have so many words at our disposal, but we are often stuck when it comes to expressing phenomena such as deep feelings, awesome experiences, lofty ideas and indeed our experience of, or relationship with, God.

I remember driving through California redwoods – a sea of staggeringly large, breathtaking, “other worldly” trees. My friend and I drove in silence listening to classical music in awe of this phenomenal view. Neither of us were able to express the enormity of our experience, but we both commented after how much the music seemed to give our feelings expression. I feel the same about poetry – it enables me to connect with deep senses, thoughts and feelings that I’m not really able to verbalise, at least not in full. Jodie Foster’s character in the film Contact, while encountering a phenomenal view in outer space from the windows of her spaceship, splutters the lines, “No, no words – no words, no, no words to describe it… they should have sent a poet.”

Finally, art can be a prophetic call in the “not yet”, challenging the status quo, subverting culture. Pioneering a new voice and causing us to consider a new way of seeing the world. As with the “For Art’s Sake” Conversations Day, this edition of Anvil is written by artists, practitioners and theologians who continue to explore the ways in which art forms – inhabiting creative mindsets – and learning to embrace art can help us to engage with the world, ourselves and mission.

We have an article from Ian Adams, encouraging us to open up our imagination to engage with the world around us as spiritual practice. Then come Rachel Griffiths and Shannon Hopkins, two practitioners who give us insight into how art forms and creative thinking enable us to connect to community, emotions and self. Griffiths demonstrates how art, in particular drama, can be embraced in a way that enables us to experience strong emotions, such as anger, in a positive way. Both articles demonstrate the importance of art and how we can benefit from it being a central part of our practice.

The articles by David Benjamin Blower, Chris Duffett and Martin Poole in different ways explore the theme of being an artist during the time of COVID-19 and beyond. It’s in times of struggle and difficulty that artists emerge in central places and art becomes more widely recognised.

And last but by no means least is a brilliant video by one of our MA students, Katy Partridge. It’s an autoethnographic piece, exploring a faith that sees chaos as the start of new creation, entitled “Agony Births Reality.”

About the author

Sarah Clarke is an artist, craft maker and cellist, and lectures on and leads the CMS pioneer undergraduate programme. She has a masters in theology and philosophy from Regent College, Vancouver, and is currently pursuing a PhD in art, theology and community formation.

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