A collapsing present, a new future

Before the lockdown, over 100 people gathered at CMS to explore the power of art, particularly in relation to mission, community and pioneering. We caught up with three of the artists to get a sense of why it’s important to cultivate creativity:

Sarah Clarke

Sarah Clarke, pioneer undergraduate course leader, organised the For Art’s Sake day.

She started the day by declaring why she is so passionate about the arts.

Her defining point, repeated much during the day by other participants, was that as people made in the image of God we all possess the creative impulse, whether or not we fit into the modern category of artist. In fact, she lamented the fact that we have ceded art to the experts, as well as divorcing it from its innate connection to God.

David Benjamin Blower

David Benjamin Blower, musician and theologian, addresses the connections between art and the prophetic.

I think if we encountered the Hebrew prophets today, we would probably think they were artists of some kind – performance artists. Standing in public and wailing naked – that’d be a very artful thing to do. Gathering a crowd and just smashing pots together, tying yourself up and laying down on the floor for days and weeks and months, and then writing reams and reams of poetry. Very bizarre and artful poetry. But because it’s all locked up in a holy book, it’s sort of within the realm of religion. We think of them as holy men, holy women.

I’m not really interested in defining what art is. Or who’s an artist and who isn’t. I think this term is always in flux. I think maybe the important question is looking at the artists among us and beginning to ask ourselves whether we’re in the presence of prophets. Whether the creative people around us are there to amuse us or make life more beautiful or put nicer things on the wall, to make life more bearable and help us cope with life, or whether these are people giving us an integral awareness of the present, helping us to be very much in the realities of the present, beautiful or painful. People who are envisioning possible routes into new futures or giving us the tools to enable us to let go of dying pasts.

Art must always do what it’s there to do. It must be absolutely free to do so. So, the commandeering of art for the purposes of the church or the purposes of an endeavour or process that we might describe by the way of mission becomes problematic for me. But the reality is art is so often missional. Marshall McLuhan used a beautiful phrase. He said that artists are “people who build Noah’s arks into new futures”. And in that sense the artist is a missional person creating work that rescues people from a collapsing present into a renewed future. I think if there is a missional kind of description of art, McLuhan put it quite beautifully.

Chris Duffett

Chris Duffett, prophetic artist and founder of the Light Project, shares how art helps him to make connections.

As an artist, I love to bring images and words and symbols to people’s hearts from God’s heart. And I hope and pray that I would bring comfort, encouragement and strength to those I paint for. I call them prayer paintings. People will often ask what I’m doing. And I will just cheerfully reply, “I’m painting prayers for people. Can I paint something for you?” Nine times out of ten people say, “Oh, okay, go on then.” I’ll then pray and ask, what is it that God wants to say to that person? Sometimes it’s a symbol, sometimes it’s a scene. Sometimes I’ll hear a psalm or a proverb that I try to communicate.

One morning I read in Proverbs about one who sticks closer than a brother. I was on Bardsey Island serving as a chaplain. And I went down to the cafe and there were day visitors coming off the boat. I kept thinking about that verse, about one who sticks closer than a brother and a couple came and asked what I was doing and what prayer painting was all about. And I said, “I could paint something for you.” And the lady looked at me and she said, “Would you really paint something for me?” I said, “I’d love to.” And she started crying. She said, “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what’s going on. I feel really emotional.”

I drew a picture of a sister and a brother and the verse, “There is one that sticks closer than a brother.” I gave it to this lady and she said, “Well, the reason I’m emotional is I’m thinking about my brother.” And she just poured out her heart about her brother, heartache and difficulties he had gone through. The painting spoke to her and she said, “We knew we needed to come to this island, but we didn’t realise it was to meet someone.” I felt really encouraged that I’d been able to bring something of comfort and strength to this couple, that they could leave the island knowing that they were known by God.

There really is something very special about how God communicates through the arts. So as a painter, I love to bring something that words can’t quite bring. So often people will look at something and they’ll feel something of God within what I’ve painted. And they may not have the language or the words to communicate, but they will say things like, what is this? Why am I feeling this?

The mystery is that I might paint something that I didn’t even know would communicate. Perhaps it’s a colour or a symbol that will communicate with someone in a way that I would never have imagined.

More interviews from the day will be featured in an upcoming issue of ANVIL journal of theology and mission.

Published 30 June 2020
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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