Friday, 11 May 2012

Towards an Integrated Christian Imagination

Big thanks to Mark Meynell (see end of blog post for more info) for a thoroughly stimulating talk last night at University of the Arts, London!  For those who couldn’t make it/ are interested, I will do my best to summarise the wealth of wisdom, insight and challenge that Mark brought to us as those studying the creative arts.  I warn you, there is MUCH to take in, and my summarising skills are weak, so though this is a long blog post, it's worth sticking with it!
Mark took us to Romans 12:1-2 first of all to help us see the fundamental difference that exists between Christians, and non-Christians.  He explained the difference in simple terms: paganism bribes God into doing something for us, whether it’s with money, time or effort, essentially bringing ‘my agenda to God’.  As Christians however we live in response to the assurance, the confidence, the love and the mercy that we already have in the gospel.  This means the way we do life is profoundly different, as we are called to be living sacrifices, those who die to self and live to Christ.
What a challenge to start with! To remember that we are indeed Christ’s and we are called to live in response to his grace.  The idea of dying to self is often so hard, and yet it also brings such freedom as we do.  
Mark really helped us to see that we are living in response to God’s round-the-clock mercy; there is never any point when we are not his. We are complex beings, all of whom are for Him. This in turn calls for us to integrate our whole lives: body, mind, soul, heart as we live in response to his mercy. 
So, where as post-moderns fragment,
we are called to integrate as part of round-the-clock discipleship.
So what does this mean for our imaginations? What does this mean for the way we approach our creative disciplines?
Mark had a couple of big points for us, both of which were really helpful on broadening our perspective on what’s involved as we imagine and create:

1. We are theologians of the imagination
Artists are societies’ visionaries or to quote Mark ‘society’s equivalent of specsavers’!  As artists we help people to see what they don’t naturally see.  We are more deliberate in feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting, and sensing the world around us because we study it in a more intense and deliberate way, and so we are making people see more of what’s around them. 
This has been keenly felt recently in the work of Hockney as his RA exhibition, but to quote Hockney himself as he saw a Monet exhibition, 
 “ There was a fantastic Monet exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995. They got a million people to see it. There are forty-six Monets in the Art Institute’s collection, which they lend to other exhibitions, so a lot of museums owed them a favour. As a result, for this exhibition they had got together about a hundred and fifty of his paintings. I went to see it one Sunday morning. It was fabulous. When I came out, I started looking at the bushes on Michigan Avenue with a little more care, because Monet had looked at his surroundings with such attention. He made you see more. Van Gogh does that for you too. He makes you see the world around just a little more intensely. And you enjoy seeing it like that, or I do."
I absolutely agree with Mark that this is exactly what happened after seeing the Hockney at the RA too - I felt a more profound, and more intense delight in the mundane aspects of nature, seeing them and delighting in the wondrous in a thoroughly exhilarating way.

Artists are also prophets, communicating what we see around us.  It’s no longer philosophers, statesmen and preachers in the pulpit who influence culture and society.  Rather, it’s the media, artists, singer-songwriters, celebrities and the like who are our culture’s prophets, confronting us with some of the realities around us.  Whether we like it or not, we have an influence as culture-makers, and contribute to the visual plethora of stimuli around us.  

Because we look more, we see more and therefore have responsibility to do more.  

This is weighty stuff.  Mark’s question to us: Do you feel intimated by this? 
I certainly did last night.  But what a wonderful thing to realise that we’re not on our own -  we should be on our knees, praying hard for the Lord to guide us.

2. The visionary and prophetic mandate
In light of all this, we were encouraged to see that our mind is absolutely central to how we live out our lives.  Godliness so often begins in the mind, as we are motivated by the grace we have received.  When we know it in our heart and mind, we then can’t help but respond in action and response, living in view of God’s mercy.

Paul calls Christians in Philippians 4 to fill their minds with good things as they strive to be godly:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
But where do these verses leave us in the context of our creativity?
So often, they lead down a ‘blind alley of kitsch, cliche and platitude.’
As discussed last night, these verses have been used out of context, to restrict what artists can paint and portray, and have become a shackle to creative endeavours.  Mark was keen to show us that though we are to strive for godliness (which is the context of these verses), integrated Christian art must have a place for the ugly and despairing, because that is real life, that is our world.  The Old Testament prophets are wonderful examples of communicating the despairing world they see in front of them, and speaking into that situation.
So where does this leave us?
With 3 valuable pointers regarding the content of our work and imaginations:
Truth: exposing the false, reflecting the real
Scripture is our foundation, our benchmark of understanding.  We can create in provocative, quirky and poetic ways but we have to be true and real.  It is right to expose the horrors of the world, and being truthful will involve exposing the ugly.
Have you read any of Calvin’s Seerveld’s stuff? If not grab hold of ‘Bearing fresh Olive leaves’ (in the book review section of this blog) and read Ch 2 on ‘The freedom and Responsibility of the artist’ - it is full of rich gems that will help you to think through these thoughts in more detail.  To quote him just once here, 
‘art, like anything else, is relevant if it supplies what it needed.  Art that is popular is supplying what is wanted, but not necessarily what is needed, and may not therefore be relevant.’
Creating what is popular does not equal being relevant.  We have a respobnsibility to decide what is helpful or not for us as Christians, but the challenge remains: are we willing to delve into the ugliness to expose the tensions and lies that lurk beneath?
Beauty: exposing the idolatrous, reflecting the wondrous
Worshipping beauty is idolatry.  We worship the one to whom they all point.  As people look at our work, they should cry, “Where and how are such things possible?” whether that's in the nature of our brushstroke, how we intricately piece together our textile final piece, or what themes are provoked and pointed to in a film that we create.
T-bone Burnett said there are two types of songs: 
there are songs about the light, or songs that describe things that you can now see because of the light.  
What a brilliant way to think about how we see, now we’ve been exposed to the light.  God’s light shines on everything we see.  Are we choosing to reflect the wonderful creation around us with integrity, in view of this light?
Hope: exposing the baseless, reflecting the future
We are called to expose idoaltrous delusion, life and systems that build hope without Christ at the centre, and in turn provoke hope in a way that isn’t kitsch, cliche or trite.
What a challenge! But as Mark rightly points out, this is what society is desperate for.  Do we need to be formulating a sincere language that will be able to deal with such an enormous task?
Mark Meynell left us all feeling thoroughly encouraged in our creative calling, challenged with the weight of responsibility that comes with being those who live in view of God's mercy, and stimulated to think more and more on the wealth of rich material he gave us to ponder.
A couple of things he left us with at the end of last night are supremely helpful for us all as we think about our Christian imaginations:
Remember that we can never do more than reflect the Lord’s creativity
If you’ve led one person to think and see things in a new way, it’s worth it.

* Mark Meynell is a minister at All Soul's, Langham Place, London.  He's got a great blog which is well worth checking out!

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