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Friday, 19 November 2021 22:13

Artists who Care: Identification with Our Community Featured

Written by Werner Geischberger
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Our dear friend, Werner Geischberger, recently shared this article with us. It is such a beautiful reminder of our call to reach the world around us. Read what he has to say below! 

“I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world… They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17:11.16)

The passage quoted above describes our situation as believers here in this world and gives an outline of our task: as believers we are part of this world, we live here and if we are artists we do our art in this world. At the same time, we should not allow the world to impose its values on us which would make us people “of the world”. This would mean that we become part of the secular system of values or the ruling, pervasive “Zeitgeist” around us.

It is easy to see that the relationship between the church and the world is full of controversies and has for this reason always been on the radar of Christian scholars and teachers. The question of how we as Christians should live and “behave” in a spiritually correct way in a secular environment has caused quite a bit of discussion, as it touches on a pillar of Christian ethics which has traditionally been circumscribed with the term “sanctification” – which is a “must” for every Christian because “without [sanctification] no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14; NASB).

The teaching of “sanctification” is based on the conviction that a believer living in this world always runs the risk of being defiled by its attractions, ideas and ideologies. For this reason, he needs to know how to protect himself against these influences so he can stay close to the Lord, “on track” in his calling, sane in his thinking and pure in his relationships. As the actual source of defilement seems to be the world[1], many Christians have been taught to keep at a safe distance – which unfortunately has resulted in some kind of Christian “ghettoism”, a multitude of “bubbles” where believers are among themselves and safe. It’s true: We should “keep [ourselves] unstained by the world” (James 1:27; NASB), but there is a danger of understanding this call legalistically which may lead to a kind of attitude which says: “The world is bad by default. Don’t have anything to do with it! Stay away from it!” This, in turn, may lead to a possible subsequent thought which would sound like: “Wait a moment: Who is the world? It’s the people. The people are the ones who defile me. So I need to stay away from them!”

Wherever this chain of reason is at work, the distinction between the “world” (a system) and the “people living in the world” (individuals) gets lost and thus also the distinction between “sin” and “sinner”. This way of thinking results in Christians withdrawing from their non-believing neighbors, colleagues, teammates, fellow students etc. for fear of a possible defilement or distraction. This withdrawal is a very unfortunate misunderstanding. Agreed, we should stay away from the values and bad things of the world but not from the people. It is very clear that Jesus says in Matthew 5 that we are the light of the world. As Christians we are (intentionally) placed in a dark world to be a light there. We are not called to leave this dark place and live on sacred “Cloud 9”. By the way: we need to realize that this “segregative” behavior could definitely offend our neighbors because if we stay away from them once we are Christians for fear of defilement, they may interpret our behavior as: “I am not interested in you. I don’t like your company.” How much misunderstanding, bewilderment and even anger would that elicit in the hearts of those we are to reach with the love of Jesus?

A “segregative” Christian mindset can keep us from identifying with people in the world and often it makes us unable to identify with them. Maybe there is a muscle of empathy in our spirit that needs to be trained or otherwise it becomes atrophied! Many of us believers are detached from the needs, sufferings, values and problems of the people who try to survive in this world. Many of us lost or even gave up our non-believing friends after we came to Christ because it was either required from us or we ourselves were keen to invest all of our time and energy in Christian things and church. The idea behind it – which may be an interpretation of the call to “seek the kingdom of God first” – is not bad in itself. It only gets out of balance when church or ministry in their different manifestations become the exclusive recipients of our love and devotion.

There seems to be a need to change our minds. We need to ask honest questions about our relationship with our secular neighbors. We need to come to terms with our task to be the “salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13). What is required from us when we walk through life as “salt” for others? If the Lord has given us the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18; NASB), we need to know what that means – and it would be unthinkable to reduce this task to resolving church quarrels and calming spiritual hypersensitivities!

Of course, we should not sin as the people in this world sin in order to show them that we identify with them. We are to stay away from evil thoughts, ideologies and practices but at the same time we must give up our detachedness from secular people. We are called to bridge the gap between us and them, to try and understand them, to care, to send them signals of hope. We are to live among them and get a feel for what is on their hearts. Wasn’t it one of the outstanding features of Jesus that he “…made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself…” (Phil 2:7-8; NIV)?

What does all of that mean for artists who believe in God? Is this call to identify with our secular neighbors and to be “salt of the earth” relevant for us, too? Many artists who follow Jesus focus on spiritual things in their art. They deal with “Christian” topics like worship, the cross, the love of God, healing etc. Of course, it is our task to glorify God with our gifts and over the centuries, artists have given their best for the church. But again: if all that we focus on is “Christian” and everyone we work with or reach is “Christian,” we as artists also run the risk of becoming detached from the world and unable to identify with unbelievers.

There are great and impressive works of art by secular artists reflecting on or commemorating dark moments of history, grief, suffering, social problems and human pain. Examples like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. or the Famine Memorial in Dublin dedicated to the Irish Great Hunger show impressively how secular artists process pain and care about wounds inflicted on the soul of a nation or a people. One may ask: how often do we see artists who express their faith in God doing art about similar themes…? Human pain, suffering, grief, social problems etc.? There are some who do, but shouldn’t there be more? Wouldn’t works of art like these send out the message: “I see you, I care, I know how you are doing” to distressed and lonely secular people? Wouldn’t we show them the heart of Jesus through this?

When you look at a considerable part of “Christian” art, you can’t help feeling that many artists resort to an inward spiritual world, process personal emotional issues or focus on their own life-story, hurt and brokenness. Of course, there is much healing and blessing involved in the artistic process and yet there seems to be a strange gap between God and me (as an artist) on one side and the world and its challenges on the other. Shouldn’t the call to be “salt of the earth” challenge us to struggle for more empathy, to look around us and ask ourselves: “What can we give to this world?” What about their life-stories, hurt and brokenness? We have so much to give because we have received so much! But we will only start giving once we have understood the necessity, realized the need and opened our hearts. What we give through our art will become authentic through identification.

I long to see more believing artists who open their eyes for what is going on around them. I long to see more believing artists who see the necessity of identifying with their neighbors (before we even think of communicating “the Gospel”). I long to see more believing artists who care. I long to see more believing artists who weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh.

Yes, many artists are called to portray God’s beauty. Yes, the church needs great art. Yes, the call to sanctification is key for being a witness in our society. Yes, we have the freedom to process our inner hurts through our art. But as “salt of the earth” we are sprinkled among a secular society to be tasty and give flavor. As artists who believe in Christ, we have incredibly powerful means to be “salty” because modern men and women like art. But maybe they not only want to hear and see our art; maybe their hearts also long to get to know people who care.

 

[1] This seems to be the “easy” interpretation as it locates the defiling agent outside of man which seems to be a correct analysis when you look at all the things the world bombards us with. On the other hand, maybe as much defilement comes our way through our own thoughts, as “…the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts…” (Mt 15:18-19; NASB)

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