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What Have the Arts to do with Missional?: Contrary Thoughts on Being Incarnational 2″

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We say “incarnational” in order to describe the embodying of the gospel among people in everyday life. By being “incarnational” we seek to follow God who became incarnate in Christ into everyday life to manifest His presence among us. And so we, instead of focusing church in the Sunday morning gathering alone, seek to live the gospel to, in and among the surrounding community. It is the missional way. And of course, these days, it is easier said than done. Nonetheless, this is the practice I endorse for my own life and church.

My question: does such an embodying the gospel require art? Surely the embodiment of the gospel incarnationally requires that we do more than speak about God’s salvation in Christ. It requires we practice the gospel in our life together in community. It requires that we minister it to hurting bodies in our surrounding community. And lastly, it requires we SEE the gospel in all its beauty as a full-orbed reality of life we invite others to participate in. And so it makes sense that the embodiment of the gospel requires the community’s practice of the arts and a recapture of “beauty” as a category of truth for Christian living and witness.

At the risk of being academic here, I offer David Bentley Hart’s analysis of beauty within the landscape of postmodernity as the guide that helps us see why art and the category of beauty must play a central role in the church of these postmodern times. In Hart’s brilliant The Beauty of the Infinite, he outlines the development of Kant’s category of the sublime within postmodern Continental philosophy. He shows how postmodern thinkers separate beauty from the category of the sublime so that beauty now falls under the “representable” in terms of reason, logic and categories of determinacy. While the sublime falls beyond “representation” in either language or form. The sublime is beyond the limits of representation. “Unlike the beautiful, its manifestation is an intuition of the indeterminate ..”(P. 45) Hence the attraction of postmodern thought to “the sublime.” For postmoderns then, beauty is an object of disdain, too easily domesticated for the forces of power. Hart’s agenda is to overcome this false domestication of beauty by the logic and form of the representable. He wants to recover beauty as a participation in God Himself, as that which overcomes the autonomy of the self in worship such that we are shaped and formed into a participation in God’s life that is ultimately peace, love and harmony. Hart’s book is too magnificent to summarize in this way. Nonetheless, this summary illuminates why, if we are not to fall prey to the Nietzschian trap of postmodern nihilism that denies God incarnates Himself into this world, we must recapture beauty as a category for the revealing of God, the revealing of the good, the revealing of truth.

I said in the Great Giveaway ..” to know God is to see His beauty. Until we embrace this notion of truth, art will always be an illustration that merely sets up the sermon.” What I was trying to say there, among other things, is that if we would truly incarnate the presence of God, over against a world that has commoditized everything, we must inhabit our faith aesthetically, that art must be more than an introduction to a sermon, it must be part of our worship, and everyday life, not as a commercialized piece of spectral gaze, but as part of our participation in God’s glorious redemption of all creation.

Because of all this, plus Bentley-Hart, I believe “incarnational” must involve the manifestation of His beauty out of our organic life in worship and life together. By this I do not refer to the beauty that is achieved through “production excellence” as is so often sought after in the mega church. So often this results in “the production” of a simulacrum beauty detached from our every day incarnational life. Rather, in the way we worship and in the way we live, art is birthed on the canvas, with the camera, in the children’s class, on the graphics arts screen that points us to the reality of God revealed in all his beauty around us and in everyday life. In this way, music, dance, and the arts are part of what it means to be present as a witness to the beauty of the Lord. Hopefully this art will adorn our homes, our places of conversation, and in our worship gatherings. Otherwise we fall into the dichotomies of beauty versus the sublime, the truth as rational yet not visible. And worse, truth becomes Gnostic, not embodied for all to see.

And so I argue for art in the church, gatherings and life. I suggest again we need to think carefully about buildings and space (especially after last week’s post). I propose that incarnational, yes missional, means we recover beauty as a category for the display of the gospel in and among the world we live.

At our church, Brian Christensen leads the artwork for each time period in the church calendar. He does a great job. We get the children doing art that puts visually how God is revealing the world to them through the gospel. We hang it up in the church. We have had book clubs, novels, discussion of cyber punk fiction. At times, we have an artwork that graces the altar to symbolize for us what we bring to the altar during the particular season we are exploring through Scripture. We have guided art meditations through the art before we begin church from time to time, we are thinking about making it a regular thing. It gets people out of their rational logo centric argumentative mode to engage God in all his mystery and beauty. We have much further to go.

In what ways is beauty manifested as part of life in your missional communities?

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