Have you ever walked into a movie late? What was that experience like?
After shuffling through the theatre’s darkness, you sit down with a sigh of relief, and dive into the action on the screen.
If you’re not too late, you get most of the story but can’t shake the feeling of being robbed of something good. But if the traffic really held you up, the storyline may just not fully make sense. In fact, chances are, without seeing the beginning of the movie, there are crucial things about the film that to this day you may never realize you have completely missed out on.
For many of us who have grown up in the evangelical church, it’s as if we have walked into the movie late. Our story, as we experience or narrate it to others, often starts in the middle of a bunch of action up there on the screen. The way we tell it, our story begins with John 3:16, or Romans 3:23, in short, with the Fall. And as a result, although there is much we understand about God, ourselves, and the task at hand, the storyline doesn’t always add up. At its worst, we may not even realize we are missing some of the most central plot lines of the movie.
Our story, of course, doesn’t start with the Fall, but with Creation. And in the course of three blogs we want to explore what the opening chapters of Genesis reveal about God, ourselves, the task at hand, and in particular, the place of beauty and art in it all.
The First Artist
“In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 tells us our story starts with God, the source of all reality, the beginning of history, and the fact that He is an artist. God creates, and as he constructs the world, he doesn’t do so just for utility. Genesis 2:9 tells us: “Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food.” God could have made the tree functional, in monotones, a grey shed to provide us shade with a box of fruit in the corner. Instead He chose to make the trees both good for food and pleasing to the eye in all their fractal detail and myriad diversity. Beauty is no accident, beauty is intentional, core to the way God did things and planned life to unfold from the very start.
In India, Reconciled World’s Create Commission project makes art with some of the poorest, neediest people in the world, destitute men and children living in slums. Should we not be using our resources better? Instead of art, should we not be giving the children food, or providing medical care to the destitute? The truth is, we spend our resources on making art with these precious friends, because our story doesn’t start with hunger and disease, it starts with creation and beauty.
The Original Task
God creates Adam and Eve, in his image, and places them in the Garden. He gives Adam a task, to name the animals. Here’s a question: Why didn’t God name the animals? He should have, shouldn’t he, because He created them, and they belongedto Him. But the Bible says, “He brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”God is curious, fascinated by Adam’s creativity. Scripture says, “Whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name” (Gen 2:19). God respects Adam’s creativity. In fact, He not only respects it, He expects it. Why? Because that was what Adam was created to do. That was Adam’s job-description.
Before any talk about saving the world, helping the poor, liberating the captives, fulfilling the Great Commission—all the things that we concern ourselves with because of the Fall— Genesis tells us that human beings were created for a specific task. In Genesis 1:28 God blesses Adam and Eve and then gives them this mandate: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
These activities constitute what theologians call the ‘Cultural Mandate,’ a social, developmental, scientific, and artistic mandate to take a world that was created perfect, yet not finished, and make something of it. In effect, it is a mandate to create culture. Ken Myers defines culture as ‘what we make of the world’—in both senses of the word, the stuff we make of the world, and the sense we make of it.
When we add the Fall to our story, the place for beauty and creativity does not disappear, the Cultural Mandate does not expire; these things only get augmented with a redemptive quality. The Great Commission, to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20), is in many ways a recasting of the Cultural Mandate, bringing a normative, prophetic, redeeming function to our original task.
In the work of Reconciled World’s Create Commission, we believe that by giving people the chance to be creative, they become more human, more of what God intended them to be from the start. In our work with the marginalized and dispossessed, we see beauty and creativity play a role in healing. In discovering their God-given identity, men, women and children start exercising a part of themselves they have rarely had the chance to before.
But we also recognize the central, God-intended responsibility human beings have to create culture. And we are excited about working with professional artists, those with a powerful ‘engine’ for creating culture, exploring the redemptive role that art plays in bringing truth to bear on society and speaking out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.
In the next two postings we want to explore more of how we in Reconciled World are trying to connect the full story to our work—having attempted to get to the movie theater on time. As paraphrased by Andy Crouch on page 31 of ‘For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts,’ Edited by W David O Taylor, BakerBooks (Grand Rapids: 2010). Stefan runs the Create Commission project in India. He is passionate about the interface between faith, art, and social issues, and the powerful and necessary role that art plays in speaking truth and shaping society.