nov 6

Creator & Creation – The Power of Art to Bring about Change


If we walk into the movie late, we may miss the plot.

The opening scene of our ‘movie,’ our story, reveals God as the first Artist, and the startling fact that we are made in His image with both inherent creativity and dignity. The camera pans out to reveal an astonishingly beautiful world, a perfect paradise that only a loving, perfectly good, and unbelievably creative God could bring into existence.

Right from the start we see the first human beings carrying out the Task that this Creator God has designed them for: cultivating a garden, exercising their creative and scientific acumen in naming and categorizing the animals. Then looking beyond towards filling the whole earth with fellow image-bearers, taking authority over the created realm to care for and develop, to ‘make something’ of it. This is the original job description: ‘Making something of this world’—both in the spiritual and the material sense of the word—in short, creating culture.

How long Adam and Eve lived and worked in the Garden of Eden, in those pitch-perfect conditions, in blissful, life-giving harmony—with each other, the world around them, their Task, and their Maker—we don’t know. But when the Fall did finally take place it was cataclysmic, and its disastrous impact on every relationship in the cosmos reverberates to this day.

Reconciled World responds to the effects of the Fall, to poverty, injustice, sickness, broken relationships, spiritual needs, etc., because the world is not as it should be—and God is doing something about it. The Creator God is also the Redeemer God, and in Genesis itself begins to weave his redemption into the unfolding tapestry of human history, culminating with His pivotal work of redemption in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus declares the ‘Great Commission’ to the Church, stating ‘All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,” we hear an echo of Gen 1:28-29, the Cultural Mandate, but from a normative, redemptive angle. As Evangelicals we often read the Great Commission as a call to Evangelism. God is concerned about the restoration of His relationship with mankind, but God is also concerned about the reconciliation of all things to himself, whether in heaven or on earth (Col 1:20). Evangelism alone will not achieve the Great Commission, and there are many examples to prove it: Around the world, cultural problems that exist outside the church found inside the church as well. Darrow Miller says “If the church is not discipling the nation, the nation will disciple the church.” Jesus’ words, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you,” is not about people becoming more religious, but about seeing truth transform individuals, families, society itself.

We recognize that the Cultural Mandate did not end with the Fall. That the task of ‘making something of this world’ continues even in the opening chapters of Genesis against the backdrop of sin’s ravaging effects. That to this day God is concerned for the flourishing of all existence, of human beings and the cultures that we have created.

And it is at this confluence of the two mandates that we find that art plays a very special role.

The Evangelical Church has traditionally understood how ideas travel horizontally, taking the Gospel from one nation to another, but less how ideas travel vertically, within a nation, shaping a society. One way of grasping the profound role art plays in a society is to examine how ideas often begin with the intellectuals—the thinkers, the priests, the professors. They then get picked up by what Darrow Miller calls the ‘Balladeers,’ balladeers historically being traveling musicians who sang ballads—stories put to song—in public places. The Balladeers are the writers, painters, playwrights, performers, poets, musicians, film-makers, etc., who pick up and popularize the ideas. The British poet Ezra Pound called artists “the antennae of the [human] race.” They have a sensitivity to stimuli, picking up signals long before the rest of society. Artists can feel ahead, like the antennae of a bug, or if you think of the antennae on a radio, pick up ideas floating invisibly in the intellectual ether, and literally broadcast them. ‘If you want to see what tomorrow looks like,’ someone said, ‘listen to the songs of today.’

Those disseminated ideas then shape the professions, the institutions of education, law, business, politics, etc., which then effect the common people. This is just one, perhaps simplistic, way of understanding how ideas travel, but it points to the profound role that art can play in society. Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician who lived 1653-1716 said this: “Give me the songs of the nation and it matters not who writes the laws.” He understood the power of art, whether intentional or not, to influence culture.

Why is art powerful? Because of the Cultural Mandate, because there is something uniquely human about creating and imbibing culture, but also because of the specific nature of art as indirect communication. The power of art is that it is not direct: it is not preaching, lecturing, or journalism. Art is ideas embedded in story, in melody, in colour. Jesus seemed to have understood this, as so much of his teaching was in parables. Stories stay with you, music connects to something deeper within, the best art makes you see things as if you had never seen them before. It comes at truth from an oblique angle. [1]

Perhaps nowadays the most powerful discipler of nations is film: Hollywood for the Western world, Bollywood for India. What is Rick Santorum, the presidential candidate who ran in the last US elections, doing today? He is the CEO of a film production house. Why? In his own words, because “culture is upstream to politics.” He has concluded he can have more influence on American society as a film producer than as a politician.

In our work in India we are excited by these ideas. We want to see the flourishing of culture. We recognize that the world is not as it should be and we want to see truth transforming us, and our society around us.

We run an art studio, where young professional artists spend time with us in three-week long artist residencies. We pick a topic or a social issue and get the artists to engage with it and produce art from the perspective of truth, true art, art that can play a role in the discipling of a nation.

This month we are running an international residency in partnership with a local church, making art in response to the question: What does it mean to love your city? We are bringing together artists for three weeks to interact with a low-income community, listening to the stories of a marginalized and often abused migrant community which serves our city. Our aim: to produce art that seeks to help the wider population see the vulnerable in a new light.

We call our project ‘The Create Commission’ as an integration of the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission. For us, getting to the movie on time made all the difference.

[1] Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (Intervarsity Press: 2001)
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.

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