Once a year, each academic department at Westmont College is invited to host a chapel for the majors and minors in their department. Here in the art department, we’ve used this opportunity to present our “artistic testimonies,” to discuss what might constitute Christian art, and to use works of art from the past as foci for devotional exercises. This year, we’ve decided to ask students to read one of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, the parable of the talents from Matthew 25. Perhaps before reading any more of this editorial, you’d like to re-read that passage, imagining that you are an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old art student at a Christian college.
As an art major, how would you read yourself into this parable? Do Jesus’ monetary “talents” provide any parallel to artistic talents? With which of the three servants do you identify? Why? What does it mean to multiply your talents? What does it mean to have one’s talents taken away? How does this parable tell us how we are to use our talents?
A Failure of Community
We’ve chosen to focus on the parable of the talents this year because we have found ourselves concerned as never before about how we, as Christians, steward our artistic gifts. Our students are struggling to value the talents that many of their peers and the larger community regard as frivolous. As a consequence, they struggle with how to “invest” or how to cultivate their talents. This lonely struggle, in my opinion, is a failure of community—a failure of our pragmatic American community as well as a failure of our Christian community. Certainly both are the poorer for it.
This state of affairs is one of the conditions that motivates the teaching and writing of William Dyrness (“Open Our Eyes,” p. 8), a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. In his recent book, Visual Faith (Baker, 2001), Dyrness seeks to analyze, historically and theologically, how we arrived at our current condition and what is at stake for churches if our neglect of the arts continues, as well as what is at stake for our larger society if the church fails to renew its artistic imagination. Dyrness’s positive and exciting vision helps us to imagine what worship might be like, and even what life might be like, were artists more faithfully drawn in to our church and civic communities. Ultimately, according to Dyrness, it isn’t just the church that needs a renewed appreciation for the role that the arts can play in worship. He argues that society at large desperately needs new models of how to engage art, and artists need new models of how to imagine community. For him Christians in churches, as Christ’s living body, are the most powerful key to offering a vivid image of redeemed fellowship to a world weary and worn.
Liberating Our Imagination
Though we are accustomed to thinking of churches as redemptive forces in the lives of individual people, in our local communities, and even around the world, we don’t often think of God’s church as a place where North Americans could turn for a redemptive, imaginative, prophetic vision of cultural life. Dyrness challenges us to take our faith as seriously as possible, which means as imaginatively as possible! In doing so, we are carrying out the mission of the church—that of glorifying God, tending the faithful, and healing our communities. In his words:
Whether in the church or in the larger culture, we must learn to treasure the gifts of artistic imagination, for we are desperately in need of the “visions” of artists to help us prepare for that grand worship around the throne of God in heaven. In the end, just as the biblical story explodes in a dazzling display of images and songs, we long to see images of grace, to break out into song, or to dance before the Lord. For this to happen, we all need a deeper education in the visual arts, but even more we need a liberated imagination. Most of all we need a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit, who continues Christ’s work of moving creatures to praise the Father (159).
This issue of RW provides ample room to catch a glimpse of how the artists in our midst can provide a new dimension and a broader language in which to worship God. As you look at the reproductions of these works, imagine being present during a worship service where these objects or installations are visible. Imagine how they open up ways of thinking, create new associations, or capture an allusive, fleeting moment. Imagine you know the people who made them, imagine that you have a sense of how the works came into being. Imagine how these objects can begin to help anchor points in your own spiritual joumey. Then give thanks for those who made them and pray for God’s Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen the artists in our midst.