Thoughts on the role of the arts in our spirituality…
(His True Image: why the arts really still matter! And how our creativity relates to a spirituality of cities!)
From an article I’m working on about seeing and being in love with cities: Mending the imaginations of our neighborhoods and cities into His True Image, and the role of art and creativity in our relationship with God.
I’m in love with cities! It is possible to disciple a city through it’s imagination! As we engage with God in this, our own imaginations are made more whole in Him!
“Each city and country has its gifts, and struggles, and unique broken but redeemable reflections of certain aspects of The Real. Finding their particular nuances and what aspect they reflect of God, has become part of my spirituality.” (from a book on the theology of cities, I’m reading; to disciple the nations you have to know them and love them first like people!)
Cities are like people to me-on a journey of becoming, in need of love and revelation to know themselves, just like us. I like walking alongside them, and enjoying what they already know, and seeing what they need. Listening to them on their own terms, not mine. Trying to hear them for what they truly are, not through my projections or needs on them.
In my life, I’ve fallen in love with many cities…
Each city reflects unique aspects: Antwerp has creative curious friendship; berlin a strong house for all nations and bold leadership-arm of God stuff; Prague, that sweet song of solomon fragrance, a lover’s attire, and a place of mystical exchanges in conversation; Austin, creative incubator, entrepreneurial catalyst haven…each city has their gifts and their struggles to become. It is a joy to get to know so many places well. So many places still yet to know and love in this life. Perhaps we never finish in loving…
Of course, like people, our very strengths unredeemed are also our greatest weaknesses, or areas of life which are hardest to live out. So the biggest wounds are often where the greatest strengths reside. I like looking there first to know and listen. So a place of friendship, can become insular; a place of leadership can become presumptuous, a place of curiosity can become mentally unstable etc—but just on the other side of these shadows, is the redeemed identity, standing in the Light, and reflecting upwardly. I like to bring salt and light right there. So I can see who the other really is.
I also like to think of how individual’s stories who live in a city, relate to the city’s biography. How our personal stories relate to our city’s narrative has always fascinated me. Why am I here in this place at this moment of our journeys. What developmental stage is my city at, and my own—how do they match and where do they not? I love asking these sorts of questions as I travel.
I have an insatiable appetite to love more places people and things, and to come to know God through them, and let them be loved by God into their true shining..let’s take off our outer masks and get to know one another deep to deep friend. I’m in love with what that outer expression is coming from! As Van Gogh said, “The way to know God is to love many things deeply.”
We are trying to encounter and mend a fuller image of who God is by seeing and loving one another and places more precisely-to see things true, helps them to become truly themselves, for God’s perception heals places. We are doing a repairing of the imagination—how we image God, one another, and the earth itself. One way to do so, is to see one another more accurately through His Eyes. When we see well, we are engaged in healing the imagination of Reality. To baptize our imaginations is an act of healing for the world. When we see accurately, we help things be more truly themselves.
When we were told to disciple the nations, it included cities and their cultural creative dimensions. We were to disciple them into all three Names of God—the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. Part of this holistic baptism into all three Names, is to see, perceive and creatively dialogue with one another in love.
We see through His Love, this lens made for the aperture of the spiritual imagination. We must wear it, or put it on (part of the Mind of Christ is His Perception!), so we can see one another more as He does. Otherwise how can we prophecy towards wholeness?! If we cannot pray into this person or city’s future whole self in Christ, how can we be helpful to them?!
This is the use of the imagination in discipleship. Blessed are you church, Jesus says through Peter, for The Father has revealed My Own Identity to you. That is the foundational truth of the church–the true image and identity of Jesus, The Messiah!
The Father had revealed the true identity of Jesus to Peter, so He could “see and know” that He was The Son of God. We are equally blessed when the Father shows us the true Identity of His Son, and as He reveals the true identities of one another through His lens of Love. Creative sight is part of knowing something. We must have the windows of our perception cleansed to see through His Lens! Even to see another person well, requires us to come to Him and borrow His Eyes and Heart for a moment. Then we can truly bless that person.
You see that the enemy tries to distort and dis-integrate our image of others. He pornographizes vision! That is his way. Jesus conversely, clarifies vision. Part of our allowing Him to do so, is to invite Him into our creativity!
This is a key part of the role of imagination in discipleship of the nations. The baptized imagination sees more as He sees, the true identity of other. And can therefore call it forth and bless it into His Name. He is healing the nations through the imagination. We are no longer just using the imagination to carry gospel information, we are actually allowing Him to look out through the imagination and heal the nations. The sanctified imagination is part of what Christ uses to heal the nations. the cities, and the world itself.
Ultimately, we have to get a clear picture of who God is. When we do, we will see what parts of His Life are reflected in others around us, and our cities. And which parts are still being brought into alignment with His True Image. Then we ourselves can start to try on our eternal images, and we can help others put on theirs. By starting to wear our eternal clothes, we begin to imagine ourselves more as He sees us. By helping others try on theirs, we get to partner with Him in healing the nations!
Practices: When we pray, write down or draw what we see about whatever or whomever we are praying for. Gather them, and ask the Holy Spirit to amplify them towards a fuller picture, to fill in the poem of its true being.
Then our seeing becomes a way of getting to appreciate how God sees.
When we walk around our neighborhoods ask Him to draw your attention to things which represent the aspects of Him He wants to draw out and bless in that neighborhood. And which sins still need to be confessed for that area to become a clearer reflection of Him!
When we prayer walk our cities, start to enter His creative dialogue with her central symbols or meeting places. Be part of mending the imagination of your city! See what He wants them to be, if the patterns of sin were removed. Pray and confess those blocks of sin in each place which keep Him from expressing Himself more accurately.
You can do this in small groups or by yourself.
Try to paint or draw, dance, photo, or write how that place would look whole.
There are many other exercises I use, but these are a few.
I often take a camera and sketch pad out as I walk through a neighborhood. I try to photo basic objects which represent the identity of that place. If your neighborhood had three basic symbols to represent itself, what would they be. I focus on that, and then ask Him how He sees them, and try to make my art in response to His answer. Or as a response to what He reveals. The art often becomes an answer. My technique may not be perfect, but the conversation itself reveals things to my spirit about who this place really is, and who it wants to be! That is entering His making it more whole, or healing.
Creative prayer walking, or walking with your imagination engaged in your relationship with Christ, can change the atmosphere of your sphere or domain of influence—your neighborhoods and cities can become a clearer reflection of His True image there. We become reconcilers of the cultural expressions with the core identities of our cities. That integration process is the same which happens on a personal level as you allow God to talk to you through your imagination, or in your creative process. Most artist don’t think about their art making as a place of meeting God, but it is meant to be. As you do so, you find that you yourself also become clearer, and more clearly formed, in this creative collaborative partnership and dialogue with God in mending the imagination of people places and things.
One of the purposes of art is to encounter and know and therefore end up loving God. This is the purpose of every area of Life, but is often overlooked with the creative aspects of our relationship with God. Ask Him to help you meet Him in your creativity. You will be surprised by the increase vibrancy of your own imagination.
The Romantics made the mistake of idolizing the imagination. But since the enlightenment, or before, the church has made the mistake of distrusting the imagination. If you throw out the imagination in your relationship with God, you miss out on much of who He is. Creativity has His Life in it, and that birthing power. We need that force even to re-imagine God Himself. We need our image of Him corrected firstly. One way to begin this process is to make art with God.
Jesus is Lord over the whole Person. God is One, and wants to love our whole selves. Our creativity is included in our relationship with God! Most artist don’t contextualize their creative process in their relationship with God. But that is exactly where it flourishes most. There is also an overt relationship between art and healing.
In graduate school I studied arts and healing. What was missing there was the key Jesus Factor. But when we bring Him into the center of the creative process, when we ask Him to baptize our imaginations, we do find that He heals us through our creative activities. The arts can become both part of our healing, and the healing of the imaginations of our cities!
Some artist are so talented, that they struggle to put their talents on the altar. Others are so intimidated by their own creativity that they never get playful with God and their gifts. Most artist struggle with the need to be seen in their process, and often an acute sense that they were born as outsiders or observers, and often they don’t know why they are in that marginalized position. Of course, Jesus loves the freaks and marginalized, so He is always there waiting to meet them. I’ve discipled artist for over 20 years now, and some of the patterns are the same.
The general enemies in the art world, celebrity culture or entertainment spirit, witchcraft and sorcery are all obvious in most art school programs. How do you value or contextualize your art making process. Is it number of successful gallery shows, is it becoming famous, as it often is for musicians for instance; is it having collective books of your work, is it meaningful collaboration with your heroes? There are many gauges of success offered in art school. But rarely is the depth of which you met and where formed by God the highest aim.
The general enemies for artist in the church world have been named well. Using the arts only for evangelism, to decorate the building rather than express the church’s core identity; the prostitution or using the arts as propaganda for God; the worship entertainment machine, which uses artist’s gifts to entertain people in order usually to get higher numbers in the pews etc. Christian artist have to find a way to place their creativity in a larger Kingdom context, in order to not grow bitter or boxed in by the church’s poverty of imagination concerning the arts. Of course, much has changed in the church over time in regards to the arts, and there is positive expansions of imagination going on even within her more institutional walls. Still, the artist must find a way to keep art making as part of their authentic spirituality, and not get lost in the narrow purview the church often has towards the arts.
I work with people in both the art world and the church world, both ultimately have to contextualize their creativity in their personal relationship with God and in His Kingdom. Since my father is a minister and my mother an artist I have grown up knowing both worlds intimately, and tried to integrate them in Him, and His Kingdom. Since, Jesus is Lord over all the realms and the whole person, and the church and the art world, we are free to create as those in His Image. But we often have no clear spiritual context for our creativity. I see this struggle for christian artist as well as others. The challenge is always to bring your whole self to the One God. And be in relationship and conversation, allowing His Holy Spirit to guide you into understanding and interpretation of your creativity. That is true across the board.
Over the years, I’ve met many very high impact artist and leaders in the arts; some have been part of leading cultural movements. Many of these, still do not have a full understanding or context for their creativity and how it fits into their personal spirituality. I like helping them find His Kingdom context for their creativity. Something bigger than worldly versions of success. And bigger than the church’s “use” of the arts. He is growing the imagination of the church to see how creative He actually is, and how He enjoys dialoguing with His People through their creativity.
Prayer is creative! And a place where His Imagination touches ours. Prayer itself then can become a place where you get to know more of who God is, and how He sees yourself, your home, your neighborhood, and your city. Prayer becomes a way of getting to know and therefore love God more! And your place becomes a medium through which you come to appreciate all He sees. For the eyes of Lord are always watching, and caring for what He Himself made, knows, redeems and loves.
Jesus is Lord over the art world and the church, His Body. His book in which He revealed Himself is a work of art, and we ourselves are said to be His masterpiece poems (Ephesians 2:10). Our very identities are His art. Thus, we are free to create with and in Him in order to be more fully formed into His Nature.
The fuller incarnation of His Imagination in His People, is one of His goals in our times. He wants us to see and create with Him and in Him. When we do, you will see some of the greatest art of all time emerging. Here it comes. He is birthing and incarnating His Imagination more intensely in His People in our times. If they are not open, He will use anyone open to download His Images and Perceptions onto earth!
He wants to incarnate in our imaginations more intensely in our times. This is happening as the darkening of imagination through pornography and false advertising, propaganda, and banal uses of the imagination are increasing—the wheat and tares grow together; the darkness increases, but so does the Reality of His Light! God wants to enter in to our creative dimensions, and make us more fully human in this key area. The arts are not just for artist anymore. They are part of His deeper incarnation on earth, and are a place in which He is preparing a way for His Kingdom to come.