Art, as a human artifact, has value in and of itself, being created and produced by people who are themselves made in the creator’s image. This is part of God’s intentional design, part of what he labeled “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Art produced by men and women who become Christians will gradually reveal a change in values—a worldview shift. These values may cause little or no change in the style; however, the content may well reflect changes, revealing, for example, a renewed hope, joy, or new ethical concern. The work of all Christian artists, given the body of their work over time, will reflect the values of the Kingdom of God.
The focus of the reflections below are narrower, however. The thoughts expressed in this article concern artists in France who feel called to intentionally testify to God’s grace within French culture through the expression of their art.
Art in French History
Art is recognized as an important integral part of French history. It is a highly valued element of the social and cultural context. The call to mission by engaging in art with missional intent may be quite new to most Christians. Yet given France’s long-established love affair with the arts, cultural shifts taking place, and the renewed spiritual interest being expressed, the time for this kind of missionary activity is now.
For most of human history the arts have been centered in the urban sphere of influence. Artistic expression is a public expression. Art depends upon groups of people for its production, distribution, and appreciation.
In France, Paris has been (and is) the undisputed center of this artistic interest with its museums, concert halls, art schools, theaters, and galleries. In addition, the commercial production and distribution of a wide variety of media (which depend upon art such as film, music, literature, radio, and television) are city center businesses. The arts together with the city function as one to communicate and influence the values of society.
The Church and Mission with Artistic Gifts
And it is not just individual artists who are called to engage in mission with artistic gifts—it is the Church as a broad community of believers (including artists) who are called to labor together. For missionaries to be effective in ministry, whether they be evangelists, apostles, artists, teachers, or administrators, they need the multifaceted support of the whole Body of Christ.
Those who are part of this support network do not all need to be versed in theology, art, or business; they simply need to be convinced that these gifts are vital to the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. The use of artistic gifts presents a significant God-designed opportunity to open doors to the heart of French culture that have been shut for a very long time. There are several reasons why the use of art as a way to witness for Christ in France is ideal.
First, a Christian witness through the use of art is a public witness. Mission thinking in France will need to be expanded in scope with a renewed appreciation for cultural and societal changes, which the gospel brings. Art provides creative access to public forums and public institutions, with which French churches historically do not have much experience. When the Church is absent from this public dialogue, the salt and light are missing. However, if the Church is willing to embrace it, art can give it a public voice that it has not had before. To do so, new attitudes must be adopted.
Art is capable of touching large numbers of people through its subtle, indirect, metaphoric communication of truth. For many people, however, an artistic presentation will be one of the first steps in a long process of seeking spiritual answers.
The French Church must allow God to broaden its understanding, and learn how to nurture the sometimes slow process of kingdom growth. That process needs continued cultivation long after the first individuals become Christians. Mission includes individual transformation, but is not limited to the gospel’s private impact. The goal of the gospel is transformation on all levels of society; the gospel is public truth. It is not, as French culture would have us believe, limited to private belief. Art will have an impact on individuals, but it will also have a public, society-wide impact over time. The transformation must be both bottom up and top down.
Lesslie Newbigin writes that the Church is the hermeneutic of the gospel.1 French society is beginning to pay attention to what the Church does and thinks. A Church that is not afraid to take a thoughtful public stance will attract attention, and the arts will facilitate the process. A unified multi-ethnic Church which is arts-oriented would be a powerful hermeneutic in French society before the first word is ever spoken.
Direct verbal presentations of propositional truth have been prized by the Church as the only faithful way of communicating the importance of the gospel. Communication implies a mutual understanding of shared points of reference, even when there is not agreement. In France, however, the commonly shared experiences, symbolism, and points of reference in the spiritual realm are often missing, so real understanding between two individuals does not take place. A verbal expression, no matter how clear, does not guarantee that communication has occurred.
Second, art, by its very nature, is indirect. A majority of French people are not yet ready to interact with God’s truth directly. For this reason the indirectness of art can be very important for mission. Art, as a metaphor, is capable of disclosing truth for the first time; it can lead to the first steps on a long spiritual journey. Art’s allusiveness suggests, prods, points, and indicates truth subtly and consistently. Art can, at times, become God’s “still, quiet voice” speaking to the French soul.
French culture, like other Latin cultures of southern Europe, emphasizes indirectness as a value in communication. It is a way of prompting the person to discover something on his or her own without an offensive direct confrontation. By contrast non-Latin Europe and North American culture emphasize directness, efficiency, and getting right to the point. Because of its indirectness, art can prompt reflection and invite dialogue. Art can raise questions in the mind that require a response. Being asked a question and choosing not to answer is like trying to stop a sneeze. It can be done, but only with conscious effort. The questions raised can push people toward revelation. Art engages and invites dialogue; it pushes toward active participation.
Third, art asks questions. It does not give answers. Many forms of art can do precisely what Jesus did with parables. They can simply be offered to the crowds for reflection. Discussions can be initiated later with those who take time to ask questions. Artists can determine what people really want or need to hear by asking a question rather than making a statement or describing what they were supposed to perceive.
Art can naturally enter into a dialogue with French culture, thus allowing for the gospel to become contextualized and be heard in new ways. The artist who senses God’s call to produce art with missional intent must first humble him or herself and become a learner, as was the Apostle Paul in Athens.
He or she must also be active and intentional about his or her dialogue with culture and his or her artistic contacts, yet allowing God to open the right doors at the right time. When both artist and his or her art are deeply rooted in the person’s context—naturally reflecting a love for art and God’s kingdom—a multi-level transforming communication can happen which may often surpass the artist’s conscious intention. From the perspective of mission, it is at this point that we clearly sense God directing the process. It is God’s work to place meaning where meaning is meant to be.
Storytelling in the Postmodern Context
In the emerging postmodern context, the art of storytelling is exercised not only verbally in the sharing of personal stories and experiences, but also in a wide variety of creative ways through the use of music, film, and a variety of artistic media. In modernity, storytelling was not taken very seriously; stories were reserved for children’s entertainment or for adults who needed to escape and relax.
The postmodern context seems to broaden the scope of storytelling. Novelists, poets, and playwrights can creatively draw from the wealth of the French language's vivid word pictures and subtly nuanced expressions to convey meaning in a wide variety of ways and at various levels. Writing plays, sketches, or scripts can be like the writing of modern parables. The stories can be rooted in real experiences, but told indirectly through the voice of a character. Storytelling can also be expressed through dance, mime, painting, instrumental music, and other ways through the magic of metaphor.
Integrity and the Arts
Good art is complex, requiring the intricate blending of diverse and necessary layers in order to communicate as it is intended. When this happens and it forms a unified whole speaking with one voice, then the work can be described as having integrity.2
Nicholas Wolterstorff speaks about the fittingness of the art within the context for which it was made.3 Art which achieves this quality has both internal integrity as well as contextual integrity. It is art that is contextualized. It fits perfectly and speaks from within the context of a worldview to others who instinctively understand. This level of artistic craftsmanship, hard work, and time are essential for good communication.
When art is valued for its integrity, then the message it carries will be the fruit of work that is well done. This high standard must be a natural but essential quality of art that is done with missional intent. Without integrity in our works of art, there will be a sudden slip toward Christian propaganda that resembles Communist era art, which “accomplishes nothing more than to comfort and affirm those who are already believers.”4
However, “When form and content fuse in this way they create a context in which ideas are carried as natural allies, rather than…[as] blunt instruments to club the…mind into submission.”5
Avoiding the “blunt instruments” of propaganda is essential for the compassionate contextual communication of divine truth.
Because of art’s unique capacities it can also be subversive. But good, creative, artistic communication can turn its subversive abilities toward deconstructing values stemming from false gods. For example, art and artists are idolized in French society, so it is natural to bring art into play in order to communicate the gospel in such a way that challenges those idols. Elements of the secular or postmodern worldviews can be challenged from the inside; values can be turned on their head. Christian artists who use their gifts missionally must become “as wise a serpents, but as harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Integrating Art into Outreach
Practically speaking, for churches in France to begin to integrate art into their outreach and involvement in their community, there are quite a few cultural venues in which they can participate.
The Church can begin by choosing to invest in one art that particularly corresponds to the talents of Christian artists they know. Solo artists or groups can be encouraged to seek and accept concerts in bars, cafés, and clubs with the full support of their churches. Churches can look for opportunities to join art associations, or enter local music, painting, dance, or film festivals.
Local churches can offer various kinds of art courses for the general public. Courses can also be offered for the homeless, the elderly in a retirement home, or for youth in a troubled neighborhood. Teams of believers from different churches can be encouraged to labor together to produce larger events—such as major concerts, plays, musicals, dance performances, competitions, or the production of short films—for a city-wide impact.
Churches with a vision for the use of art can help provide artists with much needed administrative help. Gifted administrators can help artists advertise, draw up contracts, and book galleries and concerts.
As with any new task there will undoubtedly be a steep learning curve at the beginning, and everything will seem new and a bit daunting. Yet, as with any job, once the adaptation period is over, the fear will be replaced by the excitement of doing what we were meant to do and seeing God work in new ways. Steve Turner wonders,
Can we imagine Christians who are called to be artists rather than preachers, not only making an impact in their chosen form, but doing so in a way that draws attention to a worldview that is different from that of their contemporaries, a worldview that gets people talking? Could it be that Christians could actually change the nature of the big debate?6
In France, this kind of public witness is desperately needed and the potential already exists. What we do with that potential remains to be seen.
(This article was part of Thrall’s final project for a Doctor of Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington. The project was entitled, “Engaging in Art with Missional Intent: A Contextual Approach to Mission in France.”)
1. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmann, 222-233.
2. Brand, Hilary and Adrienne Chaplin. 2001. Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 48.
3. 1980. Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmans, 96-121.
4. Turner, Steve. 2002. Imagine. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 52-53.
5. Brand and Chaplin. 148.
6. Turner, 105.