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Telling God’s story with voices of fire

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“The Fourth Man” by Jessica Morgun

Lessons in art, excess, and good stewardship

In 1989, the Canadian government purchased Barnett Newman’s painting “Voice of Fire” to add to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada for a staggering $1.8 million. The painting was, as you might remember, a red stripe painted vertically upon a blue canvas.

The amount of money spent on what seemed to most a simplistic work of art outraged many across the country. More than 20 years later, “Voice of Fire” continues to function, unfairly in my opinion, as an illustration of waste and extravagance in the art world. (In fact, Barnett Newman, who did not experience notoriety as a painter until the few years prior to his death in 1970, was a deeply spiritual man. His greatest masterpiece was a series of 13 large-scale paintings entitled “Stations of the Cross,” meditations upon Christ’s suffering.)

Yet we don’t have to look very far to find true examples of excess, waste, or materialistic consumerism in any sphere of life – the art world included. It seems the church must fight an uphill battle as it tries, against the grain, to model good stewardship.

The problem is when the arts – including stories, poems, songs, paintings, sculptures, films – fall victim to this “good stewardship.” In an effort to save time and money on “unnecessary” things and activities – and to focus more diligently on the “necessary” work of the kingdom, such as making disciples and helping the poor – the church tends to either devalue or abandon the arts, unaware of the many ways they can actually serve the church’s mission.

Functional and aesthetically pleasing church architecture gives way to cheaply constructed or aesthetically impoverished spaces. Musical and lyrical excellence is sacrificed for songs that require less skill or practice time. And we download stock images off the internet rather than investing in more tangible, permanent works of visual art to aid congregations in worship.

So, in order to avoid setting up an either/or situation, where we might pit investment in the arts against works of social justice or discipleship, it may be helpful to explore the following Bible story.

Mary’s excessive gift

At a dinner party in Bethany six days before the Passover, Jesus faced a dilemma. Out of deep love and gratitude for what had been done for her brother Lazarus, Mary took what was to be her (and very likely Martha’s) dowry perfume and broke it upon Jesus’ feet.  All her financial stability, worth more than a year’s wage, was spent within a few short moments as she poured out the precious perfume upon her rabbi, wiping it up with her hair.

Many of us can identify with Judas’ words, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” Jesus’ surprising response sounds harsh to our 21st-century ears: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8). It seems, in this particular instance, that when Jesus had to choose between a costly act of beauty and helping the poor, he chose beauty!

We can only assume Mary, Martha, and Lazarus discussed their expensive display before initiating it. They would have had to confront the all-too-real consequences of their offering. But as they probably knew, there was more than enough wine at Cana, ample leftovers after feeding thousands, and, even after the sisters thought all was lost, Lazarus was miraculously returned to them. Their offering demonstrated a faith that assumed God’s riches are never exhaustible. What seemed like waste to Judas was in truth a faith-filled response of gratitude to Christ, who had so generously poured out his love and mercy upon Mary and her family.

The either/or choice between helping the poor and investing in the arts is actually a false dichotomy – both actions find their basis in recognizing that God is excessively generous and worthy of our worship. Mary displayed a posture of worship from which both actions spring and, in doing so, showed it is God’s self-giving that initiates our own self-giving, not the other way around.

The fear that God is not generous can prevent us from worship. It can also prevent us from engaging in creative work and from responding to the needs of others. Like the servant in Matthew 25 who buried his talents in the ground, such fear can make us poor stewards.

Seeing and responding to God’s generosity

telling-quoteArtists – and creative people in general – can help us see beyond this fear.

Artists remind us God’s wealth is truly excessive because it isn’t just about money: it’s about time, people, spiritual gifts, a bumper crop of crabapples, a surplus of used communion cups. Where many of us see “junk,” artists are surprisingly able to create something out of what otherwise might be discarded or unrecognized. For example, I recently met a sculptor who made a beautiful piece out of 60,000 used communion cups!

Artists like her can teach us to faithfully and creatively use our time and money by recycling and repurposing, living resourcefully, and cherishing what is truly valuable. And when it does come to money, artists are usually well-adapted to stretching a dollar. They can see the possibilities in 10,000 talents and find creative ways to make that amount multiply, or as artist Makoto Fujimura says, make it “generative.”

But there are also times when we are called to spend great quantities of our resources and money. It wasn’t dime store perfume Mary offered to Jesus, it was her most prized possession. Likewise, artists train their whole lives to do what they do, often with very little reward. Yet without the arts, imagine how empty our lives would be. The arts form our imaginations, our values, and our hopes. The Bible, the most influential work of art in our lives, is filled with poetry and songs, artfully told stories and creatively subversive parables. God has used the arts to commune with us – a good sign they are worth costly investment.

At their best, the arts are a tangible affirmation of all God’s gifts, not just the things we might find immediately valuable. More than that, the arts are worth investment because they form us as a community of worship, a community centred upon response to God’s most excessive act of generosity: his own self-giving in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Models of Christ

As we’ve explored what a more expansive vision of good stewardship could entail, let us also remember that the role of steward is not something we can opt out of; it is who we are created to be. In the creation story of Genesis 1, good stewardship means living as God’s representatives – his “co-creators” – tending and ruling over his creation, finding the diverse and beautiful possibilities that can be teased out of the wild earth. This is the cultural (and artistic) work to which God has called all people, and it is this work that Christ restores to us as the firstborn of new humanity. As we, the church, make disciples and call others to follow Jesus, let us remember that underlying the Great Commission is our call to model God’s new humanity in Christ and encourage others to do the same.

We might find it difficult to understand why a painting like “Voice of Fire” comes at such a cost, but we shouldn’t allow these objections to prevent us from taking up our role as cultural stewards in Christ. In modelling Christ’s new humanity, we must model stewardship that is both creative and generous because our Lord has been unfathomably generous with us. This is stewardship that can be seen, touched, tasted, and heard. With this in mind, the arts become far more than decoration – they become essential to our life and mission as Christ’s visible presence in the world.

Jessica Morgun fulfills her creative calling by building forts with her two boys and by studying art and theology at Regent College in Vancouver.  She attends Urban Journey (MB church). You can follow her thesis project at burntlandscapes.wordpress.com.

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