Imagination and the role of the artist

Imagination and the role of the artist

This Image is a visual response to a collection of beautiful images created by my brother Paul.

“Why is our world beautiful, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is beautiful? Why is our world ugly, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is ugly?” N.T. Wright

I mentioned a while back that I wanted to take the ‘mission and pain’ and prophetic imagination thoughts off in a few directions, and I hinted that I would explore some of N.T. Wrights thinking on the role of the imagination for a follower of Jesus, and particularly the artist walking this path. One of my favorite pieces on this who issues on this the transcript of a talk at Seattle Pacific University by Wright entitled: ‘The Bible and Christian Imagination’ (there is a corresponding MP3 online at iTunes U). I risk quoting the whole article, because I’ve personally found it so helpful, but I’ll try and avoid that and add my own comments and thoughts along the way,

Eugene Peterson has said that if the church is dying in any way it’s dying from lack of imagination. In a world of incredible beauty and unbelievable ugliness we need imagination to cope with living in this place a human beings responding appropriately to God (to paraphrase N.T. Wright).

Most of us find that too hard, so we retreat into soap operas and shopping and sport and hanging out and drinking coffee and shopping and so on. From time to time we catch our breath at the sight of the mountains coming out through the clouds or at something we see on television about horrible violence somewhere else or maybe even not somewhere else. It’s too big and too difficult and we can’t cope with it and so we retreat. [NT Wright]

In this situation it is “the role of the artist is to create an Anti-Environment as a means of perception and adjustment” (Marshall McLuhan). This is a vitally important vocation for (to quot McLuhan again) “without an anti-environment, all environments are invisible.” This reminds me of a story told by David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys, how’s the the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them turns to the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
As N.T. Wright notes, we find ourselves living in the middle of Isaiah Chapters 6 and 11 — a sort of tension between the the now and not yet. In Isaiah 6 the angels are offering worship to God, singing day and night, without ceasing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts, The whole earth is full of his glory.

And we say, yes, it is — the whole earth is full of God’s glory. I see it. I catch it on the sunrise and the sunset, the flight of a bird, the sight of a whale emerging from the waves, whatever it is. The world is full of God’s glory and power. Then we remind ourselves that it’s also a place of violence and destruction, and of terror and shame and fear which invade our own souls. [Wright]

Even in this chapter Isaiah responds “But I am a man of unclean lips” – as if to say yes I see you glory in the earth , but look at me here’s at least one place needing to be changed by your glory. But, as we move on to Chapter 11:

“…we find there a vision, an extraordinary vision, of a world healed by the love of God, a world in which the lion and the lamb will lie down together, a world in which there will be peace at all levels, peace between humans, peace between animals, reconciliation right through the cosmos. And answers the prophet, — the world will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.” [Wright]

We live here, between the vision of the earth filled with God’s glory and a future time when:

“God intends to flood the world with himself, with his love in fresh ways, in which what we already know of the beauty and power and majesty of creation will be taken up and enhanced yet further when that which is ugly and which defaces God’s world has been finally done away in God’s project of reconciliation, of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, so that nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore – another Isaiah vision of God’s future.” [Wright]

As humans with creative expression we get to anticipate this future and testify to the current reality. As Wright puts it, “God’s call to Christian artists [is] to have this unique vocation of enabling people to see what they can’t otherwise see, to see that the world is already full of the glory of God, and that it will one day be filled yet fuller.” And with this there is space for us to explore and improvise, to create and imagine what this beauty is. But, at the same time we don’t deny the pain and uglyness present in the world for we know…

“There is this man who died on a cross and whose suffering is at the heart of the ugliness of the world to show that God has come to that place where the world is in pain, and he wants us to go to the place where the world is in pain, and to imagine the love of God at that place, and to express that imagination in our art, our music, our silence, our poetry, our architecture. And then, to earn the right to speak resurrection into that culture in ways that will stretch and blow the mind and the imagination as was Mary’s, as was Thomas’s, as was Peter’s [at the resurection of Jesus].”

I would love to quote more, but then you might not read the actual article. As an artist I should end with my visual responses to this. The first is on the wall of our church building, it is a collage of photos I took of the Berlin wall and ripped paper from a magazine:

on display at Trent Vineyard, Nottingham, UK

The second, is me splicing together Psalm 13, the music video of Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’ by Mark Romanek and photographs of the Stations of the Cross sculptures at our local cathedral (Southwell Minster). Anyone of these fits with the article above – but I hope together they invite you to imagine in new ways.


2 responses to “Imagination and the role of the artist”

  1. Each item great on its own, but outstanding as a combination.

  2. jonny/admin

    Thanks for the encouragement Nick

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