Can Art be Missional and Still be Art?


The Art of Helping Others: How Artists Can Serve God and Love the World by Douglas C. Mann (IVP Books, 2014) is for artists who write, paint, dance, sing, play an instrument, make jewellry, work with wood, and engage in other expressive arts, and for all of us as artists of the everyday who parent, pastor, cook, clean, work in offices, direct traffic, give medical care, and do whatever we do in daily life.

What is Christian art? Is art a private luxury and comfort, or does it somehow relate to the world in which we live? For art to be Christian, must it be message driven and/or focus on biblical imagery or story? Can art be missional and still be art?

Mann engages these and other questions with his own experience in mission and as a visual artist, songwriter, and executive in the music industry and in book publishing.  For him, no, art is not primarily a private comfort. Christian art is not primarily about preaching or focusing narrowly on biblical imagery or story. And yes, for him, Christian art is missional as suggested by the subtitle of his book: How Artists Can Serve God and Love the World.

I especially appreciate his definitions of Christian art — first in his introduction (11):

I define Christian art as the gloriously diverse creative acts that inspire and incite and reconnect us to the One who heals in gloriously diverse ways.

then later in his book (87-88):

There’s an implied question at the heart of the gospel message that’s beyond words — something that unearths our deepest longings and fills that indescribable empty space within us. That’s the domain of art: not so much about getting and providing solid answers as leaning in to an encounter with Jesus.

and a bit later (94):

Christian art is not primarily a matter of subject or form (e.g., biblical imagery and worship music), but a posture towards the world that bridges the divide between Creator and creation, flowing out of God’s mission for us.

I found his chapter 3 most thought-provoking where he contrasts art that makes us comfortable with art that requires sacrifice, what he calls being “fishers of Zen” in contrast to being “fishers of men.” This may be clever word play, but for me the word choice rather misses the mark. After all, while Zen is a way of contemplation as the author describes, it’s not only about seeking comfort and can mean social engagement as well. And art as sacrifice is not only about evangelizing men but more broadly missional in engaging the lives of people.

Still, word choice aside, I’m challenged by the author’s contrast between art as disengagement from the world and other people, and art as engagement in risk, commitment, and following Jesus. The contrast makes me think more about my own writing and practice.

The book is illustrated with some of the author’s visual art, although minus the stunning colour of his originals. One of my favourites shows a kite with its string caught by two church steeples. The string spells “love,” and curiously, there are no doors on any of the three churches in the painting. Is that why Mann calls it “The Comfortable Kingdom?” I wonder. Because the lack of doors keeps church people comfortably inside, and the world comfortably outside?

In contrast, for Mann, art is missional in the best sense of the word (88):

Life, like art, is a shared experience. All we can do is to expect not to have all the answers, hope to ask the right questions and move bravely into the brokenness of people’s lives. As that happens, a world full of mystery, truth, beauty and wonder opens.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the Speakeasy Blogger Network, and as in all my reviews, the comments here are my own.

Writing/Reflection Prompt: How would you answer the question in the title, “Can art be missional and still be art?”


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2 thoughts on “Can Art be Missional and Still be Art?

  1. Readers might also be interested in the discussion of art and poetry:
    Book Description
    Publication Date: 2 Aug 2013. Penpress, Brighton, £7.99 from Amazon etc or book shops.

    Knowing Through Poetic Reflection by Brian E. Wakeman will be of interest to readers who have asked the author to publish his poems.

    1. The chapters make original contributions to the use of poetry and art in mission. 
    2. The book makes a new contribution to the writing of poetry as a process and product of qualitative and action research. 
    3. The central theme is about poetry and reflection. It describes the use of art and poetry in a church community project. 
    4. Then subsequent chapters explore the healing power of humour, and analyse the relationships between poetry and prophecy, and poetry and wisdom. The author illustrates poetry as theological reflection, and discusses the forms and processes of his writing. 
    5. A key chapter is about poetry as a means and product of research, and a way of knowing.
    6. In the final two chapters, the author makes an appeal for restoring the status of poetry in Church life, and explains his methodology. The author invites readers to respond to the ideas in the book.
    Shalom, Brian

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