Colin Harbinson

 

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Article: ART–EXPRESSION OR COMMUNICATION?

You can learn more about the Cd's series this article was excerpted from by clicking here.

By Colin Harbinson

Are the arts for expression or communication? Those who want to communicate truth through the arts are considered by some to be 'using' art to produce a religious tract. They are accused of prostituting art in order to moralize. On the other hand, the Christian who does not use his artistic gift in the cause of the Gospel is often perceived as having little commitment to Christ and certainly no heart for the "lost." Creative expression that does not contain crucifixions, overt references to the Trinity or portray the whole Gospel is often seen as being of little value, and at worst, close to serious backsliding.

As human beings we have a tendency to move toward extremes. Truth, however, is always held in tension. When it comes to art as expression or communication it is not "either or" but "both." Each has its place, and if we fail to recognize that fact, we will not only be impoverished artistically and spiritually, but will end up misunderstanding and rejecting each other.

God communicates by way of revelation. Christianity is a revealed faith. The scriptural understanding of revelation is "an uncovering" or "a showing." The content of revelation includes the uncovering or showing of "truth." For the artist this should come as both an encouragement and a challenge. Art works best when it shows rather than tells. Art is at its best when it uncovers what familiarity has concealed, and opens us up to a fresh perspective on truth - the truth about any subject. This would strongly suggest that artistic expression, at its best, is compatible with God's way of revealing truth to man. Both show, and both seek to show truth.

Nathan the prophet had a formidable challenge before him when he went to confront David. He was facing a king who had taken every precaution to cover up his sin, and for all intents and purposes, save God's, had succeeded. How could Nathan persuade this man who had shown so little compassion, of the gravity of his sin in the sight of God? He told David a story and asked him to judge it!

Simply put, Nathan told of two men. One rich, the other poor. The rich man had plenty of sheep, but the poor man had only one little lamb. When a traveler came to the home of the rich man, no animal was taken from among his flocks, rather he went down to the poor mans house and took his one lamb, killed it, and served it up for the stranger to eat.

David was enraged at this story and immediately pronounced judgment. He said, "That man had no compassion, he ought to die!" You can almost feel the electricity of the dramatic moment, when Nathan looked King David in the face and declared "you are that man!" It was a moment of profound revelation that caused the deep repentance of David found in the fifty-first Psalm. Nathan's communication was effective. By isolating four of the elements in this incident, we will find principles that are important to our present discussion.

Firstly, the communicator was not isolated. Nathan lived in the middle of the action. He knew what was going on. As artists we must not retreat to a cozy safe Christian subculture, and expect to create works that relate to the culture at large. Jesus told stories in response to what people were doing and saying. His parables were never in a vacuum. We are called to walk in the middle of our culture, asking God for grace and cleansing.

Secondly, the communication was relevant. It was not a coincidence that Nathan used a lamb in his story. David, the shepherd boy turned king, found a deep resonating note within himself and became instantly involved. Nathan, using the power of story, drew deep emotional responses from David. Our art must explore universal truths that are commonly shared, in the language of our cultural experience and expression.

Thirdly, the communication was not preachy. The story Nathan told uncovered truth that David had concealed. David had no idea the story was about himself. His barriers were down, and the Holy Spirit was able to show him his sinful heart in a moment of revelation. The story did not preach or moralize, but gave David an opportunity to "look in" and make an objective judgment.

Lastly, the communication was creative. Nathan did not tell the same story ..."Once upon a time a king walked on the roof of his palace and saw a beautiful ...!! Art is not a photocopy of reality. Art by definition is indirectional and allusive. Picasso observed that "Art is a lie that tells the truth." It is a lens through which reality can be perceived, and revelation received.

In conclusion, art is at its best when it uncovers what familiarity has concealed. It is making the familiar seem unfamiliar, so that it can be revisited with fresh eyes. It allows for objective judgment, as artist and audience meet. It is a shared experience. No room here for preaching or moralizing, but rather a powerful place of potential revelation as truth is uncovered and shown.
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Excerpted and adapted from Colin Harbinson's cd series:
THE ARTS: A BIBLICAL FRAMEWORK
Not to be reprinted without written permission.
© 1989 Colin Harbinson (quotations excepted)

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