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Art as a tool for understanding our time and place 


Our ability to share, reimagine and communicate God’s kingdom on earth is helped by taking notice of the art that surrounds us, writes Lesley Sutton



“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Every day Christians across the world pray this prayer, but what do we really mean within the context of the everyday? How do we see and bring about the kingdom of God in our cities and towns, in Manchester, Stafford, Birmingham, Plymouth or London? In reality how well do we truly re-imagine our town or city to be as God intended?

How do we ‘change the world’ and what do we mean by transformation?

I have been writing some short articles based on research I am doing in this field as an artist and curator. Like many others working secularly I am constantly exploring ways to make sense of and integrate my faith into my work and my creative practice; of understanding and blessing the communities I serve within to encourage values that I believe are at the heart of the prayer ‘Thy kingdom come…’

I am concerned that too often I can jump ahead and use trendy phrases in my prayer, worship and mission statements without taking the time to listen, learn and really unpack what needs to happen on a day to day basis at the heart of our communities in order to bring about a kingdom of love, truth, beauty and goodness – i.e. heaven on earth.


So, how do we practically shape the culture of our place? 

How does the church extend beyond its walls in our secularist, multicultural, fast moving society and take its place in shaping the way our communities think, feel and live out their everyday lives?

Over the past few decades the pace of cultural change in cities across the globe has accelerated considerably. It is therefore essential that the ‘gathered’ church both understands and takes its place at the centre of culture as agents of creative transformation as well as being messengers of truth and goodness. To see mission as a vision for the whole of our communities that all are involved in, not just those called to full time Christian work or doing church mission projects:


  • doctors and nurses to have a vision for health,

  • teachers and educators to have a vision for the improvement of education in their place,

  • for those working in business to share values that impact the way their companies function and grow,

  • and those called to work in the arts and media to have a kingdom vision as to how to shape the stories that go out to the households and communities across our cities and nation to have wholesome kingdom values that bless our communities.


Our parallels with Moses and Egyptian culture 

The eminent contemporary theologian Walter Breuggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination writes,

“The task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

He suggests that our calling, as the community of God’s people, is the re-formation of God’s kingdom on earth, through the living out of an alternative community to that which is dominant in our present culture. He highlights how the God-given, prophetic imagination of Moses sought to evoke an alternative consciousness within the Israelite nation to that of the Egyptian society which dominated their lifestyle.

But for them to be able to move forward to this way of seeing, they first needed to see and understand the context and culture within which they lived. The dominating culture of Egypt was totally consumed with the desire for excess. It was a culture that wanted to hoard in barns excessive amounts of grain so that the elite would always feel in control and not have to fear scarcity; to use the asylum seeker as slaves to create a bigger and stronger economy for the rich and elite of Egypt (and limit their resources so that they were trapped into forever making bricks without ever having a day's rest), as the values of the culture were to accumulate excess, rather than to believe in the abundance of a creator God.

He explains that the Israelite people needed to understand the culture within which they lived and served in order to desire a new way of living and being. In the same way as in Ancient Egypt 3,000 years ago, the ethos of consumerism, self satisfaction and success has come to define our contemporary western culture and infiltrated the very essence of how we live, both within and without the church, thereby suggesting that we too need to encourage a prophetic imagination like Moses to speak in our time.

The role of the arts in critiquing the dominating culture 

With this understanding of the prophetic in mind, I have found the arts to have a really significant role to play in the critiquing of the dominating culture and values of our time and place, and of the imagining of an alternative consciousness; to suggest new and reformed ways of thinking, living and being; of seeing the world through the eyes of a loving God and not just through the distorted lens of negativity and despair that tends to dominate our screens, our newspapers and our everyday perceptions of life. But this way of thinking is transferable to all the spheres, in business, politics, health, education, sport, etc


This is called the sociological imagination – to engage in social and cultural criticism and moral argument; to make connections between the larger picture of the social history of society to the smaller picture of the story of particular individuals within it.

To understand your city's history, its changing story, its development and its vision for the future; if you want to understand the context of the time and place that we say we want to change and transform, then where must we go but to its museums and galleries, libraries and theatres? These public spaces enable us to view these ideas not just from our own limited perspective, but from the viewpoint of others who are culturally different to us but who share the same space.

We can listen to our city’s music and drama, read the poetry, literature and observe the art works, public sculpture, the architecture, interior design that all reveal a material expression of the way people think and feel. We must look at the new art on the street, the ghetto culture, club culture; visit the spaces where stories from migrant communities are shared. We can read the latest literature on display in Waterstones, watch TV and films, for all tell a story of what our society's values are, what we believe in and what our priorities are. They can reveal our fears, anger and bitterness but also offer vision and hope and ideals to work towards. For culture helps to shape the way a city thinks, feels and acts.

So over the next few weeks, as we enjoy our family holidays and a little free time, can I invite you to visit and enjoy the cultural spaces in your town or city and to be open to learning and listening to the voices that have shaped the past and are shaping the present and future of your place; so that your ability to share, communicate and re-imagine God’s kingdom on earth comes from a place of understanding and discovering your role in the growing story that God is already shaping in your place.


Image | Pixabay

Lesley Sutton is Director of PassionArt. She will be contributing to the Arts Track at Movement Day UK, which takes place 6-7 October at Methodist Central Hall in London.  [IFrame]

This post first appeared on the Movement Day UK website, and is republished with permission.

Baptist Times, 05/07/2017
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