Sunday, July 8, 2012

Creating beauty as social resistance...

As we've wandered about Montreal and Ottawa over the past 10 days, Di and I have had a lot of conversations about what creating beauty means in our ministry.  It is NOT an incidental -like lace - as some choose to think; nor is it antithetical to Christian formation, acts of social justice or radical hospitality and compassion. Rather the creation of beauty is both a sacred gift shared with joy AND a spiritual discipline born of grace. No less an activist than Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that nourishing beauty - and sharing it freely - is one way to celebrate the unearned and gratuitous  blessings of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

For most of my life so-called justice advocates have denigrated the commitments of artists as ancillary and/or less valuable than activity that changed social policy or opposed unjust and unloving realities. This divide was true in the Old Left in the US before the 60s and was part of my experience coming to age after the Beats.  In fact, the old guard "commissars of culture" nearly drove Bob Dylan out of making music by their obnoxious insistence that he keep writing social justice anthems instead of exploring the muse of art.  Thank God he heard the Beatles singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on the radio while driving towards New Orleans.  "I want some of that," he realized, "only with a totally American groove" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and so much more was born. 
Paul Simon said much the same thing reflecting on the 25th anniversary of "Graceland" -his mind-boggling song cycle of poetry and world music - that broke the UN trade barrier against South Africa in order to create art with actual South African musicians. In a recent documentary about the importance of Simon's creation, he said: “When the artist gets into some sort of disagreement with politics,” Simon asks in the film, “why are the politicians designated to be the ones to tell us, the artists, what to do and we’re supposed to follow — otherwise we’re not good citizens or we’re not good?”  In other words, why is beauty considered the lesser sister to other forms of activism?      
Well... it isn't - and at 60 I have finally come to confess and celebrate this fact.  I think that has been part of what this vacation has been about for me, too - going deeper into the creative spirit - so that I can be more faithful in ministry.  As the Occupy people like to say:  The beginning is near...It is rather like St. Paul made clear:  there are different gifts and calling for different people - all are needed - and NONE are unnecessary.

There is more to say about this - and I will - because we have some deep work to do in Christian formation as well as finding beautiful ways of sharing compassion in the world as a faith community.  But let me me be clear:  creating and nourishing beauty is NOT incidental or inferior to other acts of social resistance. There are bullies who will insist otherwise, of course, and ideologues and those with a one track mind, too.  And let's be honest:  some artists are just too precious to work with as well.  But, in our bottom-line, market obsessed, consumer driven world of addiction and manipulated crisis, beauty is a counter-cultural way to feed the soul that is born of grace and joy.  It was good to talk about this again in a deep way tonight at supper - and we returned to it after hearing a young jazz band perform in a funky dive - noting that although they weren't great they were reaching for the prize and sharing beauty in public - something we need to support.
I really like the way the water color artist, Ann Schaffer, put it here:

My paintings are about beauty and the power of beauty to resist all that is soul stifling in this world. My current paintings of flowers are all about beauty and the power of beauty to resist all that is soul stifling in this world. I have long been inspired by how those with the least in the most difficult circumstances create beauty out of nothing in a declaration of life, existence, and resistance to the oppressive circumstances that surround them. Just as the Cherokee nation, herded onto reservations in Oklahoma in the 1800’s by an oppressive government, beaded their ration cards. Just as in the poorest shanty towns of Nairobi, where I saw pieces of colored glass hung in windows. Just as the quilters of Gee’s Bend Alabama took their old clothes and turned them into works of art to shelter their bodies. All these acts and many, many more say to me….’We are human and you can’t have our souls.’ The making of beauty and of art says that we are alive and we have this beauty within us. (see her paintings and read more @

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