The Atlanta Emergent Cohort is meeting this Tuesday, October 30, 8-10pm at Carroll Street Cafe in Cabbage town. This month's conversation will be convened by your's truly and center around the metaphor of church as art. The following is an adapted article to prime the pump and to suggest some possible lines of discussion for the group. But as usual the discussion will be open and its outcome belongs to those who come for the fun...
We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance to be our way of life.
from Paul’s correspondence with the Ephesians
God is a craftsman (excuse the gender). God makes. You and I are among the things that God fashions. Those recipients of the epistle to the church in Ephesus are told by Paul that we who have been made in Christ (you know, the new creation) are made for the purpose of making/working. It is important to our maker how we make- good. Rule or principals that underline how artist make, are called aesthetics. And a cohesive narrative of such rules is called an aesthetic. At the core of aesthetics are reasons for making, and postures or ways of perceiving. Our posture of making is informed by God’s posture: mission. And this making is everything, it is our entire way of life, not just what the Ephesians were asked to do when they gathered or when they were ask to give a reason for their faith. The good work of being created in Jesus is our way of life, it is an art inspired by an aesthetic, God's mission. This month’s Emergent cohort discussion is about that art and that aesthetic, and the community of artists commissioned to good lives in the inspiration of the Spirit.
God has commissioned a work of art. This art-installation has been God’s dream from as early as the Trinity’s eternal dance. Long before the Spirit of God hovered like an artist in front of a canvas over the waters that would become our studio, the triune God wanted to make man in God’s (literally the creator in Genesis said “our” implying a conversation with the creator) image. This is our commission: to be God’s art exhibit, a trail of artifacts rendered by God’s people and made through God’s ongoing relationship with creation. This commission precedes Jesus, it is what Abram and Sari were called to do and what the prophets both did and called others back toward doing. And this is our aesthetic the stories of these communities found in scripture, tradition, and experience, that narrate our work. So we are commission to make and to be made, to act and invite God to act upon us.
The examples of God’s dreams reach to us from deepest in our history. One of God’s earliest masterpieces is ha adam, literally the dirt, into whom is breathed the Spirit of life. And in Adam’s first orientation to his surroundings, God commissions him to name creation’s creatures, to be the poet lariat of life’s beginnings. Shortly thereafter, Noah, too, was commissioned to build an artifact to save people. Ten generations after him, God calls Abraham and Sara to parent a nation of people who’s art-of-life was to be a reflection of God’s plans for all creation, to bless all nations. The prophets, like Jeremiah, and psalmists like David, both live out the realization of and lament the postponement of God’s dreams. And this drama continues with some artists demonstrating courage and faithfulness and others stuck in self-sabotaging habits of self-preservation that build hedges around their imagination.
Into this drama the Author became Actor. First, second, and third person were interwoven without being confused. The Word was made into flesh, completely creat-ed (material) and completely creat-or (divine). God was subjective (seeing equality with God not as something to grasp but being made into the form of a servant) and objective (All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go…). It was Jesus, the one-of-a-kind perfecter of the art of living in God’s creation, who insisted that God’s art installation was open, in session, “at hand.” He fashioned withered hands into whole ones, he made party wine out of holy water, and he re-animated lifeless cadavers into dinner guests. It was Jesus who called a community of disciples to tell this story and to do even greater works of this art than he. And these disciples, in receiving the breath of the Holy Spirit, had the courage to witness to God’s plans for creation. By initiating a new art-of-life they began sharing meals, reflecting on precedents set by apostolic letters and sacred Hebrew texts, and setting new precedents making all sorts of music, adopting the exposed, and befriending the poor and widows. This is the narrative that we are a part of. This is the art we have been commissioned to make. We are apprentices who study these rhythms of life and practice them as lives of worship preparing creation for future generations. We are, like John the Baptist, and in the words of the poet Isaiah, preparing the way of the Lord. And our practices tell an ancient story that is yet to be complete, “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes.”
But here’s the fix we’re in today: in late modernity most churches in the Western world are stuck in creative block. These commitments betray the converting spirit of the gospel by placing equal signs between God’s work and our certitude regarding liberalism verses conservatism, contemporary verses traditional, or theology verses aesthetics. This keeps us from rendering authentic artwork and performances that witness to the kingdom of God. What if the church recovered disciplines of creativity, imagination, and ingenuity as practices unto faith? What if we stepped out of our cultural captivity to “either-or” thinking into organic habits of embodying biblical texts and reforming the tradition we have been handed? What if the church saw herself as both God’s artwork and God’s commissioned artists?
Not only that, what if the work of God of bringing righteousness like an ever flowing stream, and bringing the lion to lay with the lamb were acts that included the art of other people, other tribes, other cultures; be they socio-economically, politically, nationally, or religiously different from ours? Are these “others,” then, partners in the kingdom of God, other artists participating in God’s beautiful unfolding creation?
At the core, I believe the church does matter–but for entirely different reasons than most are fighting to keep the church safe or to make it grow. What if the church mattered as a community committed to this art: to joining God’s dreams, making God’s dreams, becoming patron’s of those making God’s dreams, and learning from others making these dreams? What would we do differently if the mission of God were our aesthetic, as people commissioned to make God’s beauty in the world?
Now here is what I’m hoping the cohort can help flesh out.
1. Push back at any and all of this! Let’s have some fun fleshing this out.
2. What are the reasons we are not creating more new possibilities to participate in God’s dreams? Or to put it another way, How does writer’s block manifest itself in the church and how have you seen it addressed?
3. What are some entry-points to this idea of church as art? Where does it break down for you or folks you serve with?
4. What art are you making and seeing made around you and how do you see it participating in God’s dreams?