Walking the razorís edge...

the artistís covenant in the search for truth and wholeness

Rick Andrew

Technikon Natal





I found the conference manifesto, "Christians and the Arts" an excellent document and - as both Christian and artist - focused on certain key statements, which I give here, followed by some thoughts I had in response to them. Here are the statements:

"Artists have often found themselves caught between the pressures of non-Christian developments in the arts world and the rejection of fellow, critical Christians."

"The church must be sensitive to the freedom that the artist needs in order to create."

"Christian artists need to be on the cutting edge of our culture."

"It is vital that as a community we wrestle seriously with the question of the identity of our neighbour in South Africa."


Culture as an expression of wholeness

Andrew Malraux describes culture as "the sum of all forms of art, of love, and thought which in the course of centuries have enabled man to be less enslaved".

Culture can also be seen as the finest outworking or expression of the genius of a people - a genius given by God. It is simplistic to talk of culture as being non-Christian, unless it is obviously destructive or evil. Carl Jung was not a Christian in any traditional sense, yet he made a great and liberating contribution to human thought. So did Albert Albert Einstein, Frank Whittle, and countless other pioneering thinkers, writers, architects, designers, fine artists, musicians and dancers. To quibble over their Christianí credentials is futile and obstructive. It is clear that God bestows gifts where He chooses, and we have to be careful of making judgements according to our limited understanding. The scriptures are unequivocal on this when referring to God: "My ways are not your ways, nor are your thoughts my thoughts."

Artists are concerned with culture and must have the freedom to take thought and its expression to the extent of their genius, energy and revelation. If we are too afraid (perhaps faithless night be a more apt word) to venture beyond the confines of doctrinal safety, then I fear we night be behaving like the foolish servant who buried his talent in a napkin, being too fearful to take risks, too self-conscious. King David was hardly a docile conformist, yet he is described as "a man after Gods own heart".

The major contributions to culture have been made by brave, hardworking and gifted individuals in faithful response to their inner promptings and the pressures of the outside world; it is in moments of silence and concentration that revelation comes.

Culture has to do with interpretation and history, the links between the present and the past, and the present and the future, in short, with the destiny of man. For an artist to be at the cutting edge of culture, he has to take risks and have the freedom to think and to feel and to respond wholeheartedly. As he pioneers an unmapped territory, he has to walk the knife-edge between the polarities of law and love, faith and fear, desire and reason, and he is not helped in this endeavour by having to take account of a vast doctrinal police force. What he needs is sympathy, help, forgivenessÖ and sometimes just a place to rest.

If we are to have a healing tradition in the arts, we have to enter into the dialogue of South African culture right now... as it is. We cannot wait for the church to formulate a cultural policy, or for a special art school, or until we are sufficiently perfect. We have to move into the cultural realm in full participation... we have to get our hands dirty. Because of its exclusivity, a separate Christian culture can be neither redemptive nor healing.

To redeem ourselves and the nation of which we are part, we have to face the whole truth of ourselves, our history and our fallen nature. As Octavio Paz says, we have to hear from "that dark half of man that has been humiliated and buried by the morality of progress: the half that reveals itself in the images of art and love". We have to face up to our history, our culture, our beliefs and our flawed human nature because this is the truth of what has to be redeemed. We cannot merely reject what does rot fit the rigid geometry of our doctrines.

Further words of Paz are particularly relevant in this context:

"Industrial societies, regardless of their differing ideologies, politics and economics, strive to change qualitative - that is, human - differences into quantitative uniformity. The methods of mass production are also applied to morality, art and the emotions. Contradictions and exceptions are eliminated, and this results in the closing of our access to the profoundest experience life can offer us, that of discovering reality as a oneness in which opposites agree."

It is my contention that the church has been deeply influenced by such quantitative thinking, which is the spirit of the age.


Exclusivity versus inclusivity with its potential for redemption

Religious Puritanism and the complacent moral superiority that it breeds have been responsible for some of the painful divisions in our country. The puritan talks only with God and his fellow believers, keeping himself separate from other races or cultures for fear of contamination. Such exclusive behaviour, based more on fear than on faith, favours separation and breaks communion with our neighbours.

The Redeemer did not Himself behave in an exclusive way. To the contrary, the Pharisees constantly rebuked him because of His inclusive ways... consorting with prostitutes, untouchables, soldiers, drinkers and fishermen. He pointed out that doctrinal Puritanism was too often a mask for hypocrisy. Exclusivity can be justified by law, but love seeks communion.

In Natal, where I live, there are three groups, with cultural origins in Africa, India and Europe respectively: the Zulus, the Indians and the Europeans. How can we ever have communion with other groups if we see their cultures as a contamination to our own beliefs rather than as a contribution to some greater whole? If we seek perfection and doctrinal purity in the cultural context, we cannot hope to be a redemptive force, for communion and integrity require a humble submission to a wider truth.

M2M Issue 2 October 1992, p.16