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vacilando: when the experience is more important than the destination

Stories from the He(art)

I can’t believe two weeks have already passed since I attended the Pulse Arts Conference at Blackhawk Church! While my takeaways are still crystallizing, I’ve gained a clearer view of the connection between the art of storytelling and God’s heart. Ever since I participated in DukeEngage Colombia, I've spoken about the power of stories to connect people across borders. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, when you hear someone else’s story, I think that experience exposes your assumptions, invites you to reevaluate how you relate to them, and changes your attitude towards them going forward. In this manner, stories can be a medium for deeper reflection and, ultimately, reconciliation. I’m definitely still learning how to articulate this idea, so I find it ridiculously cool that, between Pulse and several miscellaneous sources these past few days, I’ve begun to hear a diverse ensemble of voices that all seem to affirm the same message: Stories matter. They deepen and sensitize your vision of yourself and those around you. In whatever form, art nurtures in you the creativity and language to navigate pain and build bridges of love.

Paul LeFeber, the Creative Director at Blackhawk, quotes scholar N.T. Wright to explain why the arts matter.

The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions.

A bit abstract, but I hear him saying this: Art helps us deal with the pieces of life that don’t make sense, enabling us to better see a purpose to all the purposeless moments. Through creative self-expression (sharing your story) and history (examining other stories), we can develop an expectant posture of unshakable hope for beauty to come from brokenness. Indeed, this hope for redemption is the paradoxical crux of the Gospel, a story of how love outlives death.

Pastor Tim Mackie put it this way at Pulse: Stories train our minds to expect meaning out of our lives and the lives of others. To illustrate his point, he walked us through the provoking “Shadow Sculptures” exhibition by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who use trash from the streets of London to challenge our conceptions of city streets and the people who live there. On first glance, the carefully arranged trash looks pointless - after all, it is the worthless stuff we discard. But once a spotlight illuminates the trash's shadow, a story unfolds. Suddenly, the trash gains incredible significance - and chances are, we would expectantly approach the remaining displays with a newfound keenness to discern their message. In this manner, art - especially stories - trains us to view moments in our life as vehicles of meaning and purpose.

Now if the above is true about stories, then how does the Bible - one epic unified story that points to Jesus - help us deal with life? Sparknotes-style, it’s this redemption story about people who are meant to partner with God but instead rebel and wreck the relationship (that’s us). Because he loves us, God responds with blessing and never abandons his promises to us in our darkest moments, as exemplified through the lives of the Bible’s many characters. Ultimately, God immerses himself in our story by participating in our suffering through the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although Jesus cried out in anguish and implored God to find an alternate route to redemption, he trusted God to use the Resurrection to bring life out of death, good out of evil, hope out of despair…and sure enough, God did. Sounds to me like a promising posture to emulate, as I face paradoxical states of hope and despair in my own life every day (which the new release Inside Out explores through Joy and Sadness!). By immersing ourselves in the stories of the Bible, we are thus being taught to navigate our own stories, and to let the life in the Scriptures - not our dark moments - define meaning in our lives.

Why don’t all believers connect their lives with the Bible in this way? Often, Scripture is taught to youth in a sugarcoated or dissociated way that either blunts the uncomfortable brokenness in the Bible or fails to show the connection of each book to the larger story leading to Jesus. As a result, we find ourselves uncertain of how to deal with pain. It seems easier to discard our darkest moments and veil them with the virtual veneer of social media. The Bible Project is Tim Mackie’s response to this problem. His nonprofit creative art studio animates the books and themes of the Bible to show how it is a unified story that points to Jesus and addresses the real-life brokenness in our own lives. By communicating the Bible in this way, Mackie artistically invites us to make sense of our personal stories through the lens of biblical history.

The creative speakers at Pulse aren't alone in this conviction. As I ponder intersections between art and neuroscience (my undergraduate major), I am continually reminded that both offer important lenses to understand the human condition. Check out the second hit I got on a Google search for “neuroscience and art”:

In his commencement speech to the Stanford class of '07, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia said "Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world - equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being - simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, imagination, memory, and physical senses.” ...What if instead of viewing art as a dispensable luxury, we could see it as a key ingredient in unlocking the great mysteries of neuroscience? University of California-San Francisco surgeon, art enthusiast, and author Leonard Shlain writes that just as combining information from our two eyes enhances the third dimension of depth, by “seeing the world through different lenses of art and science and, by integrating these perspectives, [we] arrive at a deeper understanding of reality." (The Neuroscience of Art, Mengfei Huang, Stanford Journal of Neuroscience)

Sound familiar? Between these remarkable sources, here’s the message I’m hearing: Art helps us make sense of reality. In particular, stories like the Bible educate us to see meaning in our own lives.

How did the art and stories about God's heart at Pulse influence my perception of my own art and story? These are the realizations I’ve come to, so far:

  • My art is nothing without love, per 1 Corinthians 13. I want to think about how I can use visual storytelling in service of others.
  • My art is an agent of worship, for better or for worse. Between self-promotion and planning shoots, it can easily become about me. However, I want my storytelling to be about God: “He set up this moment. I just happened to be there!”
  • My art has purpose, even if I can’t see its trajectory right now. At Pulse, I told God how tired I am of saying “I don’t know,” and he immediately said, “Well, then how about "I trust"?” Those two words felt so right, and peace like a river continues to wash over me when I declare them.

I’ll end with a beautiful definition of worship that the music director of my home church shared with me last week. If worship is all these things, then art approached as adoration will nurture my ethics, intellect, creativity, heart, and peace of mind. Sounds life-giving to me.

Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, Nourishment of mind by His truth, Purifying of imagination by His beauty, Opening of the heart to His love, And submission of will to His purpose, And all this is gathered up in that emotion which most cleanses us from selfishness because it is the most selfless of all emotions: Adoration.

More artists at Pulse who live out their art as adoration.