Yann Martel is the Canadian author who won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for his novel ‘The Life of Pi’. In 2007, he was invited, along with forty-nine other distinguished Canadian contributors to the arts, to the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons in Canada, where they would celebrate fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, the equivalent to our Arts Council. One artist for each of the fifty years that this body had been making grants to aspiring artists. Martel himself had received a grant from them when he was beginning as a novelist.
The Arts Minister, Bev Oda, stood up and gave a speech of less than five minutes. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, spent the time shuffling his papers and did not even acknowledge the artists with eye contact. After the speech, it was all over. There had been a reception the day before, when only twenty-five of the 306 MPs had attended.
Martel was devastated. What could he do? Doubtless these people, the Prime Minister, especially, were busy people. But they still needed stillness, and they needed something to stimulate their imaginations in that stillness.
He made a plan. He would send the Prime Minister a book, every other Monday, in the hope that he might read it. During an election period, he even sent an audio book instead, so Mr Harper could hear the book while travelling.
After sending the hundredth book, he gave up. Never had Harper acknowledged him. Only five times did he receive a three-line reply from the Prime Minister’s staff. In an interview with The Independent newspaper in February, Martel said,
“I can’t understand how a man who seems never to read imaginative writing of any kind (novels, poetry, short stories, high-brow, middle-brow, low-brow, anything) can understand life, people, the world,” … “I don’t care if ordinary people read or not. It’s not for me to say how people should live. But people who have power over me? I want them to read because their limited, impoverished dreams may become my nightmares.”
We are celebrating the end of Addlestone Arts Festival. We have enjoyed music, crafts, poetry and even valuation of antiques – although I confess I’m at something of a loss to understand how Bingo fits into an arts week! I imagine that many of our contributors have seen their art as more than entertainment. They have been glad to entertain us, I am sure. But I suspect many had a bigger vision than merely entertainment.
For example – we’ve had two Disney events. Don’t the Disney films try to take you into a particular world, and see life a certain way? Poetry – don’t poets want to engage our imagination to hear the world with fresh ears? The music about royalty encourages a certain understanding of national life. And so on.
So what does a Christian minister like me have to do with this? I had a failed attempt to learn the guitar some years ago. I can’t sing – although a friend of mine swears he could teach me. My art doesn’t get much beyond matchstick men, and I am embarrassed into inferiority by my eight-year-old daughter. I used to write the odd bit of poetry and song lyrics, but they tended to head in the pretentious/Sixth Form direction.
Where does that leave me? To advocate the historical position the Christian churches had as patrons of the arts? No – because we don’t have the money any more! Although when we did so, it reflected our belief in a good Creator.
It leaves me offering you something that I believe is rich beyond measure. In this year when we mark the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, think about the Bible as a work of art. It’s a compendium of sixty-six books, representing a wide range of literary styles, not only history and poetry but also some literary forms rarely seen any more. It tells of a God who not only speaks, but who sings, dances and tells stories. All these things combine to tell one great story, spread over centuries, if not aeons, that invites our imaginations to see the world differently from the culture in which we live.
So whereas Richard Dawkins urges us to see a universe that is pitiless, indifferent and lacking any basis for morality, the biblical story invites us to see a creation rooted in the work of a good, loving and purposeful God.
Or take the way our culture thinks that the leopard can’t change its spots. We see broken people causing damage and pain to others, and we say they can’t change. Yet the biblical story invites us into a kingdom where people are forgiven and transformed.
We live in a society where dreadful things happen to people and they say, “That’s unforgivable. I could never forgive them.” Yet the Bible invites us into a story where the one who was on the receiving end of the greatest injustice of all prayed, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Or how do we view the future? As ending in death? As the chaos of environmental destruction? As something that science will solve, despite the fact that for all the advances it gives us, it also hands us other gifts such as the ability to cause mass destruction? Or do we think all our troubles will be alleviated by the next hot consumer product? The Bible invites us to imagine something much bigger, with a universe made new and freed from suffering.
A couple of minutes ago, I disparaged my artistic abilities. In truth, there are one or two artistic pursuits I enjoy. One – when I have the time – is photography. Another is writing. I belong to a group of writers who are Christians. Like most novelists, we know the truth of one telling approach about getting our message over:
Show, don’t tell.
In other words, don’t in your story tell people the message you want them to hear. Show it instead, by the nature of the tale. Now the Bible has its ‘tell’ moments, to be sure, but a surprising amount of it is more like ‘showing’ than ‘telling’. Jesus tells stories, like the parable we heard Ben read, and he invites us to see where we fit in the story. Who are we? Are we those who are ludicrously self-obsessed that the invitation to a banquet – yes, a banquet – means nothing? Or are we the people on the margins, not the folk you’d normally expect to be associated with God and religion, but to whom Jesus throws open the doors? Might there even be jazz musicians in the kingdom of God?
So at the end of this year’s festival, I thank God for the artists of all types who have both entertained us and also given us an illuminated commentary on life.
And I also commend to you the greatest Artist of them all, the One who invites us to improvise within his general script, the One who invites each of us to take a rôle in his story.
 This address owes much to two books: Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination and Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts.
 I found this story and quotation through Tools For Talks (subscription required).
I think this is a fantastic post and one of the most refreshing things I have read on the blogsphere for weeks. You are correct about the redemptive importance of art, the importance of the church seeing art as good and holy, and the beautiful imagery in the biblical story.
I wonder if sometimes artists don’t feel welcome in some of our churches because our churches are scared of the awkward questions artists might bring. This February, I had the privilege of hearing Miriam Jones performing to a small group up in Scotland – she has a stunning voice and is a great songwriter. Afterwards, there was a Q&A and (because this was an event sponsored by the department for the theology of the arts) I asked how the church might best support her in her role as an artist. She, and a lot of other aspiring theologians who were there, seemed to be surprised by this question: she then recovered and said that it was actually often difficult being in a church whilst an artist, because artists by nature ask awkward questions that churches can be scared of.
I think this is a crying shame – and this was a question that was considered left field at an event where people are writing PhDs on the importance of art in the Christian life. I think our churches have to get this sorted: to support people in every sphere of life and to come up with a doctrine of mission that is happier with doubts and awkward questions than a lot of our churches (obviously there are loads of commendable exceptions to the rule) seem to be.
Just my thoughts – thanks again for a stunning post.
Where do I begin? You are far too kind. There is so much more I would have liked to have said, but I have a limit of 10 to 15 minutes tomorrow night when I deliver this. I would have liked to have commented on the effect of the vastly different types of literature in Scripture, and of the consequent necessary diverse approaches to exegesis (see John Goldingay’s book ‘Models of Scripture’, for example).
I have often found myself as a non-musician pastoring Christian musicians, and it has been a challenge to me to engage with people who seem to approach life very differently from me. I am naturally very linear in my logic, and I then discover their style is, perhaps, more impressionistic or poetic, for example.
As for the asking of questions, well isn’t that the function of a good artist? I’d suggest Jesus did that, too. When preaching on the parables, I’ve often said they’re more about ‘Jesus is the question’ than ‘Jesus is the answer’.
BTW, I see you’re studying at St Andrew’s. My postgrad supervisor was there until a couple of years ago – I researched at Manchester under Richard Bauckham.