Redeeming the Arts (Lausanne)

Roger W. Lowther

September 2, 2019Tokyo, Japan

"The task of global evangelism is a task of communication. It is evident that art, too, is about communication. The way in which art communicates is of course unique to the medium, but the power of the arts to move us, engage us, and help us to see with fresh eyes is indisputable."

In a previous post, we briefly looked at the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture (1996), a document exploring the dynamics of worship in different cultures. In this and the following two newsletters, we will briefly highlight elements of Lausanne Occasional Paper #46 called Redeeming the Arts: The Restoration of the Arts to God's Creational Intention. On September 29–October 5, 2004, the Lausanne Movement brought together missionary artists from across to globe to meet in Pattaya, Thailand to discuss the role of the arts in church planting. In many ways, this paper helped fuel a movement across the globe. The full paper can be retrieved on the Lausanne website.

"Indigenous arts are expressive, intrinsic communication forms that are integrated within and across the structures of society where they define and sustain cultural norms and values. We must come to see that becoming acquainted with the artistic expressions of diverse cultures is AS IMPORTANT(!) as attending language school in preparation for mission work. The arts provide a window to the language of the heart."

Emphasis added

Among other things, this paper identifies the story of Moses and the bronze snake as a key example of arts and missions in the Bible. In the wilderness, God specifically asked Moses to make a snake—a piece of art—and put it on a pole.

"The Lord said to Moses, 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.' So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived." (Numbers 21:8-9)

God could have simply asked Moses to put a real (dead) snake on the pole, but the bronze helped the Israelites to see beyond the snake. It made them literally look up to God for healing, forgiveness, and restoration. Through sculpture, the Israelites gained a new perspective of their sin and were led to repentance, rooted in the art of a specific historical event and culture.

"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14)

It is remarkable that Jesus himself identified with this artwork when you consider how controversial it was! Seven hundred years earlier, King Hezekiah destroyed the artwork as a clear object of false worship.

"[King Hezekiah] broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)" (2 Kings 18:4)

Jesus did not shy away from the redemption analogy found in the snake, even though this image was so powerful it even had its own name. Rather, he demonstrated how cultural restoration takes place. Art itself is not intrinsically evil. Fear of syncretism, or the power of the image, or breaking the second commandment does not keep the redemptive process from moving forward! May we have the wisdom to know how to use redemptive analogies we find wherever we work in the world.