Recently I went on a class trip to London and part of that was a tour around the Tate Modern. The lady giving the tour was great! And while there’s so much I could share about the art we saw and the things I learnt, I really just want to focus on the inspiring way she described what art does.

Inside of the Tate Modern Gallery
Inside of the Tate Modern Gallery. © Getty Images, from the Daily Mail online.

Walking around, looking at the art, the way the space of the building is used and how the features of the building play into what is trying to be demonstrated and created, our guide told us about how art pokes at us, knocks us back and knocks us over, forcing us to think differently. It connects us with the sublime; something different and other and beyond us, and as we stood in the huge turbine hall that used to house turbines in every inch of space to create electricity, we were confronted with the impressiveness of human ingenuity but also our vulnerability, as small as ants.

Then watching people playing on the swings in the main hall, we were encouraged to see them  as a space where someone is forced to meet others and either ignore or embrace the stranger. Art tells us to ask questions rather than just hold prejudices; when we look at it, we can’t escape the way it pervades our thinking, and it forces us to be brave to get to know it – to allow it to affect how we feel, and our views. Art also tells us to not believe what we see – to remind us that we don’t know it all, and to search deeper and know that we still might never know it all. We always try to put things – and people – into boxes, but once we do neither can they change nor can we see anything else in them than what we have decided. Art teaches us to challenge this deciding who people are and what they can be – art can force us to consider other potentialities, and it can be more than one thing to different people or the same person at different times.

Christians today don’t seem to be interested in making people think differently.

It struck me that art does well what the church, or Christians, have – on the whole – done badly.

When Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, he painted images with parables: parables that jabbed the people who heard them, and knocked on to their backsides those who thought they had it all right. In these stories, but also in how Jesus acted and who he associated with, he forced people to think differently. And yet Christians today (and again, I’m generalising) have become the ones who think they have it all right, and don’t seem to be interested in making people think differently, even though there are so many implicit ways in our society we believe something different is vitally needed.

When society paints homeless people as lazy, and rich people as simply hard-working, though this is generally not the case and certainly never the whole story, the church should surely point to the injustice and force people to think differently, just like Jesus did of those pushed into poverty in 1st Century Palestine? And when society puts the value of humans in only what they can produce; or animosity becomes the marker of social relationships; or hopelessness and despair are rife, surely Christians should be saying, “There’s another way!”? And art manages to do this in a way that does not condemn the way we all are, but does tell us to ask questions and pushes us to be brave enough to actually think about these things.

In our collective Christianity, I think we need to have more courage to allow God to affect how we feel and how we see the world, and in doing so encourage others to do so too. Through how we live, the stories we tell, the images we paint – we should surely be pointing to the “something more” that we call God, remembering that we don’t know it all, but searching and seeking and yearning still; creating evangelism and worship in such a way that we might inspire that adventure in others too. The church puts things and people in boxes too, just like society, and it tries to say that we should all think and say and do the same thing; we should follow suit and stick to the traditional status quo. It forces God into a box perhaps most of all! But art challenges that in society, and creative Christians need to challenge that in the church too. To force ourselves to consider other potentialities. My belief in God tells me that there is a different way to live than the injustice, and the pointlessness, and the loneliness that I see around me. And I want to continually be challenging myself and others to see life differently enough to recognise that. Art does this well. So maybe a living theology can learn something from it!

The Seagram Murals exhibition in the Tate Modern. Photograph © Sam Drake, AP on SFGate online.

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