There is a freeing power in creative gestures like song and we are met in surprising ways. Song, poetry, image, drama, dance and a good story seem to have the power to move us while providing fresh vision, glimpses into what is possible and so be a catalyst for action.
The theme of transforming culture keeps showing up in books I read, conferences I attend and people with whom I have conversations. It is a buzz word both inside and outside the faith community. Linked with transformation is creativity. I think for example of the work of Richard Florida – The Rise of the Creative Class – where he documents how the increasingly large numbers of creatives in the workforce have been forging a new world. The creative class spans a wide spectrum of work options, scientists, engineers, architects, designers, business, education health care and law to name a few. The artists are also on the list and it is their style of thinking, discerning and intuiting the world that has now been grasped by a much larger group. I noted a similar theme in another book I dabbled in recently, written by the well known Canadian culture critic Max Wyman. The Defiant Imagination: An Impassioned Plea to Keep Culture at the Heart of the Canadian Experiment. By culture Wyman means the arts and his book is an extended apologetic for a Canadian commitment to the arts as a resource for mapping what it means to be human and shaping a national identity. I confess I am not quite as optimistic as Wyman that the arts will deliver the values we need. On this matter there is evidence of both success and failure. One thing is clear art fuels the imagination and opens heart and mind to fresh possibilities.
Art also can temper human passions at the flash points of our differences – and foster a sense of unity that is often hard to come by.Some of you may have seen the recent film The Singing Revolution not a blockbuster by any means. It is a gentle film that draws you into the life of the small European nation of Estonia. In the mid-twentieth century this nation experienced a profound intrusion with the coming of the Russian army to take control of its government and to reshape its identity.
Large numbers of Russians moved into the country and large numbers of Estonians met their death. The Estonians have a repertoire of songs reaching deeply into their culture and tradition. There were a number of gatherings between 1987 and 1991 where the people would sing. In September 1988 about 300,000 gathered to sing. The underlying script was the cry for independence. Hope that independence would come was generated through andexpressed by the singing. Protests and acts of defiance were part of the effort to regain their country and the gathering to sing was in its own way an act of defiance. I have been wondering how one might make a virtue out of employing a “defiant imagination”.
Defiance doesn’t normally sit well in a list of virtues – but I find myself wanting to make it something of value. It resonates with what we find in the biblical narrative.The prophetic voice is often a defiant voice, taking on the prevailing values and actions of a nation, culture or people, compromised in belief and practice operating well outside the divine intention.
Michael Frost in a book titled Exiles writes about living missionally in post-Christian culture and make reference to “dangerous songs”. He laments about how so much of the singing Christians do is “often insipid, cloying and romantic”. I was surprised to find him referring to the importance of songs in many of the great revolutions, the French outside the Bastille, the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg, the American civil rights movement in Alabama and Washington DC, the anti- Marcos protesters in the streets of Manila, the banning of songs in South Africa under apartheid and the singing that has roused a new generation of Chinese into action. The examples could be multiplied. What I want to point out is the power of a simple art form to generate passion and hope in a way that mobilizes people to make a difference or simply serve as a vehicle to express a passion and hope already present. Another place I stumbled over a reference to singing was in a weighty volume titled Overcoming Ontotheology. That is overcoming an understanding of theology that is essentially philosophical.
The author, a seasoned philosopher tells of attending an academic paper on biblical interpretation. In the middle of the argument the presenter stopped and said it was time to sing (and clap). Together they sang
“Oh Mary don’t you weep don’t you morn, Oh Mary don’t you weep don’t you morn, Pharaoh’s army got drownded, Oh Mary don’t you weep. Those singing were taking an old spiritual and making the story of Miriam and Moses their story as well through which they were “seized by the message of hope and judgement”.
Now here is the point – God understood in philosophical terms can only enter the scene in a way determined by that context. Those who were singing discovered that God entered the scene without the imposed determinations. There is a freeing power in creative gestures like song and we are met in surprising ways. Song, poetry, image, drama, dance and a good story seem to have the power to move us while providing fresh vision, glimpses into what is possible and so be a catalyst for action. It appears after all that art has a role to play in changing the way we live and changing the world we live in.