A REPORT ON ARTISTS MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN MAINSTREAM EUROPEAN CULTURE
by Dr. Jim Mills
When asked about the number one problem of the church in his hour, E Stanley Jones, the renowned Christian writer of the 20th century answered, “Irrelevance!” Elton Trueblood, renown evangelical writer and Bible teacher put it another way, “it is hard to exaggerate the degree to which the modern church seems irrelevant to modern man.”(Roaring Lambs, Bob Briner p. 37) Whereas, in the 20th century and now in the 21st century, the primary quest for the church generally recognized among evangelical church leaders is the ongoing fulfillment of the great commission (Matthew 28:18), the greatest challenge of the church in our day remains the same as it was for E Stanley Jones: conveying the relevance of the Gospel to modern man. As with each century, the church of the 21st century must come to terms with the church’s cultural assignment found in Matthew 5:13-14, “You are the light of the world . . . the salt of the earth.”
Over the last 40 years there has been a growing movement of artists who have become Christian, attempting to intentionally live out the biblical assignment of Matthew 5:13-16 in European societies. Astute and mature voices nurturing this movement that stand out are such writers as the late H.R. Rookmaaker, art history professor of the Free University of Amsterdam, Dr. Francis Schaefer of L’Bri, Rev. John Wilson of Scotland, Calvin Seerveld of Canada and Jeremy Begbie of Duke to name a few. These among many others writers sound out messages of the need for a major shift in the thinking of the church in regards to cultural awareness and engagement. Their message has been heard and has spawned an ongoing paradigm shift among performing and visual arts’ artists who are Christians beginning to surface in the tapestry of western cultures. By their very active presence in culture, they are beginning to declare the relevance of the Gospel in their culturally relevant and tangible endeavors for the glory of God.
Across Europe this new bred of artists, many who are working in mainstream culture, are finding their inspiration for their art and life through their ongoing relationship with the God of the Bible. They prefer to be known simply as artists, rather than using the name Christian artists and though, they do not literally write soli deo gloria on their works as Johan Sebastian Bach did, still they live out the same commitment to excellence as this great artist, first in their lives and then in their art. Their art, work ethic, integrity, dignity, passions and compassion reveal their identity as Christians who are intent upon glorifying the God they know and serve. Their works convey perspectives, values and truths that are consistent with the biblical vision for life, though their works often do not contain Biblical characters or stories. The arts, they recognize, are the rhetoric of Euro-society therefore they traverse the highways and byways of culture employing their skills in service to their audiences. These artists, some freelance and some hired by theaters and performing arts companies, some even have taken positions on staff in local churches, are cognizant that all art ultimately reveals something of the values and the worldview of the art-maker and also that all art bends and influences society, whether for good or evil. They are neither utilitarian nor pragmatic in the exercise of their craft, nor do they often use their art as a tool of direct evangelism, still their ultimate aim is to enhance or in other words, serve and love their audiences occupying them with worthy thoughts through their art. They are living out Christ mandate found in Matthew 5:16. “Let your light shine before men that they will see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” and thereby they pierce the darkness with light and depositing salt for healing into the wounds of society. In this article we wish to bring attention to a few of these artists; their thinking and their in-reach strategies as they disseminate their works inspired by their faith and the Biblical values and truths that are resident at the core of their lives. For this article artists from four different disciplines have been selected with whom we associate in CAE across Europe: Visual arts, Theatrical arts, Music and Dance. At the CAE web-site in our Art-links section you will find links to a multitude of Christian initiatives in the arts around the world. (www.creativeartseurope.com)
Thomas Hirt is a Fine arts artist who lives with his his two children Naemi und Lilah in Vienna, Austria. For his graduation from the Academy for Fine Arts with a focus on visual communication and grafic arts Thomas prepared room installation of the last words of Christ from the scriptures. Today, Thomas not only is a freelance artist but he also teaches art in public high schools in Vienna. He also created a multimedia production under the title, “HaShem – the Name” (www.hashem.at).
“HaShem – the Name” refers to the Hebrew name for God. In this piece, which will premier in early November 2004 in the Kosmos Theater in Vienna, the production will include a multitude of artistic forms in the presentation: moving grafically created Hebrew letters through videoprojection enhanced through the media of Dance und Music.
For Thomas, as a multi-media artist, he possesses an over riding concern to combine, intergrate and mix various artistic forms together to communicate or convey an idea or thought. So for “HaShem – the Name” a Choreographer, a dancer, a composer, a classical percussionist, a Jazz singer and a guitarist will colaborate together for this persentation. All the professional artists working on this project are Christians and specialist in their artistic area.
For this project Thomas did an extensive study of the Hebrew spelling and meaning of the Name of God. In his own words, “Though, the Name of God possesses a diverse array of meanings, still all these collectively cannot protray the depth and greatness of God in His person. “HaShem –the Name” is an attempt to reveal the infinite diversity through video projection, dance and music.”
Jewish and Christian organizations worked hand in hand with Thomas in full support for this multi- media production. For the press releases, a very broad media campaign was carried out. Thomas is persuaded that Christians play a very significant role in contemporary culture of today: “we Christians have often failed to bring quality works that will speak to anyone outside of our own Christian sub-cultures and this is an abdication of the influential role we are meant to have in society. As artists and Christian we need to leave our closed cultures behind and penetrate the heart of the world we live in . . . art is not only for direct evangelism but much more a sensible means to come in contact with our societies. Throughout history artists have attempted to convey a revelation through artistic expressions of the beauty of God. Every time when a composition of the renowned composer, Johan Sebastian Bach, is presented, something more is happening than just a phenomenal work of art. His works are prayers or a statement of faith of God’s reality. His works not only impact and are appreciated by Christians but also the entire society. HaShem the Name is an attempt through contemporary art to bring the presence of God close to people.”
Hector Ramirez, a Colombian born actor-director born 1956, presently lives in Madrid, Spain with his family. As a young man, Hector was heavily influenced by the communist ideas present in the National Acting School and concluded that this philosophy was the “best way to bring needed change to the social and political problems of his country.” On leaving high school he joined a professional theater troupe that performed in different theatres and festivals in Columbia in the 1970s. In 1977 he encountered some YWAMers who shared the gospel with him and he surrendered his life to God. “This brought about a radical change in my life and thinking,” said Hector.
In the early ‘90’s in Madrid, Spain, Hector and his wife founded the Aslan Theater Group, a performing arts initiative with Christian worldview values. Hector reports, “In the last few years we produced our own plays and sketches, for example, an adaptation of Othello by Shakespeare and the staging of a poem by a Spanish Renaissance writer based on the book of the Song of Songs.” Hector went on to say, “I am persuaded that the arts have a great power to depict, spread and communicate values and principles in a very subtle way, and even contribute to turn them into convictions in the long run in people’s lives and behavior. This we can clearly see from the way the cinema, the arts and the mass media influence and contribute to shape and conform people’s opinions in our modern societies.” Hector went on to say that he found it essential as a Christian to, “reflect on how to implement Christian morals and ethics in our daily lives as artists living in our modern, post Christian and often apathetic society.”
Žeraldas Povilaitis, Award winning Lithuanian composer and arranger, was at a crossroads in his life. As a newly appointed full time worship leader of his church in Jurmala, Latvia, he was fulfilling a dream to serve God. However, a door was opening up for him to compose music for some writings of Hans Christian Andersen for the Danish Embassy. Was it possible for him to dream of serving God in the corridors of culture in Eastern Europe? He had a sense of destiny with his music and a national heritage to produce and create great art.
A few years back he was commissioned by Sharon Perry to compose music for poems found on the walls of the Latvian death camps in written by Jewish prisoners. Before the invitation had even come, God in His providence had already begun to move him to compose songs in that genre. The result of his work, “Voices From The Ground,” premiered originally as a modern dance work by choreographer Sharon Perry. It is a scenic cantata, dedicated to the memory of Jewish Holocaust victims.
In Žeraldas words, “Voices from the Ground” is a project created by artists who believe that people should raise their voice and speak out the truth because “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This project bears not only a cultural value but also it is an educational tool that helps to form a democratic and civil consciousness of our nation. It makes the audience consider the value of a human life, makes us remember the love we owe to our neighbors. It is about forgiveness and responsibility.”
Today Žeraldas and his wife Maria are making inroads into his home culture of Lithuanian. He is without a doubt serving God and His purposes for his generation; though in order to accomplish this he had to lay down his role as a worship leader for his local church. Both assignments were certainly worthy endeavors, but they found that they had to be true to His calling on their lives. This is where they will be most effective for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake . . . moving on the highways of culture.
Joe Pöhlmann, (stage name- Jo Jasper) has played piano since he was three years old. Music was a part of his DNA in heart and soul. Since Joe became a Christian he has performed concerts and made many recordings for the Christian scene, however, he has moved also consistently on secular scene. He had a dream to go where the non-Christians were: to reach them and touch their lives. Early on in his career Joe began to see the Lord open doors and fulfill the dream that he had in his heart. 1998 Joe had a new CD project release for the Soccer World Championship in France under the title “Together” performed with three world renown Brazilian soccer professionals: Giovane Elber, Rathin— und Paulo Sergio. Another song of Joe “The laughter of the children” was recorded and released as a Maxi-CD. A portion of the sales price for this successful CD production was dedicated to the plight of the Brazilian street children.
Joe continues to touch others through his music in a tangible way. In his own words his agenda remains simple: …”I attempt to find, as an artist, a language of hope, joy and I try to make the people think about what I am communicating. Through my music I attempt to cause people to think about the existence of God and what life is all about . . . ultimately I wish to reach hearts through my art.” Joe plays most often in hotels, bars and in galas around central Europe. He is a professional entertainer frequently hired by Mercedes, Jaguar and other well known companies.
Loreen Fajgel remembers, “I can hardly remember life without dance,”. She began her ballet lessons as a child in the country of Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), Africa and then later studied at the Royal Ballet School in London. Loreen danced for various seasons in the city ballets of both Gelsenkirchen and Kassel in Germany. In the late 80s Loreen and her husband Michael, professional stage actor, both became believers. Loreen determined to find a way to connect their faith and her carrier or change vocation if that were not possible. She was ready to give up dance altogether when she and here husband took part in the 1992 Summer Art Session in Ravensburg, Germany of our work and Immanuel Fellowship, a lay Catholic Fellowship in southern Germany. There she encountered a number of believing dancers and artists from around Europe and became convinced that God intended for her to continue dancing. “My husband, Michael, and our two children bring me great joy,” says Loreen,” but the greatest source of encouragement and support is my relationship to God, my Creator. Dance for me is a glorious means of expressing this relationship and its effect on my life.”
In 1996 Loreen was invited to become the Artistic Director for Xaris Dance Company. The Word “Xaris” is Greek for “Gift” or “Benefit”, and reflects one of the company’s primary aims – to raise money for various charities and humanitarian causes from the proceeds of the annual Spring and Fall tours. The first year in 1996 fourteen professional dancers toured in 10 cities on city theater stages, in schools and in churches performing Leonard Bernsteins, Chichester Psalms and raising finances for refugees in Bosnia. The plight of the refugees in Bosian was depicted through the masterfully crafted music of Bernstein and expressed richly and dramatically through Loreen’s choreography. Since that time the company under Loreen’s direction has performed in 11 European countries and in the USA frequently on secular stages. Over 40 dancers from 20 nations around the world have taken part in Xaris projects and thousands of Euros have been raised for worthy humanitarian endeavors
These are only a few in the current movement of believing artists, some freelance others hired in theaters. They have one overriding life’s aim: to please God above all else in every area of their lives. They long to leave a deposit of the hope that has filled their hearts in their societies through their artistic endeavors. They are very aware that all art, either positively or negatively influences and effects culture. Their wish is to effect culture for the Kingdom of heaven’s sake and they need our prayers, our support and our affirmation as leaders. They are lighting up the corridors of culture, fulfilling literally Christ’s mandate for the church in Matthew 5:14=15, “you are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world.” There is an old saying I have quoted and known for some time that is appropriate for these precious artists: “Those that hear not the music, think the dancers mad.” May the church begin to hear God’s heart with these peculiar, powerful, potent servants of God as they traverse the highways and byways of culture for His Name’s sake.
A time to weep, a time to pray, a time to take action. . .
In conclusion here again, John Wilson, provides potent and relevant words from his excellent book on thinking Christianly about the arts. He presents this challenge on how we are to respond to the vast wasteland of culture in the 21st century. He asks, “how shall we respond to the arts of our age?”
Perhaps the starting point should be tears. Weep for a glorious gift that is being degraded and corrupted into a worthless thing; for art that shows no craftsmanship and communicates no vision… for theaters where blasphemy and sexual license are mistaken for liberty; for our often violent and pornographic cinema; for cheap sensational literature; for poetry that has nothing to say; paintings revealing no created reality, and music that only disturbs … we must weep for our lost culture, for the makers of that culture and the casualties that are all around us… the tears should lead to prayer. Prayer for those highly gifted that they will use their talents to enrich human life, bring truth and joy by opening the eyes and understanding… Pray for those whom God has called to serve Him in the arts that they might learn to use them aright in their lonely, difficult and yet glorious calling.
© 2005 Creative Missions International, Inc/CAE . 1141 SW Pacific Dr., Lees Summit, MO 64081.
Jim & Anne Mills, co-founders and pastoral directors of Creative Arts Europe (CAE) reside at the headquarters for CAE near Brussels Belgium, the Brussels Arts House. Jim and Anne have served as missionaries in Europe since 1976. You can find out more about their work at www.creativemissions.com.