An interview with Colin Kirton[i], Artistic Director of Footstool Players and freelance performing artist (October 2006)
While the arrogance of modern art sets itself against God, Christian art history tells us that art is one of the finest expressions of mankind’s spiritual aspiration. Indeed, art is more than just word or dance or paint, it is also the voice of one’s soul in his or her spiritual quest. In the Malaysian Church context, art has yet to be recognized as having a role in the Kingdom of God. If at all, it is merely seen as an evangelistic tool. Perhaps an interview with Colin Kirton may enlighten us on how art plays its role in discovering and articulating Christian faith. Simply, do art for God’s glory!
What is art?
That’s a question that has been debated since time immemorial! One could get very philosophical about it, but I would simply describe ‘art’ in its most general sense as the creative products of our imaginations. For example, a computer programme can be art, as can someone’s garden, or the way people dress, or even a recipe. However, for the sake of this discussion, we shall focus on ‘the art’ that encompasses visual arts (painting, design), written arts (poetry, creative writing), performing arts (dance, drama, music) and media arts (film, television).
As a Christian, how do you view art?
Firstly, as a person enjoying the artistic work of someone else, art is a gift from God, created for our blessing. My response to that is naturally grateful worship. I am of course excluding art that dishonours or blasphemes God in some way.
Secondly, as a person exercising my artistic abilities, art is an expression of my worship of God. The creative spark within me is part of my being created in the image of God. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of being created in God’s image, probably only second to the ability to love. When I exercise my creativity as unto Him – as I believe I am expected to do by my Creator – I worship Him and reflect His image in a fallen world, to His glory.
How do you combine art and faith? Do artist-Christians have an obligation?
Our primary ‘obligation’ is worship. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” As an artist, this is my primary concern. Footstool Players derives its name from Psalm 99:5, which calls us to “exalt the LORD our God and worship at His footstool”. We see all our theatrical endeavours as ultimately submitted humble worship at the feet of our great God, so that He may be exalted through all that we do. Worship is our ethos, our driving force, our raison d’être.
I believe that God has given us unlimited scope in terms of the artwork. It does not necessarily have to be about God or religious themes. However the total body of our work as an artist should reflect and be consistent with a Word-centred worldview.
Our secondary obligations, which really flow naturally from our primary obligation to worship God, are no different from those of any other Christian: Love our neighbour; the celebration of what is good, just, and righteous; speaking on behalf of the downtrodden and needy; encouraging one another, and so on. The only difference is that as artists, we may use our art as the medium of expressing what is on our hearts or communicating our message.
Some Western artist-Christians believe that art has a moral responsibility. What is your opinion on this? Why?
It was the 20th century Catholic sculptor Frederick Hart who famously said, “I believe that art has a moral responsibility, that it must pursue something higher than itself.” In that sense, yes, I would agree with Hart. But the ‘something’ we artist-Christians should be pursuing is in reality the ‘Someone’. Art simply for art’s sake is effectively idolatrous. But, when art is driven by worship of God, it is sanctified. It is not bound by any theme or role.
Even when pursuing “something higher than itself” in art, one can be idolatrous, and hence immoral! For example, if one merely pursues beauty or truth, themes that Hart himself valued as “something higher”, without regard for God, beauty or truth has in itself become our god. The motivation and goal of pursuing beauty or truth in art must be to display and reflect God’s beauty and truth.
At the same time, there is a place for art to take on a role of moral responsibility in the sense of being some sort of moral guardian of society. But to narrow the role of art to merely being a tool for promoting something, even morality, is in my opinion not consistent with biblical paradigm. God Himself creates for the sheer pleasure of it – to say that “it is good”. So why shouldn’t we? Art can simply celebrate beauty, or the joy of being human. These are perfectly Christian themes.
One of Footstool Players’ objectives is to challenge Christians and seekers with regard to matters of faith. In this increasingly visual-oriented culture, the Bible seems to have lost its appeal in its written form; young people today don't read. How can art provoke them to read the Bible? How can art help young people to understand God's work through Scripture?
We find ways to creatively express the eternal truths of the Scripture in art forms that will have memorable impact in the lives of our audience. Art makes the familiar unfamiliar so that the audience is forced to see something with new eyes. For the Footstool Players and I, we do this through the medium of theatre. Theatre is in effect storytelling, and that is pretty close to the way the Bible goes about communicating God’s heart to us! Much of Scripture is narrative, metaphor and poetry. It makes great subject matter for theatre!
Often, we forget that the Judeo-Christian faith is very much based on the pre-Gutenberg oral tradition.
In the 21st century, audio-visual has become dominant, not just with young people, but with the older folks too! We need to rise to the occasion and find ways to communicate Scriptural truth in the media of the day. This is certainly not to diminish the need to read our Bible! But there is a need to creatively explore other options to capture the minds and hearts of people. I am always amazed at how, years later, some of the audience can articulate details and the point of the theatrical pieces we have performed, when they are often unable to even remember what their pastors preached about two Sundays ago!
It is said that artists see with different eyes. Paul Tillich said, "Artists do not merely express a moment of the social situation of their time. They express the dynamics in the depths of society, which come from the past and run toward the future. Therefore, they have a prophetic character. It is not that artists have a vision of a future which is not yet real. They are not romantics, but in their creative depths they are aware of those elements in the present, which will determine the future of society. A most telling example of the prophetic function of the artist was the way in which the expressionist painters before the First World War foresaw the catastrophes of the 20th century" (1987). How can an artist play a prophetic role in Malaysia?
Yes, all artists see with different eyes, but not all are necessarily gifted with the so-called ‘prophetic discernment’ which Tillich describes. Yet, there is probably a greater streak of that discernment among artists than there might be in the general populace. Perhaps because the artistic temperament tends to be more reflective and introspective, artists therefore tend to have a greater sensitivity to what is happening around them, which is in turn expressed in the artwork.
Again, I don’t want to narrow artistic expression among Christians to merely a prophetic role. There is snootiness among some secular artists that if an artwork does not make some social statement, or promote some agenda (usually left-wing!), it is despised as being ‘low art’, or ‘commercial’! We can easily breed that same kind of ‘more-prophetic-than-thou’ attitude in Christian-themed art!
But, yes, I would agree that some of the most powerful prophetic statements could be manifested through artists who are sensitive to the heartbeat of God in this day and age and circumstance. In fact I would go so far as to say that artistic Christians need to continually seek the heartbeat of God in order that their artwork may reflect that heartbeat, instead of “trying to be prophetic” for prophecy’s sake or feeling pressured that their artwork must be “prophetic” in some way. When God becomes the focus and pursuit, He will by default use art in prophetic ways that the artists themselves may not have realised when creating the art!
As I look upon prophecy as ‘declaring the Word of the Lord’, or ‘calling the people back to God’, in that sense, we all have a prophetic role to play through our art forms.
In the play entitled “Runaway Bride,” the Footstool Players’ 2005 production, we tackled, in seven short sketches, many of the maladies affecting today’s Church such as apathy, consumerism, legalism, compromise, idolatry, and lack of love towards the needy. In the sense that it was an exposé of the sinful condition of God’s people and a calling to return to their mandate and position as the Bride of Christ, it was prophetic. An earlier production, “Let Go, Let God” dealt with the very struggle we face in releasing ourselves to God who asks us to trust Him with total abandon even when His ways do not seem consistent with His character, or our circumstances seem too overwhelming. Was it ‘prophetic’? Certainly! Try Habakkuk for a similar message!
Historically, Christianity has played a significant role in social influence and community transformation. How can art empower the Malaysian Church in this regard? How does art play a role in "transforming the nation through the local church"? Christians are called to be salt and light. How can Christians engage their culture through arts?
Let us first remind ourselves that it is not the art per se that transforms people or nations, but the Spirit of God. But the art may be the medium that He chooses to use to facilitate that transformation.
I feel very strongly that if we Christians are going to engage our culture through art, we need to take a good hard look first at how we view art.
Too often art is viewed merely as a propagandist tool of the Church, seeking to bash everyone on the head with the Four Spiritual Laws! We are also, in the words of Franky Schaeffer, “addicted to mediocrity”. If we are going to impose such so-called ‘art’ on a secular world that has already got such high standards, we are lacking the credibility entirely! The sad thing is, so much of what the Church attempts to do is in this vein! How can we then be taken seriously? How can we gain an audience for what we have to say?
Art can act as a bridge between believers and the communities. Art provides an avenue for our stories to be told, our feelings to be voiced and empathy to be shared. We as Christians should be telling our stories – our testimonies in effect – and, above all, God’s stories, through art! We must also seek to be listeners, empowering the communities to share their stories with us through artistic expression. Empowering communities artistically allows them to process what is happening in their lives, and around them. Perhaps in doing so, we can point to the God who desires to walk with them through all that they experience.
In 2004, I was privileged to be a participant at the Lausanne Forum for World Evangelisation, working together with other artists on the paper “Redeeming the Arts”. The issue of cultural transformation is one that we take up in greater depth and I would encourage you to read the paper, which is freely available on the Internet.
Undoubtedly art helps us to perceive and build connection, but art can also become highly spiritual bearing no relevance to society. Under what circumstances and how?
Perhaps in some cases, one’s art may be an expression of one’s spirituality that is so personal that no one else can relate to it. In such a case, I would say, fine, it’s between you and God. But if you are going to share this art with others, there needs to be at least some level of connection, relevance and meaning. I would say that the principles of 1 Corinthians 14 should apply to us in such circumstances.
How can the Church embrace art and the artists?
First, the Church needs to engage its mind as per 1 Corinthians 14:15 with regard to arts and culture. For too long, it has hidden behind its hand-me-down fears, suspicions and prejudices. It has been guilty of giving simplistic answers to complex issues. Specifically, the Church needs to engage its mind in terms of:
(a) the scriptural foundations for the arts: To understand what the Scripture has to say about artistic expression and form a theology that is based on biblical truth instead of tradition or prejudice;
(b) the culture in which it exists: To understand and weigh cultural artistic expressions in the light of Scriptural truth, and discern with godly wisdom what is and what is not acceptable to God. In this respect, there is a need for consultation among the believers, particularly with artists who have delved into the origins and contexts of these cultural art forms, in order to provide meaningful insight and direction in dealing with these issues.
Secondly, the church needs to recapture its imagination. The imagination is the bridge between the heart and the mind, and therefore a conduit for truth about God. God pays high regard for the imagination in His Word through His widespread use of metaphor, imagery, paradox and story. The evil one is just as aware of the power of the imagination, and seeks to usurp it for his own purposes, for the Word warns us that sin begins its life-cycle in the playground of our imaginations (James 1:15). In essence, therefore, the heart of biblical prophecy is God speaking to His people in such a way as to attempt to recapture their sin-tarnished imaginations.
Unfortunately, contemporary culture has been guilty of stripping the imagination, of dulling us into mindless robots that chant the media’s mantras. The Church has been no less at fault, firstly in its suspicion of the capacity of the imagination and therefore viewing it as something to be subdued, and secondly through its blatant tendency to tell people what to think as opposed to causing them to think.
We need to return to a healthy worldview of the imagination and revisit it as one of God’s chosen avenues for communicating His truth, especially in art.
As for embracing artists, we need to see them as artists called by God to the greater sphere of life, and not just the evangelistic church meeting!
Within the Church, if our artistic expression is also an expression of worship, then the total environment and culture of the Church ought to reflect an acceptance and ‘friendliness’ towards artistic expression as part of its corporate worship. The Church can include the artist’s gifts in the overall life of the church, from its worship to its teaching, outreach and social action. The church’s décor, for example, can reflect that ‘art-friendly’ culture. Towards these ends, artists should be encouraged to serve in the leadership of the church and its ministries.
Also, we need to release our artists to the marketplace. It is of utmost importance that artists entering the marketplace do so with the full support and accountability of their local church body.
The Church however has traditionally been suspicious or fearful of releasing their artists into a “secular” marketplace. Some of these fears may be valid given the fact that the marketplace is not without its pitfalls for those with inadequate spiritual foundation. We certainly do not want them to end up as ‘sheep among wolves’.
At the same time, the enemy’s camp is the Church’s mission territory and therefore the artistic marketplace is a mission field that greatly needs to be reclaimed for God. The artists are its mission agents. If art shapes our culture, then we need to build up a new generation of missionaries who will enter into that culture as God’s avant-gardes, influencing it, even revolutionising it, for His kingdom purposes.
As such, the Church can honour, nurture, support and commission the artists and their giftings in the marketplace. This involves:
- Identifying, unlocking and releasing artistic gift within its members;
- Valuing and affirming the artist as an individual, and his/her giftings;
- Training the artist towards excellence in his giftings and obedience to his calling;
- Encouraging and influencing its artists to be salt and light in the marketplace, and as good stewards of their giftings, and not merely practitioners of their art in the context of their churches.
However, it isn’t just the Church that has been suspicious of the marketplace. The marketplace has for too long been suspicious of the Church! The presence of artist-Christians in the marketplace who are able to communicate true Christian spirituality can help to eradicate such suspicions, as well as misconceptions and stereotypes. The pagan Cuban artist Raquelin Mendieta has said that “art and spirituality are one and the same; works of art are prayers on the altar of life”. Certainly, creativity is our spirituality in action, our expression of worship, and we need to rectify the distorted image of our faith, and therefore our God, that many secular artists have.
Yet, it is insufficient for the Church to merely endorse their artists’ entry into the marketplace. As pointed out earlier, the artistic marketplace has more than its fair share of pitfalls. The artist-Christians working in the marketplace needs to have a lifeline to the Church. As with all its missionaries, the Church needs to care for its artists in the frontline of secular culture. It has to provide adequate spiritual foundations and counselling for artists entering the marketplace, and continue to keep them accountable to their calling and steadfast in their discipleship. They need to be supported in prayer, as well as in practical ways. This includes moral support for their craft in the marketplace, for example purchasing artwork, attending concerts and plays, providing venue and resource for exhibiting/promoting their ‘non-religious-themed’ work.
The Church must realise that artists need space – space to create, space to experiment, and space to take risks and even make mistakes. As much as their art, artists are works in progress, and much patience is required to allow the Master Artist to work in and through them. They are often sensitive people whose spirits can be easily crushed, and it is important that the Church extends grace and restorative encouragement in their error rather than adopting an “I told you so” response.
The general attitude towards, and treatment of, artist-Christians in the past has resulted in many casualties – wounded artists who have as a result retreated from their art or retreated from their local churches, or even their faith. In many cases, the scars are deep. They withdraw spiritually and end up lonely and in isolation, becoming reluctant to reveal their vulnerabilities and thus unable to maintain accountability with spiritual mentors.
On the other hand, pride is an issue that many artists struggle with, and there can often be reluctance on their part to seek such accountability.
The local church needs to initiate dialogue with its artists in order to understand them as unique individuals – their temperament, aspirations and struggles – and to foster a mutual respect for each other that would facilitate a healthy relationship that promotes that much-needed accountability.
Of course, ideally, who can comprehend the situation of the artist better than another artist? Therefore it is also important that the artist-Christian in the marketplace actively seek out like-minded artists from the Christian community who will be able to provide mentorship both in terms of developing practical skills and providing spiritual anchors. Preferably, more experienced artist-Christians should be seeking out younger colleagues in the marketplace in order to invest in and impact their lives (2 Timothy 2:2).
The networking of artist-Christians in the marketplace will help reinforce accountability (Ecclesiastes 4:12) and provide fellowship and a springboard for sharing ideas and encouraging one another.
Someone says, "There's a real danger when the Christian looks at everything that God has made and sees it as a tool to co-op for the cause of God." However, some churches do use art as a tool for evangelism. What do you think?
Art can certainly be used effectively in evangelism, but it should not be boxed in to merely being an evangelism ‘tool’. The word ‘tool’ in itself infers something functional. Art is much larger than that. It’s denigrated when it is forced into something propagandist, even for God! As I said earlier, I would rather my art cause people to think than didactically tell them what to think.
What words of encouragement do you have for young people who are gifted in arts and who desire to pursue art making as vocation?
Firstly, love God above everything else. Jesus said it. It’s the greatest command and the reference point for the whole of life. Your making of art has to flow out of your love for God and its natural corollary of loving others. If you love your art more than you love God, you are worshipping the created rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25).
Secondly, get yourself grounded in His Word. If you don’t get good scriptural foundation for why you do what you do, you’ll be easily swept by every false doctrine in relation to your calling and artistic expression. Trust me, these come not just from the world, but also sadly, from within the church! A book I would recommend for every person wanting to pursue arts as a vocation is Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts by Steve Turner, who among other things, provides a broad scope of Scripture and its impact on how we “do art”.
Thirdly, strive for excellence. Excellence is an attribute of God, and we must reflect that in our art. Beware you don’t confuse it with perfectionism, which affects many artists. Perfectionism is pride in another guise. Perfectionism is self-directed; excellence is God-directed.
Fourthly, just do it! If God has gifted and called you to do art as vocation, trust Him to lead you into a fulfilling career. Forget what others say about getting a ‘real job’. Don’t let the critics rattle you. Be prepared for being misunderstood by Christians who may want to pigeonhole you into only certain ways of expressing yourself artistically, and non-Christians who may be suspicious of your motivations for art or the creative choices you make. There will be discouraging times, but persevere knowing that this is how God has wired you and how He has called you to be His ambassador. There is nothing more fulfilling than being right at the centre of God’s purposes for you.
Brand, Hilary and Adrienne Chaplin. Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts. Inter-Varsity Press, 1999, 2001.
Card, Michael. Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity. Inter-Varsity Press, 2002.
Claydon, David (series editor). Redeeming the Arts: The Restoration of the Arts to God’s Creational Intention. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation, 2005.
[The entire paper is available online at http://community.gospelcom.net/lcwe/assets/LOP46_IG17.pdf]
Ryken, Leland. The Liberated Imagination. Harold Shaw Publishers, 1989.
Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows for a Fallen World. Tuppence Press, 1980.
Turner, Steve. Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. Inter-Varsity Press, 2001.
[i] Colin trained and performed in professional theatre in Canada before returning to Malaysia in 1998. He now freelances in the arts and entertainment scene as an actor, director, writer, trainer, musician, singer, host/emcee and voiceover talent. He also regularly teaches on issues pertaining to the arts and faith, directs creative projects and conducts practical theatre skills workshops towards equipping and encouraging the Malaysian church in using the creative arts in worship, teaching and outreach. Colin worships at Subang Jaya Gospel Centre, where he also serves as a deacon.