ArtWay

The elitism, commodification and commercialisation in the current contemporary art world need challenging, and Christians should be prepared to do that. Adrienne Chaplin

The Moral Imagination: Art and Peacebuilding

The Moral Imagination: Faith, Art, and Peacebuilding

by Laurel Borisenko

I recently completed my PhD on the topic of peacebuilding using the arts, with the following thesis: creative expression is central to conflict transformation in situations of protracted violence. It not only allows – but requires – that we search for creative solutions; it provides a venue for telling and for sharing our stories; and it allows for building of relationships, which is essential for any sustainable solution.[1]

Refugee participants focus group

My research focused on the two broad areas of creative expression and peacebuilding. However, as a Christian, I was also processing my personal questions of how this related to my faith perspective, which added a third dimension for consideration. I was able to find a wide array of resources on any two of these areas (faith and art, faith and peace, art and peace), but I had not found any material combining the three areas of art, peacebuilding, and faith. As I reflected on the intersection of these three areas, I became more and more convinced that the relationship was not superfluous, but central.

From a Christian theological perspective, I propose that creative expression is part of our God-given identity. To be creative is the very essence of who we are as creatures of a Creator-God. I sometimes use the terminology ‘arts-based strategies’ as a kind of short-hand description, but – even as I use it – I recognize that it is a reductionist term. This is not just a strategy, it is our ontology – our way of being. Creative expression is more than simply a tool, but a part of who we are as humans. 

And it is also our epistemology – our way of knowing. The process of the creative act opens us to different ways of knowing. It allows us to ‘know’ things kinetically, visually, orally, and metaphorically. Peace researcher and activist John Paul Lederach makes the connection that this epistemological shift in ‘knowing’ creatively leads to ‘acting’ creatively.[2] Creative expression makes us think more deeply about ourselves and the world around us. Artists take time to penetrate below the surface of things to rediscover the world with the eye of a lover. Art can shift our perspective.

Refugee and American actors perform together

I came to understand through my research that in the context of conflict transformation (and I think in general) the key purpose of creative expression is to provide a venue for people to tell their stories, and for their stories to be heard. Storytelling is one of the oldest and most universal forms of communication that human beings have. What is the first verse of the Bible? ‘In the beginning God created’; not so unlike ‘Once upon a time’. The record that God has given us of who he is and how we should live has been given to us as story in a variety of literary genres. Luci Shaw points out that the word ‘poet’ means ‘maker’ and God is the first Poet. Shaw, herself a poet, observes that far more than we love doctrines and principles we love a good story: narrative, plot, meaning, suspense, all leading us to ask, “And then what happened?” She concludes, “When God reasons with us, it is not by creed or abstract propositions of dogma, but by images.” Jesus in the incarnation tells the story of God with his actions and life.[3] 

How then can creative expression contribute to [re]conciliation? Lederach poignantly articulates the connection between storytelling and peacebuilding. “We live by the stories we tell about each other. Once guns are chosen as the way to tell our stories, the modality by which we communicate, it becomes hard to find our way back to words.”[4] Storytelling offers that first crucial venue to speak of the violence in a safe context where the long road to reconciliation can begin. It provides the platform for communication, which is the first step to understanding and to the possibility of establishing relationship. 

Congolese refugee women perform at World Refugee Day

Creative expression should not remain in isolation, but through storytelling become part of the human connection. Violence is born out of dehumanizing others; healing becomes possible when all sides of a conflict regain their humanity and recognize the humanity of ‘the other’. Arts-based community developer John McNight also looks to creative expression to deepen our human connections. He asks how we create authentic kindness: “... song and dance create kindness in the world... telling your story creates kindness in the world. Those are the building blocks: dance, music, storytelling.”[5] 

Creative expression alone may not transform wide-scale conflict, but it can transform individual participants. As Leonard Bernstein observed: “Art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people... because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events... by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”[6] 

****

Laurel Borisenko has worked internationally in the field of humanitarian aid and peacebuilding for the past fifteen years. She has been based primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, working with the United Nations and with faith-based NGOs. Through her PhD research in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda, she examined how communities that have undergone violent conflict have used the arts (specifically theatre) to move toward healing and reconciliation.


[1] Laurel Borisenko, Arts-Based Peacebuilding: Functions of Theatre in Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe (University of Amsterdam, 2016).

[2] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] From blog writing, ‘Because God Loves Stories’, Deb Thomas, accessed May 2016.

[4]  Lederach, John Paul and Lederach, Angela Jill, When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation (Oxford, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15.

[5] McKnight, John, & Block, Peter, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Francisco, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010), 85.

[6] Gruen, John. “Leonard Bernstein.” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1972.


More:

24 October 2017 / Bruce Herman: Ut pictura poesis?

For the last couple hundred of years the arts have largely been in "experimentation mode"—moving away from the humble business of craft and service toward ideas, issues, and theory.

Read more...


04 October 2017 / David Jeffrey: Art and Understanding Scripture

The purpose of In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture is to help deepen the reader’s understanding of the magnificence of the Bible as a source for European art.

Read more...


08 September 2017 / David Taylor: The Aesthetics of John Calvin

Calvin stated that 'the faithful see sparks of God's glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.'

Read more...


23 August 2017 / ​Reconstructed by Anikó Ouweneel

A much talked-about exposition in the NoordBrabants Museum in The Netherlands showed works by modern and contemporary Dutch artists inspired by traditional Catholic statues of Christ and the saints. 

Read more...


04 July 2017 / Pilgrimage to Venice – The Venice Biennale 2017

When I start to look at the art works, I notice a strange rift between this pleasant environment and the angst and political engagement present in the works of the artists. 

Read more...


24 June 2017 / Collecting as a Calling

After many years of compiling a collection of religious art, I have come to realize that collecting is a calling. I feel strongly that our collection has real value and that it is a valuable ministry. 

Read more...


02 June 2017 / I Believe in Contemporary Art

By Alastair Gordon

In recent years there has been a growing interest in questions of religion in contemporary art. Is it just a passing fad or signs of renewed faith in art? 

Read more...


04 April 2017 / Stations of the Cross - Washington, DC 2017

by Aaron Rosen

We realized that the Stations needed to speak to the acute anxiety facing so many minorities in today’s America and beyond. 

Read more...


07 March 2017 / Socially Engaged Art

A discussion starter by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin

Growing dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch, elite and market driven art world has led artists to turn to socially engaged art. 

Read more...


01 February 2017 / Theodore Prescott: Inside Sagrada Familia

The columns resemble the trunks of trees. Gaudi conceived of the whole interior as a forest, where the nave ceiling would invoke the image of an arboreal canopy.

Read more...


03 January 2017 / Steve Scott tells about his trips to Bali

In the Balinese shadow play the puppet master pulls from a repertoire of traditional tales and retells them with an emphasis on contemporary moral and spiritual lessons. 

Read more...


09 December 2016 / Newsletter ArtWay December 2016

Like an imitation of a good thing past, these days of darkness surely will not last. Jesus was here and he is coming again, to lead us to the festival of friends.

Read more...


01 November 2016 / LAbri for Beginners

What is the role of the Christian artist? Is it not to ‘re-transcendentalise’ the transcendent, to discern what is good in culture, and to subvert what is not with a prophetic voice?

Read more...


30 September 2016 / Book Review by Jonathan Evens

Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace - Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art, Routledge, 2016.

Read more...


01 September 2016 / Review: Modern art and the life of a culture

The authors say they want to help the Christian community recognize the issues raised in modern art and to do so in ways that are charitable and irenic. But I did not find them so. Their representation of Rookmaaker seems uncharitable and at times even misleading. 

Read more...


29 July 2016 / Victoria Emily Jones on Disciplining our Eyes

There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds. 

Read more...


30 June 2016 / Aniko Ouweneel on What is Christian Art?

Pekka Hannula challenges the spectator to search for the source of the breath we breathe, the source of what makes life worth living, the source of our longing for the victory of redemptive harmony.

Read more...


09 June 2016 / Theodore Prescott: The Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia is a visual encyclopedia of Christian narrative and Catholic doctrine as Gaudi sought to embody the faith through images, symbols, and expressive forms.

Read more...


19 May 2016 / Edward Knippers: Do Clothes make the Man?

Since the body is the one common denominator for all of humankind, why do we fear to uncover it? Why is public nudity a shock or even a personal affront?

Read more...


27 April 2016 / Alexandra Harper: Culture Care

Culture Care is an invitation to create space within the local church to invest our talents, time and tithes in works that lean into the Kingdom of God as creative agents of shalom. 

Read more...


06 April 2016 / Jonathan Evens on Contemporary Commissions

The issue of commissioning secular artists versus artists of faith represents false division and unnecessary debate. The reality is that both have resulted in successes and failures.

Read more...


12 March 2016 / Betty Spackman: Creativity and Depression

When our whole being is wired to fly outside the box, life can become a very big challenge. To carve oneself into a square peg for the square holes of society, when you are a round peg, is painful to say the least.

Read more...


24 February 2016 / Jim Watkins: Augustine and the Senses

Augustine is not saying that sensual pleasure is bad, but that it is a mixed good. As his Confessions so clearly show, Augustine is painfully aware of how easily he can take something good and turn it into something bad. 

Read more...


11 February 2016 / H.R. Rookmaaker: Does Art Need Justification?

Art is not a religion, nor an activity relegated to a chosen few, nor a mere worldly, superfluous affair. None of these views of art does justice to the creativity with which God has endowed man.

Read more...


26 January 2016 / Ned Bustard: The Bible is Not Safe

Revealed is intended to provoke surprise, even shock. It shows that the Bible is a book about ordinary people, who are not only spiritual beings, but also greedy, needy, hateful, hopeful, selfish, and sexual.

Read more...


14 January 2016 / Painting by Nanias Maira from Papua New Guinea

In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known. 

Read more...