Chaos, Order, and a Case for the Arts During a Pandemic

By Drew Friesen

Published November 1st, 2020

            The Chaos - The effect of the Fall hounds us, it sniffs us out. The COVID crisis has illustrated this point once again. It is estimated by some that as many as 40% of Evangelical churches don’t have the funds to last three months of lockdown.[1] One can only imagine the tremendous toll that the pandemic will take on our faith communities, especially those in Church leadership and their families. Many Churches have hardly met in person in months, and the ones that have do so under the strain that necessary safety precautions generate.

            A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that only 47% of Church attendees between the ages of 18-29 have participated in virtual services,[2] and one can only guess what the lasting effects of the disconnect will be on this group. While simply inviting someone to Church may have been a welcome option in the past, studies show that the online format of worship passively alienates over half of young adults who were already participating in in-person religious services to some degree or another—let alone those who were not a part of any church body. 
            Given this particular statistic, what does it mean to help someone spiritually? I mean really help them. This is an important question to ask under normal circumstances, now heightened and infused with a sense of urgency given the pervasiveness of the world-wide pandemic. In the past, helping someone grow in their knowledge and love of God could be as simple as inviting them to church, but now we find ourselves forced to envision a new place for the body of Christ, or at least, reimagine how the Great Commission might be realized. Given the tumult of the worldwide pandemic, how should we go about ministering to those God has placed around us? As Spiritual mothers and fathers, we must grow in our active voice as individuals who speak chaos into order through the practical means of placemaking.  
            While it could be argued that the online format might be more welcoming for those unfamiliar with church, reaching a higher percentage of those who would label themselves as “nonreligious” as is seen in the case of virtual reality services.[3] I believe that what it means to be the Body of Christ carries with it decidedly incarnational ramifications. The answer to reaching young adults during the pandemic lies in more virtual services. So where does it lie?
            Again, we quickly run into problems. The very nature of the chaos bends us away from interpersonal contact. We are confined to a very narrow definition of what it means to be active agents in the world. Many people have pre-existing health concerns, leading to greater risk. Others operate with less personal risk, but live with the constant fear of infecting friends and family members higher up the risk spectrum than they. Every interaction is weighed, every foot counted, and every cough magnified through a social blow-horn. How can we go about creating an embodied, physical community in such temperatures?   
            The Order - As hinted at above, I believe the key to the flourishing of the Christian life during the pandemic is found in placemaking, and central to placemaking are the arts.[4] Engagement with the arts produces a space for Christ to be shown at the level of affects. People are already engaging on a religious level with the art that surrounds them, and it is time for Christians to begin manifesting a culturally aware apologetics that doesn’t seek to merely leverage the arts for Christian conversation, but to proclaim the arts as essentially Christian.   
            Think about the liturgy of your own quarantine life. By that I mean what was the ordering of your life? Around what (or whom) did you center? For me, I found poetry to be particularly meaningful as I lived through the unknown. I’ve also lived the liturgy of Netflix.[5] I’ve been carried along through the narrative of Avatar the Last Airbender and the Lord of the Rings. I’ve had tremendous conversations with friends both remotely and in person over instances of redemption encapsulated in the great mythical stories that I can’t help but repeat. What is true and lasting in these great stories are the archetypes presented and the beauty employed.  
            I am profoundly grateful for the gifts of story that I’ve received during the pandemic. They’ve been with me as I was wed during the pandemic, moved from West Michigan back to Chicago, worked three separate jobs, and undertaken to commune with God during spatial separation from my Church family. I’ve come to realize the embodiment of stories, how essential they are to my personal growth in understanding the person of Christ, and how He approaches me. The arts have created a metaphorical place for me to rest and return to the truths that true beauty presents.  
            The arts take empty space and create place; they hover over the waters of chaos and call dry land forward. Think about a blank canvas. By definition, the emptiness includes nothing, but it also excludes nothing. It is utter potential. There is no end to the possibilities that a trained artist could produce. The culling of chaos is by definition order. There is an ordering of the unlimited potential to the narrow confines of what is. While a piece of art can certainly be interpreted many different ways, what is produced creates the contexts of the ensuing discussion. It has created a place for discussion, for dialogue. Art is the creation of the world by the Spirit of God.
            How do the arts connect to my previous question of how to reach young adults during a pandemic? The answer is simple. Far beyond serving as a neutral sphere for Christian conversations to be spawned, the arts themselves are deeply and decidedly the territory of the Christian narrative. Netflix added over 16 million new subscribers during the pandemic,[6] unprecedented numbers which ought to mean something to us. What big media has offered us is the unification of shared stories on a grand cultural scale. These stories create places for discussion that we can confidently inhabit as Christians while simultaneously upholding the preeminence of the Gospel narrative.   
            The Place - The Church’s involvement with the arts, specifically story, is essential during this pandemic crisis. As spiritual mothers and fathers, we must possess, produce, and perform the Story of Redemption. Art has a particular ability to be conveyed virtually while still maintaining the depth of embodied presence because the story comes from inside of us. When we engage with the pieces of redemption found within true and honest narrative we feel a resonance of true and honest engagement. We are captivated by the internal struggle within Tolkien’s Frodo as he wrestles to destroy the ring because we feel the conflict deep within our own souls. We are gripped with the anguish of Dostoyevski’s Raskolnikov as he seeks to justify injustice because we live the same dissonance ourselves. We recognize the depths of sorrow in Michelangelo’s Pieta because we too live in between and await new life. 
            The arts take what is chaos and produce the order of place. They can even do this on the internal level. Contained within great narratives is the ordering of our souls. We can use stories to foster an environment for honest discussions about the realities of malevolence, goodness, justice, and redemption, as we are forced by the art to reckon with them.  
            The Means - What exactly can be done, then? Given the abstraction of the arts and our experiences with them, how can the Church begin embodying the message of hope to those who would otherwise avoid believers entirely?
            Firstly, we must surround ourselves with quality art. I believe the truth we are able to convey is directly proportional to the beauty of the art.[7] Scripture is a wonderful example of this. We are drawn to it as Christians not because it contains rules and regulations, but because the moral truths are brought to us in the form of an eternal narrative, brought to us in a story that will never die because it hits at the heart of something primordial in our collective consciousness. Great art can do that. Surround yourselves with things that are beautiful and allow things that are greater to wash over you. People love to talk about things like that. It is an acceptable in-road to begin true and meaningful relationships with people who consider themselves outside of Christendom. 
            Perhaps you feel overwhelmed by what it means to truly engage with art. Maybe you don’t consider yourself artistic and think that what I am saying doesn’t apply to you. While it is true that there are differing levels of interaction with the themes that art conveys (even differing definitions of what constitutes ‘art’), we are all a part of a redemptive narrative. You have a part to play in this unfolding story, and it is for everyone to engage honestly with what the Lord requires of them on the way. This realization is for everyone, and it is made known to us through an engagement and collision with beauty. Surround yourself with the things that push you deeper into being. Surround yourself with good art.  
            Secondly, engage with the archetypes. Within the narratives we encounter are universal themes. Chaos and order are perhaps the most foundational.[8] They are present in dragon myths that endure to this day. The dragon is our oldest and greatest enemy—the serpent in the garden (Rev. 13, Gen. 3). It represents a sea of the unknown. It is for the hero to voluntarily journey into the land of the dragon to claim that which is guarded by the worst possible thing imaginable. And the hero, sometimes reluctantly, makes a conscious choice to avoid doing what is easy in order to gain that which is better. These stories always return to sacrifice. The hero must journey into the chaos of the dragon’s homefield ruled by disorder and bring order to bear. 
            One doesn’t have to look very hard at this formula to see Christ’s work of redemption present. Christ, both man and God—the greatest conceivable person, journey’s voluntarily to make the greatest conceivable sacrifice for the greatest possible victory. Our complete salvation is a function of Christ’s total sacrifice and obedience to the Father (Jn. 14:15). This is the story of Christ bruising his heel as he crushes the head of the serpent. The loss is real, but the redemption is true. We have gained everything in the sacrifice of Christ.  
            There is no end to the discussion on archetypes and what they mean for the Christian faith, so I will conclude with stating a simple fact: Christianity displays the greatest possible examples of the archetypes contained in all great stories. Do not let this truth pass you by without engagement—point out Christ where you see him
            Thirdly, given the pandemic, we must examine what smaller bodies of community might mean for how we go about Church. Limitations on in-person gatherings have been one of the toughest aspects of the previous year. Rather than continuing the labor of online services which fail to engender community, perhaps it is time for smaller units to begin engaging with their respective communities on the individual level. The arts create a powerful means of engagement with those unfamiliar with Church. Perhaps you could start a book club with your neighbors, or have small (but mindful) gatherings to enjoy a movie together. Maybe it could be producing art together. These ideas may seem small and insignificant, but we can gain much from the small suggestions. It is for you to decide how you will continue having a presence. If you surround yourself with great narratives and keep engaging with those God has placed around you, the world will be reborn in your imagination in a way more in line with the limitless Story of Redemption.   
            Enjoy the capacity of art to create places within you and within your community. People want to center around a work of art. They’re already doing it in their own homes. While it may seem tedious to engage in an online service, it’s all too easy to be entranced in a story, and if the story is good, the story will say things that are true.[9]  
            Lastly, be ready to advocate for what is good in the face of evolving cultural morality. While it is essential to maintain a culturally sensitive apologetic, it’s important to remember what is fixed when exposed to that which is transient and ephemeral. Have courage that the foundational archetypes of story have been around for thousands of years. The story of the Gospel will continue to outlast the evolutions and contours of society, and it’s not up to you to justify it. It is up to you to proclaim it. 
            When you collide with things that are beautiful, let them propel you into the world. The story of Redemption is not something to hide, but something to explode out of you. It will cause you to create and generate, cause you to share the hope that you have, cause you to engender community and create places. This is the mission of spiritual mothers and fathers and the mission of the gospel and it is with this understanding that we can begin to see pieces of the Gospel all around us.

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] David King “Another coronavirus victim: Nearly 40% of churches may not have cash to last 3 months.” (MarketWatch, Online), Accessed 10/27/20: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/another-coronavirus-victim-nearly-40-of-churches-may-not-have-cash-to-last-3-months-2020-04-29 
            [2] “Vast Majority of Americans Stayed Home for Easter, Oppose Religious Exemptions to Stay-at-Home Orders” (PRRI, 04.15.2020, Online), Accessed 10/27/20: https://www.prri.org/research/vast-majority-of-americans-stayed-home-for-easter-oppose-religious-exemptions-to-stay-at-home-orders/   
            [3] Kristen French, "This Pastor Is Putting His Faith in a Virtual Reality Church" (Wired, Online) Accessed 10/27/2020: https://www.wired.com/story/virtual-reality-church/ 
            [4] For a great resource on this theme and the inspiration behind what I’m developing, See, Jennifer Allen Craft, Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life. (IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2018).
            [5] Note: This is not to say that everything on Netflix is content worthy of ordering space, but the true themes will endure.  
            [6] "Netflix gets 16 million new sign-ups thanks to lockdown" (BBC News, Online) Accessed 10/27/20: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52376022.
            [7] See, Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013)
            [8] For a great understanding of myths and the archetypes: See, Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 1999) 
            [9] See, JRR Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-stories (United Kingdom: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014)

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