Echoing the words of Isa 61, Jesus stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth to declare that the kingdom of God involved a proclamation of healing for those who were previously neglected (Luke 4:18–19). But as Jesus entered a world of sin, he did not exterminate the physical corruption that plagued the streets of Galilee. The physical reality of pain and poverty persisted then and still persists today. Christian artists have used the plight of the poor as an inspiration for ministry. Within this context, I offer two artistic presentations that illustrate changing views on this biblical theme and an implication for the Christian community.
Christian Artists and National Poverty
Especially in the past few centuries, artists have responded to the growing issue of poverty. One example, Adriaen van de Venne (1589–1662), a Baroque satirical artist, recognized the plight of Dutch peasants in the seventeenth century. He illustrated the moral struggle addressing poverty and wealth. William Hogarth (1697–1764) also created works that pointed to the separation of classes as well as religious leadership’s ignorance of rising levels of poverty. These two examples demonstrate that art served to awaken Christianity’s role in addressing the growing problem of poverty. In a way, these artists strived to reset the moral compass of the modernist impulse, which exhibited a disinterest in the concerns of the poor. This problem was particularly pressing for many Americans who believed that liberty from oppression was not simply a privilege of class, but a right for all. In the nineteenth century, Christians took the lead in using Scripture to advance numerous contemporary social causes such as temperance, education, poverty, and, most notably, the institution of slavery.
With the end of the Progressive Era and the rise of Christian Fundamentalism, most church leaders started to de-emphasize national social concerns.1 In the last several years, a resurgence of interest in social issues has once again fostered a response from Christians to the issues of education, environmental protection, poverty, war, and other national and international problems. Because of globalization, artists of film, music, poetry, and the visual arts have an unprecedented audience to communicate messages of change within religious contexts. Although Christian groups have long advocated concern for the less fortunate, globalization has brought these social issues closer to home.
I created the first work in 2003 for my solo senior art show at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida. Entitled “Slavery in a Free Society,” it first investigated the ironic reality of how the institution of slavery made it to the American context. Far more important to this show, however, was how the consequences and memory of African slavery in the nineteenth century impacts elements of contemporary society. This particular work focused on wage labor in America as a de facto product of the progress of modernity. I remember the day I saw the janitorial mops hanging on a fence to dry. The mops were lined in community, but a forced community. In the painting I sought to convey the coldness and isolation that came from this forced community.
I created the next work in 2010 for the purpose of incorporating a new theological understanding of the topic, “Good News to the Poor.” Buildings of worship often symbolize a spatial divide between the “world” and places of worship. Even more than the first piece, the second is intended to narrate a mission. The shards of stained glass incorporated in the piece suggest a scene where a gavel, representing justice, breaks the glass. If a photograph showed a church building with broken windows, it would carry a negative connotation; it would suggest dilapidation, loneliness, and critique. Instead I wanted visually to convey a positive breaking of the windows where the pains of society become the pains of the church and the church truly becomes a light as Jesus was a light (John 8:12; Matt 5:16). Worldly justice often focuses on the fairness of the situation of poverty (i.e., whether it is a fair consequence due to lack of education, morals, and guidance). Biblical justice often focuses on the mercy of God. God is just because of his grace and mercy to those in need, not in spite of it. Mercy as justice provides a positive direction for the church as it serves to be a diaphanous space allowing vulnerability, acceptance, and truth to move through the fabric of society.
I intended to allow the paintings to connect and dialogue through the use of materials, composition, and even the inclusion of found objects. These found objects form a connection between the allegorical symbols (the mops and stained glass) and the tangible elements that function in real life (the rags and the shards/gavel).
Although both of the pieces are intended to stand alone, the connection forged between the two speaks to the process of interpreting Scripture. “Good News to the Poor” evokes different meanings for different people depending on ethnic background, social standing, occupation, and context. Although an individual is unlikely to go through radical changes in these areas, individuals often change perspectives on these issues over time. Interpretation can change with time, education, experiences, and perspective. The same transformation takes place artistically. Since 2003, I have received two degrees and I have moved from rural Arkansas to urban Memphis to New England. Some concluding observations demonstrate the importance of integrating art and theology on both a personal and communal level for understanding and practicing the Christian mission to the poor. Reviewing the piece from 2003 in relationship to the one seven years later, I have noticed at least three personal ideological changes:
- In 2003, my viewpoint of poverty was predominantly secular in outlook and not theological. Poverty was a social distinction, not a contributing factor to the reciprocity of the gospel message.
- In 2003, poverty was an exclusively negative characteristic. But from a moral perspective, Jesus went to the poor because of the quality of their heart (e.g., Matt 5:22; 6:2–4, 24; 25:31–46; Luke 4:16–21, 6:20–24; 12:33; 14:12–14; 16:19–25).
- In 2003, the absence of color was a significant metaphor in communicating both the historical roots of American slavery and the sharp contrast between wealth/poverty and happiness/despair. The second work attempts to downplay the historical baggage of the American context and elevate the theological condition of the poor.
I have also noticed at least three communal benefits of reinterpreting this issue either through oral or visual transmission:
- Instead of ministers and artists discarding previous interpretations, the dialogue between the two can provide more insight than simple replacement. Art, whether verbal or visual, is a journey toward truth, not a complete and final destination.
- Using community, Christian art can address issues in a more holistic way rather than reinforcing the individualistic glorification found within secular art. Christian artists and theologians belong to a rich history, which has interpreted and expressed the themes of the Bible in new and creative ways. I interviewed other Christians who were familiar with the topic of “Good News to the Poor” to prepare for my own expression of the idea.
- Change will occur. Reinterpreting this theme is another reminder that even our collective theology is an imperfect analysis of truth. As a minister and an artist, reinterpretation within the community of faith provides a crucial avenue of growth that truly has transformative potential.
Preston Cottrell graduated from the Harding University Graduate School of Religion with a master’s degree in Historical Theology. He currently serves as Youth Minister at the Manchester Church of Christ in Manchester, New Hampshire. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/PrestonCottrell or visit his blog at www.prestoncottrell.wordpress.com.
1 Among other issues, George Marsden points to the rise of dispensational premillennialism as a major factor in this shift in priority. See George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 100–102.