“They Never Resolved the Chord”: On Using Art to Teach about Mission

This blog of mine will also be posted to the UM & Global blog.  

A recent experience at the movies with my musician son, Luke, provides a good – albeit humbling – example of a challenge all professors of mission face.  At the end of the film Interstellar, as we watched the credits roll on the screen, my seventeen-year-old son exclaimed – rather loudly – “they never resolved the chord!”  “What chord?” I asked.  “The one that has been playing for the last ten minutes,” my son remarked somewhat incredulously.  I was dumbfounded.  I had not heard it.  As I walked out of the theatre into the light I had the sneaking suspicion that I was still “in the dark” on at least some dimensions of that film.  Luke’s musical awareness and training had given him a different framework or set of interpretive lenses from which to evaluate this movie. They are lenses I don’t share.  My musical awareness has never been what his is, and what little I possessed in the past has atrophied from lack of musical muscle-building.

I think all professors of mission struggle to get students to think differently and more deeply about God’s mission.  We try to help students to see things which are clearly there, but which are obscured from our students’ view just as the unresolved chord was “hidden” from me in that movie theatre.  We use cross-cultural simulation exercises – my favorite is Heelotia – to help reveal the cultural differences in our world and the power of ethnocentrism to unconsciously shape our feelings and behaviors toward others.  We tell stories about amazing missionaries in the colonial period to displace attitudes about “missionary villains” which have been formed by less than helpful fictional caricatures of missionaries in a Barbara Kingsolver or James Michener novel.  (Graham Greene, Shusako Endo, or Robert Stone provide good alternatives in fiction.)

For a number of years I have been using artwork by Christian artists from outside the West to help me displace some “images of mission” which remain too firmly ensconced in my students’ minds.  I do this also to give them new images from which to draw as they craft a theology of mission that works.

My favorite image that my students and I reflect upon at the start of every semester is entitled simply “The Great Commission” by Nalini Jayasuriya, an artist from Sri Lanka who was an artist in residence at the Overseas Ministries Study Center some years ago.  She passed away precisely one year ago on September 5, 2014.

We not only begin our Christian World Mission course together reflecting on this painting but my students see it every week on my “course banner” in the learning management software my university uses.  I ask my students two simple questions about this image (which has been cropped below even though it is also the banner for this whole website).

Jayasuriya Great Commission

What is the artist trying to say here about the so-called “Great Commission” Scripture text in Matthew?  What do you think the artist is trying to say about mission in general?  We have never failed to have at least a fifteen minute conversation about this work of art, and almost every year a student will see something in the painting which I have not seen.  (Because I’m ready for it this usually results in less embarrassment than my experience in the theatre with my son.)  Sometimes I disagree with an interpretation, but that, in itself, is generative for further conversation in class.

Little fireworks of insight emerge in the class like this:  “The disciples seem to respond to the “Great Commission” differently. What does this suggest about the church’s different responses to God’s mission?”  “People are praying in this painting. How are mission and prayer related to one another?  Is there something distinctive about a mission spirituality?”  “The Jesus figure – who looks like a woman by the way– is not really looking at the crowd of disciples.  Who is Jesus looking at?”  Here, in a burst of Trinitarian enthusiasm, I sometimes suggest that Jesus is looking to God the Father and then switch excitedly to Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity for a moment. (My Pentecostal students always easily identify the dove with the Holy Spirit.)

Most of my students are Baptists, nondenominational Pentecostals, and Methodists so rublev iconteaching with icons like this requires some work, but when the icon is viewed and discussed in light of Jayasuriya’s painting it is a bit easier to understand.  Questions about the role of the Holy Spirit in mission and the Eucharist also come up as students ponder the dove and chalice in the painting.  The vivid red, orange, and yellow colors in this painting provides the opportune moment for us to also interrogate Emil Brunner’s famous quotation: “The church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning.”

Discussing Nalini Jayasuriya’s painting is a beautiful introductory exercise in my class.  By the time my class takes a break during our first class session together most students have a sense that mission is far more than strategic decision-making for their local congregation. They also recognize that mission is not so neatly defined as the line-item on their church’s budget spreadsheet labeled “mission” might otherwise suggest.  I have Nalini Jayasuriya’s artwork to thank for that, and on this first anniversary of her death I celebrate her life for the life she has helped me to infuse in my teaching.

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About Ben Hartley

Associate Professor of Christian Mission College of Christian Studies George Fox University
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