Book Review: The Arts as Witness in Multifaith Contexts

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IVP USA’s ‘Missiological Engagements’ series is an interesting beast – a mix of monographs and edited volumes that cover ‘mission’ in a wide angle view, like the volume I’m reviewing today. I picked up The Arts as Witness in Multifaith Contexts as I was intrigued by both the arts/culture and multifaith/mission angles. It’s a 240 page edited collection of essays, featuring a number of black and white images and a fairly comprehensive subject index. The editors of the volume, King and Dryness, note in their introduction that “the arts of course have been deeply rooted in all human cultures from the very beginning… Christians believe it reflects the image of the creator God”. There’s an eschatological slant: “to call the church to its role of anticipating the splendor of the world God is bringing into existence”. An appetite-whetting introduction.

Krabill’s chapter opens the book with a helpful exploration of potential tensions between Bible, mission and culture. One of the more Bible-focused/inclusive chapters, I appreciated the reminder that“Much of the artistic energy in the Old Testament was focused on worship-related activities”. A good challenge to not see Western cultural forms as the gospel, a warning that is vital, and one that echoes throughout the book. King uses her chapter ‘Performing Witness’ to describes the power of music to move a community from “enmity/exclusion – encounter – engage – embrace – relating as neighbors”. “Music becomes a common thread that helps overcome differences”. A thought provoking chapter well worth reading in the context of music and evangelism/bridge building. Stone considers the power of specifically Christian Church Music in Multifaith Liberia. Based on intensive and lengthy fieldwork this chapter is a fascinating and sobering insight into a community in crisis, ending with the haunting note that “the songs transcend denomination, ethnic group, and even language to bind people one to another”. Sooi Ling Tan offers a fascinating chapter, focused on South-East Asia, including a discussion of ‘Christian-national identity’. “Music and the arts also help negotiate, construct, and express shifting and multiple identities”.

Ruth Illman’s ‘Art as Dialogue’ suggests “the arts as dialogue in themselves and of their own right”, with application to inter-religious dialogue. Some aspects of the case study sail rather too close to the wind of syncretism in my view, but the aim of “sharing but not mixing” is useful. A thought provoking chapter. Kidula’s chapter showcases a fascinating blended musical style from Kenya. The complex post-colonial context is sobering. It is also a poignant example of a ‘whole life’ approach to worship.Meyers’ ‘Crate-Digging Through Culture: Hip-Hop and Mission in Pluralistic Southern Africa’ considers tragedy, culture and expectations of youth carefully. Bringing hip-hop and mission into dialogue raises important questions of authenticity, solidarity, and mutuality. Possibly one of the strongest chapters in the volume, with its conclusion seeing connection between missio and imago dei. Roberts and McCoy offer a a complex and wide-ranging chapter considering hip-hop, challenge, inter-religious dialogue and aesthetics. “Through hip-hop, the communities found partners in a shared mission that watches the margins for cues to God’s challenge to injustice”. This chapter offers interesting examples of inter-religious relation and action for good. Lee’s ‘Wild, Wild China: Contemporary Art and Neocolonialism’ is interlaced with occasionally shocking images. An interesting argument for a separation of art and faith, I think (though this does make me think perhaps I missed something!). Dryness closes out the volume with ‘The Poetic Formation of Interfaith Identities’. Visual images used again effectively in the chapter. I thoroughly agree with his observation that “Christian liturgy is subversive at its very core”, and think there is some theologically pregnant possibilites in the observation that “An important and often neglected aspect of the global mission of the Christian church resides in its artifacts and rituals”. This book is a clarion call for careful missiological scholarship – even as it it doesn’t quite land things.

A diverse set of contributors/subjects makes this a fascinating book – but the sheer breadth of approaches and directions makes it a little overwhelming and perhaps confusing. This is a book which I’ll possibly occasionally return to for reference – but would like to see a review from someone who works more artistically or missiologically than I do. I can imagine it being useful in parts to folk thinking about deliberate cultural outreach, particularly in cities, and as a useful resource for higher level study of art/culture and mission.

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