God through the eyes of artists
A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission letter from Taiwan
October 17, 2013
There is very little contextual Christian art in Taiwan. So many of the Christian paintings here are Western.
Last month I took of a group of Taiwanese to Taize in France, and we stopped to see the Louvre Museum in Paris. Almost all of the Bible characters in the Louvre paintings are dressed in European clothing of the time.
While Mary and Joseph and Jesus were not French, the French and European painters had a deep understanding of the incarnation. They knew that God had taken on flesh and moved into their neighborhood.
Thus, so many of the Biblical characters look European. I have sought to find Asian art and placed it all over our seminary campus. Jesus takes on flesh and becomes one of us.
One of my former students is a photographer. Before coming to seminary, Joon-lan studied art and had developed real skill as a photographer of people. His art and his Christian faith have always been combined. We had many talks together when he was studying at the seminary about the lack of contextual Christian art in Taiwan.
Joon-lan’s hair is quite long, and I was concerned that if he was called to serve a congregation in a rural part of Taiwan his long hair might be an obstacle to his ministry. When I asked him if he would be willing to cut his hair if he found that it was an obstacle, he instantly replied, “Of course.” Well, he was not called to a rural area, but serves a church in Taipei City just down the mountain from the seminary where I live.
His church purchased a first-floor apartment with a basement. Joon-lan designed a gallery-like gathering space on the first floor. He hung many of his photographs. He designed a welcoming and creative worship space in the basement. Folks passing by the church are often curious about this “gallery/church” and stop in. He has attracted a number of artists to the church and I now laugh with Joon-lan that his long hair, far from being an obstacle, is a sign that all are welcome.
I was delighted last year when Joon-lan called to tell me that he was having an exhibition of his photographs in a gallery just in the shadow of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan.
When I walked into the gallery, I saw that all of his photographs were of the different people groups of Taiwan and that each photograph represented a different Bible character. There was a Taiwanese young Mary, a reflective Taiwanese David, and a pensive Isaiah.
As folks came to the exhibition it was a wonderful opportunity for this artist to share with them of his incarnational faith. They quickly saw a God who lovingly moves into the neighborhood.
Recently, I officiated at a wedding of two of my former students. They are beginning to serve in a church and were married just after graduation. The husband just received his M.Div. degree and is also a wonderful contemporary musician. The wife is still working on her master’s degree in music. They bring sensitivity to their music that invites others into the presence of God.
Their wedding was a wonderful blending of different styles of music, all pointing to the love of God. There were African drums, piano, organ, violin, guitars, and flutes. The music was some of the best I’ve ever heard at a wedding. I entitled the wedding sermon, “Sing a New Song to the Lord,” and throughout the sermon three of their friends would sing from the balcony of the seminary chapel.
What a privilege it is to be with musicians who know that their gifts come from God and who use their gifts to lead others into that mysterious presence. Each week I preach in different churches with different languages and music styles.
From high mountain aboriginal churches singing their haunting tribal songs to city churches with large choirs or praise bands, the goal is the same: we use our voices and instruments to express what we cannot express in our words alone.
From the Bible to the modern-day world, artists and musicians lead us to our creative God. They join with God in the ongoing work of creation and help us to grow in our communion with this Artist God.
John McCall has been serving in Taiwan for over 16 years. He spends a lot of time on trains, buses, and subways as he travels throughout Taiwan teaching courses on ministry and spiritual formation at the three seminaries of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. John leads groups of pastors in different parts of Taiwan that meet monthly to find encouragement and challenge.