An architect could read the verse as “In the beginning God designed the heavens and the earth.” An engineer could read it as “In the beginning God built the heavens and the earth.” As an artist I read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and I realize that God is the First Artist. That God loves creating.
God loves art!
Those three simple words are profoundly liberating for an artist. I never heard those three words in all my years growing up in a Christian home, where I loved to make art as a child, or in a Christian high-school and then a Christian college where I even studied art as half of my Bachelor’s double-major. I was never told that art was something I could pursue seriously, even professionally, as a path of ‘full-time service’ to God and his purposes for a broken world. I went to college convinced I did not want to pursue ‘religious’ work.
For Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden was not just one long “worship service.” They were worshipping God more intensely than we ever could post-Fall, and they were worshipping specifically by doing what God had created them to do: cultivating a garden, working, creating culture.
When we add the Fall to our story, the place for beauty, creativity, and culture-making does not disappear. Just as Adam and Eve were created to work the Garden, to create culture, to make something of the world, the same is true for every human being created by God ever since then. The fact is that beauty, creativity, and the Cultural Mandate actually have a profound role to play precisely in our response to the Fall.
My family has been missionaries in India for four generations. I grew up with an understanding of the Great Commission as the call to evangelize, ‘to go into all the world and evangelize the lost.’
But DNA helped me realize that evangelism alone will not achieve the Great Commission. The Great Commission needs evangelism, but it cannot be completed until culture is discipled. And that means bringing God’s truth to bear on all of life, not just our lives on Sunday, but on how we live and what we do from Monday to Saturday.
Truth is to transform not just individuals, but workplaces, not just the people in the workplaces, but the very sphere of work itself, along with every other sphere of society, such as family, education, law, etc.
The British poet Ezra Pound called artists ‘the antennae of the [human] race.’ They have a sensitivity, like a radio antennae picking up signals long before the rest of society, and then literally broadcasting them. This image (from Darrow Miller), is one way of understanding how artists play a profound role picking up the ideas from those ‘paid to think,’ the priests and the academics, and popularizing them. As those ideas enter popular culture they then shape the spheres of work, which in turn affects the common person. Somebody said, “Give me the songs of the nation and it matters not who writes the laws.”
We run an art studio In India where young professional artists spend time with us in three-week-long residencies. We pick a topic or social issue and get the artists to engage with it, to produce art from the perspective of truth. The idea is to create what we call “true” art, i.e. art that we exhibit which can play a role in the discipling of a nation.
Of course India has lots of health challenges. I am reminded of a story that started when someone saw one of our creations called “What Dreams Lie Within.”
“I don’t understand art,” he admitted. “I never go to galleries, but this painting touched me. We want to start advocating for TB among business leaders. Can you make paintings about tuberculosis so others would have the same experience as I did with this painting?”
So we took 15 artists into Asia’s largest tuberculosis hospital to meet with patients, hear their stories, and paint a human portrait of the disease. In partnership with the advocacy organization and an umbrella association that represents all Indian industry we put on an exhibition for industrialists. A few months later we took the paintings to a meeting for members of parliament to lobby them for research and treatment for TB.
The Indian head of one of the largest TB organizations in the world bought these paintings. He hung them in his conference room. A few months later he told me that he asks visitors to step over and look closely at that painting. They often think he’s joking and start to brush him off, but he insists, “No, you need to go over there and look at it.” They walk over to the painting feeling slightly irritated or even offended, but they come back with a different look, a changed view of reality.
We want to raise up artists in India as nation-disciplers. We want to see a new generation of followers of Christ equipped with a biblical worldview, getting professional training and responding to the call to disciple a nation. Not to join a ministry, but to engage the world as professionals.
I believe so strongly that God expects us to take art seriously that I’m taking time to improve my own skills. I uprooted our family of 5 from New Delhi and made the massive transition to the US where I am doing an Master of Fine Arts in painting. I truly believe that the Great Commission, to make disciples of the nations, cannot be accomplished without a vocational understanding of mission, and I am thrilled with DNA’s plans to develop training tools for this very purpose.
I picked this picture because these are very common people. Followers of Christ getting their degrees in an art school in India. Many of them are from northeast India, home to many marginalized minorities, cut off from mainstream culture and the corridors of power. Yet these are the people God wants to use.
And not just the artists, but the homemakers, businessmen, teachers, janitors, etc., people responding to the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission to bless and disciple their nation through their vocation.
Our story starts not with the Fall, but with Creation, with this amazing mandate that God has given humanity to respond to a broken world by making something of it.
What will you do to create culture? How will you use your sphere of work to disciple your nation?
- Stefan [last name witheld by author’s request]
Stefan is an artist and founder of a local Indian arts organization. He has an interest in the intersection of art, worldview and social issues. With a vision to see “art shape society with beauty and truth,” Stefan runs an artist residency, creating art in response to today’s social issues. He also offers workshops that take art to some of New Delhi’s most vulnerable groups. Stefan is an Indian citizen currently pursuing an MFA in visual art in the US.