Mennonites and the arts
Opinion: Perspectives from readersby Lowell Brown
Mennonites desperately need to rethink how we view the arts. For most of us, "art" sounds frivolous—an elitist distraction—or dangerous: sensual depravity bent on destroying faith. But whether we like it or not (and whether we are aware of it or not), faith speaks in the language of the arts. To a great extent, our understanding of God is shaped by the poetry of the Gospels, the inflection of a sermon, the rhythm of hymns, the performance of Communion, an image in a children's book, the arrangement of the places we worship.
The typical Mennonite view of the arts is both too narrow and too wide. On the narrow end, we fail to recognize that, beginning with Creation itself, creative expression brings richness to every facet of our otherwise monochrome lives.
This is true even for a tradition that values simplicity and practicality. Writing (including Scripture and sermons) and music are two artistic languages that all Mennonites agree are important and many employ fluently. Quilting, woodworking and fraktur (ornamental lettering) are Mennonite arts with long histories. Conservative Mennonite communities are attentive to clothing design.
When actress Kim Stauffer began working on an Anabaptist arts network in 2007, she didn't know who would be interested. But within months of launching the Mennonite Artist Project last year, the Web site was filled with hundreds of Mennonite-related actors, designers, musicians, writers and visual artists in every age group, from all corners of the United States and Canada.
In another respect, however, the typical Mennonite view of the arts is too wide. When we do see creativity around us, we don't discriminate between juvenile and masterful skills, between a dynamic and a dull product, between good expression and agreeable content.
Last fall, I participated in a Mennonite benefit auction. The first items to sell were apple pies, the winners of a student baking contest. Each was made by a young chef who had never baked a pie before, and each raised more than $1,200. A few minutes later, another food item was up for sale: a multicourse Korean dinner for 24 guests, with a company of trained performers providing live Korean music and dance as after-dinner entertainment. But it, too, sold for about $1,200. Despite a demonstration from the performers, the lavish Korean evening didn’t impress this Mennonite audience—they liked their apple pie.
Of course, the church is not a benefit auction. One could argue that in God's eyes, each person's heartfelt offering is equally valuable. I believe that's true. Still, as the Apostle Paul suggests, even in the church not all gifts are valuable for all purposes.
Few churches would tolerate a treasurer who was a little fuzzy on math or a fellowship meal committee that resorted to cold cereal and toast. Yet on many Sundays, we sit through Scripture readings that sound like a math quiz or something on the back of a cereal box: prophecy with no conviction, history with no smile of recognition, teaching with no hint of surprise. We seem to have no expectation that God's Living Word could leap from the page and speak to us in a new way.
We call ourselves people of the Word, but often we don't care enough about words to learn how they are pronounced or to glance at them before we read them out loud in church.
Here is one place where Mennonites need this broader and narrower view of art: an expanded appreciation for the literature of the Bible and the performance of Scripture; a refined expectation that Scripture will be compelling (not merely familiar) and that the people entrusted to read it will prepare rigorously.
The arts are not evil or disposable; they are gifts of God. Whether traditional crafts such as quilting, practical skills such as architecture or seemingly foreign expressions such as dance, they are languages that can reveal new richness in God's grace.
Lowell Brown is a writer and photographer in Lancaster, Pa.
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The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of Mennonite Church USA, The Mennonite or the board for The Mennonite, Inc.