Cutting Edges: Beauty that Creates, Justice that Delights: Arts that Can Transform China and the United States
By Dr. K. K. Yeo, Harry R. Kendall Professor of New Testament
I live in two worlds: The United States and China. I do miss riding a bicycle in Beijing, and with 50 million cars in the city, catching a taxi can be a challenge. What the government calls “smog,” many call “heavy pollution.” For 30 years, China has been able to sustain an annual economic growth of eight to 10 percent, but we know now that the people are paying the price. This also is true in the United States but with a different set of problems; many are paying the price for our democracy, economic prosperity, and national security. How can theological education today remain prophetic and priestly? Paul’s timely truth is that, “Do not be conformed to this age (aeon), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (noos), so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good (virtuous) and acceptable (delightful) and perfect (whole)” (Romans 12:2). It is beauty that brings truth and good to our inner core of being.
Modern secular “prophets” know the power of imagination to shape the world. David Shambaugh titled his edited volume,Tangled Titans: The United Statesand China (2012), while in her book, China: Fragile Superpower (2007), Susan Shirk warns of China’s “brittle authoritarian regime” and its “deep sense of domestic insecurity.” I prefer not to see goodness as in the field of ethics, but rather follow Confucius in perceiving goodness as determined by the beautiful to become the social fabric of a good society. Analects 13:3 reads, “When affairs do not culminate successfully, rites and music do not flourish; when rites and music do not flourish, punishments will not correct crimes.” It is the rituals (rites), not the rule or laws (rights) that shape us to be fully human. “To live in the neighborhood of benevolence (ren) is beauty” (Analects 4:1). We ought to be “lifted by poetry, formed by rituals (li), and perfected by music” (Analects 8:8).
Old Testament prophets are God’s artists, whose “prophetic imagination” enable them to see far deeper into social problems than most kings, scribes, and legalists can perceive. They see through the veil of appearances to glimpses of a different reality. They use various artistic means to proclaim the message of repentance and hope (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea). “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Theological education at Garrett-Evangelical is not programmatic, propaganda, professional training (trade school); instead, it is about the spiritual reception of the prophetic ethos (salt), the priestly passion (light), and “obedience of faith” (faithful discipleship) of the Gospel in the world. The work of the Art Committee at our seminary is precisely to realize that which cannot be taught but can be caught, i.e., to foster a theological pedagogy of pneumatic creativity in the classroom. Many professors at our seminary are using music and film and visual arts in their classes. You will discover the pervasive presence of art on campus as pedagogy for transformation, addressing chaos, violence, and oppression. The promotion of the arts includes photographic contextual analysis of one’s ministry site; the creative process as contemplation, providing “knowledge of God impregnated with love” (Gregory the Great) toward the creation of social justice; painting prayers as an experience of transcendence; and the useof collage to depict one’s future ministry as we imagine the new heaven and new earth as God’s desire for the world. “Beautiful in art can move our heart at its depths, bringing us to a state in which we are open to seeing Christ and imagining the reign of God he came to usher in” (Cecilia González-Andrieu, Bridge to Wonder ). The world needs art from Christians, art that tells the story of truth, goodness, and beauty.
We are God’s “masterpiece” (poema), created in Christ Jesus to do “good” (Ephesians 2:10). As harbingers of justice and love, may we, the image of God, be transformed into God’s creativity and beauty, even as we encounter the Cross through the interceding Spirit, and thereby “taken up wholesale into the reality of the beautiful . . . fully subordinate to it, determined by it, animated by it” (von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord).