“The World is like a Mask dancing”
It seemed more enticing to think through Dryness’ book Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue Engaging Culture with the help of a heading from a proverb in Nigeria’ Chinua Achebe’s famous novel “Things Fall Apart”. When visual art is expressed in all its human forms, people are presented with an opportunity for friendship, listening, observing, loving, mediating, suffering and being present in a neighbor’s story. Visual arts are about the visibility of cosmic life. This way, visual artistry gets us closer to reality, sometimes through the masks most of us wear, paint and create in attempt to creatively beautify and express particular self-identities.
The full African proverb, “the world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place”, has profoundly helped me appreciate the usefulness of masks. Case in point, the picture above is of a face mask drawn on a T-shirt given to me as a gift by my friend in Uganda. The purpose of the visual art on T-shirt is to advocate on behalf of our vulnerable children with the phrase “Bali Bana” in Luganda, one of the local languages. It is disconcerting to many African Christian leaders, I included that our children who have lost one or two parents are labeled “orphans” as though they have become the tragedy that has befallen them even when it is entirely not of their making. I have shade tears over this issue indeed.
If is it not proper to label someone “an HIV/AIDS victim”, but rather respectfully, a Person Living with HIV/AIDS, then why is it acceptable to hold children hostage to the loss of their parents by labeling Is someone benefiting for these labels? No child wants to be called an orphan. Countless times, I have heard many Christian adults say, “Stacy who is an orphan”? “Andrew our adopted orphan”? “We support an orphan through blank organization”. “We have two orphans we are sponsoring there in one of those poor countries”. Oh my foot, what kind of a condescending picture is being painted? This is not about being politically correct, it’s flat out wrong period. When did they cease to be children? This is a double tragedy for our children. Isn’t it enough that their childhood has been shaken up to say the least? Children should be loved, guided and prepared for leadership, not branded to be sold. Human trafficking has many visual forms. The use of Children’s pictures for “the money shot” needs a remedial response. How is it of the gospel that the little ones are subjected to such blockades, when Jesus instructs, “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven?”
Our children should not suffer any stigmata by society, churches and international mission teams. The Luganda phrase at the top of the mask on the T-shirt stands for the reminder that, “THEY ARE CHILDREN!!” What great news!!! Jesus calls them little children too, sustaining their dignity and childhood. They children also have names. Followers of Christ ought to take a leaf from Jesus’ comforting words to His disciples “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
The colorful mask on the “Bali Bana” T-shirt is also my visual artistry of repentance from the western discipleship classes I received in Uganda; where I was taught to believe that African visual art was sinister. Arts in form of music, dance, traditional tales both oral and written were of the indigenous culture and therefore of the creepy and crazy gods. The discipleship logic then followed that Ugandan and African cultural artifacts were not to be seen, enjoyed which also meant that the artists’ imagination and souls were innately debased. Continual learning has allowed me to process the historical repressive nature of Western Protestant tradition’s missological obsession with the subversion and humiliation of core cultural gifts like art forms and diversities of indigenous communities.
To be sure, followers of Jesus Christ, ought to be discerning enough to “guard their hearts” for that which is evidently questionable. Yet part of watching over the six sense inlets and outlets of both one’s individual and corporate sensory worshipful life, calls for an openness to pan optic view through the pluralistic “… a Mask dancing” of the world. It is never constructive for a person or a mono-cultural group to make value judgments about a people’s culture from a lopsided point of view.
Pink affirms that “individuals themselves cannot be the source of knowing. Rather, knowing is contingent on its connectedness both historically and with others”. Dryness shows that after the reformation, Protestants leaders and architects: …work with priorities that pointedly excluded visual artists. The spaces made for worship were not friendly to elaborate visual elements. Creative people then, understandably turned their imaginative energies in other directions- literature and music became special foci for Protestant creativity.” Even with a revival of the use of visual art in worship, there is still the winner takes it all effect.
It was ironic and saddening when I witnessed a follow Uganda Christian’s narration to me during a reset visit about a missionary’s introduction of drawing during a Sunday church service. We both wondered why it was necessary to draw trees on a canvas in a church building when the church compound was tremendously blessed with beauty trees. Perhaps church leaders and their congregations might creatively imagine how to utilize the architectural gifts in the body of Christ to naturally limit environmentally man-made barriers to the scriptural psalmody tradition of the fact that; “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”?
I believe that the profoundly unfinished predicament that continues to percolate matters of faith, the arts and culture is the hunger for evangelical social dominance. The continual thirst and pursuit of power in Christianity and religion, has always manifested its violent mark of the ultimate assault on God’s precious master piece of the imago dei. With all due respect, Dryness brings to attention important issues, but I found myself gasping for other side dishes of literature accompany the entrée beyond only a reclaiming of ‘Christian traditions’. What about the visual art we see of the Ebola outbreak? What about the visual art of the abductions of the school girls by rebels in Nigeria? What about the plight of children? What about the people impacted by ALS? How about the recent beheading on TV? How should the church apply visual art to the issues of justice like immigration, racism, gender, equality and incarceration? Et cetera According to Dyrness, both Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin perceived God’s artwork in all of creation. Schaeffer’s question, How Should We Then Live, is a pertinent point of reflection. With the same stroke of a pen, Schaeffer reminds us:
The Byzantine style developed in the east and gradually spread to the west. This art had a real beauty, but increasingly only religious themes were given importance, and people were depicted not as real people but as symbols. This came to its climax in ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. The portrayal of nature was largely abandoned, and even more unhappily, the living, human element was removed. This, we should stress one more, was in contrast of the early Christian catacomb paintings in which, though simply portrayed, real people lived in a real world which God made.
Visual arts are lost without the rendering of human beings their respectful worth. The visual imaginaries we encounter in this world tell creation’s story. Media and art forms can serve as a call to a humble, active and intercessory attitude. May we always remember to offer prayers without ceasing when we are up or down.
 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 46.
 Matthew 19:14
 John 14:18
 Sarah Pink, Doing Sensual Ethnography (London: SAGE Publications, 2009), 34.
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 13.
 Psalms 19:1
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 59.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Old Tappan, N.J: F.H. Revell Co, 1976), 31.
15 responses to ““The World is like a Mask dancing””
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A very interesting post Michael. As you say, visual art is not just about the religious, or the beautiful things. It can also portray people’s sadness and suffering. Visual art, images, are all powerful mediums that can touch the soul and foster powerful emotions.
I also appreciate your call to not label people, or judge so easily. I guess we can all be guilty of it sometimes, but you are right where you say, “It is never constructive for a person or a mono-cultural group to make value judgments about a people’s culture from a lopsided point of view.” The child trapped in human trafficking or disease is a precious child of God, as valuable as anyone else in this world.
Dear Liz, thank you for the thoughts. You are right in noting “visual art images, are all powerful mediums that can touch the soul and foster powerful emotions.” Dyrness’ conservation definitely highlights the significance of your insights. I attempted in the blog to interact with the complex applications of powerful mediums both in areas that are personal and visible, but also the use of visual art in ways that renders God’s creation invisible at times.
Great a great day!
Loved your post, Michael. I was hooked from the beginning as I decided that I wanted to re-read “Things Fall Apart” on our trip this month. But more than that, I appreciate your broader perspective. I also think that we should not just be concerned with “Christian” art, but with art that draws us to respond to human circumstance, and in turn, directs us to God. As you cite Ebola art, or other current events, I wonder how visual art can not only raise the issue clearly, but point us, draw us to our Lord for direction. And not because we wrote some words over the picture to tell us what we should do or think. You referenced Pink, who notes that visual ethnography should tell the story of a situation, people or culture. Art can do this.
Julie – Brilliant. Art as a form of visual ethnography. As I read this book, I thought about photography, my favorite medium of visual ethnography. Before a trip to a new location (or even after we return from a mission site), I pour over photos to catch a glimpse into the lives of the people and to educate myself on the terrain. When I look through those photos, viewing beautiful sweeping landscapes and the vivid colors of the land and the clothing, I see our Creator and His hand at work. That awe, that wonder…it turns into worship and praise for the only One who would create this amazement. Now I simply need to make that same connection with art! 🙂
Hey Ashley, Pink totally rocks!! She is one of my favorite reads. 🙂
Julie, great to hear from you. That’s great that you’ve read Achebe’s book and are think of picking it up gain. I too, reading his books and other many times over.
I am looking forward to Cape Town and even there, I know goodness and mercy will follow us to prepare us for oneness.
If you are available, let’ do coffee soon!
As always, brilliant post. Thank you for your boldness and forthrightness — how refreshing!
I so agree with you about insensitive labeling. I have a son who has struggled with a mental affliction for 15 years. So often, when I share about him with someone or hear about what others say about those who are afflicted with mental illness, I am deeply grieved. My son is not a “person who has a disease”; nor is he “crazy.” Rather, he is a young adult who is human and struggles with an affliction. And day by day, he is gaining insight and is learning how to live well in spite of this malady. My son is a good man, perhaps one of the best men I know. His humility and compassion for the suffering are great gifts to humankind. I learn from him every day. The correct label for him is “Child of God.” That is who he is to me and to my wife.
As far as cultural masks go, particularly those practices found in indigenous cultures, who are Western Christians to judge such cultural icons? I too am tired of legalistic Christians who seem to know what is evil and what is holy in every culture, particularly in cultures in which they have no understanding or experience. God has a great way of being able to redeem culture. Who are we to be the judge and jury of different practices, rituals, and objects? It is time for us to listen and learn from other cultures. Perhaps then we would find more time focus on what is important.
Thanks again for your powerful post, my friend. Looking forward to seeing you next week.
Ah, my friend, I have missed your writing! Your words are filled with passion and love. You brought something to my attention that I had never even considered – labels. It is easy to assign a label, and in fact, I tend to do so rather quickly. Most of the time, while the label does not come from malice in my heart and is not intended to offend, it does just that. How do we teach others to be slow to judge and label? How do we speak with love and equality, and instead of label, simply know the person of “child of God”? Food for thought, Michael. Thank you!
Hey Ashley, I am glad we are back in session. I too missed the dialogue. I read your blog too and loved it.
Yes! Thanks for this post. Art is a representation of the relational in the first place. How odd that some would seek to obscure this relationality.
I appreciate your perspective of the need for there to be an embeddeness noted in art and a seeking of the full dignity of the human person as well.
I appreciated how you noted our need to seek to end defining persons by lesser labels with our language — and by proxy, with our art.
We are people embedded in the world…we are somehow, I believe, also greater than the sum of our embeddedness. This is the tricky part. I think we should portray our contextualities (though I’m not convinced we always need to explicitly do so, but I think ongoing nods to this are important) , but sometimes our contextualities are too limiting and we must seek to communicate an ineffability that lies above/beyond. This is what I see artists as sometimes attempting. These comments are beginning to move beyond the scope of what I read you discussing and really appreciated, but I think that they also can be relevant. Of course, I think there are helpful responses to this question for us, but…how do we honor our places and peoples even while suggesting that there is more to which we aspire? In art how do we honor where we have come from while also depicting where we would like to go? It seems to me that the ability to do this is vital.
Spot Clint. Thanks for the refreshing insights. “We are people embedded in the world…we are somehow, I believe, also greater than the sum of our embeddedness.” That’s deep!! You’ve given me awesome food for thought.
Michael, I admire you on the ways you notice the social issues and calling Christians leader advocate for justice. What you said about the children is so true in my country too and it really breaks my heart. We need do something about it. I envy the freedom of expression that you have in your country to advocate for vulnerable children. Keep up the good work!
Dear Telile, thanks for the comments. I know that we talked a little bit about how Children should be cared for and you had encouraging thoughts. I agree, that something has got to be done and I pray that believers will lead by example.
Great reflections Michael – and reminded me of an interview in YES! magazine with aboriginal elder Leanne Simpson. Her book has “dancing” in its title. I wonder if one of the cultural gaps that our we white European Christians struggle with is both metaphorical and practical. Many of us aren’t sure that dancing is even permissible, much less a great metaphor. But our aboriginal brothers and sisters offer us the gift of embodiment if we can accept it.
Thank you for you insightful comments. You bring up such a great subject of dance. Dance is a lovey form of art and a great definite way to over come fear. On the other hand dance-phobia is a form of bondage and a preservative of legalistic spirituality. Thanks Len!