The Arts in Northern Ireland have been taking a battering for some time. Cuts have been tough, Festivals have been under threat, we almost lost the Ulster Orchestra and the government department Dept of Culture, Arts & Leisure is merged with other departments to become Department of Social Welfare, Communities and Sport; Arts has disappeared from the title altogether! Again, there are more cuts this week.
Stormont got one thing right - the arts should be connected to Social Welfare and Communities. The role they have to play in our social welfare and community life is utterly crucial. However, the way that the arts are being slowly squeezed out of existence is going to have a detrimental impact on our social welfare and communities.
For me this is a Biblical issue. The arts have a vital place in the Scriptures. In both spiritual and social transformation the Bible uses art. The books of the Bible are literary works in themselves. I do not believe that to be a coincidence but a declaration that God recognised the power of the arts. Jesus himself used storytelling as one of his main avenues to re-envision the people of God.
The Psalms sung or read or prayed are poetry to soothe the soul. How do we wrestle the messed up world we live in? How do we deal with the injustices, the horror of war, the deep frailties and failings of our own lives or the everyday reality of sickness and death. The laments of the Psalms are the artistic medicine for the soul.
How do we attempt to transform the way the world is into what a better world can be like? The Bible again uses art. The prophets were those that raged against injustice and inspired the people to reimagine and hope for a better future. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians uses subversive poetry to free the people from Caesar’s dominant imagery and help them think alternative ways to resist Empire. In their book Colossians Remixed, Sylvia Keesmat and Brain Walsh suggest that the way the Empire rules is to take away our imaginations so we cannot crack the status quo. If we lose our vision, we lose our power.
I am not sure that Stormont’s MLAs are attempting to oppress us by killing the arts but there will be consequences to the future dreaming of a better Northern Ireland if the arts are not cherished, funded and allowed to flourish. The arts are not a side show luxury of entertainment that we attend after the real work of our day. They are far more crucial than that. They go to the very core of what we are and can be.
The Churches need to awaken to the potency of the arts and the vital role they play in how God works and in the bringing of Christ’s Kingdom. If we want to see change, whether personal or societal then we will need to imagine what that change will look like. To do such radical rethinking we need the muscles of our imaginations to exercised and fit for such a task. No art, no hope! Let’s not just keep the arts alive. Let’s see them flourish!