Roberta King - "Global Arts and Christian Witness"
5:45PM Jul 9, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It is our pleasure today to be speaking with Dr. Roberta King, Professor of Communication and ethnomusicology at the School of Intercultural Studies at fuller Theological Seminary. And also the author of the texts that we'll be discussing today Global Arts and Christian Witness: Exegeiting Culture, Translating the Message, and Communicating Christ. Dr. King, thank you so much for being with us today.
My pleasure to be with you. Thank you,
Dr. King, you are an established ethnomusicologist yourself past studies focused on the way that music can communicate the Gospel across different cultural contexts. What led you to start investigating in this book, visual arts as well the book covers both Musical Arts but also has a particular emphasis on visual arts.
Well, I think that happens. Thank you for your for the question. Moving into diverse cultural context changes the ways in which the arts are defined. So, things are not as compartmentalised in non Western cultures, everything works together as a holistic unit. For example, in Africa, when you have African music going on, it means that dance is going on. And visual communication is going on as well. When people wear clothing, they're artistically designed to communicate something. And as I worked through, discovered this holistic approach to the arts, I realized that not only is it the musical sound that's communicating but is there's a high level of visual artistic communication going on.
Dr. King you bought in Africa for some time, would you Be willing to explain very briefly some of the past experiences that have most influenced your interest in this global approach to Christian art.
Some of my past experiences as well when you move when I first went to Kenya, that was the place where God first led me I went out asking if he could use me a woman and a musician and how does that fit with witness and Christian mission? I discovered a whole different away array of things happening differently. There was a contagious exuberance, in the arts in worship, and they were different. You were allowed to move I was brought up that, you know, we were still we, you know, whereas in Africa, you're not really giving your witness your testimony, to just sing and to sing the words you have to wouldn't you have to move as well and that in itself, or it contributes to this holistic witness? To who Jesus Christ is because what it's saying is, I'm giving my whole self to God. So there's a whole again, this whole idea of the arts in a holistic way of receiving it, and I just kept encountering it everywhere I went in different places and different ways. And, you know, I saw arts, I saw things drawn on, painted on homes on what we would call huts, which isn't a nice way of talking about somebody. So, right. And it was it was communicating, not just a beautiful color, but it was communicating a message. So I was given eyes to see things in new ways because of engaging in diverse cultural contexts.
Dr. King, your book is divided into three parts, the first of which is titled foundations in global Arts in Christ centered witness, and it's in this first section that you introduce how art can be messages that transcend cultural barriers. You going to look at these these folks homes in Africa, were able to experience a message and an understanding that might not have come through the experience of reading a book. How is it that art has this power to communicate universally, even though each of us are from our own particular cultural contexts?
Thank you. I think there's something about just naturally being interested in the arts is something enjoyable, isn't it can be entertaining, it's not as threatening as giving a monologue lecture. Or and many people live in in oral areas where they communicate all the time. So the what we want to see is how the arts communicate on deeper levels, and they bypass some of those initial barriers of interacting with one another So you find that it's universal, but it's not universal. It's universal in that people are open to receive arts is a more pleasant way of engaging with one another. On the other hand, the way it's interpreted will be determined by the culture and by the people who are receiving that artistic cultural message.
You have a favorite Art Museum, someplace you like to return to.
Do I have a favorite art museum? I think I love to return to the Art Museum of living life in non Western context. I was just in Bangkok, and experience up in Chiang Mai outside the north of Thailand, and to see people living out their lives everyday through the arts and how, how engaged they are with the arts and how important and significant they are. So I don't necessarily returned to a building museum but I returned to the museum of life, everyday life where artistic forms are being practiced and taking place. And that means that if it means that we need to learn what people are doing in with the arts in their everyday lives, and there's a way of doing that by learning about a people's music culture of the other in order to understand where they are coming from, because you see, it's not just a matter of whether it's beautiful or not, which often that's the western perception. That's the immediate thing that we talked about. In Kenya, I learned we don't talk about beauty, although aesthetics are there. We say it differently in Swahili we talk about something being sweet. So is the artistic work sweet. So that forces us to think differently and to begin to understand things in a different way. The fez festival in Morocco that took me to North Africa really broke me open to seeing things in new ways. And that I heard sounds I'd never heard before. But I learned they were important to the other people. And so I started asking questions and ultimately what it does is it brings us into relationship one another with one another. So we have there I was listening to song sung and Aramaic and Arabic. I didn't understand what was being sung. But I appreciated the music and I wanted to learn more. So then I could turn to my neighbor, and engage them and say, help me understand what was going on here. And what does that do that helps to build that relationship of showing Jesus care and compassion ultimately, to push it that far out, and just to show friendliness and hospitality, which is a critical Part of witness.
Dr. King, is there a museum that the collection of which you think particularly well curates global arts? Maybe a museum that you'd like to see their efforts replicated or studied more by students of global arts?
Yeah, you've asked? That's an interesting question. A fascinating question. Actually. I hadn't thought about it, but there's a museum in Berlin, where they have collected artistic works and musical instruments from all over the world. And I think we see this coming into our museums more readily. I don't claim to be a specialist in museums. I understand Arizona has a museum, a very fine Museum, with collection of instruments from all over the world, but I have not visited it.
Thank you very much for your responses. King in the second part of your book, which is titled encountering Christ through global arts, you speak of the way that theology can be performed by art. How does one learn to theologizing through art?
Well, for me, the approach I took is and what I continue to teach and really believe in is that I believe we need to be aware we need to be learning the scriptures constantly. We need to work with artists and musicians and help them or encourage them to always be reflecting on the scriptures. And as they reflect those scriptures, it becomes a part of how they perceive their world, and then they can interpret it. There's a Miss theologist Paul Hibbert, who said that theological reflections in different cultures must be done initially in the people's own conceptual categories and then evaluated in the light of globalizing theology. While many peoples around the world do that, by making art by singing songs, they're not text driven in the same way that our Western society is text driven. So training and forming artists and theological thinking and interacting with the scriptures. Once they start interacting with the scriptures and begin to sing, what I found is they start theologizing. It's the way we do theology. When we say, you know, you need to have the newspaper in one hand, and you have the scriptures in the other, and you let and you reflect on it. Well, the arts are a way of engaging with those daily issues in life where and we have to say, Well, what Scott has to say about that. Hmm,
thank you so much for that response. Dr. King, what do you say to the person who says I'm not an artistic person? I don't play an instrument. I don't paint or sculpt. How can I participate in this project that you're doing? Driving
by encouraging other artists, by being, being willing to engage with people who do appreciate the arts, when we are witnessing to Christ, we're always about building relationship and the art serve as an opportunity to build relationships as we, for example, go to concerts, or as we, as we go and we view artistic works, we can engage the artist, the creator, or we if we're when we're in a museum, we can start talking about the artwork with people and, and go as a learner. We don't have to be the expert You see, but engage with people wherever art is taking place, whether it be in a museum, looking at visual arts, whether it be in a musical setting, I mean, I go I keep going back to the fest festival in Morocco, I ended up sitting next to people who said a different language, but we but and they knew enough English that we could start talking about what was happening. And that helps. And you know, I didn't need to be a musician asking, I can just show interest and be willing to listen and engage further and say help me understand. That's where ethnomusicology which is a foundational discipline for what I do talks about listening to the other learning about the other person through their art for
when does art become propaganda? How do we know the difference between religious kitsch and Christ proclaiming global art?
That's a very difficult question for me, because that means I have to put an evaluation on another cultures artworks and I don't feel adequate enough to do this. Unless I study the work within its own cultural context. So as I was thinking about this question, it seems to me that it's determined by the receiver, the person engaging with the art, viewing the visual listening to the song, and how they interpret and understand the work. So what might be kitsch for you might be very meaningful to the person within their own within their own cultural context. I remember years ago, I was in Abidjan, and there was some new christian songs being recorded. And the outside Westerner said, Oh, those songs are no good. And what he didn't realize is that he was he was offending the person who was working within his own cultural mill you and me and for whom those songs were very, very precious. And they were speaking of the glory of God and he knew they ministered to his people within his context. So this this creates a dilemma for us in determining what is being kitsch and so I'm very slow to judge another cultures art I'm very quick to try and learn about it and incur and then work with people and how you know how they perceive it. And then encourage them to know the scriptures and being authentic and and as genuine as possible as they interact and engage with the arts.
Very good. Actor King, do you ever do art and, you know, look at it and say, Oh, boy that that's kitsch. Do you find art that it that you dismiss as kitsch, or say that subjectively? Not what I'm speaking of when I'm speaking of global art?
Are you talking to me personally as an individual or As a scholar,
a connoisseur of art?
Uh huh. I think there are certain types of art that I find offensive to my own spiritual life. And so for me, I set that aside, I will engage it in order to understand, but there are certain pieces within our own culture here that no, that's not for me, we have to make a discernment on what is appropriate for us and what is appropriate for my, for our own individuals spiritual lives and, and devotion to God.
Where I would draw the line.
Mm hmm. And the reason I ask is simply, if, if we're working with the proposition that art has a very significant communicative ability, then there must be things that we can divide. Just some sometimes will find things that are saying powerfully good things and there therefore must also be times that we find art saying very significant but wrong things.
Yeah, could I could I pick up on that further? So I was, I was speaking about individually Personally, I shunned it the offensive stuff. If though I want to minister in a context that is a rough context, or where I know there are things that are not pleasing to God, then the artworks can give me clues to what is going on. And they might even show me where the deep levels of pain are within a person's life, so that I can minister to them and help them come to see that there is hope through Jesus Christ.
Thank you very much. Dr. King. The third part of your book is titled, engaging peoples for Christ via global arts. What are some of your favorite examples to illustrate how global arts can be used to tell God's story in the Gospel?
Thank you. I just, I thought about this and I just keep going back to the opportunity. I had to work with an era follow believers in the north of Ivory Coast. And we were setting the scriptures to song and we were doing the Abrahamic story. And we were getting close to and we were doing the story of Abraham taking a son up on the mountain. Now what was happening all around them in this Muslim context, the Muslims are getting ready to celebrate the grand feast where Abraham sacrifices ago, they have something similar. So we're telling the Abrahamic story and the minute when the the neuro fold believers hear the Scriptures for the first time in their own language, that God tells them to take Abraham to take his son up the mountain. They knew exactly it meant sacrifice sacrifice, and they didn't want to set it Scripture to say, we can't do that we can't tell our mothers and fathers brothers and sisters, sons and daughters that God believes in does human sacrifice. Ha, we were stuck. And then they let it sink in and they're going, No, we think there's more to this. We know that God's word is trustworthy. So let's listen further and see what happens. And then as they listen to the rest of the story, and realize that God provided a ram and they were so profoundly touch. You see, they practice sacrifice, sacrificing chicken sacrificing goats, which is their wealth. In here God is providing his son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The you know, it's a metaphor for that and they got it And when they made songs, it was so profound and the joy in singing those songs, it has made a real change in the whole area and hearing the gospel message. So that's probably one of my favorite stories.
How beautiful. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Dr. King, what would be your counsel to young preachers of this next generation that are interested in incorporating film elements into their sermons? Can this be done in a theologically responsible way? What's your view?
Oh, I think absolutely. Absolutely. Film plays a powerful role in our society, especially here in the States and in the North American context. And as a global, it happens globally as well in Europe. And we can use film to raise a question to set a scenario we can use film to bring hope we get is it's a it's another art form. It's a combination. art forms blended together. So it's very dense with art and multi, you know, color and lighting and, and clothing and all of that plus the text, it can raise. One of the things that's very strong about the arts and film does so well is film. You can talk about something grotesque in a film that we would shy away from in a sermon, but it can raise the issue and then the pastor, the preacher comes in and says, what are the options for this? How do we deal with this? So often film will help bring people to deeper levels of places where they know they want help, and then preaching the scriptures can help speak to that.
This has been extremely, extremely helpful. Thank you, Dr. King. Um, one of the one of the powers of global arts is that it can bypass as you say some of the other obstacles involved in verbal speech, how is it and thereby create understanding between communities that struggle to understand one another? How is it that global arts can be used in the pursuit of inter Christian dialogue?
Ah, that's a very important question. It's one that I've given long thought to. And the arts help us to engage on levels that are non offensive, initially. So initially, we have opportunities to come together and just be in the same auditorium together. More recently, I've seen churches here in Southern California, sponsoring Syrian refugees and the young people are going to school and so they decided to have a benefit concert for for them in the church. And what did they do? They brought in local artists they brought in and they did cultural music. from Syria in Arabic, and it was just a wonderful evening of trying to appreciate their art forms. And then growing into it and then having a Christian would player from the Middle East to American. He, he started out with how bright the art and he's saying the verses in Arabic so that the Arabic speakers who had just come to the states would really get the message. And then we'd all sing the chorus together, then, and that was wonderful and we thought the concert was over. But then he launched into a well known Middle Eastern folk song that includes a dance. The men got up and started dancing with their young sons, teenagers, young college age, they go to the front of the church, the whole church, the Christians want to try it. So you see the arts help us to jump over certain barriers. And we've been all formal and polite. It was a concert in here all of a sudden, we're all dancing together. Oh my goodness in the church, a good evangelical church, okay. And, and it was wonderful. People were refreshed. They were happy. The music stops. And I'm there with a friend of mine who is who sings I sing in a Middle Eastern music ensemble with her and and this little and I'm going summer summer, this little girl's crying what she crying about. It was a young immigrant child and she was saying, why does the music have to suck. So you see, it had been such a wonderful occasion of coming together and discovering and experiencing harmony together because of the music, that she caught it that there was joy and a human willingness to be neighbors is. So it's a way of loving our neighbors that the arts help us even though we weren't understanding everything. It facilitated us engaging with one another and then we need to intentionally take it further when we have opportunity. Does that make
sense? That's a really powerful story. Thank you so much for sharing that, Dr. King, Dr. King, if I can close with a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church today to be united? What is it that we can how would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can do as individual Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed in john 17?
Thank you. Um,
I think we need to be open to one another. I think often we're so busy trying to distinguish from one another from our differences that we don't take time to learn Look at one another and realize that we are seeing people created in the image of God and to appreciate them for who they are. Listen to them, and especially within the church, we don't listen to what another were saying, while we do this, I am of this opinion, when we should be looking together towards God and saying, Where do we find unity? And and find those elements that unify us dwell on those, learn to listen, learn to dialogue with one another, and say, Well, maybe there is something I can learn. And then God is working among us that way, always within the sphere of the Holy Spirit working among us.
It's been a privilege today to be speaking with Dr. Roberta King, Professor of communications and ethnomusicology at the School of Intercultural Studies at fuller Theological Seminary. also the author of the text we've been discussing global arts and Christian witness exige eating culture translating the message and communicating Christ. Thank you so much, Dr. King for joining us today.
Thank you. It's been my privilege and honor