An artful encounter with God

Published on: 1 July 2018

Everyone knows that lions live in wardrobes, monsters lurk down the toilet, and dragons emerge from cracks in the pavement. Whatever you do don’t step on the cracks!

It’s the Wednesday evening of Holy Week, and a respectable audience has turned out to see Beyond the Wardrobe, an “alternative Passion play”, written by me and performed at St Cuthbert’s in Sprowston.

Okay, I’ll admit that this isn’t the usual premise for a Passion play, but then, very little about this is what you’d expect. The actors aren’t all card-carrying Christians for a start; the story itself is inspired by C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, while these overgrown “children” are going on an adventure during which the monsters stem from their own fears and experiences. But it is a story dealing with love, sacrifice and the hope of new life, and Christ is there; a lion who is destined to become a lamb.

Since arriving in Norwich from my native Yorkshire ten years ago and taking up the post of Associate Vicar in Sprowston, it’s been part of my ministry to engage with people through the performing arts as well as doing all the usual things that vicars do.

Over this time, I’ve joined in with the fun stuff, such as the annual Parish Pantomime; helped people engage with more serious stuff such as Remembrance Sunday performances, and encouraged people to unpack their own ‘stuff’ through improvisation and storytelling.

It has also involved taking a sideways look at old stories and how they might relate to us today; for example, my play Fuzzy relocates the book of Job from its ancient setting to a present-day psychiatric hospital; a place where many, like Job, end up confronting God.

But why art? And what is art? Well, in my opinion, one thing art isn’t is merely a substitute for a sermon or reading – art does a different job, or at least it does if done well. Good art explores the complexity of human experience; through it we gain a different understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of God.

Art allows ‘the soul to speak’; sometimes we don’t know what the soul wants to say unless we allow it expression, so it’s always risky. The art of storytelling, especially our own story, can reveal much that we’ve kept hidden; it can be a form of prayer, or a way of ‘letting go’, as well as a form of expression.

It’s an odd form of ministry; it allows me to be clown on occasion, a writer, an actor, and also a pastor. I get to engage with people who normally wouldn’t go near a church, and to gently challenge those who do. Art also allows us to share in the creativity of God; through it we can encounter God and community in unexpected ways; it deepens and broadens our understandings and challenges our certainties. Actually, perhaps it’s not so odd after all…

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