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Thursday, July 31, 2014

"The Art of Helping Others" (Douglas C. Mann)

TITLE: The Art of Helping Others: How Artists Can Serve God and Love the World
AUTHOR: Douglas C. Mann
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014, (144 pages).

Is there a link between art and religion? How can creativity be embedded in worship? Is there such a thing as a "Christian artist?" Is art irrelevant to the ministry of social justice and service? What is the role of "Christian art?" This book explores the above questions and many more from the standpoint of "creative incitement" which refers to a creative way to bring out the self-awareness, the artist and the activist in us. Douglas Mann is a published songwriter, a former music and book business executive who had not only discovered the beauty of art, he has embraced the calling to help others discover their creative calling. In this book, Mann has brought together two key concepts: Creativity and "incitement" which comes from the latin word incitare meaning "to awaken, to bring out of sleep." The process of discovering one's calling begins with awareness.

Awareness means discovering that something that we are willing to lose everything for. It means letting our self-identity shapes the art or works we create. It means knowing ourselves as we let ourselves be known in the artistic creations we embark upon. At the same time, it is also that awareness that calling is not easily dampened by pain and suffering. In fact, it can energize one to do things that surpass one's understanding. At the same time, pride needs to be checked, lest it dumbs down what God is trying to do in us in the first place. It is being aware of our calling to be "creative inciters" that dares to take risks, that not only revolts at the injustice we see but re-ignites a desire to do something about it. It moves away from "what if" thinking toward a "why not" mentality. After all, Jesus was an artist, a storyteller, a master of creative communications. The downside of being a creative artist is to become "fishers of Zen" when hard times befall us, and render us staring down at the gutter of grime and dirt and missing out on gazing at the stars in the sky.

Mann then leads us through the passage of what art means, moving away from the explicit displays toward the implicit significance of the creative work. He looks at worship, stressing that it is more than a song but a reflecting endeavour of who God is. It is about redefining our conventional understanding of worship toward one that "inspire, strengthen and build the church" as well as "transformation" of individuals, community, and the world at large. It means letting worship moves beyond singing on a Sunday morning toward living worshipfully all days to do work in such a way as that "incites people to worship." The trouble with many of us is that we have lived far too long in "boxes" that we often box God. By insisting a work is only Christian when there are religious connotations, Christians can box God in by separating the sacred from the secular, boxing God in on the former and missing out on the latter. If God is God, being a Christian means the Christian witness if for everyone and everywhere. When one is unleashed to roam and to venture beyond the small religious circles of comfort, one will be able to be free to create outside the realm of one's comfort zone. This includes the freedom to incite others to do what they are called to do in the kingdom of God.

The third part of the book puts it more explicitly through "Activism." It is not simply taking part in radical acts per se, but to be driven by a conviction to right the wrongs in society and to identify ourselves with the basic human rights. It does not ask what's safe but talks about what's necessary. It emboldens. It moves from cowardice to courage; expediency to sacrificial service; and vanity to conscience. It is deeply aware of the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, like a single woman who sacrificed herself during a Russian civil war so as to save the life of several others. Activism is essentially vision with action.

So What?

This is one of those books that deserves to be savoured slowly, read gently, and reflected frequently. The writing is powerful and effective simply because it is written from deeply-felt convictions. While the subtitle suggests "how artists can serve God and love the world," the book does much more than that. The following are the reasons why.

Firstly, it gives a fresh perspective of what art can do in the realm of spirituality and soulful living in the world. It challenges Christian artists to avoid seeing the world between the sacred and secular but to see their work as relevant for both. Such a perspective is liberating, empowering, and energizing. Secondly, I appreciate the part about calling which draws one toward discovering the source of their work in the first place. While it is not explicitly mentioned, the implicit references to the Divine God is strong. It reminds me that all of us are called to be artists in some way, whether we are communicators, designers, authors, bloggers, painters, musicians, worship leaders, and so on. It is discovering the artist in us that is made alive by the Artist above us. For without God, we can do nothing. With God, the sky's the limit. Thirdly, the title of the book is a bit of a misnomer. While the book's title suggests a kind of self-help book to learn to skills of helping others, I think it is more about helping readers discover more about themselves and what they can do, rather than simply helping others. I find myself enriched and encouraged to be the artist to help others. By speaking to ordinary people in ordinary ways about the extraordinary gifts God had given, this book can help one to emerge from the depths of art and creativity toward the heights of worship and praise of God in all we do. More importantly, it has given me a new respect for artists in general and for the Great Artist above in particular.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of InterVarsity Press and Speakeasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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