Teenage artists make me think

Manga art

All art, whether visual, written, musical or film, is supposed to reflect something of the mind and world of the artist, and make the viewer, listener or reader think or feel something they might not otherwise do.

An exhibition of artworks by High School students did exactly that for me.

Art Express

Each year, thousands of high school students finish their Higher School Certificate studies and graduate onto the rest of their lives. For some, a significant part of their final assessment is based on a “major work”, in art, textile and design or design and technology.

Each year, a selection of the best artwork is exhibited at a local gallery, together with a brief statement by the student about the ideas behind their work. And each year we check out this Art Express exhibition.

Common themes

Students are about 17 years old and their themes reflect this stage in their lives. Many show a sense of wonder about the world, while others are more pessimistic or introverted. Common themes include:

  • the environment and how we seem to be trashing it for future generations;
  • social justice issues such as refugees, inequality or gender issues;
  • personal issues related to growing up – alienation, concern for the future, identity, etc;
  • family and friends;
  • beauty and patterns in the built and natural environments;
  • war and history.

“Youth is made for heroism”

Tony Campolo once said that “youth is made for heroism”. These students are on the threshold of being adults, and they have some big concerns on their minds. Some may grapple with them for years, but it is likely many will move on to marriage, family, career and responsibility, and gradually the questions will be covered over like geological deposits.

This is a key time in their lives and may not last for long. From where, if at all, will their answers come?

Christianity and the church are irrelevant?

We christians reckon we have answers to many of the life questions they are asking. But I wonder how many of these questioning students would never even give thought to the possibility that answers may be found with us?

As long as christians use arcane or outdated language and concepts, and seem like we are fighting the battles of a previous generation, I don’t suppose we deserve a place in the market place of ideas. As long as we seem to not care about the things they care for, as long as we are not sensitive to them, I don’t suppose many will listen.

I long to see christians breaking free of old ways and old structures and joining these aspirational teens in grappling honestly with big issues, all the time living counter culturally, not judging, and pointing to another way of seeing.

I think there is an opportunity here for christians, but it would require some innovative thinking.

Photo: detail of the work Pain and Rapture by Leila May Kirkness.

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  1. But I AM afraid that changing the language and the means of expressing Christian ideas may change too much of what we have to say. The quality of the style must walk along with the message. Certainly, I agree, we can adapt somethings, but carefully.

  2. Hi Jonathan, I think language and culture are always changing. Since most of us read the Bible in a translation from the original Hebrew or Greek, we are already reading someone’s choice of the best words to use in that translation, and what is best 50 years ago may not be best now. Then when we talk about our faith, we have to choose words that are meaningful in the culture we are in, otherwise we are not really communicating.
    So while I agree we need to be careful, I think this task of adapting our language and emphases is unavoidable.

  3. I agree. It’s no point preaching the gospel to me in German if I don’t speak German. This is an old problem. It’s not really that many years since the battle to move on from all services being in Latin, and completely incomprehensible to the majority of the congregation, to being carried out in the language of the people. And even more recently has been doctrinal collisions over the validity of newer translations such as NIV and Good News over King James.
    The church I currently attend is mostly older generation, but I recently had the opportunity to attend a meeting at another church where no-one except me seemed to be over 30, and the language was definitely different: modern not archaic – words, sentence structure, ways of explaining things, the need to explain some concepts I took for granted, references and comparison to modern society, all had an impact on the way the service was carried out. It was refreshing.
    Your post reminded me of a saying from a Korean Zen master I came across the other day that referred to washing potatoes together in a bowl of water, first to soften the mud with the water, and then by stirring them together the potatoes knocked the mud off each other – quicker and more effective than washing each potato individually. It meant something to me because I remember when the first pre-washed potatoes went on sale in the supermarkets, and it gave me a picture of how the church should look, working together. But for anyone under 40 the thought of buying potatoes with mud on them is unimaginable. So it is with the language of the church.
    The challenge for today’s church is the speed of change in the rest of society compared to even 100 years ago. The church went through a bad period a few years ago trying to be relevant to young people with loud music but the message got watered down in the process. What we need to be able to do is to encourage the young people in the church to find their own language and expression that is relevant to today.
    Waffled on a bit there. Those are just my thoughts, basically agreeing with you – much as I love the poetry of the old language our communications have to be intelligible to our listeners or our message will fail.

  4. I encountered a bit of this some 10 years ago when I encountered contemporary Christian music. At first I was put-off by the style as it seemed more about the singer than God. But over time come to understand its “language” better and now thoroughly enjoy and am inspired by the genre. What kept me listening was the quality of the musicianship; that bought the genre the time it needed to let me begin to appreciate the message. My point in this is that I learned the language because I had a reason to stay around long enough.
    I don’t think the problem with kids and faith is tradition or language or church or no church. I think it’s us and the example we give. Yes, I believe the young are made for heroism. They yearn for it. They want leaders; self-sacrificing leaders who care more about the cause than themselves. And they want the cause to be just. You give them that and they’ll walk through fire. Each of Christianity’s many churches and denominations at one time had that kind of leadership; if most or even many of them could muster the energy and courage to get back to that and live out their particular creed as a community, I don’t believe we’d be having this conversation. The young would be here striving alongside us, becoming heroes for the next generation.

  5. Hi WW, thanks for those thoughts. I especially liked the potatoes example. Yes I think the speed of change is an issue – the only way to deal with it is to keep changing with it – if we stay still too long, traditions and habits form and then they’re much harder to change.
    Thanks for your thoughts too Mark. I think the “heroism” angle is the key. Positive motivation is important both for the new generations and for us older ones. Relevance isn’t just a matter of language and music, though they are important, but of aims and activities. Our church is large (by Aussie standards) and fairly conservative (by Aussie standards), and historically has done little in the area of social justice and community involvement. But many teens and young adults are keen to get into these areas. A church that doesn’t facilitate this will eventually lose some of these.

  6. Hi,
    Yes, I know that we have some old translations, but even tough I prefer to be more conservative in some cases. Certainly it’s possible to adopt some newer language for some Bible excerpts, but the “archaic” words perhaps are the best in many cases.
    Recently some language specialities around here suggested to adapt Machado de Assis’ ouvres to a modern Portuguese so that young people get motivated to read it, a nonsense idea. Well, the language is part of the message.
    Certainly it’s easier and more joyful to go to a church with a service fully of modern things, but then we could wrongly take people there more for entertainment than for the real message.

  7. I’m afraid I disagree with you here Jonathan. The New Testament is not written in classical Greek but “common” Greek, suggesting that communicating in the vernacular is part of God’s way. But the vernacular keeps changing, so our language has to keep changing. Perhaps if we pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance on how we move forward, we will not make the mistakes you are concerned about?

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