Yesterday at our 9:00 and 11:15 services, Cornelia van Voorst, an artist in our community, shared some powerful reflections on the process of her artwork.
With her permission, I print the text of yesterday’s address below:
On the 12th of March 2017, I gave a talk that ties in with my exhibition “The Other Side of War.” The talk was given during the sermon time at St Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay, Victoria, BC, Canada.
My working title for this talk has been Art and the Nature of Good and Evil. There is nothing like diving into the deep end; but if you bear with me, my reason for that title will become clear.
I want to take us back to the very beginning- to the story of creation and I want to draw our attention to something about that story.
God separates in order to create. From the dark God calls forth light, the land is separated from the sea, the night from the day, unique creatures are made and put into their own unique place. From those separations life evolves. God even separates woman from man.
The only thing God did not separate in the 7 days of creation is good from evil. When we are introduced to that duality, we are told that the knowledge of good and evil will surely cause humans to die and that is why we are not to eat of that famous tree.
Well we know the story, and here we are, caught in a world that is a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, a world that has death and suffering and hatred and hurt teeming within it; a world that is dangerous and violent and chaotic and unpredictable. We live in a world that we need to be saved from, and one day good will win and it will all be healed and bleed into one, and all our tears will be dried away and we will live in non-dualistic forever bliss.
No. I don’t believe in that version of how the battle of good and evil will be solved, because I am an artist. And as an artist I think I might have an inkling as to how maybe God is thinking as a creator.
In Proverbs 8 there is a stunning passage about wisdom; it starts of describing how wisdom helped God create the earth:
The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be….
Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in humankind.
But, it gets better than that for me as an artist because the NIV translation in its footnotes points out that this passage may also be read as though Wisdom is saying this:
Then I was constantly at God’s side as an artisan or as a little child.
Wisdom is described as an artist. Wisdom is described as a little child. Wisdom is at God’s side being joyful in the world and towards humanity. It is wisdom- the artist and the child- who is at God’s side forming the earth; and it is Wisdom who is also described in Proverbs as a woman.
Now as someone who has devoted her life to children, and as an artist, and as a woman I am pretty chuffed about that; but I am also very curious about it because it seems to me that in history, and especially Christian history it is women, art and children, that have been marginalised in our discussion of who God is.
Christianity has suffered under the weight of God being worshipped as father, as king, as ruler and lord, a warrior, a judge, and in those descriptions we have had no inkling that right beside that glorious majesty is a bright, joyful, creative, imaginative, lovely, light- hearted and light- handed being of beauty. We have essentially written the artistic, womanly and childlike nature of wisdom out of the scriptures and placed her as a footnote.
In Proverbs and in the Song of Solomon, Wisdom calls out loud, runs upon walls looking for her lover wondering where he could be, she is desperate for him, longing for him. Can we imagine feeling that way in our longing for God or in our longing for the world?
What I notice about Wisdom in the Proverbs 8 passage is that all of the world is a delight, and all of humanity is loved. It reminds me of that passage in Matthew 5 in which we are told to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends the rain on the just and the unjust. The contrast between those two passages is this: in Proverbs we are seeing Wisdom at the dawn of creation taking delight in all of the world; in Matthew 5 we are in the midst of the broken world. But what has remained the same is that to God it is still a world upon which love is showered.
As an artist I get that. To artists, all of life is worth our attention, all of life whether good or evil or beautiful or rotten, we make something of it. We can take broken pieces of junk and make an amazing sculpture of it; we take human pain and write a novel or make a painting of a film; to an artist everything in the world is potentially a source of beauty, of creativity, of renewal. In a very real sense artists do not think of the world in terms of good and bad, but more in terms of: what can we make of this? What can we draw out of this, what might we celebrate, enhance, what might we return to the raw material of life and make something new of it?
That is how I think God sees the world. Not as a world divided into good and evil, but a world that is still altogether a world to be loved. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. “Whoever” being the operative.
Dividing the world into who’s in and who is out, who is good and who is evil, who is Muslim , who is Jew, who is white who is worthy, who is damned- is not God’s style. Yes God did indeed separate in the beginning of creation, but that was to bring forth life. We humans, for the purposes of war, separate to end life.
Now, if it is true that knowing the difference between good and evil brings death then making that distinction cannot be of God for the simple fact that God is life, and so it is impossible for God to divide the world into good and evil and so bring death to us.
In God, good and evil have found their peace; in Christ the battle between good and evil is already won, if in fact it ever began. The battle between good and evil began in us, not in God. It’s why we are commanded to love our enemies. We were never meant to destroy them in order to prove we were on God’s side. It is by loving our enemies that we show ourselves to be on the side of God– perfect just as our father in heaven is perfect.
So if love is our purpose what have we as human beings been doing waging wars in the name of battling evil?
I believe it is because the child-like, feminine, artistic heart of wisdom has been disallowed to inform the values of our human patriarchal Christian culture.
This is where this talk gets hard for me. This is where I have to speak about my own reality of being an artist, a woman and a carer of children and address what I know of the reality of war and the so-called battle of good and evil.
My art work dives into the intersection of personal story with collective history, and brings a tender approach to a society that we remember as anything but tender. In my art practice over the last couple of years I have been working with the story of the bombing of civilians during WW2, a story that has been overlooked because it happened to children of the enemy- an enemy that is guilty of awful violence toward civilians: 11 million of them, including 6 million of Europe’s Jews. My own father fought for that enemy.
Yet this is a story that is deeper and broader than Germany – it is a story about women and children and the violence of patriarchal attitudes that still affect our world today.
Some words by Churchill provide an insight to those attitudes. He wrote of the bombing of Germany that there was a higher poetic justice at work and
that those who have loosed these horrors upon mankind will now in their homes and persons feel the shattering strokes of a just retribution.
In the context of what the Nazis have done, Churchill’s words ring true. But in reality, these words are the most stunning evidence of the pervasive negation of the lives and person- hood of women and children; they were considered nothing more than extensions of the lives of men.
It was women who were at home, not steely jawed Nazis; women who were always frightened, trying to keep their families alive while their men were absent. Women who had very little say in how the world was formed and run, let alone how wars were fought. But even if they might have made a difference to the direction of the war, I am left with this question:
- What have children to do with war?
- What have children to do with the Holocaust?
Children are the evidence that goodness, light, love, hope and innocence exist in every society, no matter how dark that society might have become.
We cannot return to the past and undo our fathers and grandfathers wars. And we cannot really judge them especially as many of us have not faced war ourselves. But we can decide how we carry the memory of war into the future.
A statue of a little girl is now facing the Wall Street Bull in New York and because of it, I remember the etching by Picasso that depicts another little girl shining a light while facing the blind monstrous Minotaur of war.
I cannot help but hope that we will in every city place statues of little children with their feet planted firmly on the ground, wind in their hair facing the monolith of destruction. But more than that, I hope we each of us might face the world with open eyes and a heart that does not see it divided into good and evil but a world that needs to be loved even if it has to be stood up to. I hope and pray that each of us today would be brave and become as that little child.
May peace be with us all.