Faith, art and kids: how does one open up the other?

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Recently, a young lad of 13 came to our church alone.

My husband recognised and remembered him as the same boy who’d come with his Dad, three years ago. They’d attended services for maybe two or three weeks – then not again. Until now.

At the time, the boy’s Dad said, “I’m not really interested, but he’s been asking to come”. Quite astoundingly, this young boy has claimed the identity of ‘Christian’ even though he has not been brought up in a Christian home, and has had very little Christian influence in his life other than the Christian group who led half-termly assemblies in his primary school. (If you do this job, be encouraged – it has an impact!)

I find it fascinating when parents who don’t hold a religious faith tell me how interested their children are in God. Kids can ask deep questions, that’s for sure, and if there is a God behind human design, then it’s unsurprising that children would have a deep-rooted longing to connect with something greater than themselves – a longing which doesn’t come from what their parents or teachers have taught them, or from the ‘religious’ experiences they’ve had, but from within their very beings.

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‘I know all the birds of the hills…’ by Elisabeth Rutt

And what of children, like mine, who are being taught about God’s existence, and who are having regular ‘religious experiences’ through church, children’s groups and Christian camps?

These children have deep questions too. Yes, they may frame them within the context of God’s existence – at least until they are of an age to question this – but that’s not to say that doubt and uncertainty can’t exist too.

So our question, as adults helping to raise spiritually-healthy children, is – how do we encourage these questions? How do we initiate debate? How do I permeate the deep recesses of my 9 year old son’s soul, when he only really wanted to tell me about the Newcastle-Man United game?

The closed approach of “That was your question – this is the answer” is not always appropriate. Of course sometimes there is an answer we can give – and I’m not dismissing this – but when our children have deep struggles and questions, I think that the simple black-and-white answer can often trivialise their experience, and devalue their thinking.

This is where creativity comes in: lots of questions, lots of responses, lots of deep thinking and forming of opinions. An understanding that one question may have many answers.

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‘Grenfell 2017’ by Matthew Askey

So when I heard about ‘Where is God in our 21st-century world?’, the new release from Instant Apostle, I was fascinated.

Let me back-track a little and inform you, if you didn’t already know, that Christian publishers don’t usually do Books Like This.

For example, we’re used to the 15-chapter teaching guide on a particular area of discipleship, written by someone with more experience than us. We’re used to someone telling us (or encouraging us) how to think.

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‘God’ by Trevor Attwood

Sorry – that sounds a bit cynical, doesn’t it? As if Christian writers are trying to brainwash their readers – and I don’t mean that at all.

But, generally, when I read a Christian book, I’m out to learn what the author has discovered through experiences, training or qualifications that differ to my own. It doesn’t mean I will agree with every word, but these books offer fodder for my mind, new interpretations of Scripture that I hadn’t come across, different opinions which strengthen my own.

“Where is God”, however, breaks this stereotype. It is, essentially, a coffee-table art book – hardback, with gorgeous pictures throughout, and empathetic commentary by Ann Clifford, who I interviewed for this blog on Monday.

And here’s another difference: Christian books, on the whole, tend to be written by Christians – right?

The art in this book has been produced by a variety of people from a variety of faiths and none.

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‘In the detail’ by Kate Green

Each of the 60 pieces of art was shortlisted for the Chaiya Art Awards, and is as diverse and beautiful as you would hope it might be, given the brief of “Where is God in our 21st-century World?”

Now this isn’t specifically a children’s book, but as any age group can enjoy and gain from art, I was keen to see what my children made of this. I viewed it as a PDF on my phone, but even without the ‘glamour’ of an open book with its glossy photos, my children were interested.

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‘Left Out’ by Maxwell Rushton

“What does it mean? Why is he wrapped in a bin bag? Who’s that? What’s happening?” were the initial questions, which I tended to follow with some more questions of my own. My children ended up providing their own ‘answers’ and interpretations.

We were able to bring our Christian beliefs into the discussion, but not in a forceful, dogmatic way – more a kind of, “The artist might be saying this… Jesus said this too” or “Do you remember when Jesus did…?” or “There’s a verse in the Bible that says something similar”.

I love the way that this book brings the question of God’s existence into regular situations that we and our children encounter. I already mentioned here about the picture of homelessness. Another I was struck by was a modern take on the Virgin and Child – except, in this version, both of them are wearing life jackets, linking to the Syrian crisis, still fresh in our minds, and the fact that Jesus and his family were also refugees.

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‘The Exiles’ by Louise Davis

Of course there’s plenty of more abstract pieces that my kids (and I, for that matter) looked at and, with screwed-up faces, asked, “What’s THAT??!!” – but that’s okay. Not all art will speak to all of us.

In fact, author Ann Clifford gives us this very caveat. “Perhaps [a particular piece] doesn’t look like art to you and it evokes nothing. That’s okay. Turn the page.”

Ann’s commentary is wonderfully incisive and articulate. She doesn’t comment on each piece, but offers short pieces throughout the book on themes expressed in the artwork.

‘Where is God in the 21st Century?’ is out now (you can buy it here) – but if you’re local to me, let me know as we can benefit from a bulk order discount.

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