Arts-lover Jenny Flannagan reflects on a recent theatre trip and tells us why the arts must go further than just exposing us to the world’s issues.
I love it when mainstream culture and arts engage with the big injustices in the world. Story and art have a way of grabbing our guts that pure information can’t touch. So I was looking forward to a trip to a theatre to see Three Kingdoms, a play about human trafficking.
The play portrayed trafficking as an ugly, complicated issue taking place right under our noses. It seemed to be saying we’re all guilty, whether we are selling women to a life of slavery ourselves or simply turning a blind eye to it in our own neighbourhoods. The play didn’t really move on from there. At the end the policemen involved just gave up.
So trafficking is terrible and it’s widespread. This I know. I left the theatre feeling fairly hopeless.
And here is my bugbear with art that is wholly dark and pessimistic: it takes us nowhere. It leaves the story half-written. It almost dissuades you from thinking there is something you can do. I want theatre to do more than that. I want art to do more than that.
The art I love most takes us to new horizons and possibilities. It surprises us with what is possible, or where beauty is secretly lurking. And the reason that this matters is that it can’t help but influence us – it plants the seeds to believe that the world is not all darkness and that we can help create something good. It’s the same beautifully subversive idea that’s at the heart of Rhythms – that another way of living is possible.
So when I see a piece of art, a film, a painting, a piece of theatre, that tells me the world is a dark place, that no-one is innocent, that the problems are too big and there’s nothing we can do, I am unmoved. Or when I watch a story that says the happy ending is only possible when we get out machine guns, I shake my head.
So how do we keep hold of that fragile thread of hope in the midst of all the dark art? I think we have to search for the good stuff. In Philippians 4:8 it says,
‘Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious — the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.’
This verse can be used in a puritanical way, to make us think we have to closet ourselves from the world and only think about Christian things, but to me it says the opposite. It says go out into the wide world and search out beauty and hope in all the least likely places. Let them feed your faith and hope and teach you to dream of what others tell you is impossible.
A colleague was recently visiting a project in Mumbai working with women who have been trafficked, and in one neighbourhood there were 15 brothels housing 75,000 women. Which is overwhelming. But the project she was with rescues about 25 of those women a year. Yes, it’s a tiny percentage, but it’s something. It’s a change, and a big one for those 25.
I agree that the problems are huge and that we need to face that. But the way we face them matters. There is something important about facing the darkness, and recognising its enormity – but don’t marinate in it and let it shrink you. One of my basic life rhythms is searching out, sharing and telling stories about the good stuff. The more of them I encounter, I listen to, or watch, or read, the more my faith and sense of possibility grow and the more God surprises me with what he’s up to in the world. And then I find that I want to be part of the stories of the impossible being done, and light appearing in the darkness.