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Until recently, art has commonly been treated as ancillary to the educational mission and intellectual discourse that are at the core of Christian higher education. Using the exhibition Charis: Boundary Crossings—Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends as a case study, Curator and Project Director Rachel Hostetter Smith argues that art has a distinct capacity to serve as a highly effective vehicle for engagement and interaction with the complex and sometimes sensitive issues of our time, especially when it is coupled with strategic programming designed specifically for that purpose. Situating the case within currents of the economic, cultural, and religious shifts to the global East and South, art is shown to provide surprisingly rich and varied opportunities for global education and scholarship. Ms. Smith is Gilkison Professor of Art History at Taylor University and Artistic Director of Project R5: A Visual Arts Seminar and Studio in South Africa.

Art is characterized by a sense of invitation…to see in a new way and sometimes to be changed.—John Franklin, Executive Director, Imago1

One of the topics increasingly undertaken by Christian colleges and universities in recent years is vocation, and in considering this issue we typically focus on a particular person’s calling. This focus, however, has raised for me a more foundational question: what is the vocation of particular enterprises or disciplines? More specifically for my own arena, what is art for? This is a question I have pondered for many years, and never discovered a satisfactory answer, but considering it can help us understand better the vocation of art and grasp the vital role that art has to play in our world today. One dimension of art is invitation, that “offer to enter into another time and place to take delight, to discover, to see in a new way and sometimes to be changed”—voiced by John Franklin above.

This essay arises out of an artistic invitation, an exhibition titled Charis: Boundary Crossings—Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends, and the varied and extensive initiatives it inspired. This artistic event engaged participants with the many challenges of living in a globalized world and the implications for people of Christian faith. Charis arose from a two-week immersive faculty development seminar in Indonesia in 2008 for a group of Asian and North American artists who are Christians. The ensuing exhibit embodies the vital exchange that commonly comes when people of goodwill commit to live, learn, and work together. The word charis comes from the ancient Greek for “favor” or “grace” but is perhaps most accurately rendered by the concept of goodwill. The exhibit poses the essential challenge of living well with our neighbors whether that neighbor is next door or on the other side of the world. This exhibit generated remarkable interest and additional programming as it traveled across the United States and to Canada from September 2009 through December 2012. It demonstrates the relevance of cross-cultural issues and art’s power to provoke conversations and discovery in our communities, churches, and educational institutions today.

Before taking up the particularities of the Charis exhibit, there is an essential backstory to consider: it involves the cultural dimensions of globalization and Christianity’s changing place in the world today. This backdrop will help illuminate the way the arts are being re-embraced for their affective power and how the Charis project models the arts engaging the most pressing issues of our time.

Practicing Cosmopolitanism

Charis was a feature of the 19th Annual National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, hosted by Calvin College in October 2009. “To say that we live in a world marked by global rivalries and interconnections is to state the obvious,” reads the conference’s invitation. “But such a claim also offers a challenge,” it continues.

How can [the Christian faith] shape citizens of the world—cosmopolitans—who are attentive to the particularities of their own culture, who respect legitimate differences, and who balance their own allegiances with obligations to others, particularly others to whom they are not related by nature or by inclination? Such virtues require practice, the development of skills that allow one to cross and crisscross multiple borders, boundaries, and barriers.

The theme of the conference, “Practicing Cosmopolitanism,” derives from a concept that has been gaining currency for some years in academic and international circles. The need to move from mere awareness of global issues and cultural differences to actual interaction and involvement is reflected in the widespread embrace of the term “global engagement” to characterize the intent of programs now being offered in so many institutions of higher learning, including my own. In fact, the interconnectedness of the world today has made opportunities for global education virtually de rigueur for most colleges and universities, including Christian ones.

In his 2006 book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:

[There are] two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.2

For anyone who follows the news, the realities of both the interconnectedness and differences in the world have been cast in sharp relief. The economic crisis that began in the U.S. four years ago quickly spread to many parts of the globe, even to some very remote places. Religious and political tensions arising in one region frequently have devastating consequences on the other side of the globe. Debate over climate change has heightened consciousness of the fundamental organicity of the planet we inhabit. A shift in a fissure in the earth’s crust will create a tsunami that hits hundreds, even thousands of miles away and this generates an outpouring of assistance from countries around the globe. The world now seems small and unitary for all of its vastness and diversity. We may live out our daily lives locally, but we are increasingly aware of being linked globally as members of one human race. For the Christian, this should seem right and natural, something to be embraced, but the world’s stark divisions and disparities make evident the challenges in pursuing, as Kofi Annan put it, “the great human project of trying to live together.”3

This charge has moved to center stage in contemporary thought, and artists are playing a leading role in addressing it. Wenda Gu, with his more than decade-long United Nations project, and Xu Bing, with his New English Calligraphy, are traversing the globe, bridging East and West by producing art that aspires to unite humanity and encourage international understanding. These two members of the Chinese diaspora reflect identity that is both culturally hybrid and universally human. Their experience is the norm for growing numbers of people who migrate for political, economic, religious, and ultimately personal reasons. By analogy, to be a Christian also is to live in diaspora, with responsibilities to this world’s regimes while maintaining one’s ultimate citizenship in another. This posture places the Christian in tension with the world; but such tension can be positive or negative as one seeks to strike the right balance between the two relationships.

The significance of cross-cultural engagement should be self-evident to those familiar with global developments. Not only have we seen a great deal of economic energy shift to the global East and South but some of the greatest growth and vitality within Christianity is occurring in these regions as well. The vigor and innovation in the southern and eastern churches are equal to those taking place in the arts and culture. These global influences are penetrating into nearly every aspect of religious and cultural life, creating new and exciting hybrid forms. It is significant, however, that in contrast with the uneasiness about mixing art and religion that is commonly found among intellectuals in the West today,4 intellectuals in the global East and South readily accept the importance of religion to human beings and in society, and the appropriateness—and even necessity—of addressing it through art. A brief look at the spread of a renewed consciousness among western Protestants of the value of the arts in Christian life and witness helps us understand how that acceptance has grown in recent years and provides the context for the remarkable impact of Charis.

Global Shifts and Changing Paradigms for the Missio Dei

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to take up a wide range of issues that had arisen as a result of the conflicts that had torn the church apart, including the legitimacy of art in the church. In a firm rejection of Protestants’ iconoclasm, Catholic theologians reaffirmed art’s value to the church as not only an effective means of communicating the stories and doctrines of the faith but also as an expression of devotion and a source of inspiration. After centuries of Protestant resistance, we are now seeing them also reaffirming and promoting the visual arts as significant to the work of God in the church and the world today. Thus in October of 2010, when more than 4000 evangelical leaders from 200 countries gathered in Cape Town, South Africa for the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization, the arts were much in evidence and were explicitly affirmed. But this development marked a century of change in Protestant mission theology.

The year 2010 was chosen to recognize the centenary of the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. At that time, 80 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America, and the great theme of the conference was proclamation of the Christian gospel, aiming at “the evangelization of the world in this generation.”5 A century later, more than 60 percent of the world’s Christians are now living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As this “seismic shift” to the global East and South has gathered speed and salience in recent years, it has been prompting a change in mission theology. While proclamation remains a dominant and essential aspect of the work of the church throughout the world, it is now balanced by what one might call presence. Allen Yeh, a missiologist at Biola University, argues that this change reflects a shift from missions, plural, which tended to focus on human endeavors, to mission, singular, as in the mission of God, the missio dei, which is much more comprehensive in scope and action.6

This change was particularly evident at Cape Town in the prominence given to relationships and social justice, and through the inclusion of the arts in conference sessions and the conference-produced Cape Town Commitment.7 Under the heading “Bearing witness to the truth of Christ in a pluralistic, globalized world: Truth and the arts in mission,” the Commitment affirmed the following:

We possess the gift of creativity because we bear the image of God. Art in its many forms is an integral part of what we do as humans and can reflect something of the beauty and truth of God. Artists at their best are truth-tellers and so the arts constitute one important way in which we can speak the truth of the gospel. Drama, dance, story, music and visual image can be expressions both of the reality of our brokenness, and of the hope that is centred in the gospel that all things will be made new.

In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource. We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts.

We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging the arts as a context for mission by:
1. Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship;
2. Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work;
3. Letting the arts serve as an hospitable environment in which we can acknowledge and come to know the neighbour and the stranger;
4. Respecting cultural differences and celebrating indigenous artistic expression.8

This affirmation appears in a section titled “For the World We Serve: The Cape Town Call to Action.” But just what kind of action? The statement calls for “letting the arts serve as an hospitable environment in which we can acknowledge and come to know the neighbour and the stranger.” This echoes the theme—and even the title—of the Charis exhibit, which predates The Cape Town Commitment. And both reflect the same spirit and strategy of faithful presence articulated recently by James Davison Hunter, Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.

Faithful Presence and the Call to Hospitality

In his 2010 book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,9 Hunter argues that real change, ironically, may only come about when we cease to pursue it as our raison d’etre as Christians. Hunter presents a paradigm markedly different from those that have dominated recent Christian discourse on cultural engagement. In an article for Christianity Today soon after publication of the book, Christopher Benson argues that,

faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” Hunter writes, “it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”10

Hunter and a group of like-minded Christians put their convictions to work in 2005 by establishing the New City Commons Foundation in order to foster this approach to cultural engagement. New City Commons seeks to foster “an effective presence throughout society and culture” without “the will to dominate [or] assimilate but instead the intent to make positive contributions through the outworking of faith in its fullness for the ‘good of the city’; to be faithfully present in every sphere of culture.11 As Hunter put it in an interview with Benson,

If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.12

This approach moves away from the triumphalism of earlier Christian strategies to the model of active and faithful collaboration with one’s neighbors. Hunter and his colleagues at New City Commons Foundation see the arts as a prime source of this kind of cultural engagement and renewal.13 Significantly, this approach requires a reliance on the Holy Spirit to work both in and through us instead of on our own efforts. And it constitutes a critical underpinning of the shift from “missions” to the missio dei that has occurred over the last century that, significantly, was also emphasized at Lausanne Cape Town.14

Yet another example of this paradigmatic shift that also emphasizes the arts is the organization Imago. Founded in 1974 to engage Canadian culture and society in positive, life-giving ways, Imago has increasingly focused on the arts as a prime means of pursuing these aims. Art, says Imago,

serves as a humanizing presence and that role has been under appreciated in our [Canadian] culture. Given the current state of affairs in our global community it should be evident that the presence of art is critical as a resource for bridging our differences and offering some threads of hope in the deeply troubling situations we face. An ambivalence concerning the arts remains as we live in a society where technology and the pressures of a consumerist agenda shape our thinking, devour our time and often leave us less imaginative than we might otherwise be. The arts bring not only delight but also a thread of hope and a glimpse into what might be. These qualities are consistent with the Judeo – Christian values which ground the work of Imago. Central to all that Imago does is the practice of hospitality.15

Hospitality represents a posture essential to the Christian life, found in an attitude of openness and welcome, and extended by an invitation to fellowship and conversation in recognition of our common humanity. Yet it is a quality sorely lacking in many endeavors today, not the least of which are scholarship and intellectual discourse.16

Immersive Education as a Model for Faculty Development: The Indonesia Seminar

In June 2008, a group of artists and scholars from North America and Asia gathered in Indonesia to participate in an experiment in trans-cultural engagement. They had a two-week, immersive seminar, based in Java and Bali, on Christianity, contextualization, and the visual arts. This project was co-sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), Calvin College’s Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, and the Asian Christian Artists’ Association. The Indonesia seminar was the first in a new initiative, the Gospel and Culture Seminars, intended to bring North American educators and scholars together with their counterparts in another part of the world to understand better the shift that is occurring in economic power and cultural influence, as well as in the church, from the West to the global East and South. As Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute, explained in the Foreword to the Charis exhibition catalogue,

The CCCU has more than two decades of experience in conducting faculty development projects that focus on the role of Christian vision and thought in contemporary academic and intellectual life. What makes this new seminar model unique, however, is that it is designed to move North American Christian intellectuals out of their self-referential confines and to build scholarly partnership and achievement across cultural boundaries…. The aim is to provoke a reorientation of Christian thought in the North Atlantic region toward the concerns of Christians in the global South and East, and to strengthen Christian scholarship in these regions, which are the new heartlands of the faith.17

So what set this program apart from the CCCU’s prior faculty development initiatives? Two things: the first was the remarkable decision by the lead donors to do a seminar on the arts as central to the work of God in the world. This was a priority that artists in Christian institutions are not accustomed to being given. Second, to extend the benefits of the seminar, the sponsors expected that participants would produce a response to their experience that would be shared with others. In this case, that meant creating works of art that would form a traveling exhibition with supporting media and publications.

One thing is certain—knowing they were expected to produce something as individuals and as a cadre of creatives (a term widely used in Australia and New Zealand) altered the artists’ perceptions of their role from being passive participants to being proactive agents. The requirement of making work that would become part of a group exhibition made all the difference. It generated an intentionality and investment that paid off in unexpected ways, not the least of which was the exceptional number of works the artists created. Instead of the one work each artist committed to send six months after the close of the seminar, every one produced at least two and several produced ambitious and varied works with multiple parts or in series so that the exhibit was far larger than originally intended.

Following a format developed by Bob and Alice Evans of Plowshares Institute, a Christian organization dedicated to fostering peacemaking efforts around the world and immersive education in global contexts,18 the participants were given a packet of readings to undertake before meeting face to face. The North American team members came together for a single intensive day of orientation at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, that involved presentations on the history and current state of Indonesia, discussions of readings and issues presented, team-building and cross-cultural sensitivity exercises, and fellowship before boarding a plane for the long journey to Indonesia to meet up with their Asian counterparts. Once there, seminar participants followed a rigorous schedule, first on Java and then on Bali, discussing their art, and viewing cultural sites and events that introduced them to the rich artistic and cultural heritage and the complex realities of contemporary Indonesia. They also learned about Indonesian peacemaking efforts and theology in the Asian churches. It soon became evident to everyone that Indonesia embodies the contemporary world, with every challenge and potentiality it affords. While it might seem absurd or at least foolhardy to expect that a cohesive body of work would emerge without thematic direction, those who work with creatives come to know that you have to trust the process of exposure and let it generate a natural response. Such exposure, combined with intragroup engagement, will generate a vibrant dialogue in art that has coherence, energy, and fresh insight. Remarkable as it might seem, a theme did emerge and it did so naturally.

Charis: Boundary Crossings—Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends—A Theme Emerges

The result of the trans-cultural enterprise in Indonesia is the exhibition Charis—Boundary Crossings: Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends. As stated before, the title of this exhibition, Charis, comes from the ancient Greek word for favor, grace or, more accurately as it is used here, for goodwill, a word which has the same root as the English word “charisma.” It derives its particular meaning from its source, that is, the spirit of the divine—to God—which when manifest in his disciples draws us to him. In the ancient world, just as is the case in many cultures around the world today, extending hospitality to travelers was an essential value. Those persons who, by choice or necessity, left the protection of the walls of their city to venture beyond the borders of their country into unknown territory could expect to be welcomed as guests by many of the peoples they encountered along their journey in spite of their being strangers to them. The ancient Greeks had this word, charis, to convey the attitude one should have toward others regardless of whether they were strangers or friends and a practice that made it concrete. This core value is one that was adopted and adapted by the early church as Christians traveled from one city or region to another. They could expect to be welcomed not merely as guests but now as family, as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.

Significantly, charis was a term employed by several of the Asian artists to describe the position they try to live out as members of communities where people of widely divergent beliefs and values needed to coexist side-by-side. It was selected as the title for the exhibition, at least in part, because it recalls the participants’ shared heritage as Christians regardless of where they reside in the world. It is a word belonging no more or less to any one member or group, exemplifying our unity in the body of Christ. But equally important was the way the concept of goodwill undergirded all of what at first might appear to be a body of works disparate in subject and wildly varied in style and medium. It soon became clear that to a person these artists were investigating the tremendous challenge of trying to determine just what attitudes or actions might constitute goodwill toward one’s neighbor in the shrinking and increasingly interdependent world in which we now live where we are so often confronted with conflicting values or competing “goods.”

The resulting exhibit includes the work of seven Asian and seven North American-based artists. It explores the implications of Christian faith and effective artistic practice in a highly visually oriented world, where the convergence of cultures is increasingly the norm rather than the exception. Charis represents the artists’ dialogue about the challenges of cross-cultural communication and understanding, the need for people of faith to address real-world issues of social justice, peace, and reconciliation, and the effects of globalization wherever one lives. It also grapples with the role of the artist in a complex context where one’s grasp of issues is often tenuous or slippery.

Emphasizing interaction and experience, the Charis exhibition was composed of roughly 40 works in a wide range of media including paintings, sculptures, assemblage, fiber constructions, installation, and video projections. Yet underneath the variety of media and styles lay common visual elements that linked the works together: vibrant color, rich pattern and texture, and natural materials. And through their collaboration on several of these pieces, the artists were practicing the very spirit of grace and cross-cultural understanding reflected by the theme. This rich and varied body of work presented the challenge of living with a spirit of grace—God’s grace—and all that entails in both our attitudes and actions. Because of the foundational nature of the theme and the manner in which it was explored through the works, Christian colleges and theological seminaries from a variety of traditions and perspectives elected to bring Charis to their campuses to engage their communities with these significant concerns. From September of 2009 through December of 2012 it traveled to Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Michigan), Taylor University (Upland, Indiana), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, Georgia), Philadelphia Biblical University (Langhorne, Pennsylvania), Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C. ), Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois), Dordt College (Sioux Center, Iowa), Belmont University (Nashville, Tennessee), Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, California). But the extensive reach and impact of the exhibit came from the efforts that both the Charis team and each host institution made to think strategically about how they might use the exhibit. They found ways to reach audiences that might not otherwise be interested in the visual arts and to achieve a wide range of educational and institutional objectives.

Putting the Exhibit to Work

The exhibit demonstrated its capacity to generate widespread interest and engage diverse audiences in dialogue right away, first at the Lilly National Conference on the Humanities and the Arts, “Practicing Cosmopolitanism,” discussed above, and again a few months later at the CCCU’s International Forum on Christian Higher Education, titled “Critical Breakthroughs,” held in Atlanta in February 2010. Both meetings provided national platforms for the exhibit, strategies for encountering the art and artists, and influential viewers.

The Lilly conference fully integrated the exhibition into its program. Organizers saw it as a fresh and distinctive means of achieving some of their goals, not only for addressing the conference theme, but also for introducing participants to new approaches to trans-cultural engagement and pedagogy. Key to this integration was the inclusion of a repeating conference panel discussion with a group of the Charis artists, from both North America and Asia, which ensured that all conference participants engaged the exhibit. Each conferee received a copy of the exhibition catalogue. But most significantly, the panel discussions were held in the gallery itself surrounded by the art. This feature moved the sessions beyond the distanced discourse that occurs in a typical conference. Conferees engaged the artists, the art, and the issues they raised directly. The conference also featured a life-size, experiential construction by Charis artist Roger Feldman of Seattle Pacific University just then built on the conference center grounds that conferees were encouraged to explore. The opening conference banquet’s menu, speakers, and décor were inspired by Balinese rice offerings made daily for divine provision. Selected works of the exhibit were installed at the entry into the banquet hall and behind the podium. The conference included more elements too: notably a special reception with Indonesian delicacies that was held at Calvin’s downtown gallery where part of the exhibition had been installed. And this all coincided with ArtPrize 2010, now an annual Grand Rapids event that attracts entries from across the United States and beyond, and draws tens of thousands of visitors to the city to see the art. In the closing conference session, the curator of the Charis exhibit was included in the final discussion with the plenary speakers. While the conference theme was broad in scope and implication, the arts were central to bringing it into focus.

Fully integrating the artists and exhibition into the conference program in these ways powerfully demonstrated that art engages people of diverse backgrounds and interests in key issues of our time. The impact that this experience had on the participants from Lilly Network schools at the conference was borne out by the interest shown in hosting the exhibit at their institutions. These hosts developed active programming like that they saw at the Lilly conference. Some institutions booked the exhibit in conjunction with events that were already scheduled to enrich them with the issues and questions arising from Charis. Others mounted events more directly generated by the exhibition.

Many venues included workshops and collaborative art projects for students, faculty, and community members in cooperation with Charis artists. These provided opportunities not only for hands-on experiences but the community building that comes through making something together. Many students at these institutions reported how the mentorship they received from working intensively for a few days’ time with one of the artists was one of the high points of their college careers, shaping their thinking not just about art but the issues posed by the Charis exhibit. Equally important, however, were the bonds that were forged in this process. Three life-size experiential constructions were produced by students and community members with artist Roger Feldman at Calvin College, Taylor University, and Wheaton College. A fourth installation, at Regent College in Vancouver, was a collaboration between Feldman and Jo-Ann VanReeuwyk. It was constructed during Regent’s well-known Summer Session program that draws people from all over the world to take classes.

At my own institution, Taylor University, the Charis exhibit gave shape to the general education senior capstone course program that semester, reaching well over 200 students through this class alone. A dozen art education students were trained as part of an art education class to lead small groups through the exhibit. They involved visitors in not only the artistic aspects of the works but the themes and issues the works addressed. This feature proved fruitful beyond all expectations. Many students discovered for the first time that art helped them to engage each other on challenging and sometimes controversial issues. Several docents discovered both a talent and passion for this kind of work. Classes ranging from political science to world religions to environmental studies held discussions in the gallery to engage students with their subjects in new ways, thus breaking out of the disciplinary silos we generally inhabit in academia. A large and varied roster of speakers came to campus in partnership with other programs, including the Integration of Faith and Culture Council and the Honors Guild. They addressed targeted groups as well as the campus at large through chapel and public lectures. The Music and Theatre programs planned a concert and a theatre production that dovetailed with the themes of the exhibit. The programming was extensive; it enjoyed cooperation among a host of agencies on campus, and it penetrated into pockets of the campus that seldom demonstrate an interest in art.

Charis provided another, unexpected set of opportunities at its venues: it became a fresh way to pursue advancement opportunities in outreach to community leaders, alumni, and donors. Philadelphia Biblical University (PBU) and Taylor University used the exhibit as a centerpiece for high-profile advancement events that moved beyond the typical model where guests are treated to a tour of the campus and a presentation about the institution’s mission in a banquet setting. Invitees to such events usually come with an interest in supporting the institution. Charis, by contrast, allowed these institutions to invite guests with varied interests such as the globalization of Christianity, social justice, as well as art and culture to the same event, including many with little prior connection with the university. This enlarged the conversation at these events and connected participants with people they might not otherwise meet. With the exhibit at the core of the event, colleges could then feature the work of alumni, faculty, or other experts in relevant fields, view the exhibit with student docents, and enjoy refreshments or dinner based on one of these themes. The institutions could invite people who might have no previous interest in their institution because the event was valuable in itself, not merely a forum for promoting the institution. Yet these colleges did get promoted because the events demonstrated their investment in these issues and their capacity to pursue them effectively. The event did not merely tell those present about university goals and objectives; it was actually achieving them through the event. These examples show the varied and creative ways that Charis provided a forum for timely and relevant issues. An art exhibit can be a powerful outreach to lay and academic constituencies from the campus, the community, and the church.

Reaching Beyond the Gallery Space through Publications and Electronic Media

Beyond providing a forum and a center for a variety of events onsite, the Charis exhibit generated a number of publications and opportunities for media coverage that have extended the reach of the exhibition to broader audiences. The exhibition catalogue alone has been distributed to over 2,500 people at events such as a meeting for CCCU member institution administrators, at numerous conferences, seminars, and symposia, as a gift to donors to enhance relations, and to students taking courses. Catalogues were distributed while the exhibit was at Regent College’s 2012 Summer Session program, which enrolled roughly 800 people from not only Canada and the United States but also Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Featuring stunning photographs of the art, interpretive essays and a strategic design that uses quotes, definitions, and tag words, the catalogue provokes thoughtful engagement with the works and the issues they raise. It has proved to be a valuable resource, even apart from the exhibit.

Charis was featured in other publications as well. Image, edited by Gregory Wolfe of the Center for Religious Humanism in Seattle, and SEEN, the journal of the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) organization, developed special issues inspired by the exhibit. Image, which tends to focus on the West and western tradition, used the Charis project as a launching pad for a more broadly international issue, while SEEN produced an issue on East/West interactions. Both used a variety of formats including feature articles, interviews, publication of actual works of art, literature, poetry, and book reviews on topics relevant to the theme to provide exposure and resources for further investigation in an effort to stretch and deepen the awareness of their readership. SEEN even included a DVD with an award-winning film by Biola University film professor, Dean Yamada, titled Jitensha (which means “bicycle” in Japanese), based on the landmark Neo-realist film, The Bicycle Thief, by Italian filmmaker Vittorio de Sica.

Motion imagery and electronic media were also intimately related to this project as well. One of the Charis artists was Peruvian filmmaker Daniel Garcia, a professor at Calvin College at the time who produced two works: an introductory piece for the exhibit and a work in the exhibit itself, The Viewfinder Machine, which made the viewer kneel and featured kaleidoscopic images that simulated the disorienting experience of engaging a different culture. Charis artist David Hooker of Wheaton College used video in Very Rich Labors to compare the mundane tasks of everyday life and what they reveal about Indonesian and American cultures.

In addition to these video works within the exhibit, Taylor University’s film students produced a short film of the construction of one of Roger Feldman’s works. It featured students and faculty working with the artist and reactions on campus to the work in progress and the issues it posed. Also at Taylor, a WordPress site with computers in the gallery prompted visitors to write questions and comments. A special media feature during the CCCU’s International Forum on Christian Higher Education looped in Charis images on the big screen in the main meeting room to pique interest in a selection of works installed around the hall.

In many cases, the local media covered the exhibit through radio interviews and published articles. A writer from The Light Magazine, a monthly Christian newspaper serving the greater Vancouver area, was so taken with the way Charis artists were exploring complex issues of faith and culture that after a feature story on the exhibit, he published a second article focusing on the work of a single artist, including an interview. Virtually every host campus featured the exhibit in their own publications and websites to showcase their interest in global and cultural issues. The vibrant images in these media drew readers not only to the articles but to the campus to see the art. This was a win-win situation—the institution was serving its constituents in fresh ways while demonstrating its effectiveness in achieving its mission. Some institutions that lacked a formal gallery space, like Columbia Theological Seminary near Atlanta and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, installed the works in strategic locations like the foyer of the library and other high-traffic gathering spaces. Thinking creatively about where to install art so that it becomes a part of the space we inhabit instead of a space set apart, as in a gallery, can actually engage more diverse audiences. The art becomes a vehicle for other enterprises rather than an objective in itself. Columbia featured the exhibit in the inauguration of their new president, Stephen Hayner, signaling his commitment to the arts and their role in the church. Several institutions, like Columbia and Belmont University in Nashville, scheduled the exhibit in conjunction with special programs for visiting Asian students or academic forums dealing with Asian topics. For these groups the exhibit signaled a welcome and genuine interest in them. Theological schools with established programs in the arts, notably Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. with its Luce Center for the Arts and Religion, and Fuller Theological Seminary with its Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts, saw the exhibit signifying and underscoring their institutions’ goals.

Crossing Boundaries, Forging Bonds Through Art

The Gospel and Culture Seminars offer a distinctive model for trans-cultural engagement by bringing together North American Christian college faculty members with their counterparts in another part of the world to learn from one another. But the most important aspect of this immersive program is the way it fosters relationships that continue to grow and develop new dimensions. While the program’s primary intention is to enlarge North American members’ understanding of the issues and perspectives that engage Christians in another part of the world, Charis’ interaction flowed both ways. The North Americans embraced the themes and issues they encountered through the Asians, and they emulated the Asians’ aspects of style such as the use of color and more representational treatment of subject matter. It also became evident that several of the Asians were exploring the more abstracted approaches and conceptual themes that the North Americans favored. Attitudes changed. Some of the North Americans began to rethink the goals they had for their art while some of the Asians began to question whether their assumptions about Americans—even American Christians—were accurate. Each side had to grapple with the real people they had gotten to know. Charis reflects this developing nuance in understanding one another, our faith, and the world in which we live in all of its vitality, complexity, and pathos.

Members of each group now testify that on hearing news of an earthquake in Indonesia or a flood in the Philippines, or a hurricane or tornado in the United States, their first impulse now is to write to the person they now know there and then to pray. Their sense of connection with brothers and sisters in the family of God and with the vast human family is profound, and it alters their footing in the world. The language of art and faith superseded cultural differences to forge bonds that will continue long into the future and extend to their colleagues, students, family, and friends. On a more practical level, the exhibit has provided opportunities for exposure of the participants’ artwork, new sales and exhibition venues, fellowships for some of the Asians in the U.S., and invitations to speak and write about their experience and their work in a wide variety of contexts.

For the audience, the benefits are different and the same. The Charis exhibit has demonstrated that art can create a safe place where people can engage difficult and even controversial issues because the art serves as a mediator. Things that would seem impossible to broach while sitting across the table from someone with a contrary opinion or different experience can be discussed through the art, fostering the capacity to talk with one another that builds trust. As The Cape Town Commitment statement recognizes, the arts can “serve as a hospitable environment in which we can acknowledge and come to know the neighbor and the stranger.”

Perhaps an aspect of the very nature of art is most significant in affecting its audience. Art points beyond itself to something we recognize as important or warranting understanding. By using forms and strategies such as pattern and repetition through the selective arrangement of color, line, texture, shape, and material, it lends itself to memory. This is why it is easy to remember a poem, the melody of a song, or the design of a painting but not so easy to recall the particulars of a conversation or everyday event. Neuroscience has shown that the strategies employed in the things we call art lend themselves to memory and therefore, they stick with us. So it should not surprise us that works of art have the capacity to provoke not only reaction but real change.

Conclusion: Expanding the Definition and Reach of Scholarship Through the Arts

In 1990, Ernest L. Boyer introduced an academic model advocating four types of scholarship: of discovery, integration, application, and teaching (and learning).19 Traditional scholarship constitutes the scholarship of discovery, the pursuit of “new knowledge” in one’s field which drives the work of so-called research institutions. The scholarship of integration involves “making connections across the disciplines… doing research at the boundaries where fields converge… [and] fitting one’s own research—or the research of others—into larger intellectual patterns.” It is, as Boyer puts it, “serious disciplined work that seeks to interpret, draw together, and bring new insight to bear on original research…. It is through ‘connectedness’ that research ultimately is made authentic.”20 The scholarship of application involves the application of knowledge to “consequential problems”21 which includes efforts to alleviate social ills. And finally, the scholarship of teaching involves strategic and systematic reflection on teaching and learning that moves well beyond transmission of knowledge to transformative engagement that extends the knowledge beyond what was originally presented. It pursues teaching as a generative force in the minds and lives of individuals and in society. This case study of the Charis exhibit demonstrates how art can animate and carry each of these four types of scholarship in significant and highly affective ways. Charis was featured at the Indiana Forum for Research Administrators annual meeting in 2010. In a session titled “Countering the Humanist’s Lament: Funding in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences,” it was a model of how to pursue the objectives identified in Boyer’s four types of scholarship and how to make the case for the support needed to make such work happen.

After more than three years of traveling to 10 different venues across the U.S. and to Canada, Charis has shown that art is not merely the expression of an artist’s perceptions as is commonly thought in our own time. Art constitutes a form of inquiry and scholarship that can provide opportunities for dissemination and engagement that extend far beyond the avenues generally available to more typical scholarly projects. These typically reach a small and narrowly defined audience through publication by academic journals or by presentation at academic conferences. Art can reach much farther, yet too often its presenters simply put art up in a gallery, cross their fingers, and hope that people will come and get something from it. But as we have seen, thinking strategically about how particular exhibitions can connect with specific groups of people and developing programs to engage them can not only ensure the art will be seen but can make it that much more likely that it will have a lasting impact.

The Charis project took its impact one step further by choosing to develop Christian college art professors, people who are strategically positioned to influence generations of young people. This project has so far surpassed the planners’ original goals that a second seminar is being planned for South Africa in 2013. For this work, too, we hope that it will invite people “to enter into another time and place to take delight, to discover, to see in a new way and… to be changed” (my emphasis). Liberal arts education originates from the belief that one’s humanity is not a given, but needs to be developed. What better way to do that than through art, which can create a hospitable environment for engaging the most pressing issues of our time and their implications, through the lens of Christian faith? In this way we can be faithfully present, creating the conditions where the Holy Spirit can move in surprising ways.22

Cite this article
Rachel Hostetter Smith, “Art as Invitation: Considering New Paradigms for Scholarship and Global Engagement through the Charis Exhibit”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:4 , 375-391


  1. John Franklin, “About Us,” Imago, (accessed October 29, 2012).
  2. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), xv.
  3. From the commendations on the back cover of Appiah, Cosmopolitanism.
  4. See the March 2009 issue of SEEN, the journal of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), which focuses on the contested place of religion, and Christianity in particular, in the arena of western contemporary art.
  5. This was the great theme expressed by conference leader John R. Mott. The best study of Edinburgh 1910 is Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009).
  6. Interview with Allen Yeh titled “Is the ‘Mission’ of Christianity Evolving?” in Biola Magazine (Winter 2011).
  7. See Lausanne Movement, for the complete document of The Cape Town Commitment. (Originally accessed October 29, 2012.)
  8. Ibid., Part II A: 5.
  9. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  10. Christopher Benson, “Faithful Presence,” Christianity Today, posted online May 14, 2010, which includes an interview with Hunter, (accessed February 4, 2013).
  11. From the “Vision Statement” for The New City Commons Foundation, (accessed November 5, 2012); my emphasis.
  12. Benson, “Faithful Presence.”
  13. For example, Executive Director Scott Crosby established twocities gallery while living in Shanghai, China and still oversees it even as he has relocated to the U.S. to head up New City Commons Foundation. In many respects, twocities gallery represents a model of faithful presence as it can be lived out in a society where severe restrictions are placed on Christians and faith-based organizations. For more information on the gallery and its programs, see
  14. From The Cape Town Commitment, Part I: 5: We love the Holy Spirit within the unity of the Trinity, along with God the Father and God the Son. He is the missionary Spirit sent by the missionary Father and the missionary Son, breathing life and power into God’s missionary Church. We love and pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit because without the witness of the Spirit to Christ, our own witness is futile. Without the convicting work of the Spirit, our preaching is in vain. Without the gifts, guidance and power of the Spirit, our mission is mere human effort. And without the fruit of the Spirit, our unattractive lives cannot reflect the beauty of the gospel.”
  15. Franklin, “About Us,” Imago.
  16. In response to the careerism and ideological commitments that drive academic discourse, the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) was established in 2010 for scholars of Christianity and art regardless of personal faith commitment, with one prominent goal being intellectual hospitality. ASCHA provides forums for scholars interested in learning from one another and furthering understanding of the intersections of Christianity and art. The enthusiastic response to the symposia mounted since 2010 and the resulting publications now underway indicate that there is a desire for more hospitable discourse on potentially difficult and divisive topics. See for more information.
  17. From the Foreword by Joel A. Carpenter to the exhibition catalogue Charis, Boundary Crossings, ed. Rachel Hostetter Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College, 2009), 8.
  18. See Plowshares Institute,, for more information.
  19. Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).
  20. Ibid., 18-19.
  21. Ibid., 21.
  22. This essay draws on a number of publications by the author that address topics related to the Charis exhibition project.

Rachel Hostetter Smith

Taylor University
Rachel Hostetter Smith holds the Gilkison Chair of Art History at Taylor University.