The 2009 European Arts Summit
By David Mills
Mittersill, Austria, is a picturesque village nestled at a strategic and historic trading crossroads in the Austrian Alps. Here, in the shadow of some of the Alps’ most beautiful and highest snow-capped peaks, lies the nearly cloud-level castle of Schloss Mittersill, whose current buildings date to the 16th century but whose story goes back as far the 12th. At various times in history it has seen witch trials, persecution of Protestants by Catholics, Himmler’s SS, and visits from celebrities like the Shah of Iran, Clark Gable, Henry Ford, and Gina Lollobrigida. In 1967, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students purchased the castle to use as a center for Christian students. The Schloss Mittersill organization now sponsors research, conferences, symposia, sabbaticals, and retreats in the hope of stimulating a new Christian renaissance in Europe.
This historic and aesthetic setting was ideal for the 2009 European Arts Summit, an inaugural collaboration between five Christian networks working in the arts: Schloss Mittersill, Stoneworks, Creative Arts Europe, Crescendo, and Arts+. Although significant gatherings of artistic leaders have taken place in the last ten to fifteen years, this was the first collaborative effort hosted by independent pan-European networks for the purpose of strategically, prayerfully, and corporately looking ahead at the potential role of the arts in cultural reformation.
The four-day summit in May brought together over fifty artists, musicians, teachers, pastors, and arts leaders from fourteen nations and ten different language groups. The eclectic group of delegates included Brian Haab, a sculptor and president of Soul Works Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, an initiative to foster the arts for the benefit of society and to the glory of God; Murray Watts, an English screenwriter who directs the work of Freswick Castle in northern Scotland, a creative haven that seeks to empower an international community of artists to engage with culture; Daniel Pastircák, a Slovenian theologian, pastor, and playwright with much experience in incorporating the arts into church liturgy; and Jeff Fountain, editor of HOPE Magazine, author of Living as People of Hope, and director of YWAM Europe since 1990.
Dr. Andrzej Turkanik, president of Schloss Mittersill, welcomed the delegates with a message on the current
European zeitgeist and how the arts can play a significant role in igniting a Christian renaissance. Europe is experiencing the effects of post-modern cultural disintegration as it abandons its moral moorings. Christianity has been written off as a harmless social necessity with no relevant voice in contemporary society. Europeans today as never before look to the arts, rather than to government or the church, in order to find transcendent bearings. English poet and author Steve Turner pointed out in his 2001 book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, “Debates are taking place in cinema, painting, dance, fiction, poetry, and theater on issues where Christians have something to give . . . I think we should be in those debates as part of our mandate to look after and care for the world.”
In the morning sessions of the summit, StoneWorks international director Colin Harbinson spoke on the tumultuous relationship between the church and the arts, the calling and needs of artists, and the call to cultural awareness and transformation. Colin emphasized, “Artists need to be encouraged to exchange mediocrity for excellence, irrelevance for contextualized creativity, compromise for faithfulness, lack of accountability for mentor relationships, and isolation for partnerships.”
Delegates then broke into four focus groups—church, academy, marketplace, and missions—to envision the role of the arts over the next ten to thirty years, to identify the stones preventing forward progress, and to brainstorm practical strategies, partnerships, and resources for removing those stones. The church focus group, for example, formulated this vision statement: “We dream of a future in which the church humbly acknowledges her humanity, celebrates God and His creation, lives out authentic relationships, embraces a diversity of creative artistic expression, affirms artists in their calling, and acts as a catalyst for cultural change inspired by a holistic Christian worldview.” In order to accomplish this, the group laid out three practical steps:
1. “We, as the church, must educate and disseminate an ethos for the arts, the artist, and culture in the church, through the integration of art into our church life and service.”
2. “We, as the church, must rediscover and cultivate cultural awareness, openness, and an appreciation of art in the broader culture, working towards a mutual reconciliation between artists and the church community.”
3. “We, as the church, must develop nurturing, caring communities, which welcome the artist and support them in their often arduous and lonely assignment in the broader culture.”
The diversity of nations and cultures represented at the summit created a rich atmosphere for exchange and dialogue, and also a unique challenge. Sharing a biblical worldview and a belief in the significance of the arts for a Christian renaissance, delegates could learn from each other’s successes and failures at overcoming similar obstacles.
New friendships provided the soil for future collaborations. The passion of all the summit delegates was to turn their dialogue and prayers into action and real progress towards cultural reformation through the arts. But at the same time, delegates recognized that specific strategies will differ according to particular national and cultural contexts. One concrete result of the conference will be the publication of a paper for wider distribution and education. The purpose of the document is not only to inform but also to foster ongoing conversation around the topic of “stones” and reformation throughout Europe.
As Colin Harbinson observed, “There can be no doubt that we are at a significant and historic crossroads in what God is doing in, and through, the artist and the arts in Europe. This is not a time for business as usual. Rather, it is an opportunity to take more courageous steps, to dream bigger dreams and to embrace creative partnerships that will empower those visions.”
David Mills works with Creative Arts Europe and currently lives in Belgium.