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Art, Opportunity, and Influence

A report from Manchester University and the London School of Economics claims that novelists and poets may have a greater impact on international development than academic research. The authors, David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock, contend that, “We find that not only are certain works of fiction ‘better’ than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential.” (You can read their news release at http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=4138.) This report simply confirms that the impact of literature—and, I would add, all widely-distributed forms of art—cannot be overestimated.

I've been think about this influence lately as I participate in the month-long C. S. Lewis Festival in Northern Michigan. Lewis was undeniably one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the 20th century. As this festival demonstrates on a very small scale, his literary works still touch innumerable lives even 45 years after his death. A steadfast defender of the Christian faith, Lewis challenged the evils of his day as well as the evils that are pervasive throughout history. We do not often connect his name with social justice, but such concerns stem naturally from his assertion that “you have never talked to a mere mortal.” (from The Weight of Glory) It occurs to me that, though Lewis did not live an easy life, he did have opportunities to develop his craft and gain an audience, and that without those blessings we would never have read any of his brilliant books.

As people who care about social justice, we need to figure out how to create more opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in the arts. When they do have those opportunities, the wider public is better able to understand and respond appropriately to their needs.

Emmanuel Jal comes to mind. Rescued by a British aid worker after five years as a child soldier in southern Sudan, Jal developed his talent for hip-hop and now uses music, lectures, a film, and a book to share his ordeal and make an appeal for change. The lyrics of the title track of his album Warchild begin, “I believe I've survived for a reason: to tell my story, to touch lives.” Jal seems to see his ability to communicate with the world as central to the purpose for his life. Though he has suffered to an extent few of us can imagine, God is able to use his experiences to teach us. Imagine what would happen if more child soldiers, slaves, and rural and urban poor people were able to reach the mass media with their stories told from their own perspectives. Perhaps their influence would lead to a reduction of child soldiers, slavery, and poverty.

Well-meaning people often rightly encourage those in vulnerable communities to go into math and science because they lead to steady and lucrative jobs. That is good in itself, but it is also important that those with an aptitude for the arts be encouraged and helped toward artistic success. Who knows where the next C. S. Lewis will come from—and what she or he will contribute to our understanding of God, the universe, and each other? If you help someone gain an opportunity to write or paint or make music, maybe someday your grandchildren will attend festivals celebrating them.