Culture and Faith, a Matter of Survival
Speech Given By Charles Kelley at the 2014 Latvian National Prayer Breakfast
RIGA, Latvia (Nov. 7, 2014) – A few days ago I was speaking to an American who was visiting Latvia for the first time. As I was showing him and his family around Old Town I told them about Latvia’s history of being occupied by foreign powers beginning in the 9th century for all but 45 years. He then asked, “How has Latvia survived?” I was surprised at the depth of his question. After a few seconds of thought I answered, “culture … and faith”. This is my topic this morning.
One reason that the Latvian identity has survived through the centuries is the creative soul of the Latvian people. Latvians are rightfully proud of their creativity, artistic expressions and achievements. But where does this come from? Does God have anything to do with art, creativity and culture?
The theme of this Prayer Breakfast is “…God created…” These are the first words of the Bible and they are full of meaning. They are as relevant to us today as they were in ancient times. These words summarize what God did and they give a glimpse of who God is. The act of creating the heavens and the earth reveals God’s wisdom and power. All of creation demonstrates God’s immense creativity. He is able to think about and visualize something that doesn’t exist and then to give it shape, even life. Because God creates, he is the author of creativity. Could it be that we are able to create because of who God is?
Latvia is a beautiful country. There are places where the beauty surpasses one’s imagination. A few years ago, in January, I visited Jurmala at sunset after the waves had frozen. I was speechless. There were no words that could describe how I felt in the presence of those colors, reflections, texture and brilliance. What is the creativity underneath it?
Latvia is especially beautiful in the autumn. When was the last time you were in Sigulda on a bright autumn morning? There’s nothing like it. The combination of the cool, fresh air, together with the symphony of yellows, oranges and maroon is powerful. When we experience it we simply must stop, breathe deeply and take in the moment. What is the imagination underneath this? Could it be that we are able to imagine because imagination is something that God is?
Let’s go a little deeper. Our imaginations give us capacity to create. This leads to art. Imagination contains our deepest feelings, dreams and hope. There is a strong connection between imagination and the human spirit. Life is interesting because of imagination.
Also in the first chapter of the Bible is verse 26. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” In English the words ‘image’ and ‘imagination’ have the same root. We have imagination because we have been created in the image of God. This means that we have each been born with God’s DNA, with the capacity to dream, sense beauty, hope for a different future, create and enjoy every kind of music, art, poetry, drama and dance. God’s image in us…all of us…is foundational for everything we are and everything we do.
But let’s go deeper. Two weeks ago I visited the Gallery Alma on Rupniecibas street, near the Stockholm School. I wanted to see Kaspars Zarins’ latest exhibition of the illustrations he had painted for the book, Pilgrim’s Progress. I had already seen photos of the exhibition, but nothing could compare with how I felt when I stepped in the room and began to interact with each of the 20 caricatures. My first reaction was to gasp…to make a sound without words. And then slowly, I started to focus. My breathing slowed. I ignored everything else. I looked. I thought. I felt. In other words, my spirit reacted to the beauty and the meaning before my mind could produce words.
And this is why art is so important. The best art expresses ideas and feelings and values and sounds and movements that are too deep for words. Artists communicate and observers react and participate. Our spirits are touched. This is possible because of the image of God.
I have always been a lover of all kinds of art…music, drama, film, literature and painting. I studied piano for 12 years and I still play sometimes. But my secret lifelong dream was to paint. It was ten years ago, when I was almost 50, that I met Aleksejs Naumovs, rector of this Art Academy. As we were having a dinner I asked him a question to which he gave a surprising answer. “Do you think it is possible for someone who never studied art to learn how to paint at age of 50?”
He replied, “Why not? If you have the right master.”
He then offered to teach me how to paint. I was so surprised. A few weeks later I made my first painting in his studio. It was pretty good. Of course, had I tried to make it without the right master, it would have just been a mess. Two weeks later, I made my second painting and then a third, and then I was hooked. I then set a goal to try to make one painting every week. Now ten years later, that would be 500 paintings and I haven’t reached that goal, but I have made 400 paintings…and some are good.
Aleksejs also introduced me to another master, his colleague Kaspars Zarins, also a professor here. And he became my main teacher and now we are good friends. I will always be grateful to these two artists who added more value to my life than anyone would ever imagine.
Why do I say that? You see, life is not easy. It is filled with stress, difficulties and tragedies. One way that God has made it possible for us to make it through tough times is through creative expression.
Creativity contributes to the healing process. This is true for all who experience art. The drama, the story, the music, the image can each be like ointment for the human spirit. The healing influence can also come from the process of writing poetry, composing music and shaping a sculpture. Each allows for the emotional expression that lifts some of the burden of pain that may be on the heart. Healing is commonly connected with hope. There is something inherently hopeful about the creative process. And this is because all creativity flows from image of God.
But what about culture? This is a huge subject. An anthropologist may say that culture is the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns. But for our purposes, culture is the creative expressions and achievements of individuals who work together in society. Cultural creativity begins with individual creativity. Just as the source of individual creativity is the image of God, so it is the source of all things cultural.
And through the centuries as Latvia has endured invasion after invasion and tragedy after tragedy, the stories, the songs, the architecture, the poems, the dance, the handcrafts, the language have always been expressions of imagination, creativity, meaning and hope. And all of this is possible because we are made in the image of God.
To close I want to tell a personal story. I grew up in a Latvian American home in Los Angeles. Because my dad was American we spoke only English. From my earliest childhood my mother and her parents told me about the beauty of Latvia and the amazing cultural expressions like the Songs Festivals.
There is nothing in the world like the Latvian Songs Festivals. In 1998, I brought an American high school choir to Latvia to participate in the Song Festival. It was a marvelous week. I so enjoyed watching the young people soak in everything that was beautiful. Our choir sang in many venues in Riga and we were received so well.
It all came to a climax during the Saturday night concert in Mezaparks. It wasn’t the final night, so the choir only had 11,000 voices. But it was a night to remember. Our choir was invited to join that mass choir. None of us had ever experienced such musical power. Our spirits were deeply touched.
But the impact that concert had on us transcended music. The final piece sung was one of the finest expressions of choral music in history, Hallelujah by Handel. The 300-piece orchestra began playing and then in one accord as 11,000 sang with full voices.
“Hallelujah, hallelujah, hal-le-lu-jah”.
The same line was then repeated with even greater intensity. “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hal-le-lu-jah. For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”
We sang it again. “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”
The music softened. “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ,”
We sang it louder. “And He shall reign forever and ever, Forever and ever, forever and ever,”
We sang it deeper. “King of kings, and Lord of lords, King of kings, and Lord of lords, And Lord of lords,”
We sang it with all our hearts. “And He shall reign, And He shall reign forever and ever,”
Louder. “King of kings, forever and ever, and Lord of lords, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
We sang it again. “And He shall reign forever and ever, King of kings! and Lord of lords!”
We sang it with everything we are. “And He shall reign forever and ever, King of kings! and Lord of lords!
And then five times Hallelujah. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
Boom. It was a glimpse of heaven. I had just experienced the greatest expressions of Latvian art and music. But not only that, this expression was deeper and wider because it was directed to the Source of all imagination and creativity. The cultural experience was great, but the spiritual reality of directing it to the God who creates was absolutely life changing.
And this is why Latvia has survived.