Number 64. Where are You? A Jerusalem Artist Speaks out About the Power of Art
Elhanan ben-Avraham


"Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, and deep darkness the peoples, but the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you." (Isaiah 60:1-2).

In the above passage from the prophet Isaiah, the Hebrew word rendered "deep darkness" is ”arafel” better translated as "fog". Perhaps the use of the word "fog" gives us a clearer picture, as it were, of what this prophecy intends to convey. Fog is an actual substance (far less abstract than "deep darkness") which has the capability of blanketing large areas and reducing vision to practically zero.

Today our planet is thickly webbed by a network of information transmissions, artistic and otherwise. Our invisible air is richly laced with equally invisible pulsations of television and radio waves, even bouncing off of orbiting satellites to be picked up and viewed instantly on various receivers. There has never been more information, misinformation, and opinion communicated in the history of man, nor has it ever been delivered nearly as quickly or efficiently.

Arguably, the vast majority of these transmissions originate in the Western world. It could be said that masses of humanity worldwide turn to face the Mecca of entertainment, Hollywood, at the time of their evening oblation, to feed on the morality, standards and philosophies broadcast from those powerful minarets. Those messages planted into humanity often sprout into behavioural reality even before the sun has a chance to rise again.

What kind of sounds and images are being so efficiently carried along our airways into homes, and recorded on the receivers of our minds? I think it safe to proclaim that the volumes of violence, murder, crime, adultery, obscenity, greed, deceit, and decadence diametrically oppose themselves to the standards set by God, and the requirements of his kingdom. These images are most often conceived in the darkened, misguided, and wounded hearts of gifted, artistic, creative individuals. I say "creative" and not "Creative", in that they merely pass on a baton which has been received, and often an infected one at that. This calls to mind the saying, "It is better to be non-creative than infectious".

In the New Covenant book of Ephesians (2:2), we find a description of the source of inspiration for much of the artistic creativity cited above: "according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience."

This Summer I took my family on a pack trip into the wilderness of the high Rocky Mountains. My intention was to expose especially my children, ages 10 and 14, to the beauty (the glory!) of God's creation untouched (unpolluted) by man's influence. I had become aware of the profound impact which the messages transmitted through the television and computer worlds had on these kids, and I wished to introduce the antidote of the healing; love of nature. My older brother, who was also professionally involved in the arts and media, came with us into the mountains. As I watched my youngsters adjusting somewhat uncomfortably to the lack of conveniences, and to the presence of mosquitoes, I realized that though my brother and I are quite different in personality, we have some essential things in common. We have a real love of and sensitivity to nature, especially woods and waterways, canoes and trout, buckskin and black powder. Upon reflecting, I realized that the love of these things came not through our father (who was usually too busy working to take us to the mountains) or our own sensitivity, but through the influence of the movies and books we took in during our youth. The men we learned of, and identified with through those films and books (with their illustrations) were Crockett and Boone, Lewis and Clark, Washington and Lincoln. These men (and the pioneering women with them!) were depicted by the artists and filmmakers as upright and brave, respectful of men and nature, and dedicated to the cause of good. The beauty of nature was reflected in those works, and role models for youth that were wholesome, things that set a tone in our own souls and characters, even to this day.

As we sat around the campfire that night, I considered the role models provided through the arts to my children’s generation. It seemed to me the images coming through the music and film industries were often grotesque distortions of the image of God, often of unclear of gender, either violently dedicated to special interests or ungodly causes, or incapable of commitment at all. The same seems to hold true for the depiction of family relationships.

And I began thinking of other societies, especially that of my neighbours, the Arabs. Who do Arab youth have to identify with today? The films I see advertised in Arab cinemas are often low budget karate flicks or American sex/ violence/action thrillers. (God forbid they should shape their lives by the examples of their Islamic suicide terrorist heroes).

Is there an antidote to the poison being injected into the living body of mankind through the arts and media? It is my sincere belief and hope that there is. Those men and women who have come into contact with the living Creator, and who have been cleansed and healed by the Messiah, and who are gifted with artistic abilities, can use them to manifest into men's consciousness the vision of God's kingdom that has been revealed to them. This can be accomplished in writing or filmmaking, painting, drawing, graphics and sculpture, photography, crafts, music, drama or dance. All the above can serve as signposts to lift eyes upward out of this present fog to the healing and restoring light of the Kingdom. The arts can be a tool to re-create distorted images, to help restore to health the depiction of grotesque human relationships now so prevalent, to aid in re-erecting Godly standards. In other words: to be an instrument of healing rather than a spreader of disease. It does not have to be only religious art or biblical themes. But all works should contain that fingerprint which we see in God's own creation, and the three essential elements contained in His Word that will remain when all else is said and done: "faith, hope, and love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). And of course quality, the seeking after a high standard of excellence.

Some may feel that my emphasis on the power of the arts is somewhat exaggerated, or unrealistic. But allow me to point out that the great architects of evil, from the Caesars to Hitler, knew the influential power of the arts. Consider the power of one simple graphic symbol, for example, made up of two broken lines, that not only helped to rally, consolidate, and give identity to a national movement, but best gathers for many the horrid memories of World War Two and its atrocities in the bat of an eye: the swastika.

Although the Bible sets clear injunctions against the use of art for the purpose of idolatry (Exodus 20:3-5), there are examples of God's leading gifted individuals to use art in his service. Bezalel and his assistants are a primary example, as they were led to produce the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle. The Temples in Jerusalem and all their elements (including the Laver, Menorah, and the Cherubim in the very Holy of Holies) were produced by the finest artisans and craftsmen. The clothing for the priesthood was made with great beauty. We see an example of God leading the prophet Ezekiel to perform a type of public theatre, including stage design, in chapter 4. And of course the poetry and music of King David has been an inspiration throughout the ages, including the singing and music of praise within the Temples. And I hardly need mention the inspired literature of the Bible itself.

I might add a word pertaining to that injunction against the making of images in the Ten Commandmants, that great care should be taken by artists in any decision to depict heavenly things so as not to mislead. The same is true for all our works, as inaccuracies and misspellings can be a stumbling block for many. Let's not produce Last Suppers with leavened bread, as Leonardo did, or uncircumcised Davids as the great Michaelangelo did! Let's all go the second mile in our research and execution.

My own calling as an artist goes back almost as far as I can remember. I remember what was probably my first drawing at about 5 years old. I believe the impulse that moved my hand with that pencil in it toward the paper originated with God. The next 25 years passed in the frustrating search for the right message to convey through the artistic tools I worked so hard to develop. After 3 years of professional art school I set out on a one-way trip that would last 8 years and take me through Europe and South America. At the end of that search I found the One who had inspired that first artistic impulse, and entered with joy the Kingdom of Salvation (Yeshua). Like Isaiah upon the revelation of the Holy One, I too felt myself and my former works to be unclean. I abandoned art as a way of life and left most of my artistic production behind me. About 2 years later, after being led to begin life again in the Land of Israel, the Lord handed me those tools anew and cleansed, along with one word: "Serve." And now the message was as clear as light.

The Lord's guiding was evident throughout. I executed each small job that came to me with fullness of purpose: to season each work with the beauty of the Kingdom of Good News. The cynicism, doubt, bitterness and hopelessness had been purged from my life and work. The small, illustrative and calligraphic jobs led to ever more responsible ones. I produced a series of greeting cards in ink and watercolor of illustrated Scripture, that the Word would go forth (in some 7 languages) from Jerusalem. During my service in the Israeli army I produced a mural of the coming out of Egypt, and another of Jacob's dream at the very place the event occurred, Beit El. For several years I produced ink drawings for an Israeli political magazine, and illustrations for books. Then the knowledge of my belief in Messiah reached the ears of my employers (with the help of some religious activists here). I was dismissed from most of my jobs. This also led to my being beaten, and false charges of assault brought against me. In court I was cleared of most of the charges, but handed a sentence of 60 hours of public service. The service came in the form of a 12 ft. square mural of "Noah After the Flood" painted in a Jerusalem library, whose director was named Prosper. This led to a commission to paint a 21 ft. high mural in the gym of Jerusalem's largest Jewish community centre. The director of that centre then hired me to paint a 45 x 11 ft. mural of the Garden of Eden entitled, "Where Are You?" That painting, along with that first question asked by God to man, hangs large before the eyes of all segments of society of the people of Israel, in the heart of Jerusalem. It also hangs large as a testimony of the faithfulness of the Lord.

We live in a world of mirrored reflections, of sheep that are led about by exemplary shepherds. One youth with a guitar hangs a ring in his ear and his image is multiplied through the airways onto countless screens, and his example is copied world-wide. Let me therefore encourage the redeemed of the Lord to use their gifts to shine that totally original light which emanates from the Source Himself. Of course, the ultimate manifestation of this truth is the Messiah in us, in the reality of our very lives. May both our lives and our art, therefore, be impregnated with a sweet-smelling savour, and the light which will go forth and will certainly overcome the darkness and penetrate the fog (John 1:4-5; Mat. 5:14-16).

(Reproduced from "First Fruits of Zion", Nov/Dec 1995, by permission, and reprinted from Tishrei Vol 4 No 1, Humanism, Winter 1995)