Art, Culture and Faith
A sister visited me and she had this beautiful artwork on her hands- the finger nails were coloured orange while the palms and fingers had some fine drawings in black. It was so beautiful it reminded me of the body painting I’d seen on Northerners when I did my national youth service in their region. I was enthralled and took the pictures in this post. I examined the intricate designs, amazed at all the geometric shapes that were drawn and shaded.
She welcomed my interest and happily modelled for the pictures. She found my reaction endearing and disclosed that she had been getting quite the opposite reaction from friends and colleagues. Traditional body art, they told her, is not an aspect of culture you should embrace because it has spiritual attachments. Being a born-again Christian, they felt that by submitting her body to be decorated in this manner, probably by Muslims, she may have been infiltrated by evil spirits. Some had gone as far as saying she should not come to church until she had got rid of the dyes used to adorn her hands.
The sister was not perturbed. She explained that she teaches in a girls’ school in the North and during a send-off for graduating students, some of the girls offered to beautify their teachers in the way they know how- using henna (laali in Hausa) art. She agreed to let them work on her hands only, from which the dye will fade faster through constant washing. She did not believe she would be defiled by the treat. To her, it was harmless girl stuff, a way of participating in a cultural activity she had not been exposed to as a modern Igbo woman and she reiterated that it wasn’t permanent art. (You hardly see Igbo women using traditional dye to colour and design their bodies now but it was part of their beauty rituals in the olden days.)
I don’t know if I’m being naive, but I was inclined to agree with her. She is a Spirit-filled lady, and the way I see it, if there was something fetish in the dyes or their application process, she would have been spooked and firmly declined the offer. There remains the issue of the symbolism of the shapes and overall designs. And I think the same principle applies. Whatever those things may represent to anyone else, they are what she sees them as and what she calls them- beautiful drawings lovingly done by her students on a happy occasion, just as Hausas and Fulanis do for brides.
The scripture that comes to my mind on this is Romans 14. The Apostle Paul was addressing similar matters: eating of meat versus eating of vegetables only, considering a day in the week sacred versus considering all days the same. I might add: wearing jewellery or not, braiding one’s hair or not. The list goes on. After looking at the divergent beliefs and the condescension with which each group was treating those who believed differently, Paul admonished that each person should be fully convinced in his mind of the stance he or she wants to take on such disputable matters because anything not done from faith is sin (vs. 5 & 23). He added that we should not judge one another on the bases of such matters.
“13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. … 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”
He, however, asked that we not flaunt what we allow to the point that it jeopardises the faith of other brethren. In other words, if there is something we feel free doing and we notice that people who look up to us are emulating us in that regard and getting into trouble in the process, the right thing would be to refrain from doing it. Take the drinking of alcohol, for example. We may abstain not because we believe it is a sin to imbibe at all, but because we have seen people get addicted and their lives destroyed. We don’t want it to be on record that any such person was emboldened to start drinking alcohol by watching us.
“20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”
This is my take on this issue. Kindly share in the comments how you see it and be richly blessed of the Lord in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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