The Aesthetics of Mentoring
Jun 19, 2008 by Don Payne | 1 Comments
Last weekend as my wife, Sharon, and I enjoyed the gift of a lovely B & B in downtown Denver I read Dorothy Sayers' essay "Toward a Christian Esthetic" (from a collection of her essays entitled The Whimsical Christian). Sayers develops a theological approach to artistic expressions ("esthetics" or "aesthetics") that I highly recommend. While I cannot do justice to her thesis here, I would like to pick up on one part of it and draw a connection to mentoring.
Sayers contends that genuinely artistic expressions create, not from nothing, as only God can do, yet still they bring into being something (whether through images, sounds, or words) that did not previously exist. For example, a painting may not depict any actual scenerio though it is recognizable. A poem may not portray a specific experience that a reader has had, but still allows the reader to see his or her own experience through the poet's words. Something is brought into being that is connected to life and yet is also new. Sayers suggests that this is a more genuinely Christian approach to art because it stems from our bearing the image of God. We create because God creates. Sayers also makes the case that on this theological basis "art" done for the sake of moral formation is not really art, though it may be driven by noble intentions. I encourage you to read the whole essay. This nutshell summary does not come close to grasping the nuance of her case. It really is brilliant, in my view.
I find Sayers' perspective clarifying and challenging for several areas of life and ministry in addition to my understanding of art. Take mentoring, for example. Too often and too easily, mentoring is undertaken in the same way that Sayers says some ancient Greeks treated art, as technique. Technique-oriented mentoring, as with some attempts at art, focuses on precise duplication; the "this is how to do it" and "this is what it should look like" approach. While technique is essential for mastery of almost any endeavor, the richness of our humanity in God's image is reflected when precision of technique is eclipsed by what is created. It's doing what has been taught to us and modeled for us, but in a way (however subtle) that captures or reflects something more - something of what it means to be human.
As a mentor, have you ever thought or said about someone you mentored, "She credits my influence but I never could have done that or done it that way"? That is Sayers' theological aesthetics of art in action, whether it's with preaching a sermon, designing and managing a project, resolving a complicated dispute, or building a birdhouse. The work of art takes from what exists, like what a mentor knows or gives, and goes further with it than the mentor could go. Some would call this standing on the shoulders of mentors to reach higher than the mentors reached. True, but there is more. When we grow with and from mentors, we don't merely reach higher, know more, or do more (though we might). We create. We reflect our creative, triune God by bringing into life the fruit of our own abilities, our own experience of God's presence and redemption. From this fruit, others are nourished and the creating can continue.
So, even if mentors think they "don't have a creative bone in their body," they can be involved in creative, aesthetic work that they never realized. What difference does it make? As a mentor, give to mentees what you have and what you know, then turn them loose to see what they can do! Believe in them that simply because they, too, are made in God's image, they have perspectives, experiences, and abilities in a unique combination that will create distinct paths for God's glory and grace into the world. As a mentee, realize that being creative is not merely for those with more "right-brained" inclinations. Being creative is for ALL because it is a fruit of being made in God's image, whether we are counseling or finding a better way to build a bridge. Draw out from mentors what their creative process and challenges have been. They know more than they know they know (on that note, read Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge to further develop your epistemology of mentoring).