Church of Almighty God and the Visual Arts
VISUAL ARTS TIMELINE
1991: The Church of Almighty God started its activities in China.
1996: The first massive arrests of members of the Church of Almighty God started in China.
2014: Because of increased persecution, some members of the Church of Almighty God escaped from Mainland China, and later established Church branches in South Korea, USA, Spain and other countries. An artistic activity started in these branches, with the production of paintings and movies.
2014-2017: More than 2,000 paintings, mostly used in movies and videos, and none of them signed by their authors, were produced by members of the Church of Almighty God in South Korea.
2014: The Mission of Love became the first movie produced and released by the Church of Almighty God.
2015 (November): The musical drama movie Xiaozhen’s Story was completed and released.
2016 (February): The musical drama movie New Heaven and New Earth was completed and released.
2017: The musical drama movie Every Nation Worship the Practical God, the gospel movie The Mystery of Godliness – The Sequel and the docudrama Chronicles of Religious Persecution in China were released.
VISUAL ARTS TEACHINGS/BELIEFS
The Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, traces its origins back to 1991 in China, and teaches that Jesus Christ has returned to Earth in our time as “Almighty God.” Although the movement never mentions her name nor any bibliographic details, and cautions that any information supplied by outside sources may be wrong, most scholars believe it identifies the incarnated Almighty God with a Chinese woman, Yang Xiangbin (b. 1973) (Dunn 2015a, 2015b). For a number of reasons, together with Falun Gong, the Church of Almighty God quickly came to be persecuted as a quintessential xie jiao (邪教) (Dunn 2015b:21–23), an expression often translated as “evil cult,” but which was used in China since the mid-Ming period, if not before, with the meaning of “heterodox teachings” or “criminal religious sect” (Palmer 2012).
One of the consequences of the persecution was that the Church was limited in its possibility of promoting and organizing artistic activities, and did not produce a systematic doctrine of aesthetics, nor specific teachings about the arts. However, the flourishing of the arts after 2014, among the communities of the Church that could freely practice their religion outside China, was premised on the holy scripture of the Church of Almighty God, The Word Appears in the Flesh, first published in 1997 and collecting the utterances of Almighty God, amounting to more than 1,000,000 words. It is considered by the Church as normative and including “what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17; 3:12) and the truths to be expressed by “the Spirit of truth” (John 16:12,13) in the last days, as prophesied in the Bible.
“Beauty” is, first, an inherent feature of the words of Almighty God, described as uniformly “beautiful and moving” (The Church of Almighty God 2017:3). The presence of Almighty God on Earth is not only momentous and decisive: it also creates unprecedented beauty (The Church of Almighty God 2017:34). One of the distinctive character of the new kingdom of God is “beauty” (The Church of Almighty God 2017:46; 88). The Word Appears in the Flesh also mentions the “piteous state” of those who, remaining outside the new kingdom, are deprived of this beauty, “watching the beautiful scenes within the kingdom but unable to enter” (The Church of Almighty God 2017:166).
Believers respond to this divine beauty by producing beauty on Earth. This beauty manifests first in the life itself of the believers. The testimony and the strenuous activities of the followers of Almighty God are in themselves “beautiful” (The Church of Almighty God 2017:9). A miracle follows: nature itself reacts to the efforts and prayers of the believers and becomes more beautiful. “When people give great praise before Me,” Almighty God revealed, “I am exalted among all things, and thus the flowers on earth grow more beautiful beneath the hot sun, the grass becomes more verdant, and the clouds in the sky seem more blue” (The Church of Almighty God 2017:121).
It is a beauty that will survive the eschatological denouement of human history and the disasters in the last days prophesied in the Bible: “This life, this beauty, from time immemorial and forevermore, will not change. This is life in the kingdom” (The Church of Almighty God 2017:92).
Beauty, however, is also produced by those who “give great praise” to Almighty God in an artistic form. The utterances mention the “most beautiful songs” (The Church of Almighty God 2017:34), but visual arts would soon follow in the experience of the believing community.
INFLUENCE ON THE VISUAL ARTS
Understandably, controversies and persecution in China have dominated the scholarly study of the Church of Almighty God, and the artistic production has been totally overlooked. However, after 2014, a significant number of Church members managed to flee from China and settle elsewhere, where they were able to practice their religion freely and openly. An important artistic production followed. Between 2014 and 2017 (October), members of the Church of Almighty God produced some 2,000 paintings and fifty movies as well as more than 600 videos. The latter include videos of God’s word, videos of hymns, and videos of personal experience. Most of the movies and videos were distributed in various language versions.
If we distinguish art produced by religious movements into internal, created mostly for the purposes of beautifying the places of worship and illustrate missionary material, and external, influenced by religious teachings but largely destined to art galleries and the market (Introvigne 2017), we should place the production of the Church of Almighty God in the category of internal art. However, some of the movies entered what I have called the “semi-external” field (Introvigne 2017). They were originally produced for missionary and educational purposes. However, their quality was appreciated, particularly in United States, by critics and audiences within the circuit of the Christian film festivals. Although the theology underlying these film festivals was very far from that of the Church of Almighty God, the festivals nonetheless honored some of the movies, including the musical Xiaozhen’s Story and the docudrama Chronicles of Religious Persecution in China, with several awards.
This did not happen with the paintings, because their main purpose, and the way they came to the attention of a larger audience, was to be featured in the movies and videos. Their authors normally prefer not to sign them. Some decorate the places of worship and buildings of the Church of Almighty God in Korea and elsewhere, and reproductions also appear in the private homes of the believers. [Image at right]
Exhibitions have not been organized so far, but they are a possibility for the future, considering that the technical quality of some of the paintings is above average. The style is conventional, and rooted in traditional Christian illustrations of the Bible, while the scenes from Chinese history and mythology are influenced by both Chinese classical paintings and the contemporary Oriental comics known as manga.
The quality is achieved, in most (but not all) cases, through a generous use of computer-assisted painting. David Hockney and other luminaries of contemporary art insist that the use of computers does not take the works outside the realm of art, provided that human creativity still prevails on the suggestions offered by the software (Miller 2014). Nor are the Church’s actors and painters all amateurs: some had a professional education in China before leaving the country, and most of them continued to be educated in the arts in South Korea and elsewhere, although none makes art his or her main profession. South Korea is the prevailing center of artistic production, and most of the movies were produced there, although Spain has also a sizable contingent of members of the Church skilled in singing and dancing. Paintings play an important role in the Church’s movies, one that goes beyond decorative. While some are just plain landscapes, others are discussed in the movies and serve a pedagogical purpose. There are two series of importance, one biblical and one about China. The biblical images often emphasize messages typical of the Church of Almighty God. A first example is a painting of Adam and Eve after the original sin.
Although the style is somewhat cartoonish, what is important here is that the center of the image is not occupied by the two progenitors, but by the clothes with which they will be able to cover themselves, overcoming the newly discovered shame of being naked. The clothes are the center because, according to the Book of Genesis (3:21), God made them with his own hands. Although humans sin, God loves them to the point of taking personal care of their clothing. What is really at the center of the painting, thus, is God’s love.
Another Old Testament example is a painting depicting the joy of Noah’s family after the Flood has ended. While most classic renderings of the same scene places at the center either Noah or the ark, here the attention of the audience is immediately captured by the rainbow, which symbolizes the promise of God that he will not destroy his people with the flood again. The Church teaches that even today rainbows appear to remind us of God’s love. Again, the real center of the painting is the love of God.
God, however, can become angry or sad, as well as happy, a feature the Church emphasizes with respect to the present incarnation of the Almighty God. This is reflected, in another painting, in the attitude of Jesus scolding the Pharisees, where the Lord’s expression is far away from any conventional sweetness. And the Pharisees’ attitude would certainly remind the members of the Church of Almighty God of those who today refuse their message and persecuted them.
Two beloved images, ubiquitous wherever the members of the Church gather, represent respectively Jesus knocking at the door and the crucifixion of Peter. The first composition (see image #3) exhibits Pre-Raphaelite reminiscences, and the well-known The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) comes to mind because of the rhythm of the image. The second places Peter in a landscape featuring pine trees and rocks, which symbolize respectively the determination and the solidity of Peter’s testimony.
Given the obvious roots of the Church’s paintings in traditional Christian imagery, the use of traditional Chinese mythology might come as a surprise. A misunderstanding, however, should be avoided. The Church’s paintings come alive in the movies, and some of the paintings about mythology, artistically valuable as they may be, are discussed to illustrate the fact that fantastic stories were invented by Satan to lead humans astray. A case in point is The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, a painting discussed as an example of how traditional stories poison the mind of the Chinese, creating all sort of superstitions and false judgements. The style is a citation of the Oriental comics (manga), and this is not coincidental as it alludes to the fact that old superstitious stories are still perpetuated by the popular culture today.
This negative judgement about the Chinese tradition is not extended to the celebrations of the beauty of nature. This beauty is the work of God, and the Church artists gladly refer to traditional Chinese art when producing landscapes (see image #1). The gathering in the woods of medicinal herbs is also portrayed with sympathy, as God created these herbs out of his love for humans, and this is yet another celebration of God’s love.
Some other paintings describe the grim reality of the persecution of Christians in China, from the imperial time to this day, including the Cultural Revolution. This theme also resonates in one genre of the Church of Almighty God’s movies, the docudrama. The Mystery of Godliness – The Sequel (2017). It tells the story of an old Chinese preacher, Lin Bo-en, who converts to the Church of Almighty God and is persecuted and discriminated by both the regime and the mainline Christian churches. The movie presents lively debates about the incarnation of God, connected with the title theme “the mystery of godliness,” which alludes to the resistance of the “conventional churches” to the message announcing the new incarnation of God.
The award-winning Chronicles of Religious Persecution in China (2017) is centered on the tragedy of a Church’s member who died while in custody, in fact because of torture, although his death was officially declared a suicide. It is certainly a movie with an agenda, but the acting is semi-professional, the rhythm is engaging, and the threatening portrait of the Chinese power corresponds to one of the Church’s paintings, The Red Guards Persecuted Christians.
The Church earned additional awards with its musical drama movies. Despite a heavy theological content, which might discourage non-religious audiences, they feature beautiful dances and songs, with both traditional Chinese and contemporary elements. Every Nation Worships the Practical God (an expression typical of the Church to indicate the present-day Almighty God) tries to portray the reaction of different groups of people confronted with the unexpected news that God has returned and is walking on Earth right now. The lyrics of the songs are taken from the very utterances of Almighty God. New Heaven and New Earth (2017) converts into a musical the apocalyptic theme of the confrontation between God and Satan in the last days. Just when Satan, the great red dragon, seems to prevail and the world is on the verge of annihilation, the lightning flashes forth from the East: Almighty God, the Christ of the last days, comes to Earth personally and expresses words, which are used as weapons by God’s people to defeat Satan. In God’s majestic judgment, Satan is revealed in its true form and eventually reduced to ashes by the Almighty’s wrath. Then, God will bring his people into the new Heaven and new Earth, where all will enjoy a beautiful life.
Arguably, Xiaozhen’s Story is the most beautiful musical movie produced by the Church (as confirmed by an impressive number of awards in different Christian film festivals), and this even if none of the actors had ny experience of musicals before. It was completed and released in November 2015. It is a morality tale, the story of a girl who feels betrayed by her friends and sink into a false life of materialism and sin, where all characters wear animal masks. Slowly, by accepting Almighty God, Xiaozhen becomes able to remove her mask, and get back in touch with her deeper self and with God. When resumed, the story may appear moralistic, but the quality performance of the girl playing the title role, the wise use of the electronic stage, and the peculiar beauty of the songs rescue an otherwise conventional plot and justify the awards.
How the Church of Almighty God will use its award-winning movies in the future remains to be seen. Surely, they are an educational tool for its members and serve at the same time a proselytizing purpose. The sympathy some of them have elicited in Christian film festivals, where audiences and juries may or may not have been aware of the underlying peculiar theology, offers now to the Church of Almighty God the opportunity of engaging in a dialogue with the larger community of Christian film buffs. Persecuted in China, and depicted by the Chinese propaganda internationally as an “evil cult,” the Church can use all understanding and sympathy it can get from the society, and its excellence in producing quality movies may become an important resource in this effort.
Image #1: Landscape after Rain [all paintings of the Church of Almighty God are unsigned and undated].
Image #2: River Landscape.
Image #3: The Lord Jesus Knocks at the Door, a favorite painting among members of the Church of Almighty God.
Image #4: God Uses Animal Hides to Make Clothes for Adam and Eve.
Image #5: Noah’s Family of Eight Are Jubilant at the Sign of Rainbow.
Image #6: Peter is Crucified Upside Down.
Image #7: The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea.
Image #8: The Red Guards Persecuted Christians.
Image #9: Poster for Xiaozhen’s Story.
Dunn, Emily. 2015a. “Church of Almighty God / Eastern Lightning.” World Religions and Spirituality Project, February 19, 2015. Accessed from https://wrldrels.org/2016/10/08/church-of-almighty-god/ on November 11, 2017.
Dunn, Emily. 2015b. Lightning from the East: Heterodoxy and Christianity in Contemporary China. Leiden: Brill.
Introvigne, Massimo. 2017. “Religious and Spiritual Movements and the Visual Arts: An Overview.” World Religions and Spirituality Project, October 17, 2015. Accessed from https://wrldrels.org/2017/10/19/religious-and-spiritual-movements-and-the-visual-arts/ on November 11, 2017.
Miller, Claire Cain. 2014. “The IPad as a Canvas.” The New York Times, January 13, 2014, p. B5.
Palmer, David Alexander. 2012. “Heretical Doctrines, Reactionary Secret Societies, Evil Cults: Labelling Heterodoxy in 20th-Century China.” Pp. 113–34 in Chinese Religiosities: The Vicissitudes of Modernity and State Formation, edited by Mayfair Yang. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
The Church of Almighty God. 2017. The Word Appears in the Flesh. Seoul: The Church of Almighty God.
3 December 2017
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