Wednesday, June 28, 2006

[subversive underground] PROPHETIC ART


One aspect of the Incarnation which fascinates me is how God, in human flesh, manifested Himself as a common, simple person born into humble circumstances who traveled the countryside telling stories.

Jesus was a storyteller. He was a creative personality. His stories were allegorical snapshots of what life inside the Kingdom of God was like.

Only one of his stories, which he called “Parables”, was ever actually explained to his disciples. All the rest he left up to interpretation and discovery.

The Parables of Jesus provoked thought and invited those who were curious to explore for themselves what the Kingdom of God was really all about. By internalizing the search for Truth contained in his stories, Jesus entrusted the human mind with the task of working it out in due time.

Jesus was comfortable with loose ends. He didn’t feel any anxiety over how many understood the parable. He knew that those who were truly hungry for real spiritual sustenance would discover what they were craving after in their own time.

There was an organic quality to the ministry and teaching of Jesus that appeals to me in ways that are deeper than I can even comprehend at a conscious level. He had ideas that were subversive to the status quo of the culture and he transmitted the code of this social rebellion through simple stories about farmers, widows, travelers, sons, fathers, and fields.

Jesus was comfortable with unanswered questions. In fact, I think that many of us who call ourselves his followers could learn something from adopting his style of asking questions and telling stories without getting hung up on the answers.

Too often we in the Church are too quick to provide answers to questions we’ve never been asked. That is a serious problem, in my mind. It paints us as people who are more concerned about results than we are about other human beings. We provide answers without taking the time to really listen to the questions being asked. Often we are answering the wrong questions.

For example, no one cares about your answer to spiritual poverty if you have yet to address the very real physical poverty all around you. When you show an indifference to the very real poverty that is easily detectable with the naked eye, it doesn’t paint you as someone who is particularly skilled at relieving poverty. Your poverty-relieving skills come into serious doubt.

Those who have yet to embrace Christ are skeptical of the slogan- “Jesus Loves You” when those who claim to be transformed by this love look and act just like everyone else.

It matters, then, who we are and what we do. Our reputation has become soiled. This is what makes the pursuit of personal Holiness and ethical behavior essential to the Christian life. Not just for our own personal need for sanctification, to be transformed into the image of Christ, but for the purpose of demonstrating that Jesus does indeed change lives and make us a new creation.

It shouldn’t take faith to believe that Jesus has the power to set us free. It should not take faith to accept that Jesus is capable of making us into better fathers and mothers and employees and citizens.


Is a painting considered Christian if it includes a Cross? Or does the absence of religious iconography sap the spiritual impact from a work of art?

I believe that any art that is honest, real, raw, and true is capable of inspiring emotional and intellectual hunger for God. Much like the parables of Jesus invited further thought and inspired introspection, I believe that all of the creative disciplines have the potential for provoking and disturbing us. Yet, any artist or creative person who begins to pursue this sort of strategy will also inspire controversy as Jesus did.


When my oldest son turned nine years old recently I bought him a Bible to replace his “Kid Friendly” Story Bible. Soon afterwards we began to get up early together and read the Bible as a way to start our day. His choice was to start reading in the book of Genesis and it wasn’t long before I discovered that the Word of God is not a G-Rated book. It isn’t even a PG 13-rated book. It’s more like a an R-rated book, and in some places even an X-rated book.

The Bible is full of stories about murder, lust, rape, incest, mutilation, prostitution, and all the basest follies of humanity. More often than not, I found myself editing the Bible for my nine year old son’s ears.

So, let us suppose, for example, that you, as an artist, attempted to illustrate the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation. Would such a work be accepted by the Christian culture, or would it be reviled and condemned?

My guess is that most of the Christian community would be up in arms about a film or an illustrated version of the Bible that communicated visually the same details available on the written page.

Simply put, telling the Truth may not be popular. However that should never prevent us from telling the Truth.


The thin line between art that communicates a scandalous truth and art that is sheer shock-sensationalism is something that takes time to explore and courage to proclaim.

When does art begin to confront the culture in the same way that the parables of Jesus perplexed and challenged and offended the culture of His day? When does art stop pandering to our basest desires and begin to challenge us to shrug off our complacency? Shouldn’t real art have the power to disturb and unsettle us?

The truth is, we don’t know the answers because examples of this type of art are so rare in this day and age. But isn’t this the sort of thing that our society desperately craves? Art that communicates to the soul?

Recently I came across a great quote from Steve Turner about artists as prophets in Image: Journal of the Arts and Religion: “One role of the artist is to provoke and even disturb us so that we can see in new ways. As the ancient prophets did, art frequently condemns the values and concerns of its surrounding culture-often in a loud, harsh voice. In consequence, the artist is often outcast, rejected, or unpopular.”

Maybe the problem is that, most of those whom we call artists today are in reality only entertainers. But a true artist, as defined above, is one who challenges the lifestyle, thought-pattern and behavior of a society, regardless of what anyone thinks—even if it means being unpopular.

Why don’t more artists take the role of prophet? Perhaps because it’s just a lot more difficult. Perhaps because we’re making some wrong assumptions, one being that to be evangelistic, we must somehow spell out the Gospel in plain English in a song or a painting.

But the world doesn’t want things spelled out. It doesn’t want the punch line. They’ve already heard the punch line (in regards to what the Christian faith is all about) numerous times. What they want to know is, How does it relate to my life? How do I actually “do” this stuff? What value are the teachings of Jesus to my life today?

Art has the power to ask these questions and to provide clues regarding the answers. But, the more important elements of the equation are the question and the clues, not the punch line.

The problem with a lot of contemporary Christian art is that it’s easier for an artist to look through an art magazine and take cues from what the rest of the world is doing. Maybe slap a cross here or a few nails there and, presto, you’ve got something that other Christians might call “Christian art.” But, if your hope is to communicate something more potent and effective to the culture we live in, then it’s going to involve submission to the Holy Spirit when you sit down to create your art.

The finished product might not look, on the surface, like something that God could or would use, but as you continue to seek God’s face in your work, you’ll begin to find more and more success at hearing His voice and responding to His direction.

If our art is ever to stray into the territory of the Prophetic, we must learn to hear the voice of God, like the Prophet. We must learn to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, like the Prophet. We must develop a heart for people and long for them to see the Truth of the Kingdom of God, like the Prophet. We must not be artists who are concerned with popularity, or legitimacy.


Art has the power to change people, but not overnight, and not of it’s own volition. Much like the deceptively simple stories from the mouth of an itinerant carpenter challenged the culture of his day, and won as many detractors as followers, our art has the same potential to disturb us and help us to see things in new and different ways.

My hope is to find more artists who are willing to step into the role of prophet to this culture we live in. My prayer is that God would raise up workers to step into this field of harvest armed with digital cameras, paint brushes, laptops and clay. My prayer is for creative human beings, touched by the heart of God, who would be willing to develop a habit of waiting on God and surrendering to Him their various talents and skills.


1 comment:

Aidan Ashby said...

Mate, this is rich stuff. I've had very similar thoughts for a while about the need for Christian art as something at first ambiguous due to it's depth of meaning, art as a dialogue, art as something that unsettles us to draw us out of ourselves, art that forces us to ask questions rather than seeks to spoon feed all the answers. Truly creative rather than dogmatic. "Jesus was comfortable with loose ends." I agree wholeheartedly.

I wrote a blog post about this late last year which you may be interested in reading- Our Art Isn't Confusing Enough.

I do, however, take issue with your statement that "It shouldn’t take faith to believe that Jesus has the power to set us free." What, then, is salvation by faith alone? If faith is defined as "a blind leap of logic" then I agree with you- non-believers should be able to see the evidence of God's change in our lives in our dealings with others rather than be expected to trust something we're not demonstrating. If, however, faith is defined as "trust based on what (or who) we know" then our example should create faith in people that Jesus has the power to set them free too. I'm sure that one's merely a matter of definition really!