The Artist as Prophet
When the movie blockbuster, The Matrix, was first released over a decade ago, it created quite a stir, not only because of it’s cutting-edge special effects and graphic novel sophistication, but because it was a provocative blending of mythology, eastern mysticism, Christian themes, philosophy, science fiction, and a fist full of kung fu. Blending the hero’s journey with the messiah story, it can be viewed as both religious and atheistic, intellectual and exploitative, profoundly thought-provoking and shallow fun. And at the heart of the story lies the ultimate question: What is the truth about the nature of life?
It is one of the fundamental questions. And in a word where truth, like beauty, is considered to be a relative thing, it is ironic that the heart of man still searches for some semblance of what is genuinely, objectively, and ultimately True.
The Bible had a word for those whose job was to tell the truth about God and about life, past, present, and future. The word is “prophet.” And unfortunately, the word conjures up many unintended meanings. There’s a lonely and quite misunderstood bearded man in the desert, yelling at people to repent. Or maybe a fortuneteller bearing a jeweled turban who promises to tell you the future. Or the man wearing the sandwich board yelling at the corner, bringing the annoying message that the end is near. Any modern use of the term requires a sense of explanation or apology.
To say that something is prophetic is to imply that we can predict the future. And there is obviously Biblical precedent for this (e.g., the books of Isaiah or Revelation). But practically speaking, the prophetic gift has more to do with helping people see things as they really are. Prophets clarify, illuminate, and reveal. Like Morpheus offering Neo the red pill, the prophet offers to help people see the larger reality, the Kingdom perspective. In the Bible, the role of the prophet was to remind people of God’s sovereignty and His direction for us, a voice from outside the babel that calls us back, a champion of all that is Godly when we have lost our way. Prophets remind us of what is real and important. Prophets are Truth tellers.
Such is the role of the artist as well. If we are doing our job, if we are creating art that is noteworthy and unique, then our art implies a perspective of life that stands apart from the norm. Our art pulls back the curtain, offers a different point of view, provokes thought and feeling. This should be even more true for the Christian artist as well, for our work provides a perspective of life that not only stands apart from the norm, but is grounded in the eternal.
In the collection, Intruding Upon the Timeless, author Gregory Wolfe explains:
“Like the biblical prophet, the artist is often an outsider, one who stands apart and delivers a challenge to the community. The prophets of old employed many of the same tricks used by writers and artists: lofty rhetoric, apocalyptic imagery, biting satire, lyrical evocations of better times, and subversive irony. To be sure, the true prophet came not to proclaim his own message, but that of the Lord.”
“The artist and the prophet bring far things near; they somehow bring the urgencies of the eschatological realm into the mundane world of the here and now.”
The Christian artist must be a prophet, in that in some small way, our art should reveal the greater Truth. And that is easier said than done. So if I may, please indulge me a two contrasting examples.
Thomas Kinkade is arguably the most recognizable Christian painter today. His work—revealing pastoral scenes, beautiful landscapes, pastel cottages and a romanticized view of days gone by—has become extremely popular over the last few decades, particularly with evangelical Christians. Stylistically, he is a master of drawing light from the canvas, allowing us to see these scenes through softened, dreamy lenses. Dubbed, “The Painter of Light,” Kinkade is not only an accomplished artist, but is also a successful book author, businessman, and prolific philanthropist. Many people, Christians in particular, have purchased his prints, collectibles, themed home furnishings, and even crafts and puzzles. His popularity, I suspect, is much more than simple technique; his true talent may lie in his ability to answer the soul’s yearning for some semblance of otherworldly peace.
The question is this: Can the body of his work be considered redemptive? Does it reflect a Christian worldview? Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Kinkade explains of his work, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.” And it is true that he masterfully expresses an idyllic pastel world of serenity and peacefulness in his works. But consider a world without the fall. Is that consistent with the Christian meta-narrative—creation, fall, and redemption? Is it true to the Story? While Kinkaide may convey a noble sentiment, it is more than nostalgic wishing. It is theologically wrong.
The Gospel is that God is in the business of rescuing a world that is broken and lost and doomed without Him. The worldview that Kinkade so carefully cultivates in his body of work is a world without brokenness, transgression, conflict, sin. And in a world without the fall, the blood of Jesus is, in Gregory Wolfe’s words, “rendered superfluous.” Grace becomes unnecessary where there is no sin. Redemption is nonessential, for there is nothing from which to be redeemed.
In Kinkade’s works, we find ourselves sampling the harmless and counterfeit titillations we talked about earlier in the theme park. Artist Edward Knippers states, “The believer’s art should be rooted in the rich soil of believing that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond what we can imagine.” Art, if it aspires to Truth and beauty, should have at its core, redemption. For Grace is God’s loving response to the Fall.
So while Kinkade taps into a longing that is true, what he depicts in response to this longing is not. The otherworldly peace that is the soul’s true yearning is called shalom. Shalom is a Jewish word that implies “the reality and hope of wholeness for the individual, within societal relations, and for the whole world.” More than simply the lack of war, shalom refers to God’s pervasive will upon a place in truth, justice, benevolence, and reign. This is why Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. This is the true yearning of our hearts, to find redemption in a broken world that desperately needs Jesus, the Prince of Shalom.
A second example of a Christian artist is C. S. Lewis, apologist (arguably the greatest of his time), scholar, historian, radio personality, and author. He is probably best known for a series of children’s books entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. As these books were of the fantasy genre, they are, by definition, not true in the sense that it is based on historical reality. But the question still remains: Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Much has been written about The Chronicles of Narnia, so a deep analysis is unnecessary. We understand it is not allegorical in nature, though the central character, Aslan, is definitely a nod to Christ. But there is nothing that necessarily points to the Gospel. There are no four spiritual laws, no mention of the church, no overt symbols of the Christian faith (and in fact, many pagan symbols instead). There are, however, recurring themes: Good and evil, the nature of man, the ugliness of sin, the need for justice, the power of forgiveness. The books model love, integrity, family, loyalty, grace. They are truthful to the complexities of selfishness, avarice, pride, deception, death. The overarching worldview that undergirds all of the stories is that there really is absolute Truth in a chaotic world. And the overarching message is that the world has been somehow marred by sin, and it is through the benevolence of an all mighty power that we will be redeemed.
Are the Chronicles of Narnia consistent with the Christian meta-narrative, the Big Story? Is it consistent with Truth? Is his work prophetic in some way? I think the answer is yes.
How does the artist become a Truth teller? Philip Graham Ryken shares in his short treatise, Art for God’s Sake, his view:
“Art communicates truth in various ways. Sometimes it tells a story, and the story is true to human experience—it is an incarnation of the human condition. Sometimes art tells the truth in the form of propositions. This is especially characteristic of literary art forms, which speak with words. Art can also convey emotional and experiential truth, and it can do this without words, as is often the case with music. But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ.”
The mixed media artist paints a tree in the forest, strong and sinewy, timeless like eternity. Beneath the tree, real leaves and twigs affixed to the canvas form a foreground, reminding us of God’s fingerprint upon creation. Art reveals Truth.
The photographer captures the image of an orphan girl, wrapped in the tragedy of her generational poverty. Clothed in rags and powdered in dirt, her glancing eyes and her guarded smile disclose the image of God within her. Art reveals Truth.
A choreographer creates an evocative piece with seven dancers using east Indian music. Through movement, she tells the story of the Dalit, the people of the lowest caste system in Indian society. Known as the Untouchables, there is still extreme prejudice and suppression placed upon these people. Though not a word is spoken in the dance, we begin to see an inner beauty in these people, and in spite of their condition, they are still loved by God. Art reveals Truth.
A songwriter sings a simple love song, not of sensual romance, but of a deeper kind. Through the poetry of his lyrics, he reflects on forgiveness offered and accepted, a relationship broken but restored. Once again, art reveals Truth.
A missionary assembles a group of artists—musicians, graphic artists, sound and lighting and video technicians—and presents a series of concerts featuring American music in a largely non-Christian European city. It draws the music fan, the bored, the curious. As the concert unfolds, the Gospel begins to shine—not just through the music they play or the words they sing or the visuals they project, but also in the way they interact with one another and with the audience, and in the conversations that surely follow a concert like this. Those in attendance are impressed not only by the quality of the music, but the quality of the people. Art reveals Truth.
As artists of faith, we must offer our audience the red pill. Our art must ultimately magnify, colorize, illuminate, and heighten the perception of Truth. And that Truth should captivate us, reframe our senses, compel us to action, and inspire us to something Greater. In this sense, it is fitting that the arts can be an expression of that Real Truth. And when that happens, the artist is a prophet, in the truest sense of the word.
By the early 1930s, trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong had already established himself as the definitive master of this infant musical genre called “jazz.” His fluid, emotive, powerful style and uniquely innovative playing had already become the benchmark for all jazz performers of his era. His trumpet solos were beyond expressive—they were conversational, charismatic, prodigious. But he had not yet become the household name he would one day be, and touring between Los Angeles and Chicago, he began a three-day run at the Hotel Driscoll in Austin, Texas. It was the fall of 1931.
Among those in attendance that evening was a white teenage boy in his first year at the University of Texas named Charlie Black. Black didn’t know anything about Armstrong and knew little about jazz; in fact, he was at the Driscoll simply to meet girls. But that was before Armstrong began to play.
Black would later write of his experience, “He played mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed. He was the first genius I’d ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy seeing genius for the first time in a black person. We literally never saw a black then in anything but a servant’s capacity. Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. ‘Blacks’, the saying went, ‘were in their place.’ But what was the place for such a man, and the people from which he sprung?”
Twenty-two years later, at the cusp of the American Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court was hearing the now historic Brown v. Board of Education. The NAACP Legal Defense was assembling their case in an effort to convince the court that segregation on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The person who wrote the legal brief upon which the case was grounded was Charles L. Black, now a distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale University, and senior advisor to Thurgood Marshall.
Black’s encounter with the music of Louis Armstrong was not simply memorable. For there was more coming out of Armstrong’s trumpet than music. What was emanating from his horn was a greater Truth about the world. Though young Charlie Black did not fully understand it at the time, history shows that Armstrong’s music changed his life—and ours—forever.
[Note: The five unnamed examples above are actually all real-life friends of mine. You know who you are.]