This was delivered at the Eighth Letter Conference for the Epiphaneia group in Toronto. The presenters were asked to write a letter to the churches of North America in the style of the Revelation letters in the New Testament. The full version will be published in their anthology in 2011.
I speak to you as an artist.1
Our relationship with you has not been easy. Artists are often misfits, dwelling in the margins of your communities. They are often seen in the back pew, if they come to church at all, wearing black. Maybe they look menacing to you.
But many of us, actually, sit in the front. We volunteer, and are first to be with the poor. You just don’t notice us. Some of us are even up in front preaching—you call us pastors, but we consider ourselves artists of the Word. Some of us are crusading against the wrongs of the world. We can get the attention of the “kings” of this world because our songs are so popular.
But, we artists are often exiled twice: once by the church, and then, because of our faith, by the world.
Our exile by you started a long time ago. In the late 18th century, you began to believe that we needed rational categories to try to protect “faith” from “reason.” Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy and the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible were put under suspicion. Ironically, this division fragmented the Body of Christ and gave “secularism” her power.2
In the resulting arena of the rational, the artist’s task to fuse invisible reality with concrete reality also came under suspicion. An artist knows that what you can see and observe is only the beginning of our journey to discover the world. But you wanted proof instead of mystery, justification rather than beauty. Therefore you exiled artists to the margins of worship, while the secular world you helped to create championed us and gave us, ironically, a priestly role.
“Secular” powers took over the institutions created by the church’s retreat from culture creation—they ask us to be gods in their museums, concert halls, and academic arena. In turn, you erected walls to shield you and your children from these “dark forces.” Dear churches, did you forget that our Father in heaven owns all of the earth? You might have given the power of creativity back to Egypt and acquiesced to your captor Babylon, but the true and living God still owns all the powerful institutions as well as the hearts of critics and curators.
Artists still have an instinct for worship. But instead of placing quality artists at the core of your worship, you force us to operate as extras, as in “if-we-can-afford-it-good-but-otherwise-please-volunteer.” So now they must worship in the temples of the “unknown gods” of our time —the sterile, minimalist boxes called galleries. Rather than giving devotion, they had to become celebrity merchants, selling their goods.
Instead of offering themselves to the Giver of gifts, they had to become purveyors of a commodity.
Artists have insight into the invisible qualities of Reality, but you have forced them to serve only the visible, the utilitarian, and the pragmatic.
Artists have skill and power that dictators are either afraid of or want to use, and you, the church, unwisely neglected them. The first people known to be filled with the Holy Spirit were not priests, kings, or generals but artists named Bazelel and Oholiab—it was they who built Moses’ Tabernacle. Even the Babylonian kings wanted God’s artists after they conquered Israel, so they brought the artists to their land first.
God Himself was, is, and always shall be an artist and he speaks through prophets and poets. The Bible begins with Creation and ends with a New Creation. Everywhere in between God has chosen broken vessels, his creative creatures, to create in love. What would he say about you exiling his artists? Perhaps something like this:
I AM an artist.
A painter does not merely reproduce what is thought to be seen by the eye. An artist’s task is to train the eye first to truly see and to disregard previously imposed categories—those easy preconceived notions that lure us to think we are seeing when we are merely looking. An artist’s task is to see through the eye into the eternal, into the invisible.
A musician’s task is to hear, to listen to the sounds of the world. Bach, created out of the fabric of faithfulness to his community and to his church. He created through generational wisdom. He heard the echoes of the music of the spheres and sought to synthesize what he heard.
Do you not see what I see in a dancer’s leap? It can never be repeated, even in eternity. Yet, eternity’s echoes ring throughout the body, and I dance with them. Precisely because that act is ephemeral, I make them permanent.
A poet’s task is to reveal through her intuition the knowledge of reality and an emotional state that is at once mysterious but made accessible through her word.
One of your exiled poets wrote in 1864:
Love - is anterior to Life -
Posterior - to Death -
Initial of Creation, and
The Exponent of Earth -
Who is this love? Who is “anterior to Life,” and “posterior to death”? “Initial of Creation, and the Exponent of Earth”?
This poet, as a teenager, was told by your leaders in a seminary in Amherst that she was one of “No Hopers,” that she had “no hope to be saved.” We know from these poems that Emily always desired to know her Creator. I do not celebrate waywardness, but I am here to seek the lost. I will leave ninety-nine church members to seek the one lost poet.
One of your exiled painters, who lived in Arles, France, created a work called “The Starry Night” in 1889. In the middle of the painting, a Dutch Reformed Church (that does not belong in Arles) holds the visual balance. Vincent grew up in the church. He even wanted to be an evangelist. But notice that the church is the only building in the painting that doesn’t have light shining inside. He’s trying to tell you through this visual parable that though the church still holds these disparate matters of the Spirit and Nature together in the world, the Spirit has left the church and went swirling into Nature and the Cosmos.
When you exiled them, the Vincents and Emilys of the world, you exiled Me.
My artists: Create for Me. Improvise with the Spirit. Create through the Medium who binds all things together, and then you will begin to hear sounds of “the world that ought to be.” Surely, there will be birth pangs right up to that time. There will be more “Ground Zeros” created by destructive minds, twisting creative impulses into diabolical powers. Undo what they have done. Stand upon those ashes all around us, and open your hearts. Look up to create in Love.
You the Body of Christ must become as one and.love one another. Love is creative. Love is generative. Be diligent in the work of bringing unity in the diversity of the Body. Art is unifying, bringing together diverse voices, instruments, and colors for the magnificence of the whole. You are all God’s masterpieces, a tapestry of diversity, created in Christ Jesus to birth more masterpieces.
Finally, you artists of the far country, you are starving though you have much. The corrupt world has given you celebrity and the ephemeral treasures of the earth. Return to your first love. Come home. Creativity is a gift. Don’t make it to be other than that, or you will be crushed by it. And don’t try to numb the pain you feel inside by drinking anything other than the Holy Spirit. The thirst you have, the longing that flows out of your own creativity, can only be met with the pure drink of the Holy Spirit.
There are also some of you in the far country who have removed pleasure from your life for the sake of “pure expression.” Don’t think that just because you have forfeited the whole world that you have gained your souls. Return to your first love and be filled with my Passion. You used to explore the colorful margins, finding exhilaration in sound, movement, and rhymes of words. Come home and join me in preparing for the Feast to come.
Dear churches of North America, do you not know that we are planning a wedding feast? Have you forgotten that? You are wedding planners! What wedding would lack music, art, poetry, dance, or delectable foods? We need the best artists, poets, dancers, musicians, and architects to prepare for the Feast of grace when you will dance, sing, paint, and create with the living God.
Dance with us, Churches of North America. Join in the celebration of tasting what is to come and move to the enduring echoes of the ephemeral and the mysterious.
- Since this letter is written in the style of Revelation letters to the seven churches, the ordinary greeting known for letters is omitted.
- Dr. Craig Calhoun, a NYU sociologist, calls “secularism” a denomination.