“Christians should be troublemakers, creators of uncertainty, agents in a dimension incompatible with society.” Jacques Ellul
My! How far we have fallen short of this? Jacques Ellul, a critical, perceptive writer who was once a member of the French Resistance and author of such classics as ‘Propaganda’ and ‘The Technological Society’ kind of stirs things up for us with this little thought. We immediately reject it, don’t we for we are not called to be troublemakers, but peacemakers, creators of certainty and not uncertainty, aren’t we? Agents of incompatibility? What is he driving at? Surely this is hyperbole, right? He’s said it just to make us think and then we can run back into the safety of our churches? Isn’t the world unsafe enough already?
It seems to me that Ellul’s call is for the artist, for those with subversive gifts, artists of the subtext, in other words artists of uncertainty. The clue is in his former job title, ‘Member of the French Resistance’. Think about it.
I wrote last week of ‘giving up’ and wondered why we seemed to have cultivated a theology of ‘calling it a day’. We have developed a set of measures, the success criteria, whereby we may judge someone’s call from God by the material success of their work. I reject the churchified term ‘ministry’; leaving that to the professional holy person, for it is a term not of the laity, but of the clergy! Think about it.
In this disavowal of a cultural way of being, of a cultural calling and vocation we have used worldly judgements. It seems that Scripture can be used in the service of anyone, or any point-of-view when it is taken out of context and utilised to declare the will of God. So, if I’m adjudged to be failing because of my lack of income, lack of tangible contracts or sales, it is therefore correct to doubt my calling. (I leave it in the first person here, but this is not just a personal story!) It would help of course if people understood I was doing this with ‘the Lord’, but generally this is not the case, as the arts are a worldly domain where the flesh and the devil roam about like a wild chimera.
But, God so loved the World, right. And the words used are ‘agape’ and ‘kosmos’, the arrangement, or beauty of Creation, the people and everything in it. However, is John conflicted, because later in one of his famous letters he tells us not to ‘agape’ the ‘kosmos’, so what’s he on? Was he a secret Gnostic? Nah, of course not, but this only appears anti-world, anti-creation if you are working from a dualistic, anti-material philosophy of life. The first mention however, is the act of love from God, the second is about a misplaced love towards something created which should be only for God, ‘agape’, but not for the world, ‘kosmos’. In the first mention John is talking about God’s Creation and in the second he’s talking about a fallen world. Darn those Greeks for forming a language which has multiple meanings for the same word! I’m so thankful for being English, because that doesn’t happen with my language, because I know what literal truth looks like and hey, once the Scriptures were translated into English I knew I could start to talk about literal truth; English being a conservative, precise language and all that!
So, if people ask me if I’m worldly, I point them to the John’s first mention in his good news story. I tell them that I’m worldly like God! And if you get the drift, you’ll realise that if there’s a difference in context then there’s likely to be a difference in meaning, because God is just being Creational. However, if your worldview starts with Original Sin and our most infamous act ‘The Fall’ – not the season by the way, my dear American readers – then you will not have any perception of a Good Creation nor the Creator of it; Who is still active in our everyday lives of joy and sorrow, storm and calm.
The next great divide and reason why we don’t give a fig about the Arts is that it’s fleshly, sensual. Its appeal is to anything other than the spirit. Not even a thousand Renaissance theologians could convince us otherwise! We may make a claim that Reformational theologians had it sussed in their anti-image Iconoclasms. Sad then for us, that they were not anti-image, but anti-church art; the art which was controlled by the Church Institution. Instead of closing down artistic practice it actually expanded outwards into God’s good Creation and hey presto, landscape was born. Thank you Holland!!
Anything that makes its appeal to the senses is of course fleshly, so here’s another reason why we shouldn’t affirm the call of the artist. In terms of sin, it is probably seen as a move from Idolatry to Adultery! But people’s sense of ‘spiritual’ is decidedly anti-incarnational, it’s a disembodied spirituality, more akin to Eastern Philosophy than Scriptural Truth and Worldview.
Notably Artists paint nudes; it’s as simple as that! They have barenakedladies, or barenakedmen waltzing around their studios and if they weren’t in their studios then those dear ‘Die Brücke’ artists seemed to have no qualms about getting ‘back to nature’ at some of their holiday retreats. An appalling level of depravity!
We have decried the calling of the artist, leaving the church without means of communication to an aching world and we thus rely on outmoded means of communiqué (preaching) to tell the greatest story ever told! But, but, Jesus preached and Paul preached, you retort. Isn’t hearing one of the senses, I quibble? You see there’s a reason why Jesus didn’t appear on the ‘Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ and tell his story, nor be interviewed about his latest cunning parables. You see my dear friends it’s as simple as this…Come closer to the screen and hear me whisper this personal message to you. “In those days there wasn’t any television!” Now I think the Romans and Pharisees would have been more aware of what Jesus was doing if they had Jon Stewart reporting on the political context of the day, but hey even great civilisations have their limitations, right? Would the Romans have trusted Stewart, because he’s, y’know, he’s, er, ahem, Jewish? Probably not, but not because of his ethnicity, but more down to them being Republicans!!
So, where were we? Oh yes, we’ve done the worldly thing and the fleshly thing, now it’s time for the rebel thing. Now perhaps you think I meant to allude to ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and not ‘the world the flesh and the rebel’, but I think enough has been written by yours truly about diabolical art, so let’s look at the other reason we don’t like the arts, REBELLION!
You see, you just can’t trust artists because they don’t toe the line. Hitler didn’t trust them! Stalin didn’t trust them either. Although Hitler made a big faux pas by having an art exhibition and allowing people to see how better this stuff was than Nazi Art i.e. propaganda! Note to tyrants – don’t have degenerate art exhibitions if the stuff you’re renouncing is better than the art you’re espousing! In trying to control art you kill art and hey, a Beckmann, Schmidt-Rottluff or a Kirchner is infinitely better than a Hitler watercolour!
Artists go out of their way to be troublemakers, they upset the status quo, they create images wherein reality seems to melt into the air, or is fragmented to such a state that you can’t tell the difference between the guitar and the wallpaper. Shocking, Seņor Picasso!
All of this avant-garde behaviour leads to the distrust of the artist. They ask too many questions and don’t give enough answers, or make unequivocal statements. You cannot trust an artist because they refuse literal (representational) truth and appear more at home with those awful relativists.
These are totally biblical concerns of course…of course not!
‘Agents in a dimension incompatible with society’ don’t attempt to follow or collaborate with the status quo, they don’t reduce their art to theological codes and keys, they refuse to be a slave to the Institution because they know that art only has a voice for freedom and humanity, is only able to critique reality by remaining on the margins, in ‘sub-communities’ of rebellious, troublemaking, aesthetically animated artistry. The art of the prophetic voice or vision is not located in the soft-centre of ecclesiastical power structures, or as I’ve called it elsewhere being ‘Armchair Prophetic’.
What is necessary for the church to do is to relinquish power and be a servant community. The Church’s worldview needs to denounce its self-service activities and serve those who are marginalised and disenfranchised. It needs to affirm those whose call is outside of its defensive structures and support their vocations in those isolated, wilderness-like places of our society. (BTW – The aim is to resurrect spirituality in our day). A church which can show that troublemaking doesn’t have to be in the form of rioting on the streets, but which can by the Spirit of God give purpose and meaning, value and affirmation to the artists of uncertainty, shunning the materialism and opulent consumerism of our day and communicate this to those dying of thirst. Oh, sorry did I just appeal to one of those forbidden senses?