Artists, Pentecost, and Bearing Witness

Sunday was Pentecost, the moment in the Liturgical calendar when the church remembers and celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Simon Chan, in Liturgical Theology, describes Pentecost as the final revelation of the mystery of the Gospel. Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has made peace with God and humanity. In Pentecost, God comes to reside in our hearts, and the restoration of all things has begun. It’s lamentable that when we talk about "the Gospel," we often leave out this crucial movement of God. Not coincidentally, my scripture reading for Monday was from Acts 2, when the Spirit poured out at Pentecost and the apostles preach in tongues. It’s a beautiful, chaotic scene. 

The flaming tongues and their accompanying languages have a nice symmetry with a scene in John’s Revelation, where at the end of days, all tribes, tongues, and nations are drawn before the Lamb in worship. These two scenes are like bookends for the mission of the church: the Spirit initiates by multiplying tongues at Pentecost and in time, the nations and tribes of the world respond by worshiping the Lamb. It has a rhythm to it. An exhale of the Spirit followed by an exhale of the Church. A revelation-response rhythm. It’s downright liturgical.

Most often, when we talk about the “mission of the church,” we think in terms of evangelism, church planting, and international missions. This is a good thing, but as I reflected on these biblical scenes this morning, I found myself thinking about the many artists, musicians, and writers who have had an impact on my faith. They have, in various ways, been like these flaming tongues, bearing witness in a myriad of ways to King and Kingdom. 

All art bears witness, and all artists have a point of view. That’s true if you’re writing a song, making a film, or doing stand-up comedy. To make art is to share your experience, your vision, your joys and sorrows through a story, a painting, or a song. This is a description that, I believe, suits the comedy of Richard Pryor as well as it suits Annie Dillard, Jackson Pollock, or Patti Griffin. This testimony might be overt or subtle. It might be prophetic – attempting to disturb the comfortable and “speak truth to power” – or it might seek to be the voice that comforts. It can be as diverse as all human experience.

For Christians, though, this can be an entangling issue. Do we make overtly Christian art, or do we “make art Christianly” and allow the work to be more subtle and indirect? Do we market to the Christian subculture or eschew it in hopes of reaching a wider audience? Many artists worry about overstating their worldview and being preachy. Others worry about being “ashamed of the gospel.” What’s the best way forward? 

I think, Pentecost (as well as  the passage in Revelations) offers us a clue. The best witness that the church can offer is a diverse witness. The church needs Michael Card and Jon Foreman, Shai Linne and Lecrae, C.S. Lewis (who wrote allegory) and J.R.R. Tolkien (who despised it), and perhaps to put the sharpest point on it, we need Fireproof and ree of Life. The church doesn’t need one kind of “Christian” art, but the manifold witness of Christian artists who pursue their vocation, develop their craft, and offer their gifts to the world. There's something to be said for artists who want to spend their lives encouraging the faithful. There's also something to be said for those who want to be a "faithful presence" in the broader world. I know in my own life that I’ve been encouraged by both.

The invitation that Pentecost extends is simply that we should lend our voice, whatever that voice may be, whatever set of gifts we might possess and whatever sense of calling might be leading us to make art. There is, of course, no guarantee that our art will be good, or that we will be successful. In fact, in Pentecost there are no guarantees at all about the outcome of our work. There is only the invitation to bear witness and to be one more tongue set afire by the presence of God. The outcomes will always be unpredictable and mysterious. “The Spirit blows where it wishes…” 

The truth is that making art is hard enough already, and superimposing a narrow view about what is and isn’t “Christian” art only adds to the obstacles every artist faces. Each of us has a few dozen critics-in-residence in our brains, telling us what’s wrong with our work, and they don’t need any more help from the theological peanut gallery. 

Rather than worrying about making good “Christian” art, Christian artists should worry about being good artists and good Christians. By “good Christian,” I simply mean that one should be committed to a path of discipleship and to a life of ever-deeper love for God and neighbor. By “good artist,” I mean that one should be committed to the disciplines of an artist – developing and deepening skills, learning from those who’ve gone before you, and showing up to do your creative work. These two paths will intersect and inform one another, but they are not dependent upon each other. One doesn’t need to be a good artist to be a good Christian, and likewise, one doesn’t need to be a good Christian to be a good artist. 

What is rare and glorious, though, is when both qualities – deep faith and deep skill – emerge in the same person. One with a profound sense of God's Kingdom among us, who also possess an immense set of skills as an artist can give the world profound gifts.   C.S. Lewis comes to mind here, as someone whose skill as a wordsmith and depth as a Christian coalesced into a body of writing that will continue to bear witness long after we're gone.  Terrence Malick, Wendell Berry, Denise Levertov, and Thomas Merton come to mind as well. 

And that may be just what the world needs most. We live in an age where the plausibility of Christian faith is greatly diminished, and where Christians who hold to traditional, orthodox beliefs are increasingly treated as bigots and social pariahs. What art (and artists) can do is sneak up on people, lay an artifact before them, and allow that story/song/sketch to bear witness to another way of seeing the world. Like parables, these artifacts can surprise us, opening our eyes to the reality that world is not what it seems, that transcendence is possible, that good and evil both are amongst us, and as Tim Keller often puts it, we may be far worse off than we thought, but grace is more abundant than we dreamed.