The Unnecessary Tragedy of Artists and the Church

It’s these little things, they can pull you under.
Live your life filled with joy and wonder.
I always knew this altogether thunder
was lost in our little lives.
– REM

M  y desire to create a space in the church for artists took on a new meaning today. A friend and colleague from my former church has unexpectedly passed away.

Paul was a pan-seared spirit, a conductor and musician perhaps born out of time. He was a dapper dresser, quick with a compliment or a snarky comment at my choice of shirt or shoes. Once he picked a piece of lint off my shoulder and told me I was too nice looking a person to walk around with fuzz. Every week in our worship meeting, Paul sat in his corner chair with coffee, mostly quiet but quick to bellow at someone’s gallows humor. When pressed he would engage in conversations that poked below the surface of church life, such as the relationship of faith and doubt.

Like any artist, Paul believed in honesty. It scared some pastors and churchy folks, but fellow artists among our staff and volunteer cadre of worship planners valued his low filter for lies and stupidity. Though I don’t know this for sure, I think that Paul struggled with depression. If so, it was perhaps related to the fact that artists abhor truth dissonance, and often have a hard time living in the suspended chord that is the body of Christ.

Of course, our cynical age covers truth in a vacuous veneer of detached irony. Paul was brilliantly maddening for his insistence on naming the mockery of much of our attempts at playing church. He had perhaps the purest junk filter of any artist I’ve ever known. And this was his tragedy, because while many of us are artists who can’t afford unfiltered honesty, Paul could accept no alternative.

Dishonesty is a subset of ugliness, and ugliness is an affliction to the artist. Because sin is ugliness, an artist who follows Jesus lives a wounded life, yearning for connection to the wholeness and truth of a Holy God, yet disconnected by the darkness within. We are all saints and we are all sinners.

This potent mixture, this “outrageous humanity,” as Pat Conroy calls it, vexes the church. Consider the film release Don Miller’s biopic about searching for faith, Blue Like Jazz, which while in production received some complaints from church leaders. It seems that some find the ambiguity of a search for faith troubling.

To use Plato’s virtues as oversimplified categories, people who want to respond to art with argument are Truth types. They seek the resolution of a right answer. They’re convergent. Artists, or to use another platonic virtue, Beauty types, are comfortable with mystery. They are divergent. Paul did not need a final answer to know the truth of something.

The church tries to treat the artist’s affliction, and the need for honesty is indeed an affliction, with analysis and apologetics, which is like taking a laxative for a flesh wound. They’re different parts to the body.

Some Truth types fear that to acknowledge sin is to condone sin, never recognizing their fear perpetuates sin by creating a fortress around Jesus. Beauty types want to explore our humanity, and through it to find a deeper truth than a surface set of facts.

There are also Goodness types, who live between these two poles, more concerned with what is loving than what is correct. When Paul and I worked together at Trietsch, our worship team had a healthy mix of all three. One of the great moments that arose from our mix, and there were many, was the Sunday in worship we hosted Ron Hall and Denver Moore of the number one New York Times bestseller, Same Kind of Different As Me. The book recounts the true story of a wealthy art patron who befriended a homeless man, and the changed life each man discovered. That formerly homeless man, Denver Moore, gave a classic call to Goodness in our worship service when he said, “Churches in America are full of people studyin’. What we need is less studyin’ and more doin’.”

The church needs all three. We as people are built for all three.

Yet the church has traditionally served Truth types best, and Goodness types second best, and Beauty types the worst. For centuries, artists have been finding one another as refugees in a wilderness of systematic theological thinking. It’s easy to retreat behind a screen door mesh of doctrine and moral code. We in the church think we’re safe there, protected from profane elements. But of course the screen door not only fails to protect us but is invisible to those on the outside, who stand in the rain and look with dismissive incredulity through our porous arguments.

Beauty opens the screen door. It invites people in from the rain, but it’s dangerous, because it exposes us church people to the elements. We get wet. We are reminded of life, and for many of us, it’s painful. Beauty is powerful and threatening. Most in the church fear it. And as I mourn the passing of my friend and colleague, our ecclesial deficiency of Beauty has taken on an increased urgency.

My father, a retired pastor, is a Beauty, and is in many ways representative of our age. I sensed his undiagnosed introspection throughout my childhood. Most of the time he kept it hidden underneath a cloak of Truth and Goodness. The cloak fit him alright, but occasionally I saw him take it off. My father is not a pianist, and didn’t doodle or play much for fun. Yet every once in a while he would sit down at our upright and recall a story through Stardust, or I Left My Heart in San Francisco. When he played, I heard a different person, one that I didn’t know. If only for a few minutes, he opened his screen door. Growing up, I failed to understand what those songs meant. He played them with a melancholy that even today makes my heart ache. I never thought to question how someone who supposedly didn’t play the piano could play these two songs so wonderfully.

My father wrote. He completed multiple novels and sent them into some agents and publishing houses in big manila envelopes with SASEs tucked inside. After he received rejection letters, he put the keyboard away. Later, I asked him about the novels, and he said that he wasn’t sure what had happened to them.

He also painted. I have a couple of his prints hanging in my house. One is an oil of a rusted out shell of a pickup, abandoned in a field and partially obscured by tall grass and a broken wooden fence. Though unable to articulate any reason for it, I liked that painting in my room. Now I look at it and see an artist, abandoned in a field, never given wheels to find expression.

 

 

Dad was surrounded by a church culture of Truth and Goodness. He was never told it was good to be a Beauty. The most important voices in his life told him that to be a good Christian, he had to learn the proper Truth and do the proper Goodness. Such is a tragically disaffirming life, forced to operate by disingenuous virtues.

Of course, people have their own stories, apart from the systemic environment in which they live. Yet I wonder if this same dynamic affected Paul, and occurs en masse whenever the church stands between pillars of Truth and Goodness, forcing Beauty types to watch from afar.

It’s all about soul
It’s all about knowing what someone is feeling.
– Billy Joel

I do not aim to disaffirm the need for Truth and Goodness. We as God’s creatures and as the Body of Christ need all three. But modern, western culture values Truth above all others, while Goodness has had its moments and appears to be on a bit of a comeback. But Beauty runs a distant third, and has since the Reformers threw out the icons five hundred years ago.

Each of us is primarily one of these three virtues – Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – and secondarily one of the three as well. I am a Beauty, then a Truth. My wife is a Goodness, then a Beauty. Perhaps in this typology you see your own primary virtue.

Jesus has another way to refer for these virtues. When asked about the entirety of the Law, he condensed down 613 prescriptions into a stunning set of two simple expressions. The first acknowledges these virtues. When Jesus commands us to love the Lord our God with all of our mind, heart, and soul, he is affirming our need for Truth, Goodness and Beauty, all three.

While Truth and Goodness are doing just fine, the church needs to encourage experience and personal affect within the context of healthy spiritual growth. We in the Church are great at loving God with our mind. We have the ability to do great things for others with our heart. But we still don’t know what to do with our soul. This is tragic, because artists don’t have to live tortured lives.

I grieve my lost colleague and friend. The best way I know to honor Paul and other artists who suffer in and out of the church is to call for the church to learn to embrace Beauty.

 

 

UPDATE: I further explore the typology of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and its relationship to personality, in the post Six Ways to Know Yourself and Others Better.

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).