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).

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33 Comments on “The Unnecessary Tragedy of Artists and the Church”

  1. Dennis Pappenfus

    To paraphrase Gordon Lightfoot, “Does anyone know where the hope of God goes… when the gales of November come early?”

    Thoughtful, important words, Len. Thank you for helping with the, “why.”

  2. Linda Mihalick

    Len, I don’t know you but I knew Paul. Your words are a beautiful tribute. Thank you for taking the time to share them.

  3. Gayle Sulik

    This is so beautiful, and enlightening. I (with so many others) will miss his beautiful spirit, his gratitude, and his yoga practice, handstands to somersaults. I’m honored to have practiced with him, and to have known him.

  4. Laura

    Thank you for writing this. I knew Paul as a piano teacher and then at church for many years. He will be missed.

  5. Gloria Hawkins, Richland Co

    Dr. Bonneau will be missed, such a talent, such an upbeat personality. My prayers for his family. Rest in peace Dr. B.

  6. Kellie Sanford

    Len this is a beautiful tribute to Paul, thank you, for your words. I’ve read this several times today and shared it with many. Peace be with you. Kellie Sanford

  7. Joe Mazza

    It’s interesting to be moved by a tribute to someone that I never knew. Yet, I was. I’ve been blessed by work/ministry partnerships like yours and Paul’s. They are so necessary to what we do. I’d never heard of or thought of the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty types but they immediately clicked with me. I’m a Beauty/Truth as well, which I’ve always thought was a weird combination because I can be all at once “out there” to some while seemingly demanding order and black and white structure. I work tirelessly to help others like me find their way and be ok with expressing who they are in Christ within the confines of church and worship. It’s comforting to know that a guy like Paul would approve. Thanks for this post.

    1. Dominic Eidson

      I’m also finding myself resonating with the Beauty/Truth combination (dichotomy?) – glad I’m not the only one, and also glad I’m not the only one who thinks it’s weird (not in a bad way.)

  8. Gregory Knapp

    I think that your article, though very well written and articulate, is actually a pile of crap!, I met Dr. Bonneau on several occasions, as he was a professor at Richland Community College in Richardson, TX, where my daughter was his student. Your article insinuates that Dr. Bonneau was depressed because of a ill-met duty of the Church in addressing the vagaries of the Artist, and the failure of the Church to do so had something to do with this Artist’s death. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH!!! The Church does not have a ‘duty’ to adjust to the different vagaries of each of our personalities, but rather to preach and teach the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ! We have the obligation to follow Him, and if we don’t, THAT IS SIN! We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, but we must remember that Salvation is the Lord’s free gift, and our only duty is to believe! Many of the so-called ministries of many Christian churches are actually accommodations of our worldly desires, and not very praising of the Lord.

    Your soulful laments of the Artist as a different type of creature from the rest of us, the Unwashed Masses, with a core deserving a more careful consideration by the Church than the rest of Adam’s sinful race is fraught with humanistic goobly-gook!Just because one is more willing and/or able to expand one’s feelings in directions less used by others doesn’t mean that one is basically different from the rest of Humanity! And assigning psychobabbly terms to us doesn’t make any of us more noble than what we are – sinners needing a Savior!

    Dr. Bonneau was in my view a very praiseworthy man; one thing that struck me was that I learned that he hadn’t a lesson on an instrument until the age of 19, but yet went on to write magnificent pieces of music. But obviously he had a dark side, one that he appears to have not brought before the Lord seeking Faith and Protection! So if a lesson is to be learned from this, it is not that the Church has a greater obligation to Artists than to the rest – it’s really more like that we ALL have a need to align ourselves with Jesus, and ask Him to help us conform to His example.

    P.S. I really like your father’s painting, he had a great talent!

    1. Tess Wiley

      I don’t think the article is saying that the church owes more to one type of person than to another, but that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace “certain types” because they’re complex and seemingly difficult. We believers owe it to all believers to embrace them equally and fully as God does us. That’s the goal, anyway, I think.

  9. Pingback: Six Ways Truth, Goodness and Beauty Are a Great Way to Know Ourselves and Others | Len Wilson

  10. fletch wiley

    Thanks Len for sharing these truths with us. I don’t like losing tender souls “just because”. We are in a battle, and I think we’re a bit less prone to be shooting our own; our aim is getting better, bit by bit.

  11. Glenn

    Len, I couldn’t agree more, brilliant article. My only caveat is that I think the cross is at the same time both massively -ugly- and beautiful. Largest amount of Psalms are laments… (57 or so of the 150) as the minor notes and chords of life are part of every individual’s journey. At times we struggle with the ugly stuff that is perhaps the thorn on the rose of our fallen world. Now, you might suspect the truth that any goodness in me is Jesus and the truth is that I’m a bluesman 🙂

  12. elizabeth

    Thank you! I am constantly judged by people in the church for my brutal honestly about myself & my own struggles. Told I shouldn’t “confess negativity”, but should instead “confess who I hope to be someday”. To me that is the worst kind of dishonesty. It’s being dishonest to myself/my spirit. I know who I am and so does God; a sinner through & through.When we look in the mirror today I want to see what He sees with brutal honesty. Your writing was such a breathe of fresh air.

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