Samuel Wells: Turning all into alleluia
Theologian John Calvin described the ministry of Christ as a threefold office: prophet, priest and king. The former dean of Duke University Chapel explores what it might mean for an artist to exercise these three roles and fundamentally construct acts of worship.
September 20, 2011 | Psalm 150
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. The Rev. Samuel Wells preached this sermon on Sept. 4, 2011, at Duke University Chapel.
The Pre-Raphaelite painting “The Death of Chatterton” is an archetypal image of what it means to be an artist. Thomas Chatterton, a poet and native of my hometown, Bristol, England, dies in London in 1770 aged 17, penniless, desperate and alone. His clothes are bohemian and raffish; his art has been seldom understood, and scarcely ever appreciated. His talent is enormous, and in this tiny garret apartment he has clearly had spurts of breathtaking and rapid creativity. Yet the scraps of torn paper at this side demonstrate his tortured struggle.
We vividly see the contrast between the intensity of his life’s purpose and the terrible waste brought about by his poverty and lack of critical acclaim. The painting is telling us that to be an artist is to be possessed, impassioned, alone, tragic and tortured -- but nonetheless glorious and beautiful.
Why then would anyone want to be an artist? What got it into the minds of the leaders of Duke University to make transforming the arts the fifth of its six strategic goals?
The answer is that art is not simply tortured and lonely and tragic. Art is the threshold you cross as soon as you move from the indicative of what things are to the subjunctive of what things could be, from grabbing something in one hand to use it to cherishing something in two hands truly to enjoy it, from regarding an abundance of meanings as exasperating and distracting to seeing a plurality of possibility and interpretation as joyful and life-giving.
Art is not so much the production of distinguished artifacts or even the experience of profound creativity. Art is what happens within a triangle of forms, media and ideas. For example, the form might be a landscape, the medium might be a watercolor, and the idea might be the healing goodness of living things.
Within the triangle of form, medium and idea lies a myriad of possibilities, and art refers not just to acts of creation but also to moments of appreciation and interpretation and revised understanding.
Artists are those who live their lives within that triangle of forms, media and ideas, refining their skills, understanding their tradition, enjoying the interplay of genres, and finding new ways to configure and present them. A true artist is not so much one who dies a tragic, tortured, histrionic death as one who embodies the disciplines of their craft so as to make it a way of life -- and whose art evokes imaginative constructions, fertile conversations and engaged responses in the lives of its audience. These are all the reasons that art, in its many forms, belongs at the heart of a university.
But what does the Christian faith have to bring to this world of art? How does an undergraduate or graduate student, drawn into this triangle of form, medium and idea, come to understand a calling to be a visual, literary or performance artist, and continue to see that calling within their Christian vocation as a whole?
Five centuries ago, the theologian John Calvin described the ministry of Christ as a threefold office. Calvin looked at the three roles for which persons were anointed in Old Testament times. The roles were those of prophet, priest and king. Calvin described how Jesus exercised all three of these offices, as prophet (especially in his life), as priest (especially in his death) and as king (especially in his resurrection).
I’d like to explore with you today what it might mean for an artist to exercise these three roles -- or, perhaps more collectively, for the arts in general to carry this threefold purpose in our society, and particularly at this university.
The role as prophet
Many artists today can readily identify with the role of the prophet.
What a prophet does is to hold a mirror up to society or an individual and ask, “Are you proud of what you see?” A prophet recalls the founding commitments of a person or a body of people and asks, “Have those commitments been honored?” A prophet casts a dream of what it might mean for people or societies to fulfill their true potential and says, “Look, here is the painful gap between ideal and reality.”
Artists are drawn to all of these roles.
A prophet says, “Let’s see what this looks like upside-down.” “I wonder how life would be if all the light shone from the back.” “Let’s imagine we hear this baritone several times, but each time it becomes more threatening or more mysterious.” Prophets challenge, reconfigure, expose, highlight, ridicule and shock. That’s what artists do.
Sometimes, when an artist’s idea sticks outside the triangle and leaves the form and medium behind, or when the medium is so distressing it obscures the form and idea almost altogether, art becomes notorious for upset and scandal.
The offended people who crowd in to condemn the artist -- or art in general -- at such a moment have often forgotten, or never appreciated, that artists are prophets. Prophets often shock people, too. Jesus shocked people with his prophetic actions of cleansing the temple and healing on the Sabbath.
Not all offensive actions are prophetic, but some prophetic actions are offensive, and just because an artifact offends some people, that doesn’t inherently mean it’s not art. It just means it’s testing the boundaries of idea or medium.