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Stop Saying Artists Are Prophets

Stop saying artists are prophets

Artists hate being labeled. Why? Labeling is a failure to see the unique, and to distinguish what is precious. For years, many ministry leaders and well intended friends have called artists prophets. This was done in the hope of affirming their gifts and recognizing their abilities. The irony of saying all artists are prophets is while it is intended to make them feel special and valued, it is actually quite limiting.  The desire to honor them causes the very problem they wanted to avoid.   Artists thrive on creativity, and resist conformity.

Why in the world would we slap a label upon all artists, calling them by this one word, “prophets?”  It estranges artists who don’t see themselves as prophets (i.e. – architects, product designers, editors, etc.), and it labels all artists with one stereotype. It may come from a good desire, but it is time to think carefully about what the Biblical term “prophet” means and then ask how it may or may not apply to all artists.

Pagans & seers

I realize with my non-Christian friends, there is a long history of pagan and mystic cultures who equate artists with sages, shamans and seers. For many pagan tribes the local shaman is the most artistic and creative member of the tribe. They use storytelling, drama and artistic representations to portray the mystery of life and add depth to their spirituality. Like some pagan notion in a Star Wars movie they see artists as tapping into some vague spiritual force, which is their muse.

Art can have a powerful impact that points beyond the mere physical reality. You can be moved by great music, paintings, dance and film. Most of us have experienced how art can offer a transcendent experience. Listening to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus transports me every time. For some, it is a U2 concert, watching a great film or standing before grand paintings at the National Gallery. I believe in the ability of art to transport us, to speak to our heart and soul. This is the power of beauty and art. If this kind of art is in service to the gospel it is a foretaste of heaven.

However, to take that experience and project some divinity or transcendence back upon the artist is a dangerous leap. It doesn’t take long to examine the lives of great artists to discover that great creativity does not exactly coincide with sainthood. The New York Times highlighted this issue in the last few years when it published an article called, “Good Art, Bad People.”

It is dangerous to equate the power of an artwork to move you, with some spiritual maturity, wisdom or a spiritual calling within the artist. We don’t read the story of Balaam’s Donkey in the Bible and think the donkey is now a prophet. I am not comparing artists to donkeys, but I am using the reduction absurdum approach – the way in which people come to these conclusions simply doesn’t stand under the pressure.

Christians calling artists prophets

There are well-meaning Christians who are saying artists are prophets. These people are typically from the charismatic part of the body of Christ, and they mean well, but it is not actually helpful. I don’t know where it came from, maybe they borrowed it from mainstream culture, but for over twenty years I have seen people running arts ministries and teaching in Christian universities who claim artists are prophets.

They want to affirm artists who are often misunderstood and rarely respected in church circles. That is a great desire, and we can always use more of that. However, we ought to stop and ask ourselves, what does this mean? Does it fit with artists mentioned in the Bible? Does it match the use of the term prophet in the Bible? Oh, and by the way, consider if it is helpful for the artists or the audience.

Three problems:

First problem

There are three reasons we should stop saying artists are prophets. First, what if Picasso is right? He said, “all children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up”. Children have no lack of creativity. Sure, they could use some direction, encouragement and years of learning the craft. But the creativity is not present only in a small, elite, percentage of our youth. If you doubt me, go spend a few days with some preschoolers. They are all wildly creative. Our modern society tends to beat out of us the healthy ability to stand in wonder of creation (They tell us it all evolved from primordial, meaningless goo – so inspiring, right?).

Our educational system, built on a godless and humanistic foundation, usually kills mystery and replaces it with a majority of test taking and behavioral modification. Without an imaginative, and wonderful teacher (Thank God for those!) we suck the imagination right out of the child. Thus, being an artist does not represent some rare or quasi-rare gift. Being an artist represents a curiosity in life and a desire to express things creatively. Otherwise, why have art teachers in schools for the so-called non-creatives. Creativity is a wonderful ability, but not a spiritual calling. There is much more to a calling than that, read more about it here.

Second problem

Second, how can you generalize about all artists? Artists are about as uniform as tye-died shirts. Part of being an artist is being unique. Giving them all one description is about as useful as demanding they all paint 17th century still life. Can you really put Georgia O’Keefe, Pablo Picasso, Rothko, Martin Scorsese, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quincy Jones and Kanye West in the same category? Ridiculous.

I will grant you that some artists want to pierce the heart of the cultural soul. They want to speak to deeper truths and challenge us to face our spirituality and mortality as in the great opera Faust. But you have to concede that others just want to make you laugh. When the Farrelly brothers made Dumb and Dumber, they weren’t acting as prophets.

Third problem

The third problem is this: If God wanted to make it clear that artists were prophets, then why was that never stated in Exodus. It was in Exodus that God commissioned the artist Bezalel, from Mt. Sinai, and filled him with His spirit to make the Tabernacle (Exodus31:1-6). The art was designed to glorify God. It didn’t tell the future. It was clearly symbolic, and it didn’t have some hidden mysterious “prophetic” message.

Over a third of the book of Exodus is on artwork, and there is no use of the term “prophet” in the midst of all that artwork. Conspicuously, he was never called a prophet. This alone makes it extremely problematic for calling artists prophets. Anytime we try to go beyond the word of God and use biblical labels in ways God did not use them, we are wandering in the direction of heresy.

Simple truth about art and prophecy

Artist are not all mystical sages connected to some ancient pagan past, like Rafiki in The Lion King. Artists are simply the ones who, like Picasso stated, maintain their creativity and inspiration in spite of it all (or due to great parents and teachers). They take their God given creativity, and like the parable of the talents, they develop it. Artist may have unique struggles, but we are human like the rest of the population.

Reading books like, The War of Art demonstrate how great art comes from years of sheer discipline. Most of the people I know who have artwork in major museums, or have Oscars, Emmys and Grammys on their shelf, tell me it was mostly hard work, timing, and networking – not due to some prophetic inspiration. There are rare cases where God may inspire someone for a particular work like Handel’s Messiah. Yet even Handel did not create a hundred comparable, spiritually powerful or “prophetic” works as some would call them. It was one piece in a lifetime.

Creativity + discipline = great artists

So what is so unique about an accomplished designer, artist, filmmaker or composer? Malcolm Gladwell waded through the data and clarified this issue in his wonderful book, Outliers. Great artists put in the 10,000 hours of the practicing their art in the right way. Gladwell showed that if you study anything long enough you become more sensitive to nuance than anyone else, and you can become an expert.

See a movie with a filmmaker and take them out for a drink afterwards. Ask them what they thought, and they may talk of framing the shot, the lighting, editing, visual FX, or acting. They are attuned to a whole new way of viewing and creating film. It is their native tongue in a way that the average accountant cannot speak.
It is like a member of the Sami people in northern Scandinavia with snow and ice. They have over 180 words for snow and ice. They know more fully, what they have spent a lifetime studying. Likewise, Artist have spent voluminous amounts of time to notice the differences in all the shades of an oil painting, or the unique feeling created by the French horn vs. the oboe. What may be hard to describe for the audience is quite clear to the artist. This is not because they are mystically inspired, but because they are professionally trained.

10,000 hours

Clearly there are men and women who put in the 10,000 hours and are still a cut above. Yo-Yo Ma is a in a category of his own. He possesses an extraordinary ear and an ability to express music in a way that touches the soul. It may take us to places that almost overwhelm our senses and take us to something sublime. That is part of the gift of how God made him. It is a gift, trained through discipline. I am thankful for his music, but there is no reason to conclude a divine calling to be a prophet.

To use a completely different example: Consider Michael Phelps ability as an Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer or Michael Jordan’s ability to play basketball. These men perform in a way that is jaw dropping, but they weren’t ‘divine’ as athletes. They were so exceptional because they had God given physicality, developed under discipline, which enabled their passion to go beyond the rest. It is inspiring to watch, and impressive, maybe even sublime, but not prophetic. This is true in all fields. Art has no corner on the market of exceptional achievements by humanity that inspire others.

Prophets vs. prophetic office of Christ

While it is not helpful to call all artists prophets, it is helpful to look at the offices which Christ held, including the prophetic office. Christ was not only a prophet, but also a priest, and a king. Each of these “offices of Christ” are roles we see within the life of Christ, and now in the body of Christ. These offices represent leadership qualities and gifts to the community they serve. Artists, like everyone else, will express themselves in a way that mirrors at least one of these “offices.”

Art and the prophetic office

First, the prophetic office, or office of a prophet is the most misunderstood. Many people think the biblical idea of prophecy is about telling the future. After all there were plenty of prophets in the Old Testament who did prophesy about the future of Jerusalem, King David, and even the Messiah. However, that is only part of a bigger role which prophets possess. A prophets primary role is to proclaim the gospel and call God’s people to repentance. Future telling was only an aspect of how God called his people to repentance. The point was always to draw us back to God, to put our hope in his plan of salvation, and to encourage us to be faithful until we die, and see God in Heaven. For clear teaching on the Old Testament understanding of prophets, feel free to check out these podcasts by my old professor, Dr. Richard Pratt here.

Artists who are a prophetic type are those who are more provocative and challenging to those around them. They are usually challenging the church to repent of some awful theology and destructive practice. My favorite is still Steve Taylor and his songs. He wrote songs exposing the hypocrisy of churches requiring everyone to act the same way: I Want to be a Clone, for example, and on a later album he criticized the televangelists in his rock opera, Cash Cow. He was the first Christian I ever heard use satire in popular music. Check out a great podcast with Steve here.

There are also artists who are challenging the world to repent of evil, and injustice. I remember U2 being the first big artist to draw massive attention to Apartheid, or we could listen to a more recent tune on racism called Lookin for America by Switchfoot and Lecrae. The most recent movies of this nature are movies addressing the issue of abortion, Gosnell and Unplanned . The prophetic voice may be confrontational, but it always points to reconciliation, hope and forgiveness. After all, the prophets repeatedly warned of judgement but then gave that essential option to avoid judgment by saying, “But if you repent”.

A prophetic artist will be more confrontational, and more focused on injustice and hypocrisy because they are sensitive to the holiness of God. We need this kind of person to jolt us out of complacency when we lose our way. Like the wounds of a faithful friend are the words of a prophet to God’s people. (Proverbs 27:6)

Art and the priestly office

Second, the role of the priestly office is the role of expressing the peace, forgiveness and grace of Christ. This is often a person passionate about Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. They are interested in communicating that it is “God’s kindness that leads us to repentance” (Romans 2:4) A person who is priestly is a person who longs to address the woundedness, and brokenness of this world, showing how God heals the wounded, and brings beauty from the ashes.

Though it is not en vogue in art schools, this type of art has a significant role in society. A healthy, and beautiful society need artists who exhibit in hospitals. We need high quality family friendly films and excellent art that lifts the spirits for the wounded. We need art for counseling offices that is uplifting and offering a voice of hope. This doesn’t mean we offer an excuse for trite art, or kitsch. It does mean we need to affirm the valid role of a ‘feel-good’ movie, peaceful music and soothing artwork. After all, God gives us sunsets every day, as well as the voices of birds chirping and the joyful exuberance of springtime dandelions, lilies and chrysanthemums.

A priestly artist will be more therapeutic, and more sensitive to the merciful aspect of God’s character. We need these people just like we need a good friend to talk to, and a faithful friend who will sit with us and cry, laugh or just chat.

Art and the kingly office

Third, the kingly office is more interested in practical concerns, focusing on clarity, and effectiveness. These types of creatives are more drawn to consider the faithfulness of God, and see the beauty in order, symmetry and harmony. These men and women are great architects and designers who bring together the aesthetic concerns of beauty and design with the practical concerns of community, ergonomics, and user interface.

These kingly artists would be the ones to create everything from the Ipad/Iphone/Ipod to the Alessi Juicer, or a great website design. These are the artists who find great satisfaction creating something where function and beauty make the perfect marriage. (Where we need this in L.A. today is our parking signs, which were apparently designed ad hoc by someone who doesn’t live here and has absolutely no sense of design).

In Hollywood these artists are more likely to be in charge of production, musical scores, set design, editing or budgets. In the art world, they are gallerists and curators. We may not always think of them as an artist, but they are essential. If you don’t believe me, try making a great art show, orchestrating an amazing musical tour, or producing a great film without them. There is an art to what they do, even if we don’t often refer to them as artists.

A kingly artist will bring structure and meaning to what others do. They are more drawn to the nature of God as a designer (Think of the elegant design in everything from humans to narwhals and the platypus). We need these people just like we need a friend to help us organize our home, our business, a birthday party, or plan a spectacular weekend retreat. (If you read this and think you never need that kind of friend, you probably are that friend).

Reality check

We wouldn’t want a society of all priests, all prophets, or all kings. Artists don’t want to be placed into a box or labeled, and we shouldn’t want all artists to be from one category. The blessing is in enjoying all three. We need each other, and though most of us have a preference toward one of the three offices, in essence we are all called to exhibit aspects of all three. We all need to be priestly at times, extending the grace of God to those around us. Sometimes we need to be prophetic, encouraging one another toward good works and encouraging each other to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We also need to be kingly at times, by providing safety, structure and accountability for those around us.

Stop saying artists are prophets

Now that you better understand these categories, you can see why we need to stop saying artists are prophets. Whatever the intent, it is not helpful in understanding art, or the role of the prophets in the Bible. Artists come in all shapes and sizes. Some work in the Christian community, and some do not. Some are provocative, while others are therapeutic. Like the rest of the body of Christ, artists come with different passions and gifts. Tim Keller has said the Christian life includes the calling to, “Think like a prophet, serve like a priest, and plan like a king.” Your art may give preference to one, but your life should grow in its ability to exhibit all three. This is the picture of spiritual maturity to which we all should aspire.

Embrace your calling with joy

I hope this is encouraging. Sometimes people try to put categories and stereotypes on us that just don’t fit. You shouldn’t need to imitate another person’s calling, or their Christ-like office in your art. God has made you unique in your passions, your talent, and your calling. Some of you are priestly and care deeply about reconciliation in your art. Others care more about speaking the truth to whose are insensitive or hard-hearted. Still others long to bring order and meaning where there was chaos. Whatever it is, embrace how God has made you, exhibiting his love to others the way God designed you, whether it is prophetic, priestly, or kingly.

Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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