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Making Work That Requires Work

A few months ago, a much publicized national survey revealed Banksy’s ‘Girl With Balloon’ to be Britain’s most loved artwork. Firmly beating the Lowrys, Turners and Hockneys of this world, the result caused much eye rolling and consternation, particularly from newspaper arts correspondents.

This was the evidence they’d been looking for that artistic taste is finally dead and that Britain, culturally speaking, has well and truly gone to the dogs. It must be noted that a lot of the outrage was pretty reactionary considering that the survey in question was carried out to promote a Samsung TV and comprised of only 2000 participants. However, an interesting trend emerged among the various critiques: ‘Girl with balloon’ is simple and obvious, but art should be more than that.

‘Girl With Balloon’, Banksy

Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian put it like this:

‘Real art is elusive, complex, ambiguous and often difficult. Actually, remove that qualifier. It is always difficult.’

Now, I’ll stay out of the Banksy argument, as I have no strong feelings either way about that particular cheeky Bristolian scamp. However, I would tend to agree with Jones’ description of ‘real art’. In fact, this has been one of my main gripes with a lot of the typical output from within the Christian subculture. ‘Christian art’, as it is known in its modern sense, is often one dimensional, easily readable and instantly reducible into a simple sentiment or teaching point. Whether anyone can declare authoritatively that something is real art or not, this stuff does often seem less like a deep exploration of the nooks and crannies of existence, and more like a car advert or a party political broadcast.

As we conclude our series on the Old Testament prophets then, I find it heartily reassuring that there are at least hints in biblical art practice of Jones’ ‘real art’. It’s true that Isaiah et al had pretty didactic intentions, and they were certainly not locating the meaning of their work in the mind of their audience. However, their performances were deliberately ambiguous and as they drew their audiences in, they gave them considerable work to do. As mentioned earlier in this series, Jesus was just the same in making his parables difficult and, to some, completely opaque. The Bible records many people in both cases, who simply didn’t get it. And this wasn’t a failing of Jesus or the prophets.

A Justifiable Desire For Clarity

As Christians, we hold certain truths about the world so dear and we consider the stakes so high in other people understanding and subscribing to those truths, that clarity of communication is very important for us. In a Sunday service, everything must be clear. The sermon must be clear. The notices must be clear. Even the worship songs must be clear. Therefore, it is no surprise that this tendency is transferred to the church’s expectations of its artists.

Paul asks the Colossian church to pray for him ‘that I would make the gospel clear, which is how I ought to speak.’ (Col 4:4) And so the concensus has been that it’s not just Paul who has such an obligation. It’s how all Christians should speak. All the time. Even if they happen to be film makers or poets or photographers or dancers.

But Paul is not the only model of communication found in the Bible. God understands that clarity is key if you are talking to people who want to listen, but if that desire is lacking, it doesn’t matter how clear you tell people something, they simply won’t hear it. This is the situation that both the Old Testament Prophets and Jesus found themselves in. It’s also where we find ourselves if we want to communicate something deep and significant of the Kingdom of God to ears tuned to the frequencies of the kingdom of the world.

For us then, making work that requires work from our audience is not evidence of us being obtuse or obscure. It’s biblical.

Communicating through ambiguity

But surely we can’t just leave our audience to come to whatever conclusions they want to. How can we make difficult art that still nudges people closer to Jesus? Well, once again, Ezekiel helps us out.

In Ezekiel 12, Ezekiel acts out Israel’s journey into exile, with God providing the stage directions. It is, in many ways a simple performance, but its meaning is kept hidden from the casual observer. There was to be no running commentary (a peculiarity of Ezekiel’s calling was that he was to be silent except when there was a divine command to speak- Ezekiel 3:26-27) and no programme with explanatory notes. In fact, as Ezekiel went to bed after his successful opening (and only) night, his audience had absolutely no idea what he was up to. It was only the next morning that God told him what to do:

12:8- 10- ‘In the morning the word of theLordcame to me:“Son of man, did not the Israelites, that rebellious people, ask you, ‘What are you doing?’

“Say to them…’

God didn’t care too much about the onlookers who grabbed 5 minutes of the show, ate some popcorn and went on their way. He designed the whole show for the questioners- those who would let themselves be drawn in. Ezekiel wasn’t delivering a sermon, he was starting a conversation.

For us, we must be prepared to make work like this. Work that can’t be digested in one gulp. Work that may befuddle, frustrate or even offend. Work that requires work. But we must also be prepared to pick up the conversations that our work begins.

And here lies the challenge. If we are to take the Old Testament Prophets seriously as artistic role models, we have to take on board that we do have a message to communicate. God has a way of seeing the world that he wants us to share and encourage others to adopt. Not every piece we ever make will do this, but, if we’re to take our prophetic calling seriously, some of our work will. We don’t need to straitjacket our work or blunt its edges to make this happen, but we probably will need to be prepared to enter into conversations about our work with people who ask ‘what are you doing?’

Fortunately, Joel (Wilson, that is, not the son of Pethuel) has already written a brilliant, concise post on this already, so I’ll direct you towards that if you’d like some tips on how to do this.

Let’s close this series though by switching testaments. In 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul writes:

‘Eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy’ 

Yes, he was speaking mainly in the context of Christian meetings to Christians looking to communicate God’s word to other Christians or to seekers. However, as we’ve seen, in the context of the whole Bible, it wouldn’t be unfair to take the gift of prophecy a bit more broadly than that.

Are you eagerly desiring the gift of prophecy? Are you prepared to take up the call to be a prophet to your generation and culture?

I think the world needs some more Ezekiels, Joels, Isaiahs and Jeremiahs right now. Perhaps God wants you to be one of them.