I’m beginning to think that if I don’t have an identity crisis at least once a month, I’m simply not taking in enough good art. A few weeks ago, I watched a piece of theater that has become a bit of a local staple here in Louisville: Actors Theatre’s production of Dracula. It is really one of the very few pieces of theater I have seen in recent years, but with the performance came a flood of emotions, the degree of which I wasn’t quite expecting. It threw me into a serious identity crisis that, if I were to be quite honest, I’m not entirely over. In fact, I intend not to be.
I have always been an artist. Since the age of four I have had a knack for drawing well, something that has improved as my skills have been honed through various lessons and lots of practice. The only thing I may have been longer than an artist is a storyteller. From the age of three onward I would sit with my great aunt who babysat me, and we would make up stories together about the adventures of a little brown bear who encountered all sorts of circumstances and fairy tale characters. I continued onward, constructing elaborate narratives when playing with action figure toys and desiring, at various alternating times of my childhood, to be an actor, writer, or cartoonist. My mind has always been captivated by things I can’t see in reality, but exist vividly in my imagination. Leave me alone and I will picture new worlds with new people and new creatures, sometimes wondrous and sometimes horrifying. I was intent on this being my life’s end until something happened: I felt called to “ministry.”
I can’t really speak to the validity of this calling alone. It certainly seemed very real at the time, and I believe God has used me in ways beyond myself to speak the truth to the minds and hearts around me. From my time as a Baptist Student Union president to a youth pastor and then, in later years, as a church intern, I have felt greatly used by the Lord in various circumstances. At the same time, the creative desire has always existed within me. It hasn’t ceased. It hasn’t subsided at all. It has swelled up, even in the times I have tried to push it aside. As I have talked with other friends who have the same artistic tendencies (be they music, theater, visual art, etc.) and yet the same desire to be in vocational ministry, I find that they all experience the same tension I do. For many years, I thought that I had to suppress one or the other. Something changed recently, though. I have decided to live in the tension.
I think we need pastors who are artists. We need pastors who have a heightened sense of beauty, of imagination, and of story. Beauty does, after all, point directly to the glory of God. Dr. N.T. Wright builds upon this in his book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense:
The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice–a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several things, but which, were we to hear it in all its fullness, would make sense of what we presently see and hear and know and love and call “beautiful.”
I believe he’s correct and I believe, like Wright, that we have a special calling to point our fellow Christian (and non-Christian) to the greatness of the beauty around us. In recognizing beauty, we recognize the goodness from which God created the world. Likewise, in recognizing our inherent creativity, we recognize the Image of God (the ultimate creator) that still dwells within us. Thomas Merton writes:
Unless man fulfills his vocation as artist, technology will tend to blind him to the things of God. By artistic and creative insight, man rises above the material elements and outer appearance of things and sees into their nature. By the disciplined exercise of his art he is enabled to draw forth the glory of God that is hidden in created beauty and make it manifest in the world.
To all those artists out there who find yourself in a position of vocational ministry or pursuing that call, I encourage you to never lose the side of your personality that aspires for and recognizes beauty, do not let go of that trait that gives you a unique creativity. These will always be part of you, and they are a blessing from God. Use these gifts, along with your many others, to point toward the God who is the source of all beauty and is the great creator. We, as ones who know the Scripture and have a love of the arts, can point people to an appreciation of the arts and, through them, a greater appreciation of their ultimate source. Teach them that these are more than just frivolities and wastes of time and resources. No, artist-pastor, you don’t have to choose between being an artist and being a minister of the Gospel. Live in the tension.