The Christian Artist: Jesus' parables

The parables of Jesus are the closest thing we have to something that would fall under the category of artistic output. The parables show the marks of someone who was deeply involved in the creative process. Anything that conveys so much in so few words has to be thought about deeply, worked on, and edited.

There are a few conclusions that I think it is fairly safe to draw from the fact that Jesus was a storyteller. The first is that it is a good and healthy part of our spiritual lives to be involved in some sort of creative activity that gives expression to our experience.

In a society that is constantly pressing towards immediate comprehensibility, it is significant that the gospels (especially Mark’s) make so much of the fact that the majority of people who heard Jesus’ parables did not understand them. They were “ever seeing without perceiving, hearing without understanding.”

Many artists who have worked in churches know only too well that ideas are regularly shot down because the congregation might not be able to grasp it. In some of my previous congregations, immediate comprehensibility was certainly a higher priority than artistic vision. In large part, this occurred because the art needed to serve a functional purpose. I’m not opposed to functional art in any sense. I think of it like this: a Styrofoam cup serves just as well for drinking coffee as a mug. However, Styrofoam cups are ugly and aesthetically unsatisfying. I think we should drink from mugs. I think mugs honor the coffee. Mugs allow us to experience the coffee with more than a functional delivery device.

Jesus’ parables are mugs. They are not Styrofoam cups. They are carefully crafted and rich with twists and oddities that are not always (and sometimes maybe never) immediately understood. Consider this example: “Or how can someone go in the house of a strong man and rob it, unless he tie up the strong man beforehand, and then rob the house?” Here we see Jesus taking an artistic risk. It could easily be misinterpreted. A clever thief is an example for our spiritual life. In another parable, Jesus commends the practices of a dishonest steward.

I don’t think that Jesus is asking us to be dishonest or to get good at robbing by telling us these stories. I do think that we need the help of theology to distill some meaning from them. Setting meaning and interpretation aside, I would suggest that this sort of risky story telling is exactly the sort of artistic endeavor that has lost its place in the modern church. Consider the profundity of the example. Jesus tells stories of immoral behavior without much (if any) explanatory commentary underlining the lesson. He is certainly well within the tradition of the book of Genesis. He is also well outside of our current practice.

If we are to recovery the deepest sense of what it means to be an artist, immediate comprehensibility cannot be the rubric by which all of our works are evaluated.

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