The Christian Artist: Psalms v. Theology

A comment that is often made about the Psalms is that they give voice to the full array of human emotions. In them, we read of joy and depression, hope and despair, friendship and hatred, love of God and doubts about God’s goodness. Many of the sentiments expressed in the Psalms don’t fit very easily into the traditional and more systematic theologies that have been passed down to us.

A magnificent example is Psalm 71:12. “God, be not far from me; my God, hurry to help me!” Theologically speaking, it is incorrect to say that God is far from us. We are far from God sometimes, but God is never far from us. Note that the Psalmist does not pray like a theologian. He does not say, “Theologically speaking, I know that you are not far from me, but I sort of feel that way right now. I know it’s really me that’s far from you, so, self, don’t be so far from God.’” The Psalmist, praying like a child, gives immediate voice to the thoughts and feelings of his heart without concern for the theological correctness of the words.

This is an issue of calling and responsibility. It is the job and duty of the clergy to present the Word and Sacraments and be theologically correct. It is the job and calling of the artist to present thoughts and feelings in ways that aren’t always theologically correct in their immediacy.

It is the artist who is allowed to sing with Jeremiah, “O Lord you have deceived me, and I was deceived.” The artist is allowed to sing with the Psalmist, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The clergy are not allowed to come to the pulpit and say that God deceives and forsakes people. It would be wrong and irresponsible. In a way, the clergy get to speak to the eternal aspects of things. The artist gives voice to the ‘here and now’ of the human condition. It’s not that the lines don’t occasionally blur. Clergy are allowed to do artistic things, and artists are allowed to speak to eternity. However, the fundamental callings and responsibilities are different.

Each group needs the other. Clergy need to make room for artists to give expression to things that don’t often fit very neatly into theology. Artists should not expect clergy to compromise their theological responsibilities for the sake of an individual artistic vision. Clergy need to make room for artists, because artists teach us how to pray with bold and childlike expression. Artists need clergy to contextualize and interpret their art within the larger theological tradition.

As this relationship has deteriorated in the 20th century, the results are plainly visible in local congregations. Artists no longer see the church as a place that is interested in what they do, so they turn to the Academy for spiritual nurturing. The Academy is not designed to fulfill that task. Churches are then left with art that is largely functional. There are no risks in it, and consequently, there is often very little power in it.

Is there room in today’s church for a poet to say, “No one thinks of you when they are dead; who will thank you when they are among the dead?” I think that the answer is mostly, “No.” It’s too complicated, messy, and powerful.

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