From time to time different writers here at Spec Faith have skirted around the topic of evangelism in our stories. We discussed such ideas as theology in fiction and preachiness, but a recent article in the Christian Research Journal honed this “purpose of art for the Christian” overarching theme into one succinct topic—can, should, does an artist evangelize in his art?
At the heart of this article, “What Has Art to Do with Evangelism?” by Sharon Fish Mooney, is a discussion of the works of Vincent van Gogh. Up to this point, all I knew about Van Gogh was that he was . . . what’s the politically correct term . . . unbalanced? mentally unstable? emotionally challenged? I’m not sure. But I was aware he had “an artist’s temperament,” that he’d cut off an ear, and that he painted some unusual self-portraits.
I don’t know that I’d ever heard he’d one day wanted to be an evangelist and pastor:
Oh, that I may be shown the way to devote my life more fully to the service of God and the Gospel.” (Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, as quoted in “What Has Art to Do with Evangelism?”)
According to Mooney,
To Vincent, art could not only be beautiful but also persuade and speak to the deepest needs of the soul and spirit, his own needs, and the needs of others.
In other words, Van Gogh would be in the camp of evangelization through art. Again Mooney quoted from one of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother:
God is just, so He will use persuasion to bring those who stray back to the straight path. . . . I have my bonds of various kinds, humiliating bonds some of them, and this will only get worse with time; but the words inscribed above Christus Consolator, ‘He is come to preach deliverance to the captives‘ are still true today.
The painting to which he refers depicts Christ surrounded by people such as a woman crying over her child, a slave in chains, and a sixteenth century poet who’d suffered from mental illness.
From Van Gogh, Mooney switches gears and addresses the how: How can art evangelize? She postulates that rather than putting the gospel in front of people the way preaching does—because “by nature, it is allusive and indirect”—art, instead, should “bear witness to truth.” (“Mission, Evangelism, Contextualization, and the Arts,” as quoted by Mooney, emphasis mine).
This “bearing witness” purpose of art seems to mirror God’s self-revelation in nature which John Stott pointed to in his exposition of Romans.
Stott identified four main characteristics of God’s general self-revelation, It is general in the sense it is given to all people rather than to “particular people in particular places, through Christ and the biblical authors”; it is natural, “made through the natural order” rather than the supernatural involving the “incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of the Scriptures”; it is continuous, going on day after day and night after night rather than final and “finished in Christ and in Scripture”; and creational, “revealing God’s glory through creation,” rather than specific, “revealing God’s grace in Christ.” (ibid.)
Mooney applied these four aspects of God’s “bearing witness” of Himself to art and the ability of artists—beings made in God’s image and therefore with the capacity to create—to bear witness, though imperfectly, in the same general way.
This idea of art bearing witness resonates with me. Perhaps not every Christian writer will find this idea as striking as I do, but for me, this concept expresses what I’ve believed about story but have struggled to articulate. The goal of evangelizing through story falls between the overt and the silent—the idea that the gospel message should be incorporated into the story, versus the belief that God is glorified as long as the story is well-told, regardless of author intent.
Bearing witness returns the responsibility to the writer to throw light on God and His work in the world, but it releases him from the responsibility of a “proper” reader response. All the writer must do is accurately reflect the face of God. 😉
Since our expression is imperfect even at our best, and given that God is infinite and invisible and wrapped in unapproachable light, our “accurate” reflection of Him will be imperfect and incomplete. But that’s rather freeing. We writers don’t have to incorporate all Truth into our stories because, above all else, we can’t.
Instead, we can give our own feeble glimpse of God’s work or nature in order to contribute some small addition to the reader’s knowledge of our great God.
Thinking back to the four characteristics of God’s self-revelation which Stott identified, I find help in sorting out the difference between witness bearing and preaching. The first characteristic, natural, seems most helpful.
“Art that reflects a biblical worldview does not necessarily have to focus explicitly on the person and life of Christ or specific Scripture passages. Everyday occurrences of life and work . . . may also be . . . a natural metaphor for spiritual truth” (ibid).
Metaphors, of course, don’t just happen, meaning that, should an author wish to bear witness through her story using this avenue, it will require work and planning and intention.
But in the end, readers who pay attention should have the opportunity of glimpsing God or at least some aspect of His nature. That, I believe, is the intersection of art and evangelism.