This essay argues that the artistic mode and the prophetic mode are ways of life that must be joined today in order to establish and sustain a shared abundant life lived in freedom. The arts often give sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste to the depths of human life and the divine life. The prophetic mode of life sees what is going on and refuses to remain silent about what is seen and known. And joined to the artistic mode of life it plumbs the depths of what must be seen and known and extends the range and volume of what must be said. We need these joined modes of life at this moment in order to overcome two sophisticated modes of denial that characterise so much of contemporary life in the western world, the modes of concealment and consumption.
His work exhibits a pensive but active melancholy that counterpoints the joy of the beat, precursor of the double consciousness so fundamental to jazz: the burden of the soul met by the optimism of the groove …
Stanley Crouch 1
Jazz and religion are continually becoming, even becoming each other, in a shared constellation of play, intensities, and sustained experiential attunement …
Jason C. Bivins 2
‘these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God’. (1 Cor. 2: 10 NRS)
‘Deep calls to deep … … .’ (Ps. 42: 1)
What is the relationship between the artistic and the prophetic? Maybe another way to ask this question is what do artists have to do with prophets? Identifying an artist is a fairly easy thing to do, but where are the prophets today? Or maybe a more precise question would be who is prophesying today, even at this very moment? I have always imagined the artistic to be bound to the prophetic, to be in fact the other side of the prophetic. I believe that the artistic and the prophetic call to each other through time, echoing back and forth the possibilities of newness, of life more abundant, life in freedom with God. Yet at this moment we are in great need of an embodied articulation of their deep connection. The artistic and the prophetic are modes of life that must, not should, be joined together in us.
The artistic and the prophetic—these are two big and nebulous concepts that could mean almost anything, but my use of them has a very specific home, my home. I am a Christian theologian and a great lover of music, especially Jazz. It entered my soul around the same time gospel music and sacred hymns began to give shape to the contours of my feelings and dreams. My parents, like most of the church folks who raised me, upheld a strict separation between sacred and secular sounds. I never really heard the difference in the way they heard it. All the music of my youth in and out of church was blues drenched, jazz laden, jazz gesturing or should I say gospel drenched, gospel laden, and gospel gesturing. I was born and raised inside the sounds of music. The music was not simply placed in me. I was placed in the music. It existed and exits like an eternal stream flowing all around and through me.
Like so many other theologians raised in the church, I cannot imagine things theological apart from things artistic. It was not only listening to the music but also the visual experience of watching people playing, singing, and dancing that helped introduce me to God. If I listened carefully and looked intently I could catch glimpses of something not definable, certainly not quantifiable, but nonetheless actually present. It was the work of the Holy Spirit, the operations of grace on the human creature.
I saw and heard people yield to the Spirit of God. I saw the Spirit of God working on and through bodies. At heart, this is the best theological definition of what it means to be prophetic. To allow the Spirit to give voice through our bodies to the depths of the human life that God has created. To allow the Spirit to give voice through our bodies to the depths of the divine life God has joined to our lives. Giving voice to the depths—this holy work is what binds the prophetic to the artistic. The arts often give sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste to the depths of human life and the divine life. But the ‘gift of expression’ is too small a phrase to capture this incredible joined work. It is essentially the performance of the truth that could become a truth that sets us free and leads to emancipatory action. The artistic joined to the prophetic could set us free. 3
That possibility of freedom that gives witness to abundant life shared by all is desperately needed now. The prophetic mode of life sees what is going on and refuses to remain silent about what is seen and known. And joined to the artistic mode of life it plumbs the depths of what must be seen and known and extends the range and volume of what must be said. Together they could call us to action and invite us to transformation. We need these joined modes of life at this moment in order to overcome the sophisticated modes of denial that characterise so much of contemporary life in the Western world. Our current modes of denial turn us toward death. Here we must think of death less as a natural phenomenon and more as a force that seeks to take as much of life as possible. The question we must ask ourselves is how and when do we become agents of death? We become death’s servants when we allow ourselves to be silent and complacent not only in the face of explicable suffering but also as we live reconciled to economic operations and social practices which inflict that suffering. The sophisticated modes of denial that engulf us traffic in fear and invite us to perform our lives in relentless anxiety over everything. If there is anything that the prophetic and the artistic modes of life are poised to attack it is the power of fear.
Yet the power of fear grows precisely in the psychic spaces where we operate in modes of denial. I want to point out two such modes, the mode of concealment and, secondly, the mode of consumption. The mode of concealment denies history and the mode of consumption denies our organic connection to the lives of others. Both these modes of denial grow out of the abiding reality of displacement in which we live disconnected from the land, from animals and even from our own bodies.
II. THE MODE OF CONCEALMENT
The literary critic Roland Barthes in his famed book, Mythologies , noted that one of the myths the upper middle class in France (and by implication the middle classes of the Western world) inhabited was what might be called the fictive middle. 4 The fictive middle was a way of reading all political and social struggles as being between two eternal sides of contentions, a political and social left and a political and social right. Barthes who wrote this book in the 1950s noted that the fictive middle was a position claimed by those in power who imagined themselves always balanced, always in between the political and social extremes. However the middle they claimed was nothing more than a fiction that allowed them to maintain the status quo. 5 Those in the fictive middle engaged in what he called neither/nor criticism, claiming to be neither too far to the right nor to the left and from that position being able to critique others, able to see the weaknesses of others’ intellectual, social, and even moral positions. Imagining oneself in the fictive middle meant in effect doing nothing. Indeed the fictive middle was created by those in power as a way to understand the world from their position without ever saying that this was a view from their position. The fictive middle in which the world is equally divided between two options serves only one option—the option to resist radical change and the overturning of the current economic, political, and social arrangements of the Western world.
So much of American history especially since the cold war could be captured in this work of cultivating this fictive middle. What we would now call a binary way of thinking, Roland Barthes in the 1950s understood as a vision of life that denied history, denied the real histories of slavery, oppression, wealth accumulation, and violence. So many churches, pastors, and theologians have had their thinking shaped by this vision of a middle. The power of the fictive middle is that it can be narrated as the moral high ground where we stand between the two contentious sides of any and every argument, every position and seek to bring both sides together. The fictive middle can even be imagined as the position Jesus occupied between the Roman state and the revolutionaries of Israel, and between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Jesus was crucified, in this way of thinking, precisely because he occupied the middle.
Jesus, however, could never have occupied the fictive middle because it is fundamentally opposed to the prophetic. The words Jesus recited and made his own—‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free’—these words announce divine desire (Luke 4: 18). They expose a God willing to struggle with the creature to make things right. The prophetic can never exist in a fictive middle and neither should the artistic. Artistic vision caught in the illusion of a middle will always conceal more than it reveals. Artists looking to constitute through their work such an illusionary position inevitably make it more difficult for us to see our world with clarity and precision. By constructing a view that allows us to imagine that we are suspended between options, floating above time and space, they weaken our ability to act decisively and feel the full weight of our histories and our current actions. My point here is not that artists must take a position, nor am I suggesting that artistic creation must follow a certain set of political rules.
The issue is not artistic freedom, nor am I rehearsing the old arguments about political or apolitical art. Everything pivots on denial or truth telling, on revelation or concealment. We need artistic practice so bound to prophetic practice that by its very nature it not only makes visible the operations of death but also points toward life. We need prophetic practice so bound to artistic practice that it opens multiple routes around death toward life, exposing a creativity that overcomes death’s eager hunger for our lives and exposes those who have knowingly or unknowingly made themselves death’s agents. Yet concealment as a mode of denial joins consumption as its collaborator.
III. THE MODE OF CONSUMPTION
To consume is holy work. It is tied to life. But what happens when it becomes bound to death? I do not mean the death of that which must be consumed, but consumption that conceals death’s operations, consumption that isolates us from one another, and leaves us alone in our hungers. That kind of death generating consumption now flows through our visual ecologies. The social theorist Jean Baudrillard noted a crucial aspect of this many years ago with his pivotal work on simulation. 6 Baudrillard argued that for us the reporting of real events has been tightly aligned with the advertising and the entertainment industries. The same technologies and procedures used for offering us goods and services and entertaining us also provides us with the news. So that the real has been bound to the simulation. 7 Being bound to simulation does not mean that the real is the truth and the simulation is the lie. It means that we trust that truth may be known and disseminated through simulation. We trust that the real may be re-presented to us in a variety of ways. What often goes unarticulated is the linkage of these various ways of simulation.
The commercial, the movie, the television show, the tweet, the news report, the radio interview, the Facebook post, the book—art and news, comedy and tragedy—all these stages for representations align and draw us toward inhabiting one primary mode of response—spectating. What happens in us when the football game happens, like another school shooting happens, like a new James Bond movie happens, like another event in the life of a reality television star happens, like more black deaths at the hands of the police happen, like a hurricane or a tornado, or a protest, or a political candidate’s speech happens? We do not lose our ability to distinguish these different happenings, but the longitudinal and cumulative effect is that the meaning and energy of these events gets evened out and neutralised. We react to these spectacles by watching, that is, by consuming . This first action of consumption (watching) often exhausts any subsequent social action. Our response to what we see is to see . Yet Baudrillard’s famous account of these matters illumines another equally tragic reality of this kind of consumption. We lose our ability to see ourselves as actually connected to one another as real bodies in space and time. A sense of connection, Baudrillard believes, should lead us to act out of concern for one another. What keeps us from sensing our connection to one another is in fact the constant alignment of simulation. As we see the masses in joy, the masses in hatred—doing violence, the masses protesting, the masses suffering, and observe their collective pathos, we often forget that we are the masses.
There is certainly more that fuels our sense of disconnection but Baudrillard is on to something important for us. This form of consumption not only engenders an anti-social quietism, and a kind of corrupt contemplation, but it also isolates us from one another in our seeing, hearing, sensing, and knowing. A consumption that does not connect us, and that does not drive us to deeper concern and care for one another is one that only leads us toward isolation and death. Can there be a form of artistic practice joined to prophetic practice that might productively play in the alignment of entertainment, news, and advertising, opening up the possibilities within our visual ecologies to join us together in not simply consuming but in doing the good? Could there be a form of prophetic practice joined to artistic practice that turns our consumptive habits toward life and enlivens our desire to know one another? I believe there can be such a joined practice that overcomes these modes of denial. In what remains of this article, I would like to consider a few gestures that might aid in the formation of this practice. Using the powerful story of Acts 3 and 4, I would like to outline a possible protocol for the prophetic arts. Such a protocol leans heavily toward prophetic improvisation and artistic experimentation as it exhibits lives yielding to the Spirit of God. 8
In chapter four of Acts, Peter and John were arrested for healing a poor and destitute man who sat at the gate of the temple. In chapter three they encountered this man caught in a desperate pattern of begging. Peter interrupts his pleas with crucial words: ‘Look at us.’ Eyes meet at that moment. Peter and John gaze at this man and the man looks attentively back at them. This man anticipated receiving the signs of an economic relation, the symbols that indicate that ever present imbalance between the haves and the have-nots. This gaze between them suggested the usual, but its intensity soon opened to something much more. There with these disciples the poor and needy will not be overlooked. There at the beginning of the post-Pentecost ministry of the followers of Jesus, people will be seen fully, strongly, clearly. Equally important, Peter speaks a necessary optical reciprocity: ‘look at us’. Here is where the artistic and the prophetic converge in the paying attention and in the attending to suffering and need.
These disciples of Jesus see and are seen; both are necessary for the truth to be known. The attention paid sets the stage for words and actions to be heard and felt and makes way for responses that signal a change of life. The poor and the needy, the suffering and the destitute must be seen and they in turn see. The artistic and the prophetic circle endlessly around this optical reciprocity. Here we find a possibility, a first gesture that if magnified and enhanced might give witness to the truth. This first gesture shares the burden and the joy of paying attention and presses into the exquisite details of life for the sake of life. Paying attention is not the new thing (all artist pay attention), but attention that circles around the conditions of oppression and poverty, injustice and violence and then build up and out in ever widening circles of sight and hearing, touching and knowing–this would be new. Must all art give witness to suffering and pain? Of course not, but attending and considering carefully art should, as Elaine Scarry suggests, open us to seeing suffering and pain. 9 Unfortunately, Scarry’s hope lacks the truth that can only be established with the prophetic. Only if we understand who and what God wants us to see, only as we see whose bodies are in pain and being broken as we see other things can paying attention lead us from the operations of death and toward life.
These disciples of Jesus paid attention to this poor and destitute man and through the name of Jesus they healed him. And for that good work, for paying attention and seeing what others had learned not to see, they were arrested. To see, and speak, and act in this way is to align our actions to the actions of Jesus. Jesus was predestined to challenge those in power and confront the powers, spiritual and human. This moment was inevitable. The disciples knew this confrontation was coming. The struggle against those in power that marked the life and death of Jesus was coming for them as well. It comes because of the location of the disciples. It is always about location. The disciples are among common people proclaiming liberation and that violence and death are no longer the ultimate power. Jesus is risen. There from the site of the common, disciples are seen as criminals. They become what Edward Said called secular critics who unrelentingly call into question the gods of this age, that is, the prevailing social, cultural, political, economic and academic logics that support or are at ease with the status quo of grotesquely differentiated wealth and poverty, uneven access to the necessary resources for life and health, and forms of sublimely stubborn oppression masked inside social conventions. 10 Yet a status quo is always embodied in people with real power, the power to imprison and torture us.
So in the story Peter and John are arrested, questioned, and threaten, told never to speak or teach, touch or help anyone in the name of this Jesus. The prophetic mode of life is a mode of life always confronted by the power of fear and the threat of violence. Yet the response of Peter and John was paradigmatic. Peter speaks boldly, declaring that the life of Jesus continues after death and so they will continue to obey his will, heed his voice and proclaim his message. This is a different kind of boldness. It is not the result of character refinement or moral formation. Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage, the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale. Indeed there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus. Of course, each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness, a boldness born of intimacy. The modern lie of individualism is most powerful when we imagine that boldness comes from within. It not does. It comes from without, from the Spirit of God.
The disciples gathered together to ask for what comes from without: ‘Now Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness’ (Acts 4: 29). They see the threat, they pray, and they ask for boldness. This moment sets the template for the movement, for any movement that is of Jesus. We saw it in the civil rights movement. We see it in movements today. The request for boldness, a communal request illumines a second gesture filled with possibility for forming communities of witness that locate this vital resource needed for the struggles of this moment. The boldness of an artist or a prophet is not the new thing. But a boldness born of a community joined in prayer and hope that then resources artistic practice—that would be an extraordinary thing. Imagine a boldness that builds, ever increasing the strength of conviction, the clarity of action, and the power of hope. Yet ever more importantly imagine an artistic boldness freed from self-indulgence and narcissism and that gifts us all with artistic works that illumine courageous paths toward life. Imagine art that invites us to ask for boldness. Such boldness grasps the imperative of improvisation as a way of life, and experimentation as a strategy for freedom. The community of Christ should take risks. The prayer for boldness obligates us to improvisation for the sake of the redemption that Jesus brings.
The disciples prayed and God shook the place. The Holy Spirit comes and fills the disciples and they speak, but this speaking is already a joined speaking, a chorus of faith. They speak with boldness. This shaking of the Spirit is not simply a sign of power, but of pleasure. God’s excitement is evident here. Here and now God’s people are one—calling on the faith and boldness of Jesus to do the divine will. Here and now the new order confronts the old order and God sees the unfolding of divine desire in and among God’s creatures. This is the Spirit’s quivering joy exposed in the impartation of holy power. Yet what comes to the disciples now is not simply boldness. In fact boldness is not the ultimate gift but the intensification of the common. The common is the gift realised in the Spirit.
This part of the great drama that unfolds after Pentecost confronts us with the new order of giving rooted in the divine wanting, rooted in the divine desire to join us together. These followers of Jesus released themselves to one another, making themselves responsible for and accountable to one another. Matters of money are inescapable. They are at the heart of discipleship, but they are not the heart of discipleship. Money here will be used to destroy what money normally is used to create, distance and boundaries between people. We are yet to hear clearly this ancient strategy of the Spirit. Too often in our reading of this story our view is clouded by the spectacular giving and we miss the spectacular joining. Now these followers of Jesus will become the bridge between uneven wealth and resources, uneven hope, and uneven life. Those who have must join those who do not and those who have neither a lot nor just a little must hear the call to offer themselves for the sake of a God who feverishly seeks to create the common.
This is the common that the Spirit of God is seeking to create in and through us. We are to become the bridges between the haves and the have-nots not simply as an economic rearrangement but a rearrangement of life. The Spirit is pressing us toward the common, to life together in the real spaces of this world, geographic and material, spatial and communal. In the common the illusion of a political, social, and even a theological middle gives way to a life of joining where we enter into a shared project of life, finding ways to constantly bridge worlds purposely constructed to be separated. And here I spy out a third possibility, a third gesture activated in the space between the artistic and the prophetic. There in that hope-filled space we find artistic and prophetic practice that forms the common. Imagine such a joined practice that invites people to see who and what they might become and that bridges between the haves and have-nots.
These three gestures–(1) cultivating attention to all things from the site of suffering and pain, (2) embedding a communal prayer and plea for boldness in the artistic imagination, and (3) imagining the common as the space from which to construct identity and life–outline a hope for prophetic arts that will be for this moment and undo the modes of denial that plague us all. I have seen glimpses of these prophetic arts in the Moral Monday (of North Carolina) and #BlackLivesMatter movements where artistic power meant at times with prophetic practice, and people who have never protested, never laid their bodies on the line for justice found courage to do what must be done. These are glimpses, only glimpses. Imagine what might be done if the artistic meets the prophetic in each one of us.