Among those who write or blog on the topic of theology and the arts; the idea of artist as prophet comes up fairly regularly. This seems to point to a larger issue concerning vocation. Given his (or her) unique gifts, what is the role of the artist?
One who speaks for God
We tend to think of a prophet as one who predicts the future, but that is not at all the ancient understanding of the word. The word "prophet" means speaker, or one who speaks. In Christian use, a prophet is one who has a special connection to God and speaks on God's behalf.
By virtue of our Baptism we are invested in the threefold office of Christ, priest, prophet, and king. The degree to which we fulfill each of these offices will depend on our individual gifts and calling. We are all called to be prophets, as well as priests and kings, to the degree our gifts allow us.
Like every Christian, an artist may fill all of these roles as well as several others. An artist may act at various times as a teacher, a storyteller, even as priests and kings when the role of priest and king are properly understood. But how does an artist serve as a prophet? How does an artist speak for God?
Artist as prophet
A speaker must have a listener. The prophet serves his community by speaking or interpreting the Word of God to God’s people, even if the people or community disregard the words or actions of the prophet. In our increasingly secular society the most important action of the prophet may be to simply remind his community of their relationship with God.
The view that artists are apart from society and must be left on his own to create according to his personal whim, even if it is unintelligible to all but the artist himself, is a very modern idea. For most of human history, at least the history we have documented, the artist served his community, usually in connection with the religious beliefs of that community.
All artists, of every type, act as a prophet when he or she creates work that participates in the role of the prophet, reminding us of our relationship to God and of our status as God’s children.
There is perhaps a desire on the part of arts writers to conflate the role of the artist, to make it seem much more unique and important than it really is. But artistic ability is a gift, no greater or lesser than any other gift. Saint Paul tells us “that there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; there are varieties of service but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.” 1Cor 12:4-6
Our gifts and talents
All of us have been given unique gifts and talents. There are no small gifts. Each of us has been given a unique role to fulfill in God’s plan for our salvation. The artist may see God in the beauty of the created world and create work that shows the world illuminated by the divine light. The mathematician may see God in the beauty and simplicity of numbers, the ordering of creation according to ratio, and proportion. But one view is not more true or more worthy than the other.
The people asked Jesus “what can we do to accomplish the works of God? Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one He sent.’” John 6:28-29
Everything flows from this belief.
It is human nature to desire to attach labels to everything. We seem to take unless delight in pigeonholing people into smaller and smaller categories. Visual artists are broken down into painters, illustrators, fine artists, graphic artists, craftsmen, and so on. But we should be careful that in our zeal to label all the trees, we forget the function of the forest. We are all seeking the same thing, divine wisdom and a supernatural transformation in the person of Jesus Christ. We are all given different gifts to achieve this and help others along the way.
Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog atwww.DeaconLawrence.org