The Artist as Intercessor (revisited)


***The following is a talk from the recent Transformation: Worship and the Arts Conference put on by Fuller Northwest.***

Good morning. I am not Bette Midler. However, if it amuses you to imagine her saying what I’m about to say, then feel free. Whatever it takes.

When my two nephews were young, we went to the first three Star Wars movies together. For each episode, we planned special days, we stood in a line that circled the block, watched the film and got back into the line—sometimes over and over again. For months, years, they pretended to be Jedi knights until they grew too old to do that, and then we talked about being Jedi knights instead. It was our thing.

And oh man, when we found out about Luke and Darth Vader? I still can’t talk about that.

A few years ago, there was a woman in my church who asked me to mentor her. A successful screenwriter, she quickly clarified it was not her film career but her spiritual life where she craved an older voice. Over the years since, her art and her spirituality intwined as, of course, they are meant to do. We weathered the cycles of success and failure in her filmmaking as they swirled in and around questions about church, marriage, infertility, pregnancy (God be praised), childbirth, childcare. And then there was the day she was offered the job at Lucasfilm. It was a hyperspace jump. Now she is responsible for story development for all things Star Wars. Last fall she asked me if I’d come to the Presidio in San Francisco for a visit, adding that if I was interested, she’d arrange a VIP tour. I asked if I could bring two guests.

My two new nephews are grown adults in grown adult businesses, are in their late thirties, married with five children between them. One flew from Oklahoma and the other from Los Angeles. We saw matte paintings of Tattooine, models of the Millineum Falcon, R2-D2, the cyrogenic frieze of Han Solo in carbonite, and—in their state-of-the-art-screening room we saw—well, I can’t say, now, can I. That’s what those non-disclosure agreements are probably for.

My nephews stopped workers in the hallways and thanked them, tears in their eyes. The employees kindly tolerated us; their expressions said, yea, this happens a lot. I had stopped at a thrift store in Haight-Ashbury and bought a jacket and a black scarf on our way there because I’d forgotten to take a coat. To San Francisco. (Don’t judge me.) Anyway, when my friend came out to meet us after her assistant dropped us off, she was wearing the same jacket and a black scarf. We found this amusing.

At the gift shop on their way out of town, the guys bought things for their wives and kids meant to try to contain all the enthusiasm that was awakened by that visit. I bought a patch for the arm of my jacket which I showed later to my friend as an “inside joke.” Then I forgot about it.

Our conversations about the trip since then have been rich with reflection on what it means to remember the passions of youth, lots of late night talks about their own children, about the future, about what it feels like to be fully alive. Are we living the lives we dreamed of, are we growing, are we part of the resistance or have we become part of the Empire without realizing. Because people, it happens. Oh Anakin! Months went by, and the weather grew a little colder back home in Pasadena, and I began to notice a strange phenomenon. My gravitational pull on a wide variety of people suddenly shifted. I was greeted with head tips, winks, thumbs up while on the street, in restaurants, pumping gas—from people I didn’t know. One discerning waiter realized I was not receiving the message he was throwing down, so he spoke slowly “love your jacket” and nodded to the patch. I figured I ought to google what the patch actually means. Turns out I am now a member of the rebel alliance. In a moment of colliding worlds, one guy said under his breath as he passed me on the sidewalk, “may the Force be with you,” and I replied, “and also with you.”

This has become more than an amusing story. It is a phenomenon. I imagine what an early Christian might have felt marking half an IXOYE in the sand: the response to this rebel patch is ubiquitous and serious. I no longer treat it as a joke: I try to see the person who comments, I try to hear what they asking for, craving. I imagine Yoda’s voice: “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things.”

The artist who is also an intercessor has goals that are often in conflict with those of the Empire—by which I mean the world presided over by Darth Vader. We know a great deal about this Empire because the zeitgeist of the last 20 years or so has overplayed it to excess. “Edgy”—was there ever a more tired word—is no longer the sordid, shocking, existential angst of the human condition: the dark underbelly is so lustfully over investigated that it now merely perpetuates the dark underbelly. What is hidden to us now are the forgotten characteristics of the resistance—the power of patience, the sweeping transformative dynamism of kindness, a love so potent it is capable of believing, hoping, and enduring all things. A love that never fails. I mean, of course, a life abandoned to the Force.

I work at Fuller Seminary. My job is to be the corporate storyteller—that’s my title: “Storyteller.” Now, being a “storyteller” at an institution of very serious graduate theological study is like being a court jester. When my new role was announced, an exec in the Office of Finance and Accounting asked “was the title ‘Dreamweaver’ already taken?” There are some who find it hard to take me seriously, and I try to have mercy on them. On the other hand, it’s a senior leadership role. That speaks volumes about the commitment of the Executive Office to knowing Fuller’s narrative, to knowing who we are. My job partly entails being editor-in-chief of a magazine cleverly called FULLER. (I know, right? It’s meta.) Like the court jester, I have little authority except to say whatever I feel I should say, and only the President can kill me.

I am an artist, specifically, a filmmaker. For the first decade at Fuller it was a mystery why God had me logging 10,000 hours getting better at something other than my calling, which is filmmaking—did I mention. Recently I have come to see that my outlier job as an artist at a graduate academy for the study of theology is not unlike the role required of me as an artist in the world. It is my job to be off the grid and to speak with candor about things that others will not or cannot say. This work, done in obedience to God is, I believe, a form of intercession.

I am not here just to talk about the rare and beautiful breed of artists who give their lives to their work the way you do, like monks who pray around the clock anonymously for the sake of the world. I am here to intercede, right now, for all of you. That is my work. I see you. I bring good news, that you are seen by your father in heaven—your deepest wounds and desires, your twitchy energetic passions and your bone-weariness, your paralyzing fears and your untapped capacities for joy. Here is the core message I bring today: you are loved.

First, let me define what I mean by “artist.” You have heard it said: “he’s a master of the deal, he’s an artist. She is a phenomenal preacher—she’s an artist. What that plumber can do with PVC—it’s an art.” This is exactly what I do not mean. I do not mean that someone is an artist merely by doing any work exceptionally well. I mean artist as maker of art. Someone on a lifelong continuum stretching from raw talent to apprentice to craftsman to—possibly but not necessarily—“artist.” Filmmaking is my discipline for bringing the story of the invisible into the light of the real: it is my role in the resistance.

Storytelling is how we become, how we take shape: as my friend Bobette Buster says, it has been ever thus. Contadoras around the campfire, Indian story dancers, Wayang shadow puppets, scapegoats, African tribal elders dressed as evil spirits—every culture tells its stories, enacts its plays, sings its songs, cultivates its legends, poems and metaphors. By story we re-member the past as a means of understanding the present. Story defines us because story is what we understand, what we retain, and what we repeat. Art is also the raw material from which archeologists and historians reconstruct the past: so much of what we understand about civilization comes from story—in the form of pictographs on a cave wall, papyrus texts hidden in earthenware pots, or tales that survive for centuries by word of mouth. Art is even the physical evidence of humanity that outlasts all others. Customs and mores, families and dynasties, laws and political movements emerge and disappear—but art endures to inform future generations, “this is who we were. Therefore, this is who you are.”

As our sister Nancy Beach reminded us last night, even God chose storytellers, poets, philosophers, dramatists and prophets to pen the Holy Scriptures, calling upon artists to articulate the mysteries where reason fails, calling upon artists to design and build the temple to hold his presence. King David sang when he was too vile to pray. In dialogue with the suffering Job, God spoke in poetry. If you are familiar with our good brother Mako Fujimura’s work, then you know that art is a means by which we are afforded access to the sacred—much as Moses was allowed to glimpse the glory of God without vaporizing. Art is the peripheral vision of faith.

So what does it mean to be an artist-intercessor? It means that your talent has not been given to you but rather to others through you. Scholar Jim Street writes, “the individual no more possesses the gift than a pipe possesses the water that moves through it.” What a paradigm shift from the way of the Empire! Your films are not about you being understood, admired, or known as someone who has meaningful things to say. It’s not about your identity at all.

This is the realization to which the artist-intercessor must come: that the work is not about or for you. Whether you are consumed with money or purpose, whether you are cool or dorky, whether you make a great living as an artist or whether you struggle through a day job to pay for your camera equipment—success is not judged by any of these things. Your purpose is to be the pipe through which the water moves.

“I cannot cause light;” author Annie Dillard says. “the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” In Holy the Firm Dillard writes of watching a candle flame consume a female moth. The moth’s abdomen caught in the wet wax and her wings “ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing.” Her antennae crackled, her legs disappeared and her body was reduced to a glowing shell. “And then,” relates Dillard, “this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick . . . She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.”

I first read that when I was 20 or so, and oh, I wanted nothing more than to be that wick, to burn and increase the circle of light in the clearing until I was blown out! What has happened that the world is so suspicious of us, that our art is so banal, our voices so faint? We are offering our lives just to increase the circle of light. If we found a recipe to relieve arthritis, or get red wine stains out of linen, we’d be heroes. So why has communicating the gospel, the good news, become so anathema? How did we become so universally mistrusted?

Some of the answer lies in the fact that we have become dis-acquainted with grief, using the Good News not as the undeserved grace that it is but rather as religious self-defense. Not attempts to alleviate another’s suffering. Not commitments to call all men brothers and all women sisters, but to prove ourselves not to blame.

No wonder people feel adrift in a dark sea when we offer such dim lights to illuminate them. When the Empire has succeeded in an epic misalliance of art and disbelief. Instead of risking ourselves to light a candle in that darkness, we criticize, we boycott, we grow powerless and afraid. We abdicate our leadership in the arts, or worse, we mimic the Empire’s lead. The bad art that is companion to this bad faith is more than sloppy craftsmanship. The church fearfully restricts artists from the exploration that is their divine calling. Consequently, the extreme borders of the Soul—from torment to ecstasy—are often without adventurers of faith.

It was not that long ago that faith and art were enemies, at least in many Western cultures. Many people did not even think to connect them. It was not always this way, and in some branches of the faith—such as Catholicism—art and the artist have not been anathema to the sacred environment. However, even as far back as the 18th century, German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher said, “Religion and art stand beside each other like two friendly souls whose inner relationship…is still unknown to them.”

I grew up in a world where you had to make a decision between being a minister and being an artist. A very narrow definition of what it meant to be a minister prevailed: Ministers were men, who stood behind podiums, and gave Sunday morning sermons. Choosing was easy for me because, as a woman, I was not invited to be that minister anyway. It is hard to imagine now, but the first people who said that ministry could take other forms were viewed askance—to say the least. It was one of those weird territorial divides that a generation breaks its back over only for the next generation to wonder what the heck.

It was more than a lack of imagination. It wasn’t that benign. It was fear. Fear—the enemy of perfect love. Persons of faith were scared to death of what persons of art might do, persons of art were scared to death of how persons of faith might judge. Gustave Flaubert is responsible for my favorite quote, which I first read carved into the doorway over the office of filmmaker David Puttnam when he was briefly the president of Columbia Pictures: be calm and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. Well, up until recently, persons of faith stood off as though they were the calm and orderly, and persons of art the violent and original. Neither is of much use without the other.

I began to believe that the church would suffer a great schism from the world unless we were able to reconcile these two estranged soul-callings, so I set out on what I realize now was really a personal pilgrimage. I talked first with artists in DC and New York. The next step in my journey took me to what was then Eastern Europe and on to the then USSR, and I interviewed artists who were totally confused when I asked about a possible relationship between faith and art. I encountered people who were angered by the question, and people who were surprised. I know this all sounds so historical now that everyone rolls their eyes about spirituality and art, but honestly, it was like trying to describe the internet to someone back in the 70s—like I was speaking in code.

I ended that series of conversations in Washington DC again with painter Ed Knippers. Ed paints monumental sized paintings, only biblical themes, and only nudes. He had one foot in the world and one in the church, where he has lived in limbo ever since. Even that long ago, he was resolved to being rejected by both sides. He has been told time and again by curators that his work would be in more museums if it just weren’t for the biblical themes. He has been told by clergy that his work would hang in churches if it just weren’t for the nudity.

Ed became for me the patron saint of intercession, or “standing in the gap.” I was in Russia with Ed and Bruce Herman when Leningrad had just become St. Petersburg again, and they went to visit the world famous Hermitage museum. They saw epic paintings of old masters never before seen by Westerners. Paintings, nevertheless, that were all biblical themes. The young docents were deeply educated in all ways except story—they had no idea what the paintings were about. Imagine Ed and Bruce standing there while their young docent Yulia (who happened to be a friend of mine) explained the painting process and technique and the life of the painter, while she had no idea why a man was standing calmly in the center of a golden pool of light surrounded by a drowsy pride of lions. When she realized that they knew the stories, one by one she called her colleagues over for Ed and Bruce to tell the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and David and Goliath, Salome dancing for the head of John the Baptist, and Ezekiel bringing the dry bones to life. Ed, who had been painting these themes all his artistic life and garnering the contempt of the art world for it, told these young men and women the Bible stories behind the paintings that they loved so much, and their good Russian faces were bathed in tears. Like my nephews in the halls of Industrial Light and Magic. Rembrandt AND Knippers, Titian AND Herman: they are the bearers of the story.

So, friends, not so long ago artists and ministers were not just unacquainted, they were hostile to one another. It is important for us to understand the deep history of division that still runs like a riptide under the surface of our lives as artists in the church.

Let me say a little more of what I mean by intercession. My mother, who took prayer very seriously, called intercession “standing in the gap,” by which she meant the one between earth and heaven. There is a story, probably apocryphal, of ancient Rhodes, and the statue of Colossus that stood at the entrance to the port. The story goes that the great Colossus spanned the mouth of the bay so that boats had to sail through his legs to enter port. Shakespeare referred to this idea in Julius Caesar. The statue did exist, though disappointingly on a single shore. Still it was one of the wonders of the ancient world.

We are tempted to imagine the artist-intercessor as the Colossus spanning the gap, towering grandly. But that’s not the right image at all, is it? That’s the Empire’s idea of being an artist. Look at Colossus, wonder of the world. Look upon him and marvel. But he did not stand in the gap for anyone. He, like so many, was simply a man on a pedestal.

Standing in the gap means to act on behalf of someone in difficulty or trouble; to attempt to reconcile differences between two people or groups; to mediate. In this way, the artist whose work is intercessory is analogous to Walter Brueggmann’s prophetic imagination. In his book on the subject he says, “The task of prophetic imagination is … to speak neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion.” Poet and writer Scott Cairns, in an issue of our good brother Gregory Wolfe’s IMAGE journal says “afflictions . . . get our attention. They wake us up. They help us to see more clearly than we saw before their occasion . . . the hard way is pretty much the only way we seem to learn anything.”

Here is my favorite poem—by Mizuta Masahide:

The barn burned down

Now I can see the moon

The Artist-intercessor stands in the gap between those two lines—in the ashes of “the barn burned down.” From there, she points to the moon. We are expected to live there, in that tension. Not to simply define the gap, or leave a warning sign, or fill it—but to bridge it so people can cross over. Brueggmann says that it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the Empire wants to urge as the only thinkable story. The poetic imagination is the last way left in which to challenge and conflict the dominant reality, he says. That is why every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.

He goes on to identify why we avoid all this lovely, noble-sounding work in the first place: “bringing hurt to public expression is an important first step in . . . permitting a new reality, theological and social, to emerge. . . . As long as the Empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.”

Here, again, the church follows right in line behind the Empire. We don’t like suffering either. We avoid violent, grief-filled psalms in our liturgies and stick to uplifting ones. Which aren’t so uplifting to people who are in pain or whose lives have been fractured by grief. Maybe that’s why the world doesn’t trust us. Maybe the world avoids hope because the church avoids suffering.

Romans 5:3–5 says, “but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

Listen to how this resonates with Yoda’s warning to Luke Skywalker: Fear, Yoda says, “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Romans gives us a path back from suffering again: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It’s not a list, it’s instructions: Plant your foot in suffering, plant it deep. Persevere. Build character, and then—one day—hope. Plant your other foot there, plant it deep. Then hold. Because your job is to bridge the gap between suffering and hope, and let the world cross over the bridge of you. Now we begin to see why it is so hard to live in the tension of intercession. Your work is not the bridge. You are.

Do you wonder or grieve over the idea that you are off the grid, as I did for so many years? That you don’t fit in—as I have felt for so long? What if that is our job? What if our greatest mistake is trying to fix what is actually our purpose in the world? To live in the tension?

Years ago, in pre-revolutionary Russia, a hermit lived on the outskirts of each village, and this hermit’s work was to pray, to help with the harvest, to listen and give counsel—but daily to pray. It was important that the hermit lived on the outskirts. It reminds me of Hebrews 13:11–13 “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” There is a reason we are supposed to be outside the gate. That’s where the suffering is.

The other day as I was leaving a restaurant, the waiter said loudly enough for me to hear, “is that a rebel alliance patch?” I stopped and turned around. Yes, it is, I replied. Are you loyal to the resistance? I asked him smiling and not smiling, are you living up to the Jedi code? And quite respectfully he replied, I’m trying.

If you are called as an artist to be an intercessor, you must be willing to be a living sacrifice, to go all in and you will be deeply miserable if you do not. I am not certain this applies to everyone, I’m just saying if it’s true for you, then you must join the alliance. Ever so gently and lovingly I say to you: Do or do not do, there is no try.

Thank you.