Art as Propaganda or Presence?
Sometimes the experience of a creative person—whether a writer, visual artist, musician, or whatever—is similar to the experience of the disciples who traveled along the road to Emmaus shortly after Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem.
As Luke recounts the story, two discouraged followers of Jesus were making a long journey on foot as they conversed about the extraordinary and entirely unexpected events of the preceding weeks. This Jesus whom they had chosen to follow was unlike any other man they had ever met, and there was something about his personality and presence that just simply was “not of this world.” How unimaginable that such a man would be pursued, arrested, tried, and sentenced to die ignominiously like a common thief. In fact, he was crucified between two thieves. Where was God in all this? Why had it happened? And how could they go on living their lives as they had before meeting Jesus?
Lost in feelings of despair and confusion, these two travelers probably didn’t notice the solitary traveler until he was already upon them. And when they began to speak with him they were stunned at his seeming ignorance of the recent events that had brought them to such a devastating sense of loss. But this stranger seemed unsurprised with the story they told him, and with his words he fashioned another way of understanding what these events really meant. He used the Scriptures to suggest a different way of comprehending the tragic outcome of the story, as though it was ultimately less tragic than they thought.
When they finally arrived at their destination, they urged the mysterious stranger to share a meal with them. He broke the bread and blessed it. Only then were their eyes opened and they finally understood the identity of their companion on the journey. In a moment of revelation they grasped that they had been walking alongside Jesus the entire way without realizing it. And in a flash, at that very moment, he disappeared from their sight.
Isn’t this how spiritual realities often intersect with the creative process? We go about our work, faithfully creating. Our work sometimes leads us in directions we don’t even fully understand, sometimes finding ourselves confused about its meaning and purpose. And then there is an Emmaus moment. God reveals himself in the midst of the work we are doing, blessing it with a revelatory presence that lifts it above anything we would have been capable of crafting. In the midst of telling our stories, painting our pictures, and writing our songs about the tragic truths of this sometimes harsh world in which we live—a world of inexplicable pain, mixed messages, and confounding confusion, something happens that is beyond us…and God breaks through with a deeper story than the one we intended to tell.
Our attentive readers, viewers, listeners can experience the same kind of breakthrough as they share in what we have created. To be an Emmaus artist is to know that one cannot manufacture such moments. When we try to do that we only produce religious propaganda, which might speak of truth but does so in a way that fails to truly ignite hearts and imaginations.
Instead, the Emmaus artist simply does their work and does it to the best of their ability, and allows God to be the one who breaks through all its imperfections to offer a glimpse of the most beautiful truths. We go about our business with an attentive eye to the divine intrusion that may make itself felt at any moment in what we are creating. And sometimes, like the travelers in the story, “our hearts burn within us.”
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