A crying need for Gospel artists

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi

IN EXILE

October 11, 1999

In the literary world a distinction is made between a critic and an artist. A critic assesses things, an artist produces them.

Would that we made such a distinction within theology and Church circles because what we most desperately need today is not more criticism but more art, not more theological critics but more Gospel artists.

This is particularly true as regards the issue of evangelization in the Western world. It is pretty generally agreed upon that we need a new inculturation of the Gospel, a new look at what communications technology is doing to us and a new model for adult education. Everywhere there is a sense that the old ways no longer work well enough and that we need a breakthrough.

We are not short on energy, literature and courses on the subject. We are just short on results. Despite our best efforts, we are nowhere near a breakthrough.

Why? Because, first of all, it is easier to make a diagnosis than to find a prescription. Hence, the literature is long on diagnostics but short on real remedy.

I say this with sympathy. It is not easy to know what we should be doing today to more effectively give the faith to our children. As a result, most of the time we talk about the problem, point out how important it is and go on to say that we must address it.

Valuable though this is, ultimately, it is still talk about process, about starting conversations, about paradigm shifts, and about our present malaise. None of it is the Gospel itself. It is criticism in the technical sense, valuable in its own way.

But the critic is not the artist. The critic talks about something that somebody else produces. In the end, he does not write the play, paint the canvas or make the music. The artist does. He or she produces what the critic talks about.

Too often in theology and Church circles, because we do not distinguish between criticism and art, criticism passes itself off as theology. The result is that we get ever more sophisticated analytical tools but do not produce much at all.

Our poverty today as regards evangelization is not so much lack of good critical thought as lack of good artists, Gospel artists. What we lack are theologians, preachers, teachers, songwriters, painters and the like who can make new images that can take the word of God, with all the timeless truth and revelation it carries, and give it genuine aesthetic expression within today's experience. No easy task. Good art never is.

Moreover this involves infinitely more than simply finding a better technique, a more sensitive process or using the media in more sophisticated ways. Good preaching or teaching (religious "art") is never a question of being the cleverest, of using the most modern techniques or sensitive processes, of finding the really imaginative stories, or even of having a fertile imagination.

It is, first of all, having within oneself a real integration of faith, personal integrity, genuine empathy, and the capacity to carry tension. That is the initial basis, though more is required to be a religious artist. To be a Gospel artist, one has to create a new language. Unless, like a Mother Teresa, one's very person has become a sacred word, it is not enough to simply repeat the classical words of Scripture, dogma, Christian history and classical piety – good and true though these be in themselves.

To preach effectively is to make up a new language, as the original Gospel writers did and as good art does. In this case, that language has to carry the truth of revelation, fire the imagination, speak directly to actual experience, and have such an inner rhythm and aesthetics, such an integrity of sound and image, that it implants itself naturally in the mind and heart as a software.

Trying to do this is in fact like learning a foreign language, only more difficult, because in this case you have to create the language as you learn it. There are no short-cuts to this. Like learning how to play the piano or figure-skate, it takes countless hours of painful work to get anywhere and the initial efforts are generally discouraging.

The good news though is that some of it is happening. Slowly, partly in baby talk, a new language for preaching and teaching is emerging.

We do not, as yet, have a new St. Augustine, but among others in the Henri Nouwens, Thomas Mertons, Daniel Berrigans, Jim Wallises, John Sheas, Elizabeth Johnsons, Robert Barrons, Richard Rohrs, and Mary Jo Leddys of our time we see some fragments of real Gospel art. We need to show some of this to our children.

(Website: www.ronrolheiser.com)