Dave Everson

Why art?

Eugene Peterson

Metaphor keeps us from being spectators of language by forcing us to be participants in it. And isn’t that what we’re after? We don’t want our congregations to pass Bible exams but to live out of the living Word. Unfortunately, some exegetes have tried to nail down Scripture’s earthy metaphors by exchanging them for abstract truths. But metaphor is not a truth; it is, taken literally, a lie–an intentional lie to shake you out of your spectator complacency and get you involved in the language itself.

… We can’t be passive before a metaphor; we have to imagine and enter into it.

— Eugene Peterson[1]

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about art lately–what it is, why it matters, how to pursue it. I came across this passage today, and it’s among the most helpful justifications for art I’ve found in my recent work.

It comes from an examination of Paul’s use of metaphor in his letter to the Romans. But the principle can be applied to all kinds of creative expression: Good art won’t let you simply watch; it forces you to engage with its subject. It puts a “here” or a “somewhere else” in front of you and asks, is this as it should be? or is this where you ought to be?

Sometimes art asks rhetorically; sometimes it demands a specific, relevant, personal answer. Either way, art pokes at the status quo of your interior world or of your external, tangible reality. As it pokes, it asks you to make a choice: either justify the way things are or change.

That’s one reason (among many others) that art ought not to be removed from the experience of Christian faith. Like art, Jesus doesn’t allow us to be passive observers–of ourselves or the universe. Jesus calls us to follow him, and following always requires some kind of movement from “here” to “somewhere else.”

Jesus asks the same pointed question that good art asks: can you justify the way things are? If not, then follow me to a better place. After a time, he asks again. Later, he asks again. And later still, another ask. Opportunities to follow or not follow are unending.

Good art trains us to hear Jesus’ call. Sometimes, it actually carries his call to us. Always it expects an answer.

[1] From Eugene Peterson & Marva Dawn, The Unnecessary Pastor; (Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), p. 71. I bought this book more than 10 years ago thinking, “this will be good someday.” That day has come, and it is indeed a tremendous book. Find it here »

Photo Credits
Eugene Peterson: Clappstar, CC-BY-3.0