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I’m pleased to share with you this thoughtful reflection written by Karen Barker as part of a fall sermon series our church has been doing on the book of Exodus. Karen’s honest wrestling with her vocation as an artist and its tenuous relationship with the church resonates with so many of us who believe that art is more than something “frivolous”, and that our artists have a vital role to play in the renewal of the church’s worship and witness. – Brian Keepers
Over the years there has been a kind of love-hate relationship with the institutional church and my work as an artist. It is in the church that I have had the most push-back on my work. If the work isn’t winning souls, what is the point in doing it?
Or, acting cannot be good for a Christian because it is too self-serving and is about the applause. Or, acting is simply pretending, which is a pretty childish, even unchristian, thing for an adult to be doing. Or, it’s only entertainment and face it, most entertainment is of the devil at worst and a waste of time at best. Affirmation from the institutional church for such a seemingly frivolous thing has not been part of my experience.
So you can see why the following passage from Exodus (ch. 31) leapt out at me:
Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. 6 Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: 7 the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent— 8 the table and its articles, the pure gold lamp stand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, 9 the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand— 10 and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you.”
Now, I’ve read this passage before. Mostly what I read was how beautiful everything must have been. This time what came crashing in on me was the idea the God had filled Bezalel “with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills to make artistic designs.” Filled. With the Spirit of God. To be an artist. Really? If so, this changes things for me.
My acting students walk in the door of my classroom believing that the artistry of acting is fairly easy. In fact all you have to do is memorize dialogue and like the attention of everyone looking at you. When I tell them that being an actor takes the same kind of discipline being an athlete takes, they don’t believe me. I tell them that there is no actor genie who sprinkles acting dust on them when they’re born. There is no magic and no easy route to being an excellent actor. And it’s not a mystery. It is simple hard work. By the time they graduate, if I’ve done my job, they believe me.
But maybe that’s not all that it is. What if it’s more? I have been willing to say my artistry is my calling, though not very loudly since it seems more acceptable to say my calling is teaching. I have not, however, been willing to say I have been filled with God’s Spirit to do this work.
And that’s not all God does in this passage. God fills Bezalel with wisdom and with understanding. Flakey artists? Undisciplined and irresponsible artists? Immoral and unethical artists? Not here. Not in God’s story.
In his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch has a view of the new heaven and new earth that I love. Heaven is a place that, rather than abandoning everything we know, it is furnished with the best of what we have created. Redeemed creations. Not only the people, but the things as well. It is a place filled with the artifacts we have created. If that vision is true, I’d better come to terms with being filled with God’s Spirit to do my artistic work.
I look forward to seeing Bezalel’s gorgeous work with metals, stones, and wood in the New Jerusalem. Maybe he’ll let me enact stories of brokenness and redemption for him. I imagine he won’t ask me why I’ve spent my life on something so frivolous.
Karen Barker is Professor of Theatre and Dean of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern College. This reflection first appeared on the blog of Trinity Reformed Church on November 17, 2017.