As we have recently been reading through the writings of the prophet Isaiah, the connections between prophets and artists have been circulating around in my brain more frequently than usual. A couple of months ago, I attended a conference about the places where art and faith intersect. This is where I was first presented with the idea of prophets and artists having similar experiences and expressions in creativity, and the perspective of seeing prophets as performance artists. Additionally, coupled with my recent readings of Scripture, particularly the prophets and the Gospels, these insights have been so helpful for me as I seek to draw more meaningful parallels in my own mind. I understand the experiences and perspective of poets, prophets, and artists to be based upon the notions of performative elements, the use of veiled language, and a special ability to see more deeply beyond the physical appearance. These creatives observe, process, understand, and project their ideas in a unique way, and as consumers and observers of their work, we should extend a more concerted effort to reflect with these processes in mind. Also, by considering these kinds of work in light of this methodology, we can better appreciate works whose meanings are difficult to understand. In short, we can no longer be dismissive of creative expression just because it doesn’t make sense to us.
For many modern readers, poetry is often an extremely difficult kind of writing to understand. A lot of us haven’t had a lot of exposure to this sort of material, especially poetry that is metaphorical or has an indirect meaning (which, to be honest, is true for most poems). Our lack of experience puts us readers at a disadvantage. Looking specifically at the book of Isaiah, in many of the chapters, the author uses unclear metaphors that leave the reader unsure about how specific or general he means the warnings, blessings, and instructions for his audience to be. Isaiah uses symbolism, flowery language, and comparisons in elements of his contemporary culture. Many of these poetic devices are lost on our modern readings of the prophetic words of Isaiah. However, when we consider the cultural, historical, and religious contexts in place around the time of Isaiah, it helps us better understand the imagery he uses in his writing. In the case of Isaiah, it may be beneficial for us not to take quite such a literal reading of the written words. Contextual understanding, alongside the poetic nature of his writing structure, gives the readers permission, and even encouragement, to look beyond the actual words and investigate some possible deeper revelations.
I do not believe that it is mere coincidence that when Jesus came to earth, He often spoke in parables, or symbolic and metaphorical stories. When Jesus shared with His disciples and the larger crowds, He described the Kingdom of Heaven in a variety of ways, generally in a comparative kind of way. Like the Old Testament prophets, Christ used these kinds of literary devices to convey an eternal and incomprehensible thing to broken, sinful, and finite humans. In both the time of the Israelites in the Old Testament, and the first century in the Roman Empire, oral storytelling was the primary method of sharing information with others. The written word was utilized in sacred texts, government documentation, and among the elite of the time. However, spoken word was so much more prevalent in these societies. Narrative was a crucial part of this oral tradition, and as a man, Jesus’ words were certainly entrenched in this tradition. His eternal perspective as the second Person in the Trinity meant that He understood the world and the Kingdom of God in a much different way than the human beings He spent time with during His three-year ministry on earth. Christ used parables as a means of relaying complex and eternal ideas in a comparative kind of way because temporal language falls short of conveying ideas about eternity. By using metaphor, simile, and comparative kinds of descriptions, Jesus’ parables are similar in their structure to the kinds of literary devices used by prophets in the Old Testament who were trying to communicate visions of Heaven from God. Even John’s writing of the book of Revelation is similar in many parts where he is describing the visions given to him about the return of the Lamb and the End of Days.
One of the major skills that artists possess is the ability to see beyond what is obviously in front of them. Good artists have a keen and deep sense of observation; they can see more than what is there. In my understanding of the artists from the past, this ability to observe is the most important skill an artist can have and develop for their craft. Skills like realistic portrayal of objects, drawing copies of Old Masters’ works, and accurate representation of the human form are all things can be learned. However, when the artist functions as the “seer” (not in the mystical sense, but more in the prophetic sense), the artist moves from being a “good artist” to being an artist who can capture ideas, feelings, and the world around them. When an artist is aligned with her sense of sight (both the literal and the spiritual), there is great potential for the creation of something really wonderful. Being able to see something with a new perspective is one of the hallmarks of truly talented artists. Braque and his Cubism, Matisse and his Fauvism, and Cassatt and her Impressionism were all artists who used their gifts of observation to see the world differently, and make these visions manifest in their paintings.
In Ken Gire’s book, Windows of the Soul, he describes how Solomon writes about his own practice in the book of Proverbs:
“Solomon lived his life that way, looking to see exactly what was there in the everyday moments of his life. One of those moments is preserved for us in the book of Proverbs:
I went past the field of the sluggard,
Past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;
Thorns had come up everywhere,
The ground was covered with weeds,
And the stone wall was in ruins.
I applied my heart to what I observed
And learned a lesson from what I saw:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest --
And poverty will come on you like a bandit
And scarcity like an armed man.
Solomon sees thorns, weeds, and a broken-down wall. But through them he sees something else. He sees the owner’s soul, or at least a glimpse of it.
But having seen it, Solomon doesn’t shake his head and walk away. He stays. He keeps looking. And through the tangled overgrowth he spots a parable: Casual neglect leads to catastrophic loss. He gleans something from this individual field that applies to whatever field is under our care, whether it’s a backyard row of tomatoes or a budding family or a burgeoning business.”
Poets, prophets, and visual artists all use their abilities to see the world in a deeper way, as well as to create representations of their visions using symbolism, metaphor, and comparison. The thread that each of these special people share is the way that they perceive their surroundings, process them, and use their observations to make something powerful. May we keep looking, keep seeing, and not turn away, even if what we see is challenging or thorny.