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‘The Pastor: How Artists Shape Pastoral Identity’ by Eugene Peterson

August 5, 2010

In chapter 4 of For the Beauty of the Church, Eugene Peterson introduces us to three artists who shaped his pastoral integrity. The first artist painted a portrait of what he would look like if he let himself be swallowed by pastoral professionalism. The portrait was chilling, and Peterson confessed to keeping it in his closet to remind him that his pastoral vocation should never be “drowned out by job descriptions gussied up in glossy challenges and visions and strategies clamoring incessantly” for attention (85). The second artist Peterson compares to Bezalel, because he helped design his first church just as Bezalel was in charge of designing the Tabernacle in the wilderness. This contemporary Bezalel helped Peterson realize that worship is not just about proclamation, but “the formation of salvation, detail by detail, day by day, in the bodies of men and women and babies, neighborhoods, homes, and workplaces” (95). The third artist was a member of Peterson’s congregation who became his personal artist-in-residence, the one who “saw the unseen in the seen, heard the no-longer-heard in the heard. She perceived forms and relations in what had become disjointed, broken into fragments by inattention.” Pastors can so easily become blind and deaf to the form and sound of glory all around us, which is why Peterson maintains that pastors need artists.

Peterson’s essay is so good because it shows us how pastors and artists can work together and how artists can serve the church through a series of practical examples. So often we can talk about these ideas in the abstract, but it is really helpful to have some stories to imagine these ideas. If you at all familiar with Peterson’s writings, you will know that one of his overarching passions is that pastors themselves are artists. In working with words and in the medium of personal relationships, the pastor is called to craft beauty in the everyday, the everyday suffused with eternal glory. To remember and follow this artistic vocation, however, the pastor needs other artists, artists like the three examples Peterson gives in this essay. What is more, we can draw several implications from Peterson’s insights regarding the role of the artists in the church in general. Here are three:

First, churches should not just have “artist communities” or an “artist small group,” but should view artists as integral to the leadership and direction of the entire church. Peterson’s church would not have been the same if not for his contemporary Bezalel. Who are the Bezalels in your church?

Second, churches should not just be places that welcome artists but that communicate their need for artists. This is a subtle distinction, but sometimes churches can have the appearance of being “artist friendly” but are content for artists to do their own thing or little decorative projects that do not affect the core of the church. Artists should be at the core, not the fringe.

Third, artists keep the church faithful to our mission through their prophetic witness. Peterson’s examples include artists who woke him up to his true vocation and provided gospel vision when his was in danger of becoming blurry. In other words, artists do not just provide style, but reorient us to the substance of our faith.

Peterson wisely summarised his advise to pastor colleagues and by implication the whole church: “Make friends with the artist. Let him rip off the veils of habit that obscure the beauty of Christ in the faces we look at day after day. Let her restore color and texture and smell to the salvation that has become disembodied in a fog of abstraction.” (101)

[*The image is ‘Rubble #1’ by Laura Jennings, featured at the beginning of this chapter in For the Beauty of the Church. On his blog, David Taylor explains why he chose this piece, and you can read his post explaining all his excellent choices here.]

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    August 5, 2010 10:15 am

    On Peterson’s first point: this makes sense, and I don’t know whether Peterson goes into it or or not, but it’s really just a reminder of how all members of the church need to be treated. Those with particular gifts should not just be given a place in the corner to use them and to fellowship with others who have the same gift.
    Related both to his first and second point are ideas I’ve been researching: how art can make its own contribution to theology, and how art-making can in some cases be a spiritual discipline. Combining this with understanding of how broad “the arts” really are as a category makes it clear why art should be part of the core of the church.

  2. August 5, 2010 12:57 pm

    Just a brief clarification: the three points that I mentioned are implications of Peterson’s chapter, not specific points that he made.

    But I definitely think you are right, Ben, that making art is a spiritual discipline like all other disciplines. But I think art making is also different than other disciplines (and hence has a unique contribution) because of its power in interpreting and presenting reality.

  3. Anna permalink
    August 8, 2010 11:26 am

    It occurred to me that the portrait was evocative of Joyce’s “portrait of the artist as a young man”. Equally chilling!

    Ah, your clarification is helpful. I was wondering if i’d missed something!

    As for your points:
    1. seeing artists as integral to the leadership and direction of the entire church.
    This makes so much sense. Recognising the gifting of each member of the body, and encouraging the development and flourishing of each member is a challenge, but oh what growth for the whole community could come out of that!

    2. Having artists at the core is scary. It is risky when you let go of controlling everything about the liturgy or the conduct of the community. I think the possibilities for the negatives are diminished when discipleship and development of character and a fear of the Lord are encouraged and pushed to the forefront.

    3. I think this third point is the most important! I really appreciate this conception of the role of the artist as prophet but without the assertion of the certainty of every artist also having prophetic gifts.

    I really appreciated the pieces Taylor chose also – thanks for sharing the link to the reasons for his choices!

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