The Preacher as Artist

Peter Sellick’s beautiful article on this topic refers us approvingly to Archbishop Rowan Williams’ critique of the anthropocentric Renaissance view of the artist as "a creative genius who imposes his will on his artistic material." Williams proposes a return to the earlier, more self-effacing vision of the artist as a humble "midwife ... discovering what is already there but unseen." The point of Williams’ criticism is that in the modern context the artist is excessively centre stage, posing as a divine dominator over the artistic material and sometimes arrogantly feels that a work without shock value is of no value at all. Sellick’s examples of the exhibition by Duchamp of a urinal and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ make the point tellingly. No doubt the Renaissance artists would have recoiled in horror at the thought that their anthropocentrism could lead to such artistic fraudulence but of course that is what happens when an idea is taken to extremes. If, therefore, we propose the analogy of the preacher as artist, then we too probably have to beware of this self-serving artistic Zeitgeist. We would do well also to revisit the idea of the artist as a more retiring, backroom figure, someone who is a midwife of truth, of that which is already there, rather than as the look-at-me, centre-stage performer who purports, through the imposition of a creative, sovereign will, to fashion his or her ’own’ truth. One wonders sometimes whether the preaching of some of the tele-evangelism churches, which seems to be so personality-based, is not partly a manifestation of this form of egotism. A reflection on this view of the artist might help us preachers foster a deeper humility before the Word of God and avoid some of the classic temptations of our trade such as twisting the scripture to our own purposes (often because of our need to moralize), explaining how difficult it was to prepare this particular homily or playing to the galleries with stories that miss the scripture’s point. Sellick is also moralizing of course but the good news in his article is that the art of preaching, like art generally, should be delightful with the delight engendered by the discovery and expression of the ’truthful insight’. Chris Chatteris, S.J.
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