The Christian artist often fears that what they creates lacks importance, and has no place in a missional life. Taking the time to create art feels to them, at best, like a selfish use of time. This false belief has had the effect of keeping the Church from firing a highly effective spiritual weapon: art that transfigures, or reveals to the world the ultimate nature of things.
All true art is transfigurational. True art takes something ordinary and mundane, like language, and shows it for what it is. The fact that humans can make sounds, communicate meaning, write poetry, and worship, is a wonder so well-established and often underappreciated we need to be reminded. The transfigurational artist cannot take full credit for his work; he is simply reminding people of the wonder of God and his creation. The work not about him, but about invoking worship of God (even if the artist is unaware of this, which is a topic for another time).
During the Transfiguration, Jesus’ human nature was peeled back, and his true nature shone forth. The revealed God-light all but blinded the disciples, and sent them scurrying to their tents. They came down from the mountain with a different understanding of Jesus, having witnessed his true nature. Similarly, transfigurational art takes a red wheelbarrow and makes it shine. On William Carlos William’s prescription pad, the wheelbarrow shines in all its strangeness and wonder. Stories like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter can be called transfigurational in that they remind us of the literal reality of our spiritual war, and provide an additional avenue for experiencing, at a heart level, Biblical truths.
Non-transfigurational art, on the other hand, is attempted idolatry, and should not hold the same label of art. It attempts to draw worship not to God but to the author, who is a poor god and unfit for worship. Currently, our world bears the wounds of non-transfigurational art that points to the glory of man, of earning (both position and money), and of comfort. If one were to trace the roots, one would find that human trafficking, poverty, and genocide are all touched by these non-transfigurational narratives.
Transfiguration can happen even in stories that seem to contain overwhelming evil. When done in the proper spirit, the inclusion of serious darkness makes the promised victory of light all the more magnetic. These accounts can be reminders that even dark events have meaning, and can be woven into God’s narrative of good (Romans 8:28). It does not need to condone them to remind us that they are real, and that they have importance. Take Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic tale of a father and son, The Road (in both film and novel versions), which contains this beautiful little gospel within the utter devastation:
The Boy: What would you do if I died?
The Man: If you died I would want to die too.
The Boy: So you could be with me?
The Man: Yes. So I could be with you.
Seen this way, the place of this type of art is missional lifestyle of a disciple of Christ is clear. Transfigurational art can be a part of reshaping our broken narratives, providing healing to the world, and aiding in the migration of things held in the head to things held in the heart. Many of our battles – both in our personal growth and in the journey of disciple-making – take place between the truth of Christ and the false narratives adopted along the way. As Paul writes, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Part of our work making disciples is helping people to form new narratives in which they can see and experience our beautiful Christ. Transfigurational art is an underused weapon in this battle.
Tyler Russell lives in Central Pennsylvania with his wife, Cat, and their 5 children where he teaches high school English and explores the connection between faith and art. His writing has appeared in Apiary Magazine and at RelevantMagazine.com, among others. He and his wife have also recently become active in the fight against human trafficking.