A meditation on Isaiah 52:13-15, offered by Jamie Howison at the first in our series of Wednesday evening Lenten services
In his book Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, the philosopher of aesthetics Calvin Seerveld offers the following observations around what it might mean for an artist of faith to create a truly Christian art:
What really has given ‘christian art’ its bad name has been the cheap way that stock motifs such as conversions, happy endings or Bible phrases are popped in like vitamin pills to pep up one-dimensional, outdated material which is then sold as ‘Christian novels,’ ‘Christian plays,’ or ‘Christian songs.’ Using Christ in that way is, in my judgment, taking his Name in vain. You do not get the rare pearl of Christian art by dubbing in a few crosses or chalices, or by draping a good-old-days kind of atmosphere around a trite plot. Christian art in our days, I believe, will take suffering to produce.
While that might sound as if Seerveld is drawing on the old stereotype of the so-called “tortured artist,” this is not at all the case. What he is pointing to is the reality that in our current social and cultural context for the Christian artist to do his or her art authentically is to risk rejection, marginalization, misunderstanding.
But why, really, should that surprise us? So many of the people we point to as heroes in this faith were rejected and misunderstood; people who suffered for the sake of their gospel vocations. Think, for instance, of 20th century figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom not only suffered, but actually died for the sake of that in which they believed.
And then think of Jesus, whose life was lived in such perfect accord with the Sermon on the Mount that the dominant powers of his own day seemed to see little option but to put him to death.
But for all that, suffering is a word we don’t much like. It is a dead end; we all want a comfortable life and a painless death.
We’re not the first ones to wish for such a path in life, which is why when the prophet Isaiah sings his strange songs of God’s suffering servant we should recall that his original audience found them all at least as baffling as we do… maybe even more so.
The great heroes of recent memory in Isaiah’s world were kings, particularly David and his son Solomon. Sure, David had paid his dues when he was forced to flee from King Saul and to earn his keep as a bandit and a mercenary. But even in the worst of days, David never ceased dreaming of establishing a proper kingdom, with a royal city, a palace, a holy temple (which, of course, he was never to build…). And in spite of his reputation for being a man of great wisdom, Solomon really defined himself by his building projects, his wealth, and the strength of his standing army. This is how God’s presence should be made manifest in a proper kingdom, right?
Which makes those songs of Isaiah all the more odd and enigmatic. In the brief passage we read aloud tonight—just three verses, which more or less set the course for all that will follow during these Lenten Wednesday evenings—we heard language of exaltation regarding this servant of the Lord, but also words that point to his humiliation, brokenness, and suffering: “so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals.”
Who is this servant of the Lord, who in and through his mortification, “shall startle many nations,” causing even kings—kings, of all people—to “shut their mouths because of him” in a kind of jaw-dropping silence? Who did the prophet Isaiah have in view when he first offered these songs? Frankly it is impossible to know; and maybe Isaiah himself didn’t really have a clue about the subject of his songs. Judaism has long seen the servant as being Israel itself—Israel broken and defeated by Babylon, and Israel rebuilt against all odds. The Christian tradition has read these songs as pointing to Jesus Christ—broken in his crucifixion, and radically vindicated in his resurrection. And maybe both are good and fair and true readings. “The claim,” observes Walter Brueggemann, “is that both Jews and Christians have seen in their own history, in quite particular ways, the capacity and willingness of this God to do something new through suffering. [It is] a deeply inscrutable claim that speaks powerfully against common worldly insistences that suffering is a dead end with no future…”
We are tempted, in our sometimes numbingly comfortable society, to imagine that there is nothing worse than death—nothing worth dying for, in fact—and that suffering is to be avoided at all costs. Yet through the words of the prophet Isaiah we are challenged to recall that to God suffering is not necessarily a dead end, and death does not—cannot—have the final word. God’s “new thing” can and will break in, even when all seems to have ended in defeat.
So artists of vision will create truth-telling pieces of art or music, without any guarantee that they will be recognized, much less able to make a living; Martin Luther King will challenge a movement to resist returning hatred with more hate, Bonhoeffer will utter his defining “no” to the killing spirit of Naziism, and both will end up being killed for their efforts; and from an executioner’s cross Jesus will utter those jaw-dropping words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And in the midst of what at times can seem to be only loss and defeat, God’s new thing will again have broken through. We are to be a people trained to look upon a cross of wood, and to dare to see in it not merely a death, but also what Frederick Buechner called “the magnificent defeat.”
 Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves (Toronto: Toronto Tuppence Press, 2000), 17.