February 3, 2016

An Artist's Vocation in All of Life

The following was written as a feature article for Lutheran Forum, an independent theological quarterly for clergy and laity, with contributing authors from the ELCA and LCMS. It will appear in the spring 2016 edition.

It may seem cliché, but it was like being on a different planet. I stood underneath the massive dome of Sta. Maria del Fiore in Florence, gazing up at one of the greatest engineering feats of the last two millennia. I marveled at the scale of Vassari’s "Last Judgment" fresco, which covered the dome’s interior. The cavernous void between the vaults and the smooth marble floors was enough to induce vertigo. The whispers of awed visitors carried through the space with crystal clarity. I wondered, why was this place of worship so completely alien to the experience of an American Lutheran?

I know that I’m not the first Lutheran artist to visit magnificent churches in Europe and to be astonished by them. But for me, it wasn’t just a romantic escape f
rom the rural American landscape—it was a burning bush experience. It’s hard to imagine seeing works by Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Carravagio, and not being utterly transformed by them. They are beautiful, to be sure. And for a student of art history, visiting Florence is like making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But gazing at those old masterpieces, I felt the uncanny urge to remove my sandals for a different reason. They weren’t just individual “expressions” of faith—they were more akin to a divine collaboration. God was indeed present there, in more ways than one.

I wanted to make art like that. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and produce the kind of work that would transform a bland, Lutheran landscape into the kind of sublimely spiritual experience that Europeans had produced more than 500 years ago. But first I would have to make Lutherans want it. They seem to be happy with the status quo: white walls, plain glass, a steep roofline and a couple of empty crosses. Why had the visual arts, which once had flourished in the Lutheran church, almost disappeared? Whatever the reason, I was resolved to remedy it.

Since that hallowed Italian experience, I’ve come to understand my own artistic vocation much more deeply. It didn’t come to me in a flash of inspiration in the Duomo. It came by reading Holy Scripture, by the instruction of wise mentors, by reading the works of studied men of faith, and by personal experience.

The Word of God is always the best place to begin and end. For many years, I was ignorant of this passage from scripture (if I had read it before, I had probably glossed over it as many do with those tedious Levitical laws): “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri... and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze... And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you’” (Exodus 31:1-4,6). God called Bezalel by name. For any artist struggling with whether or not art can be a “legitimate” vocation, the answer is there in holy writ. Add to it that Bezalel is the first person in the Bible of whom it is said that one was “filled with the Spirit of God.” If that doesn’t light a fire under you, what will?

Unfortunately for me, Bezalel wasn’t on my radar in graduate school, and I was deeply conflicted. I was attending a secular school for the first time in my life, because I felt this need to make my artistic abilities into something “productive” for a career. I found myself suppressing my desire to make overtly Christian works of art. On some level, I didn’t want to face criticism from my faculty and peers of various faiths. I never denied my Christian faith, but I was trying to compartmentalize my faith life and my vocation. It took a devout Catholic mentor to talk some sense into me. James Langley is a liturgical artist working and teaching in Savannah, Georgia. I interned with him as a studio assistant, where he saw in me a suppressed desire to make sacred art. He nurtured that spark, and advised me to do my Master’s thesis on resurrecting liturgical art. The paper practically wrote itself, and to my surprise, my faculty advisers were thrilled with it. In time, I realized that Langley was the latest in a long line of teachers, mentors, and family members who had been gently encouraging me in this direction from my childhood. I finally grabbed it by the horns.

As it turns out, fulfilling one’s vocation is not as simple as just accepting it as a reality. It took a good deal of wrestling with disappointments—one after the other. I did manage to get a teaching job at a Lutheran college shortly after graduate school, but rewarding though it was, it wasn’t the “big break” I was hoping for. I kept at it, working part-time jobs, pushing mops and doing whatever it took to pay the rent. With a wife and kids, I was less willing or able to put everything on the line to go and chase that dream job—even if it is the one I thought God wanted me to have. Things just seemed stagnant. Had I not paid my dues? I kept asking myself. Then I would mentally slap myself. You don’t earn God’s grace. “It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9).

Be patient. God knows best. My parents had recommended Gene Edward Veith’s God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life to me. When I read it, it was my second big wake-up call. It opened my eyes to my other vocations—in the home, as a husband and father; at my workplaces, as an employee; and as a Christian, to my church, and to everyone around me. Whether or not I was making a living with my artwork, I had opportunities to show Christ’s love to countless people. I had no right to despise those everyday vocations simply because they were not the one vocation I felt most passionate about. This helped to take the anxiety out of waiting for something big to happen. When the fog of self-pity had cleared, it allowed me to see that God was working small things for my good all the time—and my business was steadily growing. Every year I was getting more clients, more opportunities, and more exposure.

Realizing that vocation is not about finding the right “career” is incredibly liberating. It’s about serving God and one’s neighbor; it’s about providing for one’s family. How could I do all of those things, while exercising my unique gifts? That’s what vocation is about. Vocation is always in the present. When I saw a need that could be filled, I filled it. I started designing logos for Lutheran churches. I started teaching for Wittenberg Academy, an online Lutheran high school. I started creating church banner designs that have theological depth and artistic integrity. I even did a smattering of web design projects. Sure, those jobs are less glamorous than making an altar painting for a cathedral or being a consultant for an extensive church renovation project, but they are rewarding in their own right. I get to mold young minds with a Lutheran understanding of the arts. I get to help churches make a visual confession about who they are and what they teach. And most importantly, I have the joyous privilege of helping people focus their eyes and hearts on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.

It’s all about Jesus. Christ lived for me. Christ died for me. Christ rose for me. If ever our work becomes about us, it will seem like drudgery. Worse, it muddies the water instead of clearly proclaiming Christ. When I paint for the church, I don’t set out to express myself. What inspired such awe in me when viewing the works of the old masters is that however great the artist’s talent, the work was most powerful when it was subordinated to Christ and his Word. It was as if God’s hand was moving in tandem with the artist’s, in order to show his love to generations of viewers. The painting or sculpture becomes a kind of veil behind which we can glimpse a portion of God’s glory, his artistry, and his reckless love for mankind. It’s humbling to think that God may choose to use my brush, my hands, to accomplish that.

As I said before, the Word is a good place to begin and end. “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2). Perseverance sums up the Christian life pretty well. Don’t expect glamor and riches and fame. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Run the race. Remember that Christ has already won it for you—and Christ himself is the prize.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jonathan Mayer