September 23, 2020

Len Wilson: The Unnecessary Tragedy of Artists and the Church

st james church

Note from CM: A regular reader emailed me about an article that impressed him, encouraging me to consider it for IM. So I went to Len Wilson’s blog and was likewise stimulated by his words and insights. I have added Len’s site to our Blogroll, and recommend that you check it out. He introduces today’s piece by saying, “This post is a tribute to my friend Dr. Paul Bonneau and a call for the church universal to understand the soul of the artist. I wrote it in response to the news that he’d passed away.”

Thanks, Len, for this fine contribution, and the permission to use it.

* * *

The Unnecessary Tragedy of Artists and the Church
by Len Wilson

It’s these little things, they can pull you under.
Live your life filled with joy and wonder.
I always knew this altogether thunder
was lost in our little lives.

My desire to create a space in the church for artists took on a new meaning today. A friend and colleague from my former church has unexpectedly passed away.

Paul was a pan-seared spirit, a conductor and musician perhaps born out of time. He was a dapper dresser, quick with a compliment or a snarky comment at my choice of shirt or shoes. Once he picked a piece of lint off my shoulder and told me I was too nice looking a person to walk around with fuzz. Every week in our worship meeting, Paul sat in his corner chair with coffee, mostly quiet but quick to bellow at someone’s gallows humor. When pressed he would engage in conversations that poked below the surface of church life, such as the relationship of faith and doubt.

Like any artist, Paul believed in honesty. It scared some pastors and churchy folks, but fellow artists among our staff and volunteer cadre of worship planners valued his low filter for lies and stupidity. Though I don’t know this for sure, I think that Paul struggled with depression. If so, it was perhaps related to the fact that artists abhor truth dissonance, and often have a hard time living in the suspended chord that is the body of Christ.

Of course, our cynical age covers truth in a vacuous veneer of detached irony. Paul was brilliantly maddening for his insistence on naming the mockery of much of our attempts at playing church. He had perhaps the purest junk filter of any artist I’ve ever known. And this was his tragedy, because while many of us are artists who can’t afford unfiltered honesty, Paul could accept no alternative.

Dishonesty is a subset of ugliness, and ugliness is an affliction to the artist. Because sin is ugliness, an artist who follows Jesus lives a wounded life, yearning for connection to the wholeness and truth of a Holy God, yet disconnected by the darkness within. We are all saints and we are all sinners.

This potent mixture, this “outrageous humanity,” as Pat Conroy calls it, vexes the church. Consider the film release Don Miller’s biopic about searching for faith, Blue Like Jazz, which while in production received some complaints from church leaders. It seems that some find the ambiguity of a search for faith troubling.

To use Plato’s virtues as oversimplified categories, people who want to respond to art with argument are Truth types. They seek the resolution of a right answer. They’re convergent. Artists, or to use another platonic virtue, Beauty types, are comfortable with mystery. They are divergent. Paul did not need a final answer to know the truth of something.

The church tries to treat the artist’s affliction, and the need for honesty is indeed an affliction, with analysis and apologetics, which is like taking a laxative for a flesh wound. They’re different parts to the body.

Some Truth types fear that to acknowledge sin is to condone sin, never recognizing their fear perpetuates sin by creating a fortress around Jesus. Beauty types want to explore our humanity, and through it to find a deeper truth than a surface set of facts.

There are also Goodness types, who live between these two poles, more concerned with what is loving than what is correct. When Paul and I worked together at Trietsch, our worship team had a healthy mix of all three. One of the great moments that arose from our mix, and there were many, was the Sunday in worship we hosted Ron Hall and Denver Moore of the number one New York Times bestseller, Same Kind of Different As Me. The book recounts the true story of a wealthy art patron who befriended a homeless man, and the changed life each man discovered. That formerly homeless man, Denver Moore, gave a classic call to Goodness in our worship service when he said, “Churches in America are full of people studyin’. What we need is less studyin’ and more doin’.”

The church needs all three. We as people are built for all three.

St James DomeYet the church has traditionally served Truth types best, and Goodness types second best, and Beauty types the worst. For centuries, artists have been finding one another as refugees in a wilderness of systematic theological thinking. It’s easy to retreat behind a screen door mesh of doctrine and moral code. We in the church think we’re safe there, protected from profane elements. But of course the screen door not only fails to protect us but is invisible to those on the outside, who stand in the rain and look with dismissive incredulity through our porous arguments.

Beauty opens the screen door. It invites people in from the rain, but it’s dangerous, because it exposes us church people to the elements. We get wet. We are reminded of life, and for many of us, it’s painful. Beauty is powerful and threatening. Most in the church fear it. And as I mourn the passing of my friend and colleague, our ecclesial deficiency of Beauty has taken on an increased urgency.

My father, a retired pastor, is a Beauty, and is in many ways representative of our age. I sensed his undiagnosed introspection throughout my childhood. Most of the time he kept it hidden underneath a cloak of Truth and Goodness. The cloak fit him alright, but occasionally I saw him take it off. My father is not a pianist, and didn’t doodle or play much for fun. Yet every once in a while he would sit down at our upright and recall a story through Stardust, or I Left My Heart in San Francisco. When he played, I heard a different person, one that I didn’t know. If only for a few minutes, he opened his screen door. Growing up, I failed to understand what those songs meant. He played them with a melancholy that even today makes my heart ache. I never thought to question how someone who supposedly didn’t play the piano could play these two songs so wonderfully.

My father wrote. He completed multiple novels and sent them into some agents and publishing houses in big manila envelopes with SASEs tucked inside. After he received rejection letters, he put the keyboard away. Later, I asked him about the novels, and he said that he wasn’t sure what had happened to them.

He also painted. I have a couple of his prints hanging in my house. One is an oil of a rusted out shell of a pickup, abandoned in a field and partially obscured by tall grass and a broken wooden fence. Though unable to articulate any reason for it, I liked that painting in my room. Now I look at it and see an artist, abandoned in a field, never given wheels to find expression.

Dad was surrounded by a church culture of Truth and Goodness. He was never told it was good to be a Beauty. The most important voices in his life told him that to be a good Christian, he had to learn the proper Truth and do the proper Goodness. Such is a tragically disaffirming life, forced to operate by disingenuous virtues.

Of course, people have their own stories, apart from the systemic environment in which they live. Yet I wonder if this same dynamic affected Paul, and occurs en masse whenever the church stands between pillars of Truth and Goodness, forcing Beauty types to watch from afar.

It’s all about soul
It’s all about knowing what someone is feeling.
– Billy Joel

I do not aim to disaffirm the need for Truth and Goodness. We as God’s creatures and as the Body of Christ need all three. But modern, western culture values Truth above all others, while Goodness has had its moments and appears to be on a bit of a comeback. But Beauty runs a distant third, and has since the Reformers threw out the icons five hundred years ago.

Each of us is primarily one of these three virtues – Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – and secondarily one of the three as well. I am a Beauty, then a Truth. My wife is a Goodness, then a Beauty. Perhaps in this typology you see your own primary virtue.

Jesus has another way to refer for these virtues. When asked about the entirety of the Law, he condensed down 613 prescriptions into a stunning set of two simple expressions. The first acknowledges these virtues. When Jesus commands us to love the Lord our God with all of our mind, heart, and soul, he is affirming our need for Truth, Goodness and Beauty, all three.

While Truth and Goodness are doing just fine, the church needs to encourage experience and personal affect within the context of healthy spiritual growth. We in the Church are great at loving God with our mind. We have the ability to do great things for others with our heart. But we still don’t know what to do with our soul. This is tragic, because artists don’t have to live tortured lives.

I grieve my lost colleague and friend. The best way I know to honor Paul and other artists who suffer in and out of the church is to call for the church to learn to embrace Beauty.

UPDATE: I further explore the typology of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and its relationship to personality, in the post Six Ways to Know Yourself and Others Better.



  1. JoanieD says

    “When Jesus commands us to love the Lord our God with all of our mind, heart, and soul, he is affirming our need for Truth, Goodness and Beauty, all three.”

    I love this comparison. I don’t think I have seen it expressed quite in that way before. Thanks, Len!

  2. Damaris says

    This is great. I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” She talks about the tragedy she experienced of “a poet’s soul tangled in a woman’s body.” Her environment also, for different reasons, didn’t have room for the Beauty types.

    I myself used to be a poet, but poetry isn’t what the world around me needs from me.

    My only objection to this excellent article is Mr. Wilson’s use of “the church” to mean, I believe, Western evangelicalism. Other manifestations of The Church have more room for Beauty, though perhaps at the cost of one of the other qualities. The Orthodox hold that we are saved through beauty.

  3. Damaris says

    By the way, what church is pictured in the article?

    • St. James RCC in Louisville, KY. Here is the page that tells about the artist that originally designed, and then restored the building:

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I notice the “All Seeing Eye of God” symbolism at the center of the dome. Though I know the symbolism, to the 21st Century American in me it still looks creepy.

    • Is it just me or is there an eye looking out from the centre of the dome? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a church before.

      • dumb ox says

        It must be a Mark Driscoll church plant.

        “I am the eye in the sky, looking at you, I can read your mind.” – Alan Parsons Project.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          IS WATCHING

          (Actually, that’s an archaic bit of symbology called “The All Seeing Eye of God”; the same symbolism (with a triangle instead of the stylized Shekinah) used by Freemasons and the back of the dollar bill. I understand it was a common symbol at the time both were organized/designed, but it still looks creepy today.)

        • Mordor Hill.

  4. Hmmm… I just happen to be re-reading Madeleine L’ Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and your article fits right in.

    You’re right about the third part, beauty, being missing in much of the church today, in fact in many ways it’s considered suspect. Madeleine L’ Engle’s book is pretty refreshing for this Baptist.

  5. Beauty is painful. Not even betrayal wounds us as deeply as beauty.

  6. Thanks for posting. As an artist I’ve always felt out of place in my church. I thought maybe it was because I was too cynical, but it’s good to see those feelings explained by someone else.

  7. That first half was a healing thing to read. It brought me some closure and made sense of a lot.

  8. I once heard R. C. Sproul, when talking of beauty, truth, and goodness, say something like:

    “If you want goodness, go to the Baptist church. They’re all about good behavior and doing the right thing. They will peruse goodness at the expense of truth and beauty. If you want truth, go to a Presbyterian church. They’re all about the life of the mind and can pursue truth at the expense of goodness and beauty. If you want beauty, go to an Episcopal church. They fill their worship with beautiful things, but often at the expense of truth and goodness.”

    I thought that was an interesting analysis. I’ll let y’all guess where I think you can find all three.

    • Why choose? If you pursue one to the expense of all the others, even that which you think you have will be taken away.

      Pascha has them all

      • What a beautiful song! Of course I believe you can have your cake and eat it, too. If you’re not gonna guess, then I’m gonna tell you: Lutheran high orthodoxy, the time of J. S. Bach. There is goodness, truth, and beauty, all together in one powerful expression. Where are the JS Bach’s of today? Why don’t we see them? I suggest the current ideological soil does not ferment such creativity as did the period of confessional unity within Lutheranism. But then again, Bach was just a gift to the church and the world.

        • Prefer low Orthodoxy, with a big O, thank you. My little peasants’ and grandmothers’ Christianity.

          True, we have no Bach, but then, neither does anybody else. Bach was sui generis.
          We do have Arvo Pärt, though.

          • Dan Crawford says

            Part’s music is a treasure for both Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church. He should be more widely known.

          • I agree about Arvo Part–beautiful stuff.

          • Dana Ames says

            Thanks Mule.

            As I was reading the OP, I was thinking:
            “…but I know Somewhere where Beauty, Goodness and Truth ARE held together, one of whose greatest artists wrote that the world will be saved by Beauty, for Christ is the Beauty of God… When Christians have to discuss them as being separate entities, something is abnormal… I am so glad God opened the door for me that He did!”

            The words of the song were written by St Nikolai Velimirovich (1881-1956) who had a very difficult and interesting life. He ended up in the US and was first buried in Illinois, and later in his native Serbia. He is also the author of the prayer Brian McLaren likes so much: “Bless my enemies, Lord; even I bless them and do not curse them.”

            There have been many devout and exceptional Russian composers of Orthodox church music. They don’t sound like Bach (who does, did or ever will?) but the do sound like the very best of their own culture.

            Xristos voskrese! Voistinu voskrese! Christ is Risen! He is truly risen!

            happy beyond expressing to be “low Orthodox” too

      • Christiane says

        a recent discover for me was the choral work of Eric Whitacre which ranges from religious to reflective of nature. With the recent deaths of children at Sandy Hook, and the child in Boston who was killed, I found Whitacre’s rendition of ‘The Seal Lullaby’ (based on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Seal’)
        to be . . . well, see for yourselves:

        • Whitacre’s music is certainly highly influential today. Critics mighty say it is at times a bit too sappy. I think he’s earned a place in history, but time will tell how significant that is. But then again, his work isn’t the product of the church in any way.

          • Christiane says

            ‘a part of the Church in any way’
            . . . in the sense that ‘The Seal Lullaby’ is now often played as a part of the funeral music for a child, it has become a way of comforting parents who mourn,

            but I do understand your comment and I can see the great contrast between some of the ‘sappier’ offerings of Whitacre when compared to the stunning liturgical works of a composer like Canadian ROMAN HURKO who wrote a liturgical work commemorating the tragedy of Chernobyl . . . Hurko is Ukrainian by descent, and his music reflects his heritage:


          • Don’t get me wrong: I am not implying that his works are in any way inferior for being less overtly religious, and there is much great spiritual use for his composing (which I happen to really like and hope to conduct soon). It’s just the context of the current discussion is the role of the church in its relationship to beauty in music and the arts. I’d say Whitacre falls outside that relationship dynamic, for the most part. Personally, I’d love to see him apply his hand to setting more sacred texts. Imagine what he would do with them!

          • Christiane says

            Hi Miguel,
            are you familiar with the composer Roman Hurko?

          • No, but I am enjoying that clip you posted. I hear he lives nearby.

          • Christiane says

            Hi MIGUEL,
            I’m glad you enjoyed that clip. Hurko is rather special, I think . . .

            you may enjoy this site also:

          • Really odd that you happened to mention “Seal Lullaby.” Just went and saw it at a concert tonight. Coincidence!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Mule, when you talk Orthodoxy you remind me of this one Mackinista talking about Apple (“THE Superior System!”) or a Calvinista in his Cage Phase (where EVERYTHING is Truly Reformed and TULIP). I see this in quite a few Eastern Rite types on the Web.

  9. Ali Griffiths says

    I found this a very helpful article personally – it put into words how I often feel. Thank you Len.

  10. Charles H. Featherstone says


  11. In classical philosophy ultimate truth, ultimate goodness, and ultimate beauty were the same thing. (Well, not a *thing* exactly.) “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I think that’s a big reason I’ve had trouble with a kind of surfacey literalism in reading the Bible. It isn’t only that some people like truth in their Bible and other like beauty, but rather that I couldn’t be satisfied that a interpretation was True if it wasn’t also Beautiful and also Good. (I think this must have been behind Augustine’s approach, too.)

  12. I have a lot of personal experience with how the LACK of truth and goodness in the church actually kept me from seeing the value of pursuing my artistic passions. I happen to think that if the church was doing better at truth and goodness they would see and appreciate beauty.

  13. Another aspect of this is the classic late 20th century formula for ‘How to grow a church”. When I was involved in leadership, it was essential that those who lead music not be artists. We needed people who could play instruments, not artists. Artists are temperamental and want to express themselves. We needed a formula to be repeated, we didn’t want artists to express themselves. I compare it to the book publishing industry. Gifted writers rarely get published, and when they do, the sales are very low. Instead, writers who follow a formula get published and sell lots of books.

    I write the above paragraph as a statement of the way church growth works, not how I currently believe. I enjoy the richness of artists expressing themselves in a multitude of ways. However, I do not believe that the main service on Sunday mornings is the best place to express all the artistic tendencies. The truth is, artists tend to offend people (by the very definition of an artist). I would like to see churches provide other avenues for artistic expression throughout the week. Then, as a Christian, I want to stop being overly offended when an artist expresses his/her self.

    • Allen, you are correct! we do offend. I did a painting a few months back of an Ikon of Christ with a Pittsburgh pirates logo over his head while holding a terrible towel and a can of iron city beer. It was my way of working out my idolatry to my love of sports. The reaction came only from my reformed friends and boy oh boy, they were upset.

      • also, this:

        what serrano was trying to express was incredibly genuine (the cheapening of christianity), yet the masses took it as offensive because of the content.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The reaction came only from my reformed friends and boy oh boy, they were upset.

        Party Ideologists usually are, whether their Purity of Ideology comes from Marx or Calvin.

  14. Robert F says

    “Like any artist, Paul believed in honesty….” : this strikes me as an untrue generalization. I’ve known my share of artists; some believed in honesty, others did not, as with any other category of humanity. In fact, when artists undertake deceit, they sometimes do it on a grand and enormously convincing scale that dwarfs anything the non-artist could ever hope to achieve in the area of mendacity.

    • Rick Ro. says

      I think I agree with you. And this might also be a generalization, but most artists who are dishonest are probably doing so for selfish gain: fame, fortune, or both….i.e, they’ve “sold out.”

      A little personal note: I’m struggling with “honesty” in a poem I wrote about 6 months ago about a friend’s suicide. In real life, my friend did not go through with it (when he was found alive, there was a shotgun in the front seat of his car), but the poem is much more powerful by having the suicide happen. I’ve tried tweaking the poem a number of ways, but the “dishonest” version (with the “friend” having done it) always rises above the honest versions.

      • Rick, I’m not sure this fits, but in reading your comment about the poem you wrote I had a Madeleine L’Engle quote come to mind (this may be a paraphrase): “The truth is in the story.” Is there truth in your poem? If there is then there may be nothing “dishonest” about it. Just some thoughts…

        P.S. – Chaplain Mike/Jeff – this is my first time commenting but I have been a quiet lurker for the past couple of years. You two have done a great job. Thanks for leading me to Michael’s book and his many writings.

      • Robert F says

        It’s interesting that your poem expresses the opposite of what your comment says below: what really happened is less painful and ugly than what works in the poem, which needs to be more painful and ugly than what really happened in order for it to work.

        Having said that, I in large part agree with what Eric comments above: the poem does not need to recount the exact events in order to be truthful. But great care must be taken when departing from the actual events that you are not doing so in the service of an ostensible truth that you simply want to impose on the real events because you want to impose your view on others or on reality. No less a figure than Ernest Hemingway, who was unquestionably one of the greatest literary artists of the 20th century, despite being great writer and artist, imposed his own views on reworked facts in his fiction because he felt entitled to create the values not only for his fictional world but for the world outside his fiction as well. He placed no great value in honesty and freely used dishonesty where it worked for him.

  15. Rick Ro. says

    This is a nice examination and analysis. I wonder if this gets at why some of us Christians enjoy secular movies more than “Christian” movies, because secular movies tend to be honest (because a lot of truth is painful and ugly), while many Christian movies are dishonest (because painful truth gets sanitized).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Rick rolled it in one.

      Problem is, Christian movies (and art and fiction) are highly restricted by the requirement to be “Scriptural” and “Edifying” — in practice, nothing that could conceivably offend The Church Ladies. What you get is shallow propaganda, with all storytelling completely Bowdlerized. No honesty there, no truth there, only Shiny Happy Clappy Christianese.

  16. Mulling this over since yesterday, I recalled an elder in the church where I went many years ago who said that to have a balanced leadership, you needed a Thinker, and Doer (or should that be do-er?) and an Emoter. I think that those correspond roughly with the categories proposed here.

    Interestingly, he cited James, Peter and John as an example…

    • JoanieD says

      That IS interesting, Ben!

      • JoanieD says

        I could see some folks coming up with Father, Son, Holy Spirit for this though we know that would have to be a stretched analogy because all three are all three things: Truth, Goodness, Beauty (Thinker, Do-er, Emoter).

  17. dumb ox says

    “It seems that some find the ambiguity of a search for faith troubling.”

    So, seeker sensitivity is a farce after all?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “It seems that some find the ambiguity of a search for faith troubling.”

      “I find your lack of faith… Disturbing.” — Darth Vader

  18. Christiane says

    the aesthetics of art and music are able to touch the part of us that is non-verbal that also seeks expression in our worship, as we all do ultimately seek to know the ‘perfect’ beauty of God