On the deaths of artists

Pete Seeger

Two significant American artists died within the last week, folk singer Pete Seeger last Tuesday after a long life and Philip Seymour Hoffman, more tragically, last Sunday. Though different, they both left behind a body of work that has much to commend it. The media are quick to provide retrospectives, reminding us of the excellence of their craft. No doubt, longer form reviews in print and television will follow. It’s what we do when artists and other public creatives die, we review and reflect on their body of work and, I would suggest, we give thanks.

Christians are used to giving thanks for dead people. Not a Sunday morning goes by at the Chapel of the Resurrection when we’re not praying something like we did last weekend:

In thanksgiving for those who died in the faith, that by their witness we live in confidence that Christ has destroyed death and brought about life eternal, let us pray.

It’s a prayer that calls for God’s Spirit to inspire in us the same faithful confession of hope in the life of Christ as those who have gone before us. These prayers of thanksgiving of which I’m thinking require no such confession.

Nor do I feel obligated to press these artists, whom we have lost, into the company of saints and martyrs by virtue of the humanity that they hold in common. As though, because we believe them to created by God, we can impose on them in death the identity of Christ, an identity which they may or may not have sought for themselves in life. Prayers of thanksgiving for artists and other creative people require no such imposition.

We ought to give thanks for them and their body of work because they, like us, are called to lives of active creativity within creation. This work is something that they sought out and practiced. Their body of work bears witness to this vocation. Their deaths prevent any further work, inspiring us to recognize their gift anew and moving us to give thanks for that which they have shared. Their good work was not only an a service in itself, but it also called and inspired others to do the same. This is also worthy of thanks.

For eyes of faith, all of this is the work of God—signs of life over and against the threats of death. Here is the way the church puts together words of thanksgiving for the work of artists and scientists:

Almighty God, beautiful in majesty, majestic in holiness: You have shown us the splendor of creation in the work of your servants Peter and Philip. Teach us to drive from the world all chaos and disorder, that our eyes may behold your glory, and that at last everyone may know the inexhaustible richness of your new creation in Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

What is telling about this prayer is that, unlike the prayers of thanksgiving for martyrs, no confession of faith is ascribed to the artist beyond the body of his or her work. It is regarded as something good, a work of God, even if it doesn’t last, even if  it’s not the same thing as salvation. It’s still a good thing, a sign of divine blessing as surely as is the sunrise, and something for which we ought give thanks.

Pr. Jim

2/4/14

Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.