One has to be careful with metaphors. We use them without safety nets or training wheels, which is to say, they’re a kind of figurative language that’s riskier than simile, those constructions where the relationships in the signification are spelled out clearly. But even in those there’s always a chance for miscommunication.
I am thinking simultaneously about two separate phenomena that overlap in some interesting ways.
In the last few blog posts I’ve been speaking about art & activism. I added some comments about criticism to the mix in the most recent one. And today was the Second Sunday of Advent. It’s the Sunday when we hear about John the Baptist in the lead-up to Christmas.
And so I’m pondering the relationship between these roles. I sometimes use the word “evangelist” without being very careful about what the word and the role truly means. Is a critic ever an evangelist, or an evangelist a critic?
The dual questions suggested themselves as I hearkened to Fred Dizon’s sermon today at Hillcrest, an inspired bit of speaking. While there may have been others chuckling, I was laughing the loudest as usual. Fred spoke to his own challenges and those of any established member of a church, as he unpacked some of the facts about John the Baptist.
I’ve encountered him as Jokanaan in Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera. It’s surely no coincidence that Jean-Baptiste Day –June 24th—is a day of collective dissent in Québec (google “St Jean-Baptiste Day Riot” and see what comes up), when you look at the character of this voice in the wilderness.
John is a fascinating character, really. He’s a mess. He lived in the wilderness, bearded and scruffy, hardly the sort of figure one usually thinks of as a prototypical religious icon. But that’s because a central part of his mythology is rebellion. No he’s not the Christian trickster god, nor like the Loge / Loki figure from norse mythology. He’s human, and much more like that guy you went to school with who couldn’t or wouldn’t say the right things to his boss in order to fit in. But John is also divinely inspired, brave, and showing integrity in his messaging. He’s in the wilderness because he’s truly outside everything organized and institutional. I think Fred captured the disturbing essence of John: that he offers a critique of our institutions, and as such a reminder that none of us should ever get too comfortable, especially in our relationship to authority and material wealth. Compared to him we’ve all sold out.
Is the evangelist ever a critic? Yes John is the quintessential critic. But he’s not on the payroll of the NY Times or of any mainstream publications in the Middle East either. He doesn’t have a regular gig. Speaking as someone else coming out of left field, I would say that’s not all bad. When you’re contracted by a powerful organization you have less freedom. John could say anything he wanted, no matter how outrageous, because he didn’t have to worry about losing his job. John is known for announcing the coming of Jesus, which is to my mind the ideal of the critic. If someone has seen God or knows the pathway back to Eden I want to hear about it, wouldn’t you? And of course –on the more negative side—John stood up to Herod. He doesn’t sell out to keep his audience, oh no. He’s willing to lose his head over his beliefs, as of course he eventually does.
And is the critic ever an evangelist? I think there are certainly examples. When I think of bold writers who ignored popularity in the pursuit of the truth Artaud is the first who comes to mind, although he only resembles John superficially. Whether pointing to beauty & truth –as though showing us Jesus—or warning of evil—the way John stood up to Herod & Herodias—the template’s there. The writer can pander to the vanity of a paying public, or challenge them, push them to work a little harder. Artaud rejected the easy and commercial pathway.
Fred’s sermon was wonderful in pointing to the pathway so many of us prefer at this time of year, the warm and fuzzy version of Advent leading to Christmas, without anything to jar the public out of their usual festival of materialism. John’s narrative is the honest subtext that’s often omitted because it’s simply too much work. John’s story is not politically correct, a nasty part of Christianity, like the admonition to the rich people who will never get to heaven. Can we say that to the people we nag for donations to the church? Let’s face it, John’s story is one of many uncomfortable truths that can get left out. And in the process people miss out on one of the parts of Christianity you can be proud of, or in other words, the parts that are difficult & challenging. A religion with a revolutionary project is tamed by the omission of anything too radical.
Whether we’re speaking of evangelism or criticism, whether we address faith or art (or politics?) I want to read the parts that make the story powerful & edgy.