Jeremy Woodham talks to musician and theologian David Benjamin Blower about the connections between prophets and artists, whether Jesus was an artist and if art is or isn’t missional. Also: the power of lament and hymns without happy endings.
The interview was recorded at Church Mission Society in Oxford on 3 March 2020 as part of the For Art’s Sake Pioneer Conversations Day.
This interview features musician David Benjamin Blower, who came to CMS House on 3 March 2020 for an event called For Art’s Sake. Here he talks with digital strategist Jeremy Woodham about the workshop he ran and how his music interacts with mission.
Jeremy Woodham Your workshop this afternoon, you’re looking at the prophetic and the apocalyptic in biblical literature and asking questions about that, and that connection with art, were those people artists…? I guess many people, if you think “Is there art in the Bible?”, might think of Psalms or Song of Songs… there’s a bit of poetry. Do you identify the prophets and the apocalyptic writers as artists?
David Blower Well, I think if we encountered the Hebrew prophets today, we would probably think they were artists of some kind. We would think that they were performance artists. Sort of standing in public and wailing naked – that’d be a very, very artful thing to do these days. Gathering a crowd and just smashing pots together, tying yourself up and laying down on the floor for days and weeks and months and then writing reams and reams of poetry. Very bizarre and artful poetry, you know, people of language. And then, of course, music is also a part of how the Hebrew prophets kind of did their thing. So I think we would probably, if we encountered them today, think of them in the vein of artists of one kind or another. But of course, because it’s all locked up in a holy book, it’s sort of, it’s within the realm of religion. We think of them as holy men, holy women.
Jeremy Woodham How would you like to unlock that for people?
David Blower I’m not really interested in defining what art is. Who’s an artist and who isn’t an artist and that kind of thing, I think this term is always in flux, you know, from one time to another, from one person to another. I think maybe the important question in the present is looking at the artists among us and beginning to ask ourselves whether we’re in the presence of prophets. Whether the creative people around us are there to amuse us or make life more beautiful or put nicer things on the wall, to make life more bearable and help us cope with life, or whether these are people giving us an integral awareness of the present, helping us to be very much in the realities of the present, whether they’re beautiful or painful, people who are envisioning possible routes into new futures, or people who are giving us the tools to enable us to let go of dying pasts. I think those are the sort of questions I’m interested in sitting with.
Jeremy Woodham And is that how you see your role. I mean, I want to say… it is a day in the context of a mission place, talking about arts and mission. Do you have a sense of mission in your work? I feel like your music is definitely purposeful. Do you resonate with that role that you were just describing? Is that how you see yourself?
David Blower I think, well, I’m a musician and I kind of think it’s simplest not to concern myself with the titles that might come and go or labels that might come or go. I suppose I’m motivated to make work that enables us to gather around the realities of the present and the pain of the present. Yeah. And to make work that enables a deeper level of engagement in reality for whoever is there to encounter it. Yeah, I don’t want to call myself a prophet [laughs]. Other people might call me that from time to time. And then other people might say, he absolutely is not. But I think it’s best just to concern myself with making what I’m making.
Jeremy Woodham And would you put Jesus in that number, with the prophets: do you see Jesus fulfilling that artistic role?
David Blower Oh, yeah. So Jesus lived in a time of absolute social and political crisis. And the New Testament as a collection of texts just spans the before, during and after. And, you know, a total catastrophe, the collapse of a people’s way of life and faith and belief and an understanding of who they were in the world and how it worked. It’s times like that, I think, that artists and prophets really intersect. And I think Jesus was, among many other things, a prophet and an artist who was creating work that enabled people to come to terms with an ending, a collapse, a tragedy, a huge death event actually – 70AD it was a horrible, horrible thing – but also helps people envision ways forward into alternative futures. So, yeah, I think Jesus was a prophet. I think Jesus was an artist.
Jeremy Woodham And what would he say in terms of, again, coming back to this day on arts and mission, what would you say is the connection, if there is one, between arts and mission or what might be a healthy connection?
David Blower Art must always do what it’s there to do. It must be absolutely free to do so. So the commandeering of art for the purposes of the church or the purposes of an endeavour or process that we might describe by the word mission becomes problematic for me. But the reality is art is so often missional, it is so often… Well, Marshall McLuhan used a beautiful phrase. He said that artists are people who build Noah’s arks into new futures. And in that sense, you know, the artist is a missional person creating work that kind of rescues people from a collapsing present into a renewed future. I think if there is a missional kind of description of art, I think McLuhan put it quite beautifully.
Jeremy Woodham And this Lent – I have to pick up on a couple of sort of CMS connections – because this Lent we’ve done a resource focussed on lament, and your recent album We Really Existed and We really Did This, is subtitled A Lament. What’s your take on the importance of lament?
David Blower Well, we live in a world of endings. We live in a world of tragedy and collapse and loss. We all encounter it on some level and sometimes we encounter it together, collectively, we encounter loss, death, endings. As a human species, we’re moving into a time where scientists are ringing the bell and saying we’ve entered a time of mass extinction, not we’re going to, we have done. Animal species are being extinct every day – in the hundreds, actually. And it is – as beings that walk in the image of God, life is sacred. And when it’s lost, it’s a human function to lament, to grieve and to spend time in unhappiness. And I think artists often host that. Yeah. So. So I made a record of lament. I think a lot people would say most of my records are a bit lamenty.
Jeremy Woodham Does that take us somewhere different, somewhere new ultimately, or does it have a potential to?
David Blower Well, I think we can’t move into newness until we grieve the end of what you’ve lost. And the failure to move into the future tends to come of trying to hold onto a past that’s slipped away, which so much of the world is desperately trying to do at the moment. You see that in our, you know, in the political swing of the West. So, yeah, lamenting is about moving onwards. You can’t turn around and move forwards until you’ve looked back and grieved what you’re losing.
Jeremy Woodham Slightly randomly, but as we were just talking about, John Newton’s one of our founder members, on your Hymns for Nomads, his was one of the few cover versions, if you like. So what do you like about that particular one, Prayer Answered with Crosses?
David Blower So the song Prayer Answered with Crosses by John Newton is less well known than Amazing Grace. It doesn’t really have a happy ending. It speaks of failure and suffering and I guess it’s the prayer of a person encountering that and coming to terms with growing through pain. So it’s much less victorious. Sounds a lot less like a national anthem. I’ve no idea what kind of tune he would have put it to. I made up a tune of my own. But there we go. I think maybe in Christian circles, we’re not that good at talking about failure and collapse and grief and sharing that. So there’s John Newton’s other song, apart from Amazing Grace. It’s worth listening to.
Jeremy Woodham This notion of the people who say they’re not creative or “Oh, that’s interesting, you’re having a day on arts, fine. I’m not creative. That’s not for me.” – that type of reaction – is there a way for those people to get past that and engage with some of this prophetic stuff? What do you say to these people, when they say that to you?
David Blower No one really has the nerve to say to me that they’re not creative. And I think it’s because I … am. So – and they don’t want to be rude. So people will probably say, “oh, you’re very creative”. The thing comes that way around. And I guess I always think, well, we’re all creative and we all interact with creativity. To be human is to be creative. And I think maybe it’s a shame that we pigeonhole ourselves and each other as creative or not creative. We’re all interacting with beauty and interacting with grief. You know, aesthetics. This is this is the language of how we do these things. We all cry. We all laugh. And I think creativity almost starts from those kinds of places.