Questions of Calling (Sidetrails Pt 4)

In my concluding thoughts post about high church Christianity and art, I ended by saying that “good art must serve the work.” This point may best be summed if we remember the famous quote from Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell describes how he reconciled his Olympic aspirations with his calling to be a missionary. He argues that they are both things given by God and that to use one without the other, “would be to treat God with contempt.”

This statement gets cited often to talk about calling being more than just “professional ministry work.” It raises a bigger question: what happens if we neglect a calling? What risk do we take for not embracing our skills, using them well?

Recently I attended a virtual tribute to novelist Walter Wangarin (1944-2021). Wangerin was, among many things, one of the great Christian fantasy writers of the last 50 years, an exceptional preacher and memoirist. The event started with a summary of Wangerin’s life where the speaker noted that Wangerin came from a Lutheran background and took seriously the Lutheran idea that one must pursue one’s vocation with excellence. Wangarin did various things throughout his life, from preaching to writing to teaching other writers. At one time or another, one of those roles was in the front seat. However, Wangerin strived to do each one well.

This idea that we must serve our callings doesn’t come up much in American Protestant (i.e. evangelical) circles. Calling is a very popular topic. There are dozens of books on finding our calling, defining what a calling is, telling us how everything in life will improve once we pursue our calling. But generally, these books revolve around how calling improves life. Books about careers or dreaming big talk about how finding your calling leads to a more fulfilling job. Books about being a father/husband talk about those roles as a calling that once realized, leads to being a better father/husband. All of these books can be helpful, but read together they create the impression that calling is about us, not serving something greater.

In contrast, Jesus makes it clear in the Gospels that there are things God gives which must be embraced and used well. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-28), Jesus describes servants who are given money to invest, and one who doesn’t invest at all because he doesn’t trust the master. This servant suffers consequences for this, because as Mike Hodges notes in Parable Church, “the master… entrusted to them talents with the expectation that he would come back to collect all the gains.” The resources were given to be used well for the master’s purposes, not just to hold on to.

This parable is connected to two previous stories about not paying attention or using resources well. One follows a servant who wastes resources and abuses his coworkers when the master is away (Matthew 24:45-51). The other is about 10 virgins given time to meet the bridegroom, but don’t have enough oil for when he arrives (Matthew 25:1-13). Notably, all three parables have an eschatological tone: they end with the leader (the master of servants, the bridegroom) returning and people having to face the fact that they didn’t do well with what they were given. We all have things we are being called to. Things which serve God and build his kingdom. Things which we will have to pay witness to at the last judgment. While as Christians we will not be condemned at the last judgement, we will still be judged (Revelation 20:11-13), and we will bear witness to what we did in life (Matthew 12:36–37).

This is not to say that we should approach our callings with dread or shame. We know that we are saved by grace, and that God has a way of taking even our worst mistakes and creating something good from them. Abraham’s sons all became leaders of nations (Genesis 25:1-18), including one conceived in a misguided attempt to pre-empt God’s plans (Genesis 16-17). We also know that finding our callings (within the church, within our careers, etc.) takes time and may be an ongoing process. However, we need to balance these ideas with the fact that the Bible maintains that calling is something we must serve. There are consequences for neglecting what we have been given.

For artists, this means that we have to recognize finding our talent is only step one. Knowing what skills we have, finding a way to use them that includes religious material or fits whatever passions God has given us, is laying stones in a foundation. The capstone is recognizing that there are not skills we chose, nor ones that we can simply use as we see fit. To say that we have talents that God has given us means that we recognize these talents are not for our own amusement.

This may apply especially to artists working within conventional religious circles (writing Christian books, retelling Bible stories, writing worship music, etc.), because that work assumes the same kind of responsibilities that pastors and teachers carry. The Bible is clear that work within the church, for the church, is not to be taken lightly (James 3:1). However, as Abraham Kuyper famously pointed out, there is not an inch over reality where God does not claim “Mine!” Whether we make conventional religious art or not, we must ask what we have been given if we are using it well.

Therefore, an important question for artists of any kind is how we talk about calling, and the responsibilities we have to our callings. We must avoid legalism. It’s important to recall that even when we use our callings poorly, that doesn’t discredit us from salvation or forgiveness. There is grace for when we don’t use our callings well. There is always room to learn more and laugh at ourselves as we make mistakes and learn how to do better. But above all this stands our God-given responsibility to do the work well onto God.

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