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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Nobody Wants the Messiah to Come: Art and Eschatology

Lucien Levy Dhurmer, Salome with the Head of the Baptist (1896)

Christendom died a long time ago. The Oxford Movement, the Gothic Revival, and Traditionalism all failed to restore the golden age when Christ was King (a title only used ironically in the Gospels but embraced with fervor during the too long centuries of Christianity’s flirtation with political power). More recently, in its spectacular failure, “The New Evangelization” has proved itself neither new nor evangelization. Instead, it simply appropriated the modes and attitudes of the master culture it hoped to supplant (if not save) and became a caricature of that culture, prone to its polemics and polarizations under the guise of spreading the Gospel. A sort of voluntary demonic possession.

Christians are afraid of the Death of Christianity. This is irony at its most sublime. Perhaps also hypocrisy, as it betrays the fact that we do not believe what we believe.

Fear of death is fear of the To-Come, fear of the future. This fear characterizes humanity, of course, and it is nothing for which to feel shame. Terror accompanies the contemplation of eschatology. As Jacques Derrida put it so honestly,

But the Messiah might also be the one I expect even while I do not want him to come. There is the possibility that my relation to the Messiah is this: I would like him to come, I hope that he will come, that the other will come, as other, for that would be justice, peace, and revolution—because in the concept of messianicity there is revolution—and, at the same time, I am scared. I do not want what I want and I would like the coming of the Messiah to be infinitely postponed, and there is this desire in me.[1]

No one really wants the Messiah to come. Or so it would seem.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the arts, particularly in the allegedly Christian crystallizations of things called art. Not in every case, of course, but it certainly permeates the atmosphere in the way of stale incense or appears as an excrescence akin to the residual alkaline rings that form around the basin of a disused holy water font. Christian versions of the arts, when not busying themselves with adopting the modes and vocabularies of the master culture, all too often engage in an aesthetics of retrieval, as if Michelangelo and Raphael, for example, in the fine art version of a Great Books program, are the answer to modernity’s ills. This is even the case with the all-too-habitual invocations of inhabitants of a more recent past—C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Flannery O’Connor—and whose acolytes often see fit to adopt the requisite uniforms of beards, pipes, tweeds, if not crutches and peacocks. These tombs are beautiful, brothers and sisters, but they are still tombs.

Any Christian art worthy of either name, should be grounded in the future. John the Baptist, therefore, is the archetype of the Christian artist: for he calls the Messiah out of the future. The Baptist, while simultaneously embedded in a tradition, nevertheless lives in the wild, on the outskirts of that tradition, a prophet of “the wild Being.”[2] He is of the tradition, but not in it. He does not listen to criticism. He does not solicit advice. He does not fear death. He does not network or build his resume.

But, as Nikolai Berdyaev reminded us, historically, Christianity has not exactly embraced the act of creativity. Indeed, prohibitions concerning graven images have haunted (and continue to haunt) the inheritors of monotheistic religions, even those cultures now recognized as secular, an anxiety as persistent today as it was during the iconoclast controversy and the Reformation. But whereas postmodernity merely dismisses the notion of transcendental beauty in favor of the ephemeral fashions of attraction, the Reformation exhibited its anxiety through its ambivalent equivalences of beauty with sin, an idea that still troubled Jacques Ellul.[3] But it’s more than this. Neither the Gospel nor the Fathers speak of human creativity. Writes Berdyaev,

“Creativeness is something mysterious and hidden. The revelation of creativeness does not come from above but rather from below—it is an anthropological, not a theological, revelation.”[4]

But it is still a revelation. This was clearly the prophetic space inhabited by William Blake, but such an understanding of the role of creativity need not be the province of antinomian mystical enthusiasm. Human creativity is participation in God as “it wills another world, it continues the work of creation.”[5] As such, true creativity—a creativity touched by the mystery of redemption—becomes theurgy. And it is in the theurgic that art speaks the language of eschatology: “Theurgy is the banner of the art of the last times, the art of the end.”[6] In its eschatological vocation, art anticipates the revelation of the mystery of the glorified body.

But, we hasten to admit, this is precisely not what art has become in a culture dominated by both market-driven metrics and Marxist materialism.

When Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935 that “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art” he had no way of anticipating what the intervention of cyberspace would do to art.[7] But he certainly saw the cultural repercussions in the flattening of art as a thing for mass consumption. And not only is art threatened: human culture in general—cultus—also suffers. Martin Heidegger saw the dangers of the factory and assembly line for the human arts as well as for human flourishing:

What threatens man in his very nature is the view that technological production puts the world in order, while in fact this ordering is precisely what levels every ordo, every rank, down to the uniformity of production, and thus from the outset destroys the realm from which any rank and recognition could possibly arise.[8]

Heidegger and Benjamin could never have imagined the MFA production line that all too often turns the pursuit of making of art or the making of poems into cliquish schools for dilettantes or political coteries more interested in making “statements” (or money—the two are not mutually exclusive) or the laughable and self-aggrandizing concern to “raise awareness” at the cost of authenticity and ability, so much so that the arts in our age have been identified as under the zeitgeist of a “post-skill movement.” In the music “industry” (an apt word), sampling and autotune have likewise flattened the need for skills or vision in that realm, technological innovation obviating the need for them.

This is an excerpt from Michael Martin's Transfiguration: Notes on the Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, forthcoming this Fall from Angelico Press.

[1] John D. Caputo (ed.), Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, 2nd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), 24–25.

[2] A phrase of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. See his The Visible and the Invisible, followed by Working Notes, trans. Alphonso Lingis; ed. Claude Lefort (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 121.

[3] For Ellul, iconoclasm “is the first act of the Christian life.” See his Humiliation of the Word, trans. Joyce Main Hanks (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 96. See also Stanley Fish’s examination of this dialectic in John Milton in Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[4] Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act, trans. Donald A. Lowrie (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 92.

[5] Ibid., 95.

[6] Ibid., 239.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt; trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 234.

[8] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 117.

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