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Burning Bushes Everywhere: On Beauty, Suffering, and the Christian Artist

by Caroline Cobb



Scene 1: I am standing in his hospital room, overwhelmed with the feeling that death is just so…. wrong. My dad passed away just moments ago, but the “most natural thing in the world” seems terribly unnatural. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. In the weeks that follow, I will feel more awake than ever to the “curse of sin and death” we read about so often in the Bible. To the mortality of everyone I love. To the fleeting nature of things. But in my imagination, Jesus’s death and resurrection will expand too. The “good news” matters even more now.

 

Scene 2: The kids and I are sitting on the grass at Flag Pole Hill in Dallas, a park just minutes from our house. I’d pulled them out of school, and now we are surrounded by hundreds of people skipping work and shirking everyday responsibilities to look up expectantly at the sky. A little boy across the way shouts, “one more minute!” and the murmur of anticipation around me grows. Someone in our group begins counting down the seconds: “Ten! Nine! Eight!” Suddenly, the afternoon sky transfigures into a dusky darkness. We take our glasses off and stare directly at the sun, a black circle wreathed by a glimmering crown of light. For over four minutes, we are collectively transfixed by the magic of 2024’s total solar eclipse. All around me, I hear gasps of awe. My friend who had just minutes earlier been asking, “Is this really that big of a deal?” blurts out “Oh my gosh! Wow!” Some people even start applauding! They’re laughing out loud and literally whooping with wonder. It’s involuntary; they can’t help it. Beauty has stopped us all in our tracks and forced us to respond.



 


Suffering and beauty. Death and wonder. 


For us, these two very opposite experiences often produce the same effect. They are watershed moments. Wake-up calls. Invitations to stop and consider again. Both suffering and beauty confront and interrupt us, lifting the veil of ordinary life that we might see reality anew. We blink awake, lift our eyes up out of the weeds and see – even for just a moment – what really matters, what’s really true.


How Beauty Lifts the Veil


According to poet Samuel Coleridge, beauty and art can awaken “the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom… directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.” And yet, he says, both “the film of familiarity” and “selfish solicitude” keep us from seeing. Expounding on Coleridge, Malcolm Guite writes, “it is as though there is a film or veil between us and the radiant reality of things.” (Lifting the Veil, 12)

   

One could argue that the modern digital age has made this blind “lethargy of custom” even more pronounced. We seem to hurry along at a frenetic pace, constantly staring at the small computer screen we carry around in our pockets, lulled to sleep by a stream of incessant chatter. In the rush, we forget to look up and look around. Perhaps this is why the experience of 2024’s total solar eclipse felt so extraordinary; it seems we rarely stop to wonder anymore.


In Exodus chapter 3, a burning bush interrupted Moses’s ordinary day of shepherding, compelling him to “turn aside and see this great sight.” (Exodus 3:3) In the same way, the beauty we find in nature and in the arts can shake us awake, if only we will cultivate the eyes to see. As I wrote in the song “Burning Bushes Everywhere:” 


I don’t want to miss the mystery

The bright ache for eternal things

Lighting up all these fires in me

Even though it hurts

God, would you open our eyes to see

Burning bushes 





How Suffering Lifts the Veil


When my dad died, a familiar scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix struck me in a new way. In this book Harry is suddenly able to see Thestrals – the “bat-winged horses” pulling the Hogwarts carriages – for the very first time. These magical creatures appear invisible to almost all of the students, but because Harry has experienced death up close and “gained an emotional understanding of what death means,” the veil is lifted. He finally sees the truth of what had been there all along. 


In the months after my first up-close experience with death, I felt like Harry. Everything looked different, reality laid bare as the “film of familiarity” was abruptly removed. Encounters with death and real suffering change the way we see the world. 


The Lion King famously imagines life and death as a “circle of life,” but I beg to differ. As I wrote in a recently released song, death is not a natural thing but a terrible thing. In my experience, both Christians and non-Christians who find themselves confronted by real suffering and loss feel deep down that “it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” As a Christian, I believe we feel this way because the sentiment is true; we were made to live forever! 


But even for the Christian, death and suffering lift the veil. These experiences usher us into a moment of crisis, forcing us to answer hard questions about the meaning of things: What’s really true? What actually matters? What is my hope in life and death, really? In this way, death and suffering are burning bushes too.


Artists of Faith at the Crossroads


Artists, poets, songwriters, and storytellers deal in both beauty and suffering. These topics are our currency, our content, our muse. For this reason, I believe Christian artists are uniquely positioned to come alongside these “burning bush” experiences, creating work that lifts the veil and points to the “radiant reality” of Jesus in both explicit and implicit ways. 


Both poet Malcolm Guite and artist Makoto Fujimara have pointed to the burning bush as an “essential paradigm” for the Christian artist. Fujimara writes, “There are burning bushes everywhere… and our lives can be just as miraculous. Our Making can be a visible marker of God’s gratuitous love.” (Art + Faith, 149) Our lives and our work as Christian artists can serve others by helping them “turn aside” and experience something sacred, calling them to take their shoes off like Moses and “see with a gasp of wonder that the ordinary has been transfigured, that the veil has been lifted and the glory of God's presence has been shining through" (Lifting the Veil, 49) 


Although some view “art” as an escape from reality, the Christian artist has the opportunity to point to a deeper reality – to awaken rather than merely entertain. With our words and paintings, we can point to the wonder and beauty woven into the world around us, and even beyond visible nature to the Maker himself… to the Architect behind total solar eclipses and Grand Canyons, to the joyful Source behind each bright bird and blossoming flower. We can write songs and tell stories that point to a Jesus who suffered and faced “the terrible thing” too, who never triumphalized about death but wept with sorrow at his friend’s grave – and then rose again on the third day. We can interrupt the “lethargy of custom” with a prophetic voice or picture. By giving words to the feeling they could never quite put a finger on. By unveiling a hard truth we’ve all been trying to avoid. 


As we allow God’s Story to permeate and rekindle our own imagination, we will find it permeates and rekindles our work as well. And so we pray:


God, allow our work to lift the veil, to come alongside the suffering, to point to your inexhaustible beauty. Ignite our words and brush strokes and melodies, that they might become burning bushes for your glory. Amen.


 

Caroline Cobb loves to tell God’s Story through music and writing, helping you rehearse and respond to it as you go about your everyday life. In just over ten years, she has released five “Story-telling” albums, including Psalms: The Poetry of Prayer, A King & His Kindness, and A Seed, A Sunrise. Look for her first book, Advent for Exiles: 25 Devotions to Awaken Gospel Hope in Every Longing Heart (B&H), in September 2024. Caroline and her husband Nick live in Dallas, Texas with their three children Ellie, Harrison, and Libby. Find more of her work & music at carolinecobb.com


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