The summer after I graduated high school, I became infatuated with Edgar Allen Poe. Perhaps it was because the thought of leaving home and being on my own for the first time put me in a macabre state of mind. Perhaps it was because I am a sucker for books and found a volume of his complete stories and poems for under ten dollars. Whatever the reason, I read about every one of Poe’s stories that summer. Some stories, like his famous masterpiece The Tell-tale Heart, I had read before and fully expected them to be my favorites. Surprisingly, however, the story that most captured me was one I had never heard of, a short piece entitled The Oval Portrait.
The story is about an eccentric painter so passionate about his work and driven in his pursuit of creating lifelike portraits that his art, he says, was his bride. Eventually he marries and, naturally, desires to paint his new wife. Though hesitant at first, she submits to his wishes, likely out of a desire to spend more time with him. As with all his projects, the painter approaches the task with an obsession, taking “glory in the work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day.” He became so “lost in reveries” that he began to ignore his subject, his gaze gradually shifting from her to her likeness on the canvas. “Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak.” As the painter finally applied the last strokes, he was overcome with the “absolute life-likeness” of the image. In the story’s closing lines, Poe writes that the painter, staring at the portrait, “grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!”
This ending shocked me. I hadn’t expected anything like it. Consequently, the story stayed with me for weeks. I kept coming back to it, reading it anew, looking for clues I had missed, ultimately willing, I think, a different ending. But the story never changed. No matter how I parsed Poe’s magnificent words, I could not avoid the truth that the man’s passion for his painting was the cause of his beloved wife’s demise.
Lately I have returned to the story, sensing within its pages a warning for folks who, like me, have a theological vocation.
Theologians, like the painter, often approach our work with a consuming passion and a desire to portray with perfect life-likeness the object of our choosing, namely, the Triune God. We know what it is like to spend hours at a time in our studios: pastors laboring on sermons, writers struggling with metaphors, professors writing and rewriting complicated lessons to make mysterious concepts understandable. We are all searching for the right words, the right strokes as it were, to describe this divine being to the world.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with these things. Love and passion for one’s work often helps one to be effective in the execution. Moreover, for theologians, love and passion for one’s work is born out of love and passion for God. The danger, however, and the warning with which Poe’s story confront us, is that work can very easily become an end in itself. When that happens, it kills the very thing for which one works.
This reality happens to theologians whenever we teach and preach passionately about God without cultivating an active prayer life. This reality happens whenever we spend many more hours reading works about Scripture than reading and mediating on the Scriptures themselves. This reality happens when we write eloquent things about care of the marginalized and downtrodden, but fail to embody this disposition in our own lives. When the work of theology is an end in itself, the theologian’s faith becomes a facsimile, easier written about then lived.
I first encountered Poe’s warning in the impressionable summer before I began the long pursuit of my life’s vocation, but I didn’t see it. More than twenty years later, I am still trying to understand it. I have often failed, having allowed my gaze to shift from God to my canvas in more seasons than I care to admit. Nor have I discovered an answer to this conundrum. Sabbath-keeping is necessary and helpful, though not foolproof, as time spent with God can subtly morph into thinking about God and then one’s next sermon, essay, or lesson. Perhaps the realization of how easily we can fall into this trap is the first step toward the vigilance needed as Paul notes, for even he feared that “after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).
We can take comfort in the fact that, unlike Poe’s painter, theologians can do nothing to kill the eternal, living God. But he can certainly leave our studios. Even without us noticing.