Van Gogh: Gospel in the Coal Dust


I fell in love with the art of Vincent Van Gogh in high school.  I don’t recall my first exposure to him  I suspect, like most, that it came from a combination of the painting ‘The Starry Night’ and the story involving his severed ear.  I remember seeing a dramatic performance of Leonard Nimoy’s ‘Vincent’ performed at a school speech competition, and the pathos of Theo as he speaks about his tortured brother stuck with me.  

After seeing the performance of ‘Vincent’, I watched Robert Altman’s cinematic masterpiece ‘Vincent and Theo’.  Their relationship, as depicted in the film, seemed to point at something greater than philia, or brotherly love, and toward a true sense of agape, that is pure, unconditional love.  No matter how outrageous or erratic Vincent’s behavior, his brother Theo loved and cared for him.  

After watching Altman’s film, I read Irving Stone’s ‘Lust for Life’, a fictional re-telling of Van Gogh’s life.  Though I loved the entire book, one particular section stuck with me.  Stone describes Van Gogh’s brief tenure in the ministry.  Before becoming an artist, Van Gogh worked as a pastor in the Belgian Borinage region, among the country’s coal miners.

Rather than stand apart from and above the miners, Van Gogh attempted to sit with them in their suffering.  He journeyed into the mines and mingled freely with the people.  He gave away everything he owned.  Stories are related of him carrying heavy loads for pregnant women and ministering to the injured after an explosion at the mine. Locals referred to him as ‘Christ of the coal mines.’  This zealous approach to missionary work and his seemingly extreme behavior scandalized the church and they fired him after six months.  

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Much has been written about Van Gogh’s later life, after he devoted his life to art.  Most know of his madness, the madness that led him to cut off his own ear and to (presumably) commit suicide.  Yet throughout his suffering, he continued to find and embrace beauty in the world around him; one senses in his artwork something akin to the praise and agony poured out by King David in the Psalms.  

We are, all of us, broken.  As Brennan Manning once said, “To be alive is to be broken; to be broken is to stand in need of grace.”  The scandal of the Gospel is that God loves, embraces, and even pursues us in our brokenness.  As recipients of this love, we are called to give it freely to others.  Like Vincent’s brother Theo, we are called to love others, even when they abuse and hurt us.  Like Vincent, we are called to sit with those in the coal dust, to stand with the broken regardless of what the world or the so called religious may say.  And like Vincent, we must continue to look for God, for the beauty and wonder around us, even in the midst of darkness.  We must remember that in the darkness there are stars.