Comedy & Tragedy In Edinburgh

August 6, 2001

Expectant throngs were beginning to fill the streets of Edinburgh last week. The world’s largest annual arts festival was about to begin, under the shadow of the city’s imposing castle perched high on its craggy pedestal. Every August crowds from all over the world double the Scottish capital’s population in search of summer entertainment.

“Laughter one moment, horror the next”, promised the programme catalogue of one typical theatrical performance. It could well have been describing the range of entertainment offered by what is actually a festival of festivals. In addition to the official Edinburgh International Festival (with its 161 performances including the famous military tattoo, and concerts by orchestras from Boston and St Petersburg), there is a book festival drawing world-renowned authors, a TV festival, and, lastly (and now largest), the Fringe Festival. With performances day and night in almost every possible theatre, church hall and community facility available, the Fringe boasts an incredible 17,000 different anything-goes happenings!

John Knox would surely turn in his grave if he were to witness much of the zany, irreverent and amoral goings-on just outside his old front door! Such frivolity certainly had no place in the reformed society he had envisioned for Scotland in the 16th century.

Perhaps he would be more approving of the SHINE evangelistic outreach, the occasion which had brought Romkje and me to Scotland last week. Instigated by Susan Leiper of YWAM Edinburgh, SHINE is one of several Christian evangelistic “fringe” events held during the Festival. Multinational teams of evangelists, artists and intercessors had gathered to reach out to performer and spectator alike. Right now the 80 participants are out busking in the streets, holding craft workshops, engaging in questionnaire evangelism, pavement chalk evangelism, friendship evangelism in cafe and prayer-walking.

In preparation for the outreach, we contemplated together a bronze sculpture that had caught my eye in the Scottish National Gallery. Entitled “Comedy and Tragedy”, it depicted a dancing male figure. The inscription instructed the observer to view the figure’s face through the gaping smile of a theatrical mask held at arm’s length by the dancer himself. From that angle, the face appeared to be creased in a gleeful smile. However, looked at directly from anywhere outside the mask, the face was twisted in agonising pain. The dancing pose was no leap of joy, the inscription revealed. The figure had just been stung by a bee!

What a penetrating insight into the universal human condition! “Laughter one moment, horror the next”! How often revelry, laughter and amusement masked pain, emptiness and loneliness! How true was this of the Festival throngs? How could the SHINE outreach get people to drop their masks and face their aching lostness?

Hanging on the wall in the gallery flanking this sculpture were paintings by Gauguin and Cezanne, and, further to the right, a violent confusion of vibrant oil colours on canvas signed simply, in red, ‘Vincent’. One of many depictions of olive trees by van Gogh, in conscious association with Christ’s agonising in Gethsemene, this painting reflected the Dutch artist’s personal pain and tragedy. A year after these colours were daubed on the canvas in front of me, Vincent shot himself.


comedy & tragedy

Earlier in his life, van Gogh had been a zealous evangelist. He had worked among poor coal miners and labourers in southern Belgium. (I once met a pastor from Mons who knew the family where van Gogh had rented a room – and who used sketches he had left behind to light their kitchen fire!) He once sent his brother Theo a picture of Jesus crowned with thorns, and scribbled around the margin, “Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ, nor things present nor things to come”. And yet, after his own evangelistic organisation rejected him for his overzealousness, he turned his back on the Church and sought friendship and comfort among artists and prostitutes.

Nevertheless, until his death, he still revered the person of Jesus. The same year he painted these olive trees, he wrote that Jesus lived “as an artist, greater than all other artists, but not using marble, clay or paint; he worked in flesh itself.” While he made no sculptures, paintings or books, wrote Vincent, he made living people immortal.

If only van Gogh had been mentored by a mature believer, affirming him in both his evangelism and artistic gifts – how differently his story might have ended! Tragedy could have been averted.

Perhaps there are some Vincents among the many artists in Edinburgh this month, sensitive and creative souls who have been offended by the Church in the past.

Please pray for SHINE and the other outreaches during the festival – that masks would be dropped, that tears be turned to laughter, lostness to salvation, and tragedy to celebration.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,


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