Somewhere in Colorado, a man is sculpting a heavy slab in a coffee shop, with a crowd of curious onlookers. He works in clay – putting the last touches on a realistic piece in deep relief. Most viewers are entranced, giving Michael McGrath a chance to speak to them about God, the Bible, or other issues in their lives. At times, the conversation becomes very personal – and some are offended.
McGrath is a fine artist and illustrator who functions as a “prophetic sculptor” in his church body. When asked to explain “prophetic sculpture” to the perplexed, he expounded a bit for us: “When I sculpt in public, I speak what I hear the Heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus or the Holy Spirit speak. That is prophetic in its essence. Having a knowledge about someone that cannot have been known by a person about someone else and using that knowledge to build up, to edify, the other person is considered (at least in my Christian circles) prophetic.”
While in art school, a student watched him work on “Remember the Piercing” – his first sculpture. The student had been sexually abused, and she told McGrath his piece brought “a mighty healing” to her life. He warned that this image of the creation of “the first Adam … is a very non-PC work of art, but it brought healing to at least one individual.” Even the head of the Sculpture Department was impressed, likening it to the work of Auguste Rodin.
McGrath works in public spots with high visibility. Many of his pieces feature the human body, and in classical tradition, they are rarely clothed. This shocks and upsets some of his audience. Conservative Christians may be disturbed by the sight of a nude Joseph, a prodigal – or even Jesus.
His unfinished work “His Affectionate Embrace” is one of those. Head and bust of two bearded men are modeled in soft, grey clay. One rests his head on the bare chest of the other in a show of raw intimacy that is rarely seen in religious art. Why should this make us uncomfortable? The Second Commandment is part of the reason, but the Church went far beyond that at times. We still suffer a fear of the potential power of images.
Agitation at the sight of a nude body (in a Christian context) may come from our own decadent nature. Nudity now implies sex at all times, even if it’s unintended or physically impossible. Angelic beings and gods are suspect and smeared; even our Lord isn’t safe from the sensuality of our times.
One rational reaction to this plague is cultural escape. Then an artist like McGrath comes along.
Michael introduces himself as “a born-again, Holy Spirit-filled sculptural illustrator who is not afraid to depict the human body” in his art. He briefly explained why he makes nudity a central theme in his work, knowing it deeply offends some viewers: “My theology of the body is the basis for what I teach most of the men I minister to: our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit.”
McGrath recalls a pantheon of nude Biblical prophets. “Why did Saul prophesy naked in the middle of the street all night long, witnessed by Samuel the prophet? Why did God command Isaiah the prophet to go naked and barefoot for three years? Why did Amos and Micah strip off their clothes and wail and prophesy over the nation of Israel?”
He waxes even further, describing how Christ appeared before him several times as “The Last Adam” (Corinthians 15:45): “He was clothed [solely] in white light … as He is the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form, of which part of His physical body should He be ashamed? Would He be like the first Adam, who covered his genitals with the sticky leaf of a fig tree, out of shame?”
McGrath uses art-making to attract people, and he leaves it up to God to bring whom he will. Working on “His Affectionate Embrace” at a Starbucks, two women asked him to explain the piece. Sharing a vision that inspired him, he turned to see tears rolling down their faces. One of them exclaimed, “You have expressed the love of God well and we get it.”
Art is used as more than a hook or evangelistic tool, however. McGrath claims that God leads him directly to individuals: “He will bring me someone who needs prayer for healing, for encouragement or for something that the Lord has for that person. It’s never the same type of session, no matter when or where I go.”
His art invites a profusion of reactions, from awe to umbrage. “Some of my works of art disturb and upset people, while at the same time making others laugh,” McGrath explains. One most likely to perturb is an untitled work that manages to grate against a mass of religious traditions. This clay piece depicts a hybrid man with lion’s head, tenderly cradling a lamb.
Orthodox Christianity and the Bible use the lion analogy for both YHVH and Christ. McGrath is implying Jesus here, and our clue is the lamb. The piece was custom-made for a woman, who later insisted on a strategically placed fig leaf. McGrath says she has not overcome her shame over the male body.
If the man/God/beast hybrid is tough on some traditional believers, the nudity of the man makes it more so. McGrath humanizes Christ here, with frontal nudity to mid-genital area. This shocks us, because we rarely see an explicit visual image of the man/God. Religious people prefer metaphors and Greek symbols to the physical.
McGrath has this controversial approach in common with a few contemporary Christian artists; notably the spectacular painter, Edward Knippers, whose raw nudity and vigorously muscular bodies offend some viewers and mesmerize others. Inspired by Knippers, McGrath claims “the Incarnation is crucial to our redemption, and knowing that the Living God chose to be born in a human male body is so important!”
This is a relatively new line for McGrath, although he has been an artist most of his life. A graduate of Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, he spent 17 years as a U.S. Navy illustrator-draftsman. He is proficient in sculpture, and classically trained in oils and other painting and drawing media. With his time on earth, McGrath is prolifically creative. He casually mentions the existence of over “2000 pieces of artwork crammed into my tiny studio and into two attic crawl spaces.”
Support from his church is part of the reason McGrath developed this unique art form to such an extent. Jubilee Fellowship Church of Lakewood, Colorado, welcomed him as part of their worship team, and he also functions as an elder, in prophetic ministry, and teaches a men’s ministry there. McGrath walks a fiery line which secular artists will never understand, as they feign great significance on modern issues (admittedly, some are gifted and discerning). But prophets have always been radically counter-culture and politically incorrect.
McGrath’s novel use of art with ministries has attracted plenty of attention. At one point, a Christian filmmaker sought to make a documentary about his life, but was unable to complete it. McGrath is disappointed. “I’m still considering looking for someone to do a short documentary about how the Lord led me into prophetic sculptor” he said, “mainly because I am the only man I can find anywhere on the planet who does this type of ministry.”