You Are Not OK
On April 6, 2012, Thomas Kinkade, who was among the most popular artists in the world at the time, died in his California home from acute intoxication from alcohol and Valium. His death shocked both his fans and the media, which was quick to point out the irony that the Painter of LightTM had lived and died in such darkness.
Kinkade’s paintings were, and are, incredibly popular. At the peak of his popularity in 2001, Kinkade generated $130 million. The Thomas Kinkade company estimates that one out of every 20 American homes had a Kinkade print hanging in it. His depictions of bucolic cottages, heavenly golf courses, and cozy looking churches appeared on everything from tea towels to jigsaw puzzles. Prior to the housing crash in 2008 there were plans for a San Francisco Bay area housing development called “The Village, a Thomas Kinkade Community” which offered “cottage style homes” and had the slogan “Calm, not chaos. Peace, not pressure.”
This is the ethos of the Thomas Kinkade empire, and it is the reason his ironic death of despair shocked so many. Kinkade offered his viewers a window into a world that few of us could ever hope to live in, but that seemed to call to us like the warm light through mullion windows on a snowy evening. There is a dreamy, sleepy, quality about all of them. They are warm and comforting. Kinkade’s paintings are so popular, I think, because they tell you that you are OK. Kinkade’s paintings offer us, in the words of Sir Roger Scruton, a “world presented through a veil of self-congratulatory sentiment…[which] tells you that you’re a good person, and no further efforts need be made.”
The thing is, no one actually believes them. If they did, they would never buy them in the first place. The reason Thomas Kinkade is so popular is that his paintings offer people something that they know they don’t have. If you actually lived in a Moonlight Cottage (“the tranquil moods of morning light in a setting I dream of stumbling upon”) you wouldn’t need a painting of one to hang over the mantle in your own, ordinary home. Even those of us who have stable jobs, healthy families, and happy marriages wouldn’t describe our quotidian existence as “calm, not chaos. Peace, not pressure.”
One only needs to zoom out slightly to see that even the most tranquil home in real life is in the middle of a world that is not OK. The COVID-induced not-OK-ness of 2020 is only the most recent development, following four years of tumultuous politics in the United States, a crisis impacting Uyghurs in China, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the War on Terror—and, of course, the Fascist and Communist horrors of the 20th century, which claimed many millions of lives. This confronts us every time we turn on the news. Is it any surprise that people want to fill their homes with things that tell them that everything is OK?
The problem, of course, is that putting your hopes into anything that isn’t true and doesn’t square with your actual life will let you down. Eventually you’ll have to leave the world of the painting and go about your day, where you are met with one small tragedy after another. And then you discover that life is still hard, and on top of that you feel like you’ve been lied to. The tragic early death of Thomas Kinkade from drink and anxiolytics throws the brutality of this betrayal into sharp relief.
Advent, more than any other time of year, reminds us that we are not OK. Advent is, of course, a time of preparing for the Feast of the Incarnation. But its primary emphasis is on preparation for the return of Christ as Judge and King. This is why, just as shopping malls across America are attempting to imitate Kinkade’s Victorian Christmas Carol, the mood on Sunday mornings turns darker, more urgent, and more intense.
In Advent we hear again the parables of the foolish virgins left in the cold, and about the master who goes away on a journey, with a household anxiously awaiting his return. We are told to keep awake, and are warned of a time when the sun will be darkened and the stars fall from heaven. We walk in the wilderness with the prophets who speak of doom, and yet of salvation. A wild man in camel’s hair calls us to repent, with an axe at the root of the tree. We draw ever closer to Christmas and, at the same time, ever closer to the Cross. “Advent,” Episcopal preacher and writer Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “begins in the dark.”
Scripture is not a self-help book, and it does not tell us that we are OK. In fact, it reminds us over and over again that it is quite the opposite. We are so not OK that God Himself became one of us, took our flesh, bore our sorrows, and died our death precisely because we cannot help ourselves. When we prepare the way in the wilderness of Advent we are forced to remember that the baby who is laid in the manger is also the man who is hung on the Cross. Advent refuses to let us skip straight to the happy ending where everything is OK. We are not OK, and there is nothing we can do about it. Thanks be to God, we have a Savior who can do what we cannot.
The Gospel doesn’t offer dreamy antidotes to the challenges and pain of being human. It offers something deeper, richer, and more real: hope. This hope comes from looking at the sorrow and violence in the world, and trusting that in defeating death, Christ has overcome the world. It means looking at the anger and violence in your own heart, and trusting that Christ loves that wicked and broken heart enough to die for it.
On this dark night in a dark Advent in a dark year, I pray for the repose of the soul of Thomas Kinkade. I pray that the power of the Resurrection might overcome the darkness and despair that consumed him in his mortal life. I pray for those of us who are looking for an escape to a cozy cottage or peaceful garden suffused with pastel light. I ask God for the strength and hope to be willing to walk in a wilderness, where, on the horizon, maybe, we can see that dawn is breaking. God is the true painter of light, because His is the only light that shines forth in the darkness, which the darkness cannot overcome.
Come, Lord Jesus.