What art can teach us about theology and faith formation


Every year, I take my daughter to ArtPrize—one of the world’s largest art competitions, right in our backyard—hoping she’ll have a different experience with art than than the one I had as a child.

Growing up, art was something I chose to endure rather than appreciate. I viewed trips to the art museum as almost a form of punishment. ArtPrize takes art out of the museum (well, mostly—our favorite piece this year happens to be in the Grand Rapids Art Museum), and in doing so, it’s helped Elizabeth cultivate an enthusiasm for art I never quite managed when I was her age.

She runs from one exhibit to another, yelling, “Let’s go see more art!”

OK, so the artistic quality varies rather widely at ArtPrize. Not everything that catches Elizabeth’s eye would be regarded as fine art by most connoisseurs and curators. Every year, there seems to be an excess of kitsch and recycled scrap metal, especially among the outdoor installations.

But ArtPrize is about inviting everyone into the process of creating and experiencing art—not just the connoisseurs and curators.

Unsurprisingly, the art Elizabeth is most drawn to—the art she talks about the most afterward—is the art she can interact with.

Like “Weave Peace” by Michele Miller-Hansen, a 30-foot dome of pole and fabric outside the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Visitors are asked to write hopeful messages on colorful strips of paper and attach them to the dome, effectively transforming it into something new—something barely resembling the original, unadorned version. It wasn’t one of my favorites until I thought about what it means for an artist to invite others to contribute to—and radically alter—their own work.

weave peace

Or “Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha, inspired by the geometrical patterns of Islamic art. Her installation explores the “binaries of public and private, light and shadow, static and dynamic.” The light transforms the entire room, making it part of the exhibit. The artistic experience, in this case, would change from one space to the next. The viewer also becomes part of the exhibit—albeit temporarily—casting their shadow about the space, as Elizabeth gleefully did while dancing around the room.



Art becomes meaningful, transformative, and captivating when we’re able to participate in it—when we’re invited to contribute to it, rather than being forced to just stand back and observe in silence.

I wonder if there’s a lesson to learn from ArtPrize about how we do theology and faith formation.

When we confine theology to the “elites,” when we reduce it to merely an academic discipline, do we lose something along the way? True, there is something to be said for advanced study and expertise. (I wouldn’t want someone who hasn’t mastered Greek or Hebrew translating the Bible for me.) But in our desire to “protect” theology from amateur interference, have we deprived ourselves of the gift of illumination from unexpected sources?

There seems to be little tolerance for imagination and creativity in theology. We act as if such things have no place here, reducing theology to something that resembles scientific analysis, dissecting texts so we can extract objective meaning from them. There is a place for all this. But what about also making room for wonder, imagination, and exploration in our theology? What about welcoming the learned and the unlearned, who turn out not to be so unlearned after all; they just have a different form of knowledge—what if we welcomed them the same table, so we can “do theology” together?

What if we intentionally blurred the lines between art and theology?

What about inviting people to participate more actively in their own faith formation? To experience religion rather than just observe it? One of the things I appreciate most about our (relatively) new spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, is that kids are welcomed as full participants. They are not second-class citizens. They aren’t on probationary membership. They don’t have restricted benefits. My daughter is welcome at the table each week. Worship is participatory—for everyone.

Encouraging her to participate in—and actively shape—the faith to which she belongs is no guarantee she’ll continue to embrace it when she grows up. But if she feels a sense of ownership—if she is encouraged to become a meaningful participant rather than a silent spectator—then it might just stay with her through life.


The best thing I read this week (January 21)

Yes, it’s another Mark Driscoll post. This one is from Jonathan Martin, pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The thing I like best about Jonathan (apart from the fact that I so badly want to see him turn a deck of cards into a weapon), is how he reminds us that women in ministry is not some crazy new idea. It’s not, as Mark Driscoll would have us believe, a spineless capitulation to a culture that only recently came to value the equality of women (as if that’s such a bad thing anyway).

There’s at least one Christian tradition (which just so happens to be the one Jonathan represents) that has embraced women in ministry for ages — long before the rest of us were willing to entertain the thought of female pastors and priests. And they (rightly, in my opinion) see women in leadership going all the way back to the apostolic church.

To quote from Jonathan’s blog (or better yet, go and read the whole thing):

The argument that Mark lays out [against women in ministry] is not so much from Scripture but his own culturally conditioned assessment of the role of women in leadership.  I come from a very different cultural context that tells a very different story…

As a third generation Pentecostal preacher who has been and continues to be shaped significantly by women in ministry, this time I had enough.  Within my tradition, which is theologically very conservative, we have never had prohibitions about women in leadership.  From the beginning, we have believed that the Spirit given on the day of Pentecost causes both “sons and daughters to prophesy.”  We had women pastors and leaders while at the same time forbidding our congregants for many years to wear make-up or jewelry, go to the movies, swimming pools or beaches; play cards or play sports.  Women were not allowed to wear pants or wear their hair short, men could not wear their hair long or wear shorts.  And yet in all of this—women were fully authorized to preach, teach, marry, bury, baptize and serve communion.

We did this all in a tradition that had an extraordinarily high view of the Bible (I would argue a much higher and even more terrifying understanding of the Word of God than the fundamentalists)…  We did it because we believed there was in fact serious evidence in the New Testament that women were in fact leaders in the early church.

We had no connections to liberal social movements, but were demonstrating racial equality in pockets all around the world years before the modern civil rights movement.  We weren’t demythologizing the Bible or playing down the blood or the cross of Jesus or the judgment of God (as Mark’s logic would suggest these are interrelated with the ordination of women as pastors).  There was a new social order coming in not through politicians or seminarians or professors, but from ordinary people who were taking the Bible and the Spirit seriously.

While there isn’t a hint of self-congratulation in Jonathan’s post, it’s a good reminder nonetheless that if you’re lucky enough to be part of a Christian tradition that welcomes women as full participants at every level, you should thank a Pentecostal. They were our trailblazers on the path to a better understanding of how God can use anyone in any capacity, regardless of gender.

Do yourself a favor and read the rest of Jonathan’s post.

Artprize revisited

Some of the scenes from one last visit to Artprize 2011 over the weekend…

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Ricky Gervais tarnishing Hollywood’s heretofore spotless reputation…

All week long, the Interwebs have been atwitter (did you see how I did that?) with Ricky Gervais’ celebrity-roasting performance at the Golden Globes. Did he go too far? Was it all a bit mean-spirited? Was he too hard on his fellow celebrities who, after all, do a thankless job occupying roughly the same category as, say, harvesting blood diamonds or scouring Indian landfills for plastic (apparently)?

Wait. All Gervais did was shine a light on the inherent absurdity of a system that rewards off-the-rails drunken behavior by making you one of the highest paid TV stars in America (read: Charlie Sheen). Oh, and he poked passing fun at one prominent adherent of a religion that was invented by a mediocre science fiction novelist in the 1950s.

At least some celebrities got the joke, like Christian Bale, who (let’s face it) is prone to the odd chemically-induced blowup himself. But for the most part, Hollywood is following the usual script for such occasions, taking the line that they are basically Very Serious People who cannot be mocked, even when they engage in behavior that would get most of us banned from the family Christmas party, for starters.

Mind you, in poking fun at Hollywood’s celebrity culture, Gervais was shining an unflattering light on all of us who lend credence to these vacuous celluloid heroes by watching a hour of “Two and a Half Men” reruns every night. (Will the dorky, slightly awkward one get the girl THIS TIME?) Or by picking up that magazine with the airbrushed celebrity on the cover, even as we bemoan the fact that our culture defines beauty too narrowly and regards old age as a fate worse than leprosy.

In any case, I don’t see what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is so upset about. Nobody’s ever talked (or cared) this much about the Golden Globes before.

Kabul from 30,000 feet (and a bangkok downpour)

This is why you don’t go outside and wander around before checking the weather.

Yesterday I was flying to Bangkok (where the picture was taken) when, just as our flight path was about to cross Afghanistan, I watched The Kite Runner. Great film. (Mind you, this is the sentiment of someone watching on a noisy 747 at two in the morning, but still.)

Having read the book, what surprised me was how closely the film followed the original story and, even more, how well it worked. The gist of both is that Amir, a young boy growing up in 1970s Afghanistan, betrays his best friend, only to be given a chance at redemption years later when he receives a phone call asking him to return to his homeland to rescue his friend’s son. (The fact that the Taliban is wreaking havoc at the time tends to complicate things.)

The cirumstances of Amir’s opportunity for redemption bear striking parallels to the circumstances of his earlier betrayal. The big choice the movie presents — the one Amir must make, not once but twice — is between standing up for the oppressed and looking the other way to save our own skin.

I don’t recall exactly what my mental picture of Afghanistan was before the book and the film. Still, both seem to capture really well the country that was zooming past 30,000 feet below. (Not much of a surprise, I suppose, since the author was born in Kabul.)

Also saw another film worth watching, called Lars and the Real Girl. It’s about how a tight-knit, mostly Christian community responds when Lars, who develops a crippling shyness after the death of his parents, begins introducing everyone to his girlfriend Bianca, who in reality is a life-sized doll. The town’s reaction is ultimately shaped by a simple question that can easily sound like a worn-out cliche (especially when it’s turned into a fashion commodity): “What would Jesus do?” The question is asked by the pastor of the tiny Methodist church that Lars attends (with Bianca, obviously). And it’s the community’s response that shapes the trajectory of Lars’ growth or healing or whatever you want to call it.

So… two films and 12 hours later, I was in Bangkok. Haven’t seen too much of the city yet. One of my few ventures outside the hotel was cut short by a storm that led me to spend most of the time under a shelter in a nearby park, standing next to a very bored looking security guard.

Some of the sights here can be disturbing… like pot-bellied, middle-aged Western men everywhere you look, arms draped around Thai girls barely in their twenties (if that). Or the homeless boy taking shelter from the rain, curled up on a sidewalk. He couldn’t have been more than twelve.

Maybe the most jarring thing is seeing it in a towering city that, if it weren’t for the obvious language barrier, could just as easily be Houston or LA. There’s never a shortage of good reasons to fight for a better world. (Assuming we choose not to look the other way, that is. Hang on, I think I watched a movie about that somewhere.)

On a semi-related note, I discovered the perfect antedote to jet lag. It’s called staying awake on the plane and sleeping for 15 hours the next day. Side effects include being awake at 12:30 the following morning and typing out random thoughts on your blog because you’re not the least bit tired.

Film Faith and Justice :: day 2

Tonight we saw the film Black Gold, which chronicles Tadesse Meskela’s uphill battle to negotiate something approaching a fair price for coffee on behalf of 74,000 Ethiopian farmers who happen to grow some of the world’s finest coffee beans.

This film is powerful. Before you read another word, go to the official website. And make sure you see this movie:


There were two scenes in particular that I won’t soon forget.

The first showed several care-worn Ethiopian farmers gathered around freshly made coffee. (By “freshly made,” I mean the beans were roasted and ground by hand just moments before.)

As one of them poured the coffee, the others prayed. (Ethiopia has a large Christian population.) I was moved by the simple, elemental nature of their prayers.

The asked God to give them food — so they could eat. They asked God to give their children schools — so they could read. And they asked God to raise the wholesale price of coffee — so they could live.

They asked God to raise the price of coffee.

They were praying to the same God that I pray to.

And it hit me: when I make a choice as mundane as the coffee I drink, I can either become part of the answer this farmer’s prayer… or I can stand in the way.

If God hears the cry of the poor (Exodus 22:23, Psalm 69:33) — which means he heard the cry of this farmer — then with each cup of coffee I buy, either I am saying, “Your kingdom come; your will be done,” or I’m telling God he can do something else with his kingdom and his will.

Because coffee is a spiritual issue.

Another scene showed men from the farming co-op gathered in a room to hear the bad news that despite efforts to secure a better price for their coffee, they still had not earned enough profit to build a school for their children.

Then one of the men spoke. He said if there was not enough money to build a school, they should keep working until they earned more. And if there was still not enough, then everyone should give their own money to help build the school.

And then he said, “I will sell my shirt and give the money for the school.”

This from a man who earns pennies doing back-breaking manual labor each day. The women in his community sort the coffee beans by hand… for just 50 cents a day.

This man is willing to sell his shirt — probably his only shirt — so his children can learn to read.

Ah, but I must have that caramel macchiato.

Film Faith and Justice :: day 1

My wife and I bought weekend passes to Film Faith and Justice 2007 here in Seattle. I’ll be blogging about the highlights from each day. Here’s day one…

Tonight, we heard Shane Claiborne (author of The Irresistible Revolution). He spoke at our church in Michigan a couple of times, so it was nice to hear a familiar voice sharing some familiar stories.

But there was one story I hadn’t heard before, and I doubt I’ll be able to get it out of my head…

Shane was visiting churches in Iraq when he said to one of the pastors there, “I had no idea there were so many Christians in Iraq.”

The pastor replied, “You Americans didn’t invent Christianity. You just domesticated it.”

Then he said, “We pray for the church in America. We pray that you will be the people of God, that you will be people of peace.”

What does it say about us, when Christians living in one of the most dangerous places on earth feel compelled to pray — for us?

What does it say about us, that Christians who have experienced real peril look at us and pray that our faith will be undomesticated?

And what does it say about me, that I pray so little for the church in Iraq — a church that’s in danger of disappearing?

Sweet Jesus

Last night I saw a news story about a sculpture of Jesus, meant to be displayed in an art gallery housed in a New York hotel. The exhibition was cancelled after vocal protests.

It turns out there are two unusual things about this sculpture…

1) It depicts Jesus, arms outstretched as though hanging on a cross, without so much as a loin cloth.

2) It’s made entirely of chocolate.

No, you did not read that last sentence wrong. The artist — whose past medium have included five tons of pepper jack cheese (sprayed on a Wisconsin home, of course) and 312 pounds of processed ham (you start to get the feeling he’s not a conventional artist) — calls his latest creation “My Sweet Lord.”

And what does the artist have to say about it?

My intention was to celebrate the body of Christ in a sweet, delicious, tasteful way.

This post is not about the suitability of chocolate as a media for artistic depictions of Jesus. It’s not about the appropriateness of portraying the crucified Jesus without any clothes. (Although his Roman executioners almost certainly stripped him completely, taking even the smallest shred of dignity.)

I guess I just don’t take artists who paint hotel rooms in melted mozzarella too seriously.

But what about the way some Christians have reacted to the sculpture? The gallery and hotel say they were overrun with angry phone calls and emails, including death threats.

Death threats? From Christians?

Then Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League (a group that exists to “defend the right of Catholics… to participate in American public life”) went head-to-head with the artist on CNN.

Among Donohue’s many comments, he had this to say about the offending artist, gallery, and hotel…

They’re morally bankrupt. I want to see them financially bankrupt.

And this…

Oh, no, let me tell you something. You’re lucky I’m not as mean, because you might lose more than your head.

(More than your head?) Finally, the interview ended with this…

Look, you lost. You know what? You put your middle finger at the Catholic Church, and we just broke it, didn’t we, pal?

Wait… who is it that’s known for going around, breaking their enemies’ fingers?

Isn’t that what the mafia does?

Bill, I may not be Catholic, but what you say reflects badly on Christians of all stripes. I seem to recall Jesus teaching us to love our enemies. Do good to those who hate us. Bless those who curse us. Pray for those who mistreat us. (Luke 6:27-28)

Wasn’t it one of Jesus’ followers — for Catholics, the first pontiff, no less — who said, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing”? (1 Peter 3:9, TNIV)

I think that means not breaking the fingers of those who offend us. You may have been speaking figuratively, Bill. But what does it say about what’s in your heart, that you reach for a such a violent metaphor to describe how you respond to your enemies?

Aren’t Christians called to be people who bring healing, not inflict injury?