Transfigurations: A Poem and an Painting

Earlier this week I posted some thought-provoking words from theologians about Jesus’s Transfiguration. Their words have helped me to grapple with the text at hand. Now, late in the week, I have been reflecting with a poem and a painting as I try to compose a sermon worthy of this moment in Christ’s life (Matthew 17:1-13).

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Ascension Thursday: Salvador Dali and Karl Barth

As an intern at Anchor Community Church (United Brethren), I have the opportunity to plan an Ascension Thursday service. This is something new for this community and, quite honestly, for me. Several things make this a tricky service to plan. Some of them are practical: the church never gathers on Thursday evenings. Others are theological: many of the congregants aren’t sure why the ascension matters. I have a few ideas to draw folks to the service and a few others to help them leave praising God for presiding as the Church’s heavenly priest.

One way that I hope to do this is to encourage the church to see the bizarreness of the ascension. This, I hope, will not leave them confused, but help them to experience the wild reality that Christ’s ascension, similar to the incarnation, unites creatureliness within the divine mystery. To do this, we will reflect together on Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ (see below).

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The Church and The Arts: Some Queries

It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.).  Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts.  A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,

In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource.  We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts.  We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).

I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art.  None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God.  It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.

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Reactions: Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet”

Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet. 1852-56 (retouched several times up to 1892). Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.

During my class on 1 Peter today I invited students to reflect with me on this painting. After asking for their impressions, I directed their attention first to Peter. How does the Gospel of John record Peter’s response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his disciples (John 13: 8 – “You shall never wash my feet”)? How does Brown’s rendering of Peter in this scene interpret Peter’s response to Jesus’ soft rebuke?

Next we looked at those around the table. What does Brown suggest about their own willingness to be served by Jesus? How about the one untying his sandals? How about Judas clutching his head? How about the others who are more or less in the light?

Finally, the image invites the viewer to consider his or her response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his followers (Caravaggio and Rembrandt evoke the same in many of their paintings). In other words, in which disciple do we see ourselves? How will it lead us to pray?

Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?

I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual The Beauty of the Crosstheology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).

The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.triumph_of_cross

Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.

An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).

Where is the Victorious Christ?

In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. Continue reading

Edward Knippers » Art & Incarnation (5): On art and not “playing in the shallows”

Edward Knippers concludes our exhibition, “Art and Incarnation: Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers”, with a few responses, words of gratitude, and reflections on not “playing in the shallows” (may our stammering attempts at speaking about God risk the same).

The high level of theological discussion this week on Theology Forum about my work is more of a tribute pm_32than any artist could expect in a lifetime. That is because Professors Sanders, Myers, and Buschart each understand in a profound way what I have been trying to do in my artistic calling.

Their articulations of my core concerns of incarnation and resurrection have embodied my, often, intuitive understandings in a clear verbal form. When I read Professor Sanders’ succinct summation of my artist enterprise as an exploration of “…a visual vocabulary capable of expressing the remarkable things Christians believe….” I could only say, “Yes, that’s it.”

Professor Myers’ discussion of my cubist vocabulary in terms of Gerard Manley Hopkins stating that God’s grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil,” only makes me realize how much further I have to go in order to even “stammer,” (Prof. Myers’ word) about such things.

Professor Buschart’s discusses the nudity in my work in terms of universality and particularity (also mentioned by Professor Sanders) stating that “…the absence of dress in his human figures removes an excuse for someone to hold the images at a distance, and yet these are particular people.” In reading his essay, I realized that he had seen past merely naked people to the common denominator of our humanity, the body and its place in the cosmos.

More importantly, each of these scholars has penetrated to the core of my work by talking more about our pm_421Lord’s Incarnation and Resurrection than about me. This is as it should be if I have done my job well. I have maintained over the years that art is not merely self-expression but an exploration of a reality greater than the Self. I have also maintained that the artist should be concerned about the most profound parts of that reality, not just play in the shallows. These essays are a conformation that with God’s help, I have accomplished in some small way what I have preached.

I offer my deepest thanks and appreciation for the essays of Professors Fred Sanders, Ben Myers, and David Buschart. I also offer my heartfelt gratitude to Kent Eilers and his colleagues at Theology Forum for making this conversation possible. I hope that many will find the rewards of reading and participating in Theology Forum in the years to come.

David Buschart » Art & Incarnation (4): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

The spirit and work of the artist can be a rich means of grace, especially to those of us who lack either the  temperament or the ability to “create” as they do. My sister was given all the artistic ability allotted to my family of origin, and so God blessed me with a wife gifted with both the spirit and the abilities of an artist. And, my Christian faith has been refined and enriched through her.

Some artists suggest that they can meaningfully communicate only through their art. Others, like Edward Knippers, can do so through both their art and their written words. (And, there are, of course, also art forms for which the primary medium is words.) I am glad for the opportunity to consider the work of Knippers, and, in light of my above-mentioned limitations, will take my prompts from the latter.

Commendations: Physicality and Hope

Allow me to begin by highlighting and commending three of Knippers’ observations. (And, these commendations are not a polite set-up for negative critique. I happen to fundamentally agree with Knippers’ comments.)

First, “disembodiment is not an option for the Christian.” ed-knippersjohn-comforted-in-prisonDisembodiment is not an option because our Creator-God has not made it an option. Disembodiment may occur for the Christian during the interlude between earthly death and eternal redemption, but as theologians point out, this is a temporary aberration. It is unnatural and not the way God planned it. God made and makes and redeems human beings only as enfleshed creatures.

Second, physicality is “messy” and uncomfortable. To be sure, it can be pleasurable and a means of grace. But, because the world and all that is in it is, with a nod to Cornelius Plantinga, not the way it’s supposed to be, physicality is messy and uncomfortable. This is undoubtedly a significant factor in some Christians’ inclination toward a Gnosticized faith (to which Knippers, too, refers). As with many aspects of Christian faith and life, a healthy embrace of physicality is not always easy or pleasant but it is the right thing to do (consider “John comforted in Prison”, above).

Third, physicality is an essential element of the Christian message of hope. As Knippers’ nicely puts it, “we are able to make our bodies a living sacrifice to God because of Christ’s real and complete sacrifice for us.” As we often need to be reminded, the only way to Easter is through Good Friday. Continue reading

Ben Myers » Art & Incarnation (3): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

Edward Knippers and the resurrection of the body

Edward Knippers has always foregrounded the human body, and his work has long been preoccupied with the relation between God and bodies. Knippers has thus rightly been described as a painter of “incarnation.”

But in this new series of paintings – with its remarkable integration of baroque bodies and cubist forms – it becomes clear that the theological centre of Knippers’ work is not the incarnation of flesh as such, but the resurrection of the flesh. These paintings reflect an artist’s search for a language with which to articulate the theological truth that God’s identity – and likewise the identity of human selves – is inextricably connected to the reality of resurrection. God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead: this is not an incidental aspect of God’s character, but it is a description of God’s very “essence.” The resurrection of Jesus is what makes God God.

And similarly: the relation between God and humanity depends on the event of Jesus’ resurrection. Our own identities are mysteriously caught up in this event. If we want to discover who we really are, what it really means to be human, we have to look to the place where God and humanity overlap, the place where God intersects humanity. And the resurrection of Jesus is this place.

The overlap in Knippers’ paintings between human bodies and a profusion of refracted forms of light and colour is an attempt to locate this place, this startling moment in which the world of God intersects and interpenetrates our own material world.

Consider The Raising of Lazarus (right) . Here, a cubist concept – that an abstractly reassembled object can be viewed simultaneously from multiple perspectives – is employed as a language for articulating the intersection of the world of God and the world of human flesh. The forms and colours intersect and interpenetrate one another: bones, bandages and bodies are shot through with ribbons of light. As Gerard Manley Hopkins has put it, God’s grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Amidst the death of the tomb we witness a sudden explosion of life, an astonishing surge of colour and form. Above Lazarus stands the figure of Christ, with hands spread out in a gesture of creation, of forming. It is Christ who dissolves the formlessness of death, and brings forth the new form of sheer uncontainable life. The creative presence of Christ fractures and disrupts the world’s material order, bursting it open and reassembling it, wholly interpenetrating it with the flash and flame of God’s own life. Continue reading

Fred Sanders » Art & Incarnation (2): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

Edward Knippers is a hard-working painter, and what he’s been at work on since the ‘70s is exploring a visual vocabulary capable of expressing the remarkable things Christians believe.

In the old days, you could just paint a halo, but not anymore.  Christian art once had a symbolic vocabulary at its disposal that included all kinds of ciphers for spiritual things, and pointers to the transcendent.  Those halos meant holiness; a beam of light from a golden hemisphere in the sky meant spiritual illumination; an almond-shaped mandorla around a body signified that the person in it was simultaneously occupying our world and a world beyond; an angel meant an angel.

Knippers is not dismissive of all that traditional visual vocabulary; all of his work is carried out under the blessing of the fifth commandment’s charge to give your father and mother their due honor.  His paintings show a deep gratitude to the tradition. He knows his art history and understands the place he occupies in the stream of influences flowing through him.  What is rarer, he has pondered the theological implications of his place in the Western tradition.

But for all that, a Knippers painting doesn’t deploy the ancient visual language of pre-Renaissance painting.  There are no halos here -not in the form of golden circles painted on the background, nor yellow dinner plates attached to the backs of heads and improbably becoming ellipses in obedience to the laws of perspective, nor sunbursts conveniently occurring behind holy figures.  He doesn’t try to press those ancient symbols into service in his work.

Instead, Knippers paints human bodies.  He paints big, solid, fleshy forms engaged in vigorous, muscular movement.  There is a monumentality to a Knippers painting that you can sense even from a catalog photo or a tiny jpeg on a web page.  The images are well composed enough that seeing little copies of them is meaningful, but you should jump at any chance you ever have to get in the same room with one of his Truly Gigantic Panels (–one of those six or eight foot tall things, like The Anunciation of the Shepherds (below) (for more, visit Knippers’ website).

Up close, a Knippers painting is a revelation: in your space, in your face, confrontational and aggressive.  His pinkish giants don’t stay in a polite middle distance in his images, but crowd the foreground. A room with three or four of them in it feels more like a wrestling arena than an art gallery. Continue reading

Art & Incarnation (1) » Artist Statement by Edward Knippers

Our exhibition opens today with an essay from Edward Knippers himself. Subsequent posts engaging Knippers’ art and theology will follow every day this week.Tomorrow will feature Fred Sanders (Biola University), probably the world’s greatest systematic theologian cartoonist.

The human body is at the centre of my artistic imagination because the body is an essential element of the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection.

ed-knipperswith-his-stripesone-color-intaglio.jpgDisembodiment is not an option for the Christian. Christ places His Body and His Blood at the heart of our faith in Him. Our faith comes to naught if the Incarnation was not accomplished in actual time and space – if God did not send His Son to us in a real body with real blood.

Heresy results when we try to minimize the presence or pre-eminence of the body and the blood. Yet even believers have become comfortable with our age as it tries to disembody reality. Physicality is messy; it is demanding and always a challenge to control.

The naked human body is one way of starkly stating that we have nowhere to hide. Further, it allows me to have something of the spiritual timelessness of the Eastern Icon tradition by avoiding the cultural trappings of modern or ancient dress and, at the same time, enabling me to ground my subjects in the specifics of time and space (the glory of the Western tradition). This bridging of the two traditions is important to me because the spirituality of the Biblical events is as solid and real as the events themselves.

In finding the spiritual in the interactions and choices of real people, incarnation can be shown as the symbiotic reality that it is. In other words, the choices and actions that we make always have profound spiritual ramifications because we are human beings. Continue reading

Next Week: Art & Incarnation – Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

We are very excited to be hosting our first ‘blog exhibition’ showcasing the art and theology of Edward Knippers. Starting next Monday we will post an essay each day accompanied with several pieces of Knippers’ stunning, confrontative artwork. The theologians involved will be reflecting theologically on Knippers’ work related most specifically to the doctrine of Incarnation but will discuss other doctrinal and cultural implications that attend Knippers’ thoroughgoing commitment to ‘physicality’.

The exhibition will begin on Monday and proceed along the following schedule:

Monday, Nov. 3 – Artist statement from Edward Knippers

Tuesday, Nov. 4Fred Sanders (Biola University)

Wednesday, Nov. 5 Ben Myers (Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton)

Thursday, Nov. 6 – David Buschart (Denver Seminary)

Friday, Nov. 7 – Edward Knippers will respond to the exhibition

Please stop in, reflect on Knippers’ art, and join the discussion that will follow the posts each day.