To Plough and Harrow the Soul: The Shared Work of Art and Faith

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child with Singing Angels (1477), Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin

[Art] makes us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up the truth hidden and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance. It leads us to what is really there and really going on. Far from subjective, it pierces the opaque subjectivity, the not seeing, of conventional life, of conventional viewing, and discloses reality.[i]

– Langdon Gilkey

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas,
to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person
for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.[ii]

– Andrei Tarkovsky


In the blood-soaked trenches of World War I, a young German chaplain found respite from horror and death by looking at reproductions of great art in tattered magazines. Even in black and white, faintly viewed by candlelight, the images revealed to him “the existence of beauty.” As soon as the war ended, he went straight to the art museum in Berlin to see, for the first time, one of the paintings which had comforted him in battle: Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Singing Angels.

Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. . . As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken … I believe there is an analogy between revelation and the way I felt … the experience goes beyond the way we encounter reality in our daily lives. It opens up depths experienced in no other way.[iii]

Ten years later, in 1927, a middle-aged Canadian painter saw an exhibition of modernist landscapes by the celebrated “Group of Seven.” That night she wrote in her journal:

Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. . . Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer.[iv]

The young German, Paul Tillich, would become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, while Emily Carr, at age 56, would begin her most productive period as a painter, exploring the unique spirituality of Canadian landscapes.

Tillich and Carr each had a powerful, life-changing experience in the presence of paintings. Were they describing a religious experience or an aesthetic one? Whatever distinctions might be made between the religious and aesthetic dimensions of each encounter, what they had in common was the fundamental dynamic of revelation: call and response.

 Something has called out of somewhere.
Something in me is trying to answer.


Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior (1926)

Art, like religion, addresses us, hoping for a response. Art, like religion, wants to take us “deeper and deeper into the world.”[v] Art and Christianity have sometimes acted like rivals, but they really share a common task––to rescue us from what David Foster Wallace called “our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,”[vi] and awaken us to larger realities.

Gary Indiana, in his appreciation of the transcendental cinema of Robert Bresson, put it this way:

You go to a work of art and hope to be transformed. Quietly, secretly, to be roused from a waking sleep, agitated at some resonant depth in your psyche, shown something you couldn’t have shown yourself. Bresson shocks you into reconsidering your whole existence.[vii]

Not everyone welcomes this kind of engagement in art – or in religion, for that matter. Many would prefer art to remain a harmless commodity, a decoration, an amusement. The average time a museum visitor spends in front of a painting is about fifteen seconds. As for religion, how many churchgoers want a worship service to shock them into reconsidering their whole existence?

Once upon a time in the West, there was no such thing as religious art.[viii] There were simply religious beliefs and practices involving images, words, music, singing, architecture, drama and movement. But with the waning of the Middle Ages, art began to lose its preoccupation with sacred stories and theological themes. Artists turned their attention to the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life, even as churches of the Reformation, wary of idolatry, began to strip images and ornaments from their places of worship.

Thus the typical modern narrative of art history shows religious concerns and perspectives being left in the dust with the rise of secular culture. The modern artist was expected to ignore religion or to mock it. Christian subjects and symbols, no longer a living language for many, began to lose their hold on the imaginative life of the West. Museums replaced churches as sites of popular devotion. And conventional wisdom concluded that good artists were not religious and religious artists were not good.

Barnett Newman’s fierce manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religious tradition:

We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.[ix]

Some of that same antipathy lingers today. When a symposium on art and religion was held a few years ago, two prominent art critics refused to attend. They said it would be too “painful” to sit at a table where people talk about religion and art at the same time.[x]

Christians have made their own contribution to the divide. They have not always been comfortable with the questioning spirit and expressive freedom of artists. And many churches are simply out of touch with contemporary art, failing to regard engagement with the arts as a significant spiritual practice. Nor do they foster dialogue––or collaboration––with local artists, closing the door to the possibilities of mutual exchange.

But contemporary Christianity’s greatest failing with respect to the arts may be a lack of imagination––in our worship, our formation practices, and our theological conversations. Gerhard Richter, one of the world’s most celebrated living artists, thinks “the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental and of making religion real—and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion.”[xi] It is a troubling indictment, and I hope we can prove him wrong with a rebirth of vision and wonder in our common life.

Meanwhile, the whole tired narrative of art leaving religion behind is being reexamined. A close look at the writings and conversations of modern and contemporary artists reveals a continuing interest in the transcendent, the numinous, and the sacramental. A lot of artists may have stopped going to church or painting traditional religious subjects, but few have ever abandoned the search for meaning or depth of presence in their work.[xii]

Many iconic figures of modern art openly recognized the spirituality of their work. “I want to paint men and women,” wrote Vincent van Gogh, “with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”[xiii] Jean Miró hoped painting could “discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things.”[xiv] Mark Rothko believed that both the making and the viewing of his intensely colored canvases had a sacred dimension: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”[xv]

Roger Wagner, Menorah (1993)

There are an increasing number of well-respected Christian visual artists, such as Roger Wagner, Makoto Fujimura, and Terrence Malick, who are exploring Christian subjects, stories and symbols with fresh eyes and astonishing means. Many others, though not active in faith communities, still find in Christianity a deep language for the big questions of identity, purpose, and suffering.

The persistence of Christian subjects and images, despite the immense erosion of the Church’s cultural presence, is exemplified in the case of Barnett Newman. Only ten years after his manifesto against the “outmoded images” of western art and religion (quoted above), he began to paint one of the sacred masterpieces of modern art: Stations of the Cross (1958-1966). In fourteen large abstract canvases of minimal content, he explored Christ’s anguished scream from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Newman called it “the unanswerable cry,” and in each of those paintings, often with only a thin black line in tension with––even overwhelmed by––the empty space around it, he questions our place in the larger whole. What does it mean to exist, to suffer, to desire? Are we alone, ignored, or loved?

Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross, First Station (Jesus is Condemned)

Ultimately, it is not just the intentions or beliefs of the artists, nor their chosen subjects and styles, which make their art religious, for “any art that helps us penetrate the surface of things is religious, regardless of content or creator.”[xvi]  And whether art is a mirror of the human condition, a window into beauty both immanent and transcendent, or a hammer to shatter our complacencies, it shares many of the tasks and effects of religion.

Art and faith are, each in their own way:

  • Transformative: opening us up to the otherness of worlds beyond our isolated egos.
  • Revelatory: showing us what might otherwise remain invisible (suffering and injustice as well as more sublime realities).
  • Sacramental: making present to our senses the depth and beauty of a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”
  • Relational: connecting us with “Something” that not only desires to be known, but wants to address us.
  • Prophetic: making it impossible to avert our eyes from pain, suffering and injustice.
  • Formative: teaching us how to be receptive and pay the deepest attention.

Art and faith, then, are fundamentally allies, though they may not always act like it. Deepening the connections between them is, I believe, part of the Spirit’s dance. Or as Cirque du Soleil’s Michel Laprise puts the question:

A bridge to a new dimension? A magnetic portal to an invisible world? Yes! Why not? The Valley of Possible Impossibles, where dreams are on standby … waiting to be ushered into the now Abandoned dreams, collective dreams, mad, mad, mad utopian dreams … the unconscious into the conscious. Duality! Oneness!

Let the journey begin… [xvii]


Cirque du Soleil, Kurios (photo by Jim Friedrich)


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Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

“The artist formerly known as priest”


[i] Langdon Gilkey, “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 189-90.

[ii] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.

[iii] Paul Tillich, q. in On Art and Architecture, ed. John Dillenberger and Jane Dillenberger (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 234-5.

[iv] Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1966), 6.

[v] Mary Oliver, “The Journey,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 114-5.

[vi] David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 117.

[vii] Gary Indiana, “Movie Rites,” Artforum (April 2000, v38 i8).

[viii] See Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997)

[ix] Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), reprinted in The Sublime (Ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27.

[x] Re-Enchantment, ed. James Elkins & David Morgan (New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 110

[xi] Gerhard Richter: Text, Writing, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 34.

[xii] Charlene Spretnak’s extensive documentation in The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) makes the case persuasively.

[xiii] Spretnak, 40.

[xiv] Ibid., 102.

[xv] Ibid., 129.

[xvi] Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 164.

[xvii] Michel Laprise, Workbook for Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities (2014)

Dreaming the Church that wants to be

The Rev. Neil Lambert diagrams his ecclesiastical dream.

The Rev. Neil Lambert diagrams his ecclesiastical dream.

Now I look at my own experience and feel the intimate rightness of Lear’s words: ‘I have taken too little care of this.’…Today it is clear that one’s isolated efforts are straws in the wind, and we can do nothing alone – we need others, all the time… we only begin to exist when we are serving an aim beyond our own likes and aversions.      

– Peter Brook

Make visible what, without you, might never be seen.

– Robert Bresson

During a 6-hour layover at London’s Heathrow Airport last spring, my friends Neil and Helen Lambert, who live nearby, spirited me away to a picnic in the green fields of Runnymede, where the Magna Carta had been signed 799 years and 50 weeks earlier. Rain fell as we arrived, so Helen and I retreated to the site’s tea room while Neil got the lunch together under the shelter of a great oak. While drinking our tea, we met a British army veteran who had played the trumpet solo at Winston Churchill’s funeral.

When the rain let up, Neil summoned us out to the feast he had prepared with colored tablecloth, English china, three different courses and a fine local wine. As an Anglican artist/priest with a gift for ceremonial whimsey, he had successfully answered the Psalmist’s question, “Can God make a banquet in the wilderness?” And so it was that over a delightful lunch we conceived the idea of the Venice Colloquium: an intimate international gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.”

As artists of faith, Neil and I had been discussing the need for more imagination and creativity in the churches, not only in the way we worship, learn and grow, but also in the way we engage with the world we exist to serve. Part of the challenge, we agreed, was fostering community among the scattered creatives whose isolated efforts, in Peter Brook’s words, are too often “straws in the wind.”

So in the days following that Runnymede picnic, we began to ask around, starting with some people we knew, who knew some other people, and pretty soon we had collected a group of ten creatives, young and old, from the United States, Great Britain (including a man born in Peru), and New Zealand. There are seven Anglicans, two Methodists and one Baptist. Three are women, seven are clergy. All are practitioners in one or more art forms, including painting, music, film, conceptual and installation art, printmaking, writing and poetry. All have been leaders in the exploration of alternative worship.

In three weeks, we will gather in Venice to spend seven days in conversation with each other, not only exchanging ideas, dreams and stories, but also listening attentively to whatever the Spirit might have to say through the experimental chemistry of ten such people thrown together in one place.

Why Venice? We had to meet somewhere, and monastic housing made it amazingly affordable. And “La Serenissima’s” haunting beauty makes a doubly inspiring venue for creatives, since its renowned wealth of historic art and architecture is augmented by the cutting-edge work on display at Biennale, one of the world’s leading exhibitions of contemporary art.

What can emerge from such a collective interplay and cross-pollination of practitioners and thinkers over the course of a week together in the intimacy of a small-group setting? While we believe our gathering will be inspiring and enriching for everyone’s personal ministry and creativity, we think it can bear fruit as well in the wider communities to which we will return. We also hope that it will stimulate further networking among creatives within and beyond the church, and become a useful prototype for similar gatherings in the future. But as the biblical God repeatedly demonstrates, faith means not falling in love with planned outcomes. As T. S. Eliot put it, “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing … / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”

Of course we will each arrive in Venice with our share of specific hopes and dreams. We have been exchanging some of these online already. On the one hand, we all care deeply about the nature, quality and purpose of our common life. On the other hand, we also want to look beyond our walls, making sure the boundaries necessary for identity are sufficiently porous to allow flow both inward and outward. What about those who don’t fit the inherited definitions of Christian? How much diversity can we incorporate and still be the Body of Christ? What do the unchurched or uninitiated have to tell us about who we might be for them – and how they might change us? How can we listen to voices from the margins, and cultures beyond our own? Where might interfaith collaboration lead?

As the angel of Resurrection famously said, The tomb is empty and Jesus has left the building. Where should we be looking for Jesus now? In the “other.” In the “elsewhere.” And what does this sometimes unsettling centrifugal dynamic mean for how we are to do and be church?

One participant has asked, “Are artists called to a particular way of being in the world, and if so how do we nurture environments that foster that way of being?” Another calls us to dream collectively a “rebirth of wonder.” Another wants to explore “the salvific power of beauty.” Another envisions doing for church what Cirque du Soleil has done for circus, so that imagination, creativity, and art are not frills or strategies or institutional departments, but “the DNA of who we are as God’s people.”

They say democracy was born at Runnymede. To dream that a rebirth of wonder began there as well would be, of course, ridiculously grandiose. We are simply a few of God’s friends gathering in a small room to see what happens.

A feather on the breath of God

Hildegard at desk

When I was 42 years and 7 months old, a burning light of tremendous brightness coming from heaven poured into my entire mind. Like a flame that does not burn but enkindles, it inflamed my entire heart … just like the sun that warms an object with its rays.

So wrote Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess, artist and activist whose feast is celebrated today. In a society where women were more seen than heard, it took her a long time to find an outlet for her voice. She had experienced visions ever since her childhood, but she kept them mostly to herself until she was in her forties. Her reticence wasn’t just due to social pressure. She also shared the self-doubting anxiety of every artist. Did her visions matter? Would the world understand or care? But as every artist knows, if you have a gift and don’t make it visible, it will sicken and die within you, and your own body will suffer the effects.

And Hildegard in fact became a sickly woman: “Not in stubbornness but in humility, I refused to write for so long that I felt pressed down under the whip of God into a bed of sickness.” But at last she overcame her inhibitions. Her call was too strong to resist. She began to write, and compose, and produce paintings of her visions. Her body was restored to health, and from then on, she tried to live the life only she could live.

In one of her visions, God told her: O how beautiful your eyes are when you tell the divine story!

Tell the divine story: That was the work she had been given to do. In addition to the normal duties of a medieval abbess in the Rhineland, Hildegard became a storyteller, a musician, an artist, a writer; and through all these media she obeyed the command given to every artist, to “make visible what, without you, might never be seen.” She was also an activist, reminding the powerful to show compassion to the poor, and railing against clergy who failed to blow “the trumpets of divine justice.”

Hildegard was always mindful of the source of her creativity:

The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self.
Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played.
The tone does not come out of the chord itself,
but rather, through the touch of the musician.
I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.

She put this even more succinctly when she called herself “a feather on the breath of God”

The bright-colored enigmas of her illustrated visions, painted by others under her supervision, are unlike anything else in western medieval art. Figures embedded within circles or mandalas express her experience of God as being “like a wheel, a circle, a whole, that can neither be understood, nor divided, nor begun nor ended … just as a circle embraces all that is within it, so does the Godhead embrace all …. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”

Hildegard’s music was as original as her images. Her compositions resemble the Gregorian chant of her time in their liturgical form and musical modes. They also conform to plainchant’s suppression of extroverted individuality for the sake of devotional calm. At the same time, they go beyond traditional chant in several ways: her melodies have an exotically wide range, often spanning two octaves, with sudden leaps from low notes to high notes; her texts are rhapsodic outpourings of strikingly original imagery; and her songs possess a freedom and exuberance that reflect an artist on the loose.

Her music wasn’t primarily a form of personal expression. It was a manifestation of deepest reality. “O Trinity, you are music, you are life,” she prayed. For Hildegard, “all of creation is a song of praise to God.”

She didn’t make up her songs; she listened in to the music of heaven:

Then I saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music, marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before. I heard the praises of the joyous citizens of heaven, steadfastly persevering in the ways of Truth; and laments calling people back to those praises and joys; and the exhortations of the virtues.

This was more than metaphor, as her writings make clear. Her compositions came to her whole, given by God, much like the auditory mysticism of St. John the Divine, who wrote in the Book of Revelation: “And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sang a new song before the throne.”

Hildegard believed that the music of heaven is in us and all around us. We have been created to harmonize with it. “The soul is symphonic,” she said.

She conceived a charming image of Adam before the Fall: he sang with a voice of pure honey, and the devil knew that as long as Adam managed to remember the sweetness of the heavenly songs, he could never be tempted. So with Adam, as with all of us who have come after, the devil set out “to trouble or destroy the affirmation and beauty and sweetness of divine praise and of the hymns of the spirit.”

In Hildegard’s opera, Ordo Virtutum, an allegory of the virtues, all the characters sing – except the devil, who can only heckle and shout. The devil’s work is dissonance, the shattering of harmony.

Hildegard once had a dispute with the bishops of her diocese, who tried to force her submission on a matter of principle by forbidding her nuns to take communion or to sing the liturgy. It was a terrible ordeal for her community to live without music. Hildegard remarked at the time that those who choose to silence music in their lifetime will go to a place where they will be “without the company of the angelic songs of praises in heaven.” It was her discreet way of telling the prelates to go to hell.

Every artist has to deal with philistines, but we can be thankful that Hildegard’s enormous gifts were for the most part supported by her contemporaries. She fell into obscurity for centuries after her death, but she returns anew to our own time with a voice we long to hear, a voice resonant with compassion, a voice aflame with justice, a voice attuned to the divine harmony for which all of us are made.

Sometimes Hildegard seems to live in a different universe than we do, a universe alive with multi-sensory evidence that God is “burning everywhere,” that everything in the world is dense with meaning and liveliness.

All the senses, in her universe, deliver this message to the receptive soul. Unlike the purely material universe proposed by modernity, a happenstance of mute objects and dead space, Hildegard’s universe was sacramental, alive with significant presence.

In one of her visions, a human figure stands in the center of a cosmic wheel. This Christlike image of Divinity declares to her and to all the world:

I, the highest and fiery power,
have kindled every spark of life …
I, the fiery life of divine essence,
am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows.
I gleam in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon and stars.
With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything,
I awaken everything to life.

Is this not the high calling of every saint – and every artist?
To awaken everything to life.
To set our imagination aflame.
To make visible the unsurpassable beauty of God.

As Simon Weil put it so well in our own era,

A sense of beauty, although mutilated, distorted, and soiled, remains rooted in the human heart as a powerful incentive… If it were made true and pure, it would sweep all secular life in a body to the feet of God.