Why We Need the Visual Arts in Our Formation

Why We Need the Visual Arts in Our Formation

What can get 50 men and women from across the metro to come together midweek for three hours after working all day? Two words: Ecclesiastes and art. 

Let me explain. 

Ecclesiastes Came to Life

On Wednesday, August 11, some 50 people came together to explore the complex themes of the book of Ecclesiastes through the lens of the art exhibit, Geheimnis, created by our Four Chapter Gallery curator, Kelly Kruse. 

During the time together, we feasted on food and artwork. Kelly spent time teaching Ecclesiastes and sharing her creative process, and then we engaged with her work through small and large group discussions. 

Equipped with a journal, each person was invited to process the artwork through guided questions corresponding to the themes of Ecclesiastes and their visual representation in Kelly’s work. The questions invited us to contemplate our mortality, compare texts within Scripture, and share our experiences of her work. The whole night was a deeply personal experience with the biblical text and ideas of Ecclesiastes illuminated in vibrant color. 

Art as a Catalyst

While this isn’t the first time the arts have been a catalyst in my faith, it highlighted afresh three ways the visual arts can be a catalyst for spiritual formation within the church.  

  1. The visual arts invite stillness

We can listen to our podcasts twice as fast. Our highway speed limits are merely suggestions often ignored. New movies are available on-demand for at-home release. Everything is fast, immediate, and hurried. This may sound cliché, but this fact seems even more clear now: we’re addicted to hurrying. It’s astounding how even a global shutdown seems to have been more like a bump in the road rather than a change in pace. This state of affairs is worrisome because we cannot become like Jesus in a hurry. 

What is helpful about good art is that it invites stillness. Artwork invites you to stop in your tracks, stay awhile, and even stare. Everything slows down. Some studies show that engaging in particular kinds of art can even decrease stress and lower blood pressure. 

We need more spaces of stillness if the Spirit is to do the slow deep work of forming us into Christlikeness. The visual arts can help. 

  1. The visual arts demand contemplation.

So often our faith formation paradigms revolve around getting information merely to regurgitate it later. While that is helpful at certain stages of development (especially catechesis for children), it is not sufficient for spiritual maturity. Otherwise, when the questions change due to the changing pressure points of culture, we will find ourselves ill-equipped to converse thoughtfully with our neighbors.

In the stillness of engaging visual art, we are able to be present. We are able to pay attention to one thing instead of being distracted by a thousand things. We can even pay attention to what we’re paying attention to. We can do more than ask “what am I noticing?” We may even lean into asking “why?” This kind of critical thinking in contemplation is a skill in itself to help in our journey of growth.

The visual arts demand contemplation. You cannot merely memorize the answer. You must marinate in the images, the colors, the textures, and shapes. It can be frustrating in its own right when all you want is to “know what it means” so you can move on. But art doesn’t want you to move on. Art invites you to experience what it means so you can move in.

This practice shapes us into the kind of people who can also engage the Scriptures better. If we merely come to the text looking for a proof text (a quick answer to a big problem), we may misrepresent what God is saying in that particular text. Hurried minds often lead to mindless hurry. Instead, Scripture invites us to study and meditate allowing the Spirit of God to illuminate God’s timeless truth in our specific lives. God doesn’t want us to move on but to move in with Him over time. 

We need more spaces that demand we contemplate rather than just consume. The visual arts demand contemplation.

  1. The visual arts extend the joy of discovery

As we sit in stillness and contemplate the work before us, over time we are extended the joy of discovery. Like an archeologist carefully digging for weeks on end, when the discovery is revealed, the joy is that much sweeter. So too with the visual arts and our study of Scripture! 

On that August night, I watched as people shared their experience of the themes of Ecclesiastes through the artwork with tears in their eyes. I heard exclamations of wonder as people sat in one particular work until it came alive to their imaginations. As Christians of various vocations have engaged with this art show throughout the summer, I have heard story after story of truly fascinating experiences that will stick with me for a lifetime. The joy of discovery after the contemplation was palpable and personal.  

Still Growing

Now, I say all this as a pastor. I was taught to love the Word of God, to teach with clarity, to communicate for change in the listener. I still believe all that is true. Simultaneously I’m growing in my experiential understanding that the arts are crucial to our discipleship today. In a world that may distrust what’s true, be disgusted by the good, often there is still a hunger for the beautiful. 

Even when not explicitly religious in themes – the visual arts are a catalyst for the kinds of rhythms necessary for our growth in Christ. When the visual arts are married to biblical ideas or even explicit texts and given intentional structure for conversation, it is a dynamic experience that shapes while it informs. 

How You Can Engage

If you want to experience this in your formation, here are three ways to engage.

1) Engage the artwork around you. It’s honestly astounding how much artwork is in our city. As you happen upon a local artist’s work, stop and stay. If you have other items on your list to do, then set your alarm for five minutes. Sit in the stillness. Contemplate and see what you discover! 

2) Join us at the Four Chapter Gallery. We would love to have you join us on any of our First Fridays, or better yet, come for one of our open gallery hours throughout the month. We often seek to create space for stillness so that you can contemplate the work outside of the activity of First Friday. 

3) Gather with others who want to do the same. If you want to go even further, curator Kelly Kruse is gathering a group of artists to meet twice a month starting in September to explore themes of art and faith. You can join the mailing list as well as communicate your desire to join in at hello@fourchapter.gallery

Our creative God is working. He’s working through His Word expressed and illuminated in the arts. Come and see for yourself.  

Illuminations of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets

How to Read the Holy Sonnets

by Guest Columnist and Artist, Kelly Kruse

The Holy Sonnets are admittedly a difficult read. Donne was a brilliant poet who was very honest about his spiritual struggles, making his poems complex and seemingly contradictory at times. One moment you think he means one thing, and the next you’re convinced he holds the opposite belief. Roz Kaveny wrote of John Donne, “Donne’s analogies between conversion and [the breaking of betrothal and rape] could seem trivializing, but that fierce urgency makes them powerful statements of psychological truth beyond his religious beliefs. To start to believe in something passionately that you didn’t consider seriously before hurts. That is a truth beyond religion and beyond God.” I believe Ms. Kaveny is onto something. Conversion hurts.

Each Holy Sonnet is written in Donne’s unique sonnet form, which is a blend of the Italian (Petrarchan) and English (Shakespearean) styles. Each sonnet has fourteen lines made up of ten syllables each. Each line alternates between unstressed and stressed syllables, always ending with a stressed syllable. This gives you an indication of Donne’s desired word stress. As Modern readers, we are tempted to impose our own stress upon Donne’s work, but the form is intentional and word stress is deliberate. Donne’s work had a specific meaning for him, and he did not try to obscure his intentions. For example, you can see the first four lines of Holy Sonnet II with the stressed syllables underlined:

As due by many titles, I resign
myself to thee, O God. First I was made
by Thee and for Thee, and when I was decay’d,
Thy blood bought that, the which before was Thine.

At times, Donne even sacrificed form for meaning by throwing the rhythm off. If there appear to be a wrong number of syllables or the rhythm gets off track, you see that Donne’s priority was in his theology or perhaps even in jarring the reader. Donne did not write these works to show off his technique, but to urgently examine his beliefs. When this happens, it should perk our interest. Why did Donne make that choice? It is up to us to contemplate this.

Donne crafted each of his Holy Sonnets with its own spiritual and theological debate. He mastered rhetoric during his study of law, and he used his skills to strengthen his poetry, making it more clever and serious. Today, we know Donne as a metaphysical poet, though the term was not used by Donne himself. Metaphysical poetry is known for its “excessive” use of philosophy and its tendency to teach the reader a lesson. One of the hallmarks of this type of poetry was the use of a device called a conceit, which is effectively an extended metaphor used throughout a poem that gives its argument a deeper impact. An example of this can be found in Holy Sonnet XIV, where Donne compares his heart to a city under siege for much of the poem. The bulk of the Holy Sonnets were written between 1609 and 1610, though scholars believe Donne worked on some of them as late as 1617, and they were not published until 1633, after his death. The years he wrote the sonnets were a time of extreme financial hardship for Donne, during which he was being recruited to take holy orders as an Anglican priest.

Many students of literature and some scholars question the integrity of Donne’s faith and his conversion, pointing to his early life of debauchery and the later circumstance of extreme poverty as the motivating force for his conversion to Anglicanism. If Donne converted, steady, lucrative, and prestigious work awaited. In the first decade of the 1600s, Donne was a man who had few prospects and no money with a wife who bore a child nearly every year of the first five of their marriage. At one point, three of his children under the age of ten had died, and Donne couldn’t even afford to bury them. In this desperate state of mind, he contemplated suicide, even going so far as to write a prose piece in defense of the act. It is not hard to imagine a man in those circumstances renouncing his faith to care for his family. It is important to note, however, that in our postmodern (and post-enlightenment) culture, we have no real grasp of the seriousness of apostasy (renouncing the Catholic faith) for an English Catholic in Donne’s era. Donne saw his apostasy not just as a matter of earthly life and death, but as a battle for his immortal soul. I submit that the Holy Sonnets are some of the best arguments for the integrity of Donne’s faith. One of his contemporaries, Bishop John Earle, is quoted as saying about Donne, “He has sounded both religions and anchored on the best, and is a Protestant out of judgement, not faction, not because his country but his reason is on his side. The ministry is his choice not refuge, and yet the Pulpit not his itch but his fear…and his life (is) our religion’s best apology.”

With all of that information, we are able to see how layered and unique these sonnets are. Donne used his poetic gifts to work through opposing philosophical and theological perspectives, asking very difficult questions in each sonnet. As you read the sonnets, try to look for tensions between these theological ideas. There are examples of these tensions in Holy Sonnet IV, for instance, where Donne compares the values of penance (O make thyself with holy mourning, black) and repentance (Or, wash thee in Christ’s blood). Sonnet form, which had previously been a place for Donne to cleverly expound on his sexual escapades (though in these, too, can be found a deep preoccupation with his spiritual unrest) became a place where Donne began to grapple with the true questions of his soul. Scholars believe Donne may have practiced Ignatian Contemplation, a Catholic practice that he likely would have been taught in young adulthood. This practice involved up to four weeks of spiritual exercises aimed at rigorous examination of one’s own sin combined with meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This practice often resulted in heightened states of emotion and turmoil, and the grief and tension that can be found in many of the sonnets is likely a result of a spiritual practice like this.

At the time of his death, John Donne was best known as a celebrated preacher and the respected Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His poetry was forgotten until T.S. Eliot and other contemporary authors discovered his work in the twentieth century. It is arguably Ernest Hemingway’s obsession with Donne’s Meditation XIV and the line, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” that made Donne the celebrated poet and thinker we know today.