At the end of each concert, the two frontmen of the musical group Twenty One Pilots stand together on the stage, put their arms around each other, and smile at their fans as the cheers rise. Throughout the crowd, people lift signs with “Thank You” written on them. After a while the lead singer lifts the mic and gives them his parting words: “We’re Twenty One Pilots, and so are you.” As the duo walks off, the crowd continues shouting out their thanks for their music, performance, and, for many, their witness.
Yes, witness. Witness to what? What are the crowds gathering at these shows so grateful for?
I believe the reason the fans of Twenty One Pilots are so profoundly impacted by their music is because through it, whether we realize it or not, we are getting a glimpse of, even becoming participants in, the good news of Jesus Christ.
The Art of Our Everyday Work
I need only onesong to show you an example of howthis duo embeds the gospel into their artwork. They becomea witness and a guide for us as we embed the gospel into our “artwork,” that is, the art of our everyday work.
“Trees” is the song Twenty One Pilots always performs to end their shows. Its basic flow traces the dialogue between God and a man who is hiding in the trees, silent and afraid in the face of his impending death. And yet God comes after him, initiating a conversation and showing his heart’s desire to be with him.
Clearly, this recalls the aftermath of human rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden, giving voice to the interchange of Genesis 3:8-9. Adam and Eve stood naked and afraid, hiding from God amidst the trees, and yet he came after them. He called them out of hiding and invited them to be known, even in their sin.
What the song does next is repeat this scenario by repeating the same set of three verses, but building to a much bigger finish. This gives the sense that the same dialogue between God and a man happens again, but with a different outcome.
And indeed, this is what the good news proclaims! Jesus takes on our shame and faces his impending death, fearful and exposed before his Father as he sweats blood amidst the trees in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of the cross to pass from him (Luke 22:42). But this man, the last Adam, remains obedient to the end (1 Corinthians 15:45, Philippians 2:8). He gives himself up to make our death his own, crying out while he stands nailed upright on one tree amidst others, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is echoed in the lyrics from “Trees”: “Why won’t you speak, where I happen to be?… Silent in the trees, standing cowardly.”
God’s Heart Cry
Then, the climactic refrain at the end of the song invites a response: “I want to know you, I want to see, I want to say, Hello.” This is God’s heart cry. God came in the flesh to be with us, which is what he has been after since the beginning. He’s always initiating, starting a conversation with us. Not from afar, but here, where we are, in the midst of our sin and shame and death, even taking it all upon himself. Then he rose from the grave to new life and Mary saw him standing amidst the trees, mistaking him for the gardener, and he called out to her (John 20:15-16). The cross and the resurrection are God’s song of invitation to know a love stronger than death.
So when a slight, dark-haired man stands in front of a stadium full of thousands at the end of a show, he sings out the refrain of that invitation: “Hello.” He repeats it throughout the song, bending over his microphone while his friend sits behind him hammering away at his drum set. Then the hellos stop, and after another chorus and some intervening “la la las,” the beat stops. A synth interlude rolls over the crowd. They’re anticipating. Waiting. They know what’s coming. As the two men make their way down from the stage, the security workers in the front lift two large tom drums on either side of the audience from the orchestra pit. A small platform comes next, one beside each of them. Then the spectators become participants. Drumsticks in hand, the two men climb onto the platforms, held up by the people who have spent the last 2 hours singing their guts out along with them. And then it comes.
Confetti drops like a snowstorm from the ceiling as the two men pound their drums in unison. In between beats (buh buh – pause – buda buh buh buh – pause) they point their sticks out to their “Skeleton Clique” (their fan club). And the clique responds, as if coming to life. The crowd shouts a resounding “Hey!” each time, responding to the invitation sung from the stage just moments before. When the music stops, the duo gets back on the stage and says goodbye.
This is how Twenty One Pilots ends their show, every time. If you’re curious, you can WATCH a recording. They have designed their music and performances with an invitation for fan participation. If my interpretation is right, they have written their music to be sung out so that the singers become participants in the gospel narrative hidden in its folds. This is what Twenty One Pilots has made with their artwork. They’ve not written “Christian music,” but music that nonetheless points to Christ in story-form.
What about the artwork of our own lives? Have we received the message that we have to make “Christian art” or do “Christian work” to be impactful in God’s Kingdom? With the apostle Paul I say, “By no means!” (Romans 7:13).
In your home or at work, with your spreadsheets, with your meetings, with your budgets, with your coworkers, with your friendships, with your relationships, with your sexuality, with your (dare I say it) politics, with your grief, with your depression, with your trauma, with every particularity that makes up your particular story…what would it look like to embed the gospel story into your own story? Every single facet of our story can become a witness and invitation for others to participate in God’s Story.
But we have to know our story to do this. And the best way, indeed the only way to fully know ourselves is to know the God who knows us. We have to let God in, and respond to his invitation. We need to yell “Hey” when he sings “Hello.” The deep desire of his heart is for us to know him even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Reflect on Your Own Story
So reflect on your own story. Write it, draw it, yell it, sing it, dance it, however the Spirit leads. Then invite others to listen to your story. Allow yourself to be known before God as two or three gather around to bear witness to the work of God in your life (Matthew 18:20). In doing so you offer up your story as a prayer, giving voice to the silent dialogues between your heart and God’s, thus training the ears of your heart to recognize your Shepherd’s voice (John 10:3).
If you’re convinced, come with me and follow the path that Twenty One Pilots have laid, to imitate their artwork as they seem to be imitating Christ’s (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus himself told stories and lived a life that perplexed most, but for those who have ears to hear, he has spoken and lived the very words of life (Mark 4:9-13, Luke 8:8-10, John 6:60-69). Let’s participate in his life, and through our lives invite others to do the same.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected].
Our creative God is working. He’s working through His Word expressed and illuminated in the arts. Come and see for yourself.
For centuries, the church has observed a season called Lent.
Lent is a period of reflection and imitation. It’s a season of spiritual preparation in which Jesus’ followers embrace intentional self-denial, just as Jesus embraced His cross.
This year, Christ Community is commemorating Lent in a variety of ways.
Our celebration of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, with services at both our Leawood and Brookside Campuses. And next Friday, March 29, we’re honored to be hosting The Gologotha Experience at our Brookside Campus.
We’ve also chosen to engage Lent through stunning visual art on display in our Four Chapter Gallery at the Downtown Campus. This March and April, Four Chapter Gallery is presenting Cross & Resurrection, a collection of artwork created by Christos Collective that focuses on Christ’s sacrifice for us.
As these pieces have hung in our space for the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by how many congregants have stopped at each piece, taking in their beauty and exploring what they communicate about Jesus’s death for the sin of the world.
But it’s not just our congregants who are finding themselves challenged and inspired by the work. I’ve likewise found myself particularly drawn to a pair of of paintings that hang behind our stage.
The first image in the pair presents the crowd’s derision of Christ as He made His way to Golgotha. Angry accusers hound Him, while others offer to speak on His behalf, leveraging His suffering for their own 15 minutes of fame. Some seem to ignore His suffering, focusing instead on lesser distractions, while others look on with mild pity. No one in the image seems to recognize the gravity of the work that is being accomplished in front of their eyes. They’re blind to the fact that they’re witnessing the Son of Man give His life to redeem the world He made.
The second image builds upon the message of the first. It depicts Christ resurrected. In this image, indifference towards Christ continues but takes a different form. The crowd remains distracted. Some are glued to their screens, while others continue to leverage Christ to build their own platforms. Those who derided Him at His death now deride one another. They’re caught in a cycle of scorn and condemnation. Yet again, those who have witnessed a remarkable miracle—Christ’s resurrection—seem oblivious to its implications.
Art is a visual language. And it speaks to the human soul in ways that words cannot.
This is what I love about art. This is why I’m so thankful that our church is committed to the arts.
Just as Lent invites us to embrace a particular, embodied spiritual discipline (i.e., fasting) so that we might learn more about what it means to follow Jesus in all of life, viewing art grants us the ability to slow down and engage the gospel story in an entirely unique way. Art speaks to us on a cognitive and emotional level. And it can cause us to understand our discipleship to Jesus more fully, when we take time to reflect on its message.
Seeing Jesus as He truly is is key for Christian discipleship. If we want to follow Jesus, we need a fully orbed portrait of who He was, and what He prioritized, and how we are to respond to Him.
While He walked among us, Jesus was perceived in many ways. The desperate saw Him as their only hope. The religious leaders saw Him as an intolerable threat. Peter saw Jesus as a political revolutionary—a militant leader, who would overthrow their oppressors and establish a Jewish kingdom. (This is why Peter wanted to sit at Jesus’ right hand, and why he drew his sword at Jesus’ arrest.)
Put more plainly: Peter thought Jesus would cross out the Roman Empire, not wind up on a Roman cross.
But Jesus’ death and resurrection changed all that. After Jesus rose and spent time with Peter, Peter saw more clearly what discipleship to Jesus required.
This Lenten season, we need our vision adjusted. We must see Jesus as the Son of Man sent to die. And the powerful collection of paintings in our Four Chapter Gallery helps us do just that.
If you haven’t seen this work yet, I invite you to join us at the Four Chapter Gallery for April’s First Friday. The Gallery will be open from 5:30-9:00pm on Friday, April 5. Come at any point during that period to engage this thoughtful collection. Allow the art to speak to you. And see if God might use these powerful images to give you greater insight into how you might follow Him in the various roles and responsibilities He’s prepared for you.
Whether it’s perusing Etsy, walking around the West Bottoms, or visiting a friend in their loft, more and more I find the beauty of the repurposed. An empty warehouse is repurposed to be an artsy restaurant. An empty opera house is repurposed to be a coffee shop. A window’s shutters are repurposed to be an ideal location to hold letters. A claw-foot tub is repurposed as a unique couch.
Creative minds not only see what a space, piece of furniture, or restaurant used to be, but also what it can become. One takes an item’s uniqueness and repurposes it for creative brilliance and functional effectiveness. One takes something that is broken, disregarded, and forgotten and adapts it for a different purpose in order to show its intrinsic value and usefulness. It has caused me on more than one occasion to stop and say, “I would have never thought to use this for that…and yet, that works better than I ever could have imagined.”
In those moments, I can’t help but see the gospel. There is a yearning deep within every human being that seeks repurpose and finds great joy when it takes place around us. God tells our current story—our place in history—as a people who are born purposed against Him, manipulating our created existence toward destructive ends. This, in part, is what Scripture means when it says we are a sinful people.
But humankind was not always like this. There was a time—the dawn of time—when God created humankind for the purpose of showing self-giving love to one another and all of creation as we honored God by wholly living into who He designed us to be. Rather than seeking isolation, we sought community. Rather than hurting each other out of our emptiness, we cared for each other out of our fullness. But soon after the dawn of creation, humankind made a cosmological shift. We disregarded God’s purposes back in that ancient garden.
The good news is that God is passionate about repurposing broken creation, and He’s really good at it. The difference, though, between God’s repurposing action and ours is that He longs for His creation to return to His intended or original purpose. He sees who we are and longs to recreate us, to convert us from a skewed existence.
But just like repurposing anything, there is a cost. Through Jesus Christ’s beautiful work on the cross, God paid the price. Jesus Christ took our place so we no longer had to be displaced, and we could be repurposed as a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come with its affirmation of value, usefulness, inclusion, and beauty all over and in it. It is this good news that has caused me on multiple times to pause and say, “I would have never thought to use this for that…and yet, He works better than I ever could have even imagined.”
Have you let God repurpose you? He sees something in you. Something you may not even see in yourself. Something that you may be trying to hide, discard, or ignore. He wants to make it beautiful, if you’ll let Him.
And the next time you’re browsing Etsy or walking through the West Bottoms, may you see the gospel. May you remember Jesus. May you see what God wants to do in you and for you.
Through these paintings [SAMPLE ARTWORK BELOW], I wrestled with the complex reality of pain and suffering. Aesthetically, I was particularly inspired by the Japanese practice of Kintsugi and the philosophy of Wabi-sabi. Kintsugi is a practice whereby a broken piece of pottery is repaired using powdered precious metal and adhesive. The cracks on the piece are entirely visible in their newly gilded form, and the piece actually becomes more valuable than before it was broken. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic philosophy which values the natural, the temporal, and the ephemeral over the permanent and perfect.
I sought to create personal artifacts of brokenness, and the only thing that could make me brave enough to do so was to filter it through my understanding of why pain exists. I have come to realize that, personally, suffering only becomes unbearable to face if I feel that there can be no deeper meaning beyond it.
Talking about suffering is difficult because it is at once intimate and universal. No matter what you say about it, it lacks some facet or depth of human experience, because it is an individual soul that suffers. As Nicholas Wolterstorff says in his profoundly moving Lament for a Son, “The dynamics of each person’s sorrow must be allowed to work themselves out without judgement. I may find it strange that you should be tearful today but dry-eyed yesterday when my tears were yesterday. But my sorrow is not your sorrow.” I have felt that profound loneliness in my own suffering. In those moments, it feels like no one else could possibly understand what I am going through, and there is some truth to that. No human being can possibly understand another soul’s suffering completely.
I come to the Passion of Jesus Christ here because in Christ my loneliness in my suffering is diminished. Christ’s suffering through the passion corresponds in some aspect to practically any kind of human suffering imaginable. The cross acts as a prism in this way, through which all suffering is split into its many facets. I find that there is no facet he cannot enter, not just because he knows me completely but also because of the life he lived and the death he died. Christ endured a kind of suffering that is the worst I can imagine: he was fully alone, he had no consolation, and God was silent. There was no one to defend him; he could not save himself without compromising those he loved most. He endured agonizing physical pain. And worse than that, many theologians describe the spiritual agony into which Christ descended as one that felt infinite and unending.
More important to me than the eradication of loneliness is the eradication of all suffering itself, which is the whole point of the horrific death of Jesus. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, my journey through the valley of death has an end. The painful process has context and meaning that it didn’t have before. I have often found myself wanting to escape from or ignore my pain in an attempt to speed up my healing process so I can go back to the way I was before, with no scar to remind me of the pain, in an imagined state of perfection. This project has helped me to begin to understand suffering as a process, and to see scarring as a mark of the healing. It is important to note that Christ, the God-man, whose death reworked the very fabric of the cosmos, forever changing the material of the universe, chose to keep his scars after his resurrection.
ABOUT THE PROCESS
Each painting is 64” tall, which is within the range of probable heights for an average male in Palestine in the first century; in other words, it is representative of the height of Jesus of Nazareth. Each panel is the same size; and it is my hope that in this work you will sense a sort of unified bodily presence.
The exhibit is broken into three parts. Part one serves as a narrative introduction to the reality of suffering, the second part explores the particular suffering of Christ as seen in his Passion, and the third part imagines result of that Passion.
In the second part, each work was created with an underpainting. This underpainting often felt finished to me in a sense in that it had a unique beauty that satisfied me. Then I inflicted upon the work an act that was like or representative of what Jesus might have experienced. For example, the painting dealing with the scourging of Christ was itself scourged with a cat-o’-nine tails whip. In another example, the painting meant to express a shadow of the moment of agony when Christ screamed his question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was actually removed from the stretcher bars and torn apart.
In the spirit of kintsugi, I have worked some measure of repair on each of the paintings, though not with the intent that they look the same way they did beforehand. Also in harmony with the philosophy of Wabi-sabi and the messiness of the process of suffering, you will find many imperfections in these paintings. Though they have been glued, sewn, woven, and gilded, I didn’t make an attempt to hide the wounds, but instead chose to see them as a part of the painting’s history, a reminder of the breaking. I let them keep their scars, and this repetitive act helped to instill in me the idea that it is okay for me to keep my own scars as a reminder of my brokenness and the hands that are healing me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR / ARTIST
Kelly Kruse uses her work to explore the painful, beautiful experience of human longing and suffering. She developed a visual devotional practice as a response to her battle with depression, through which she wrestles with beauty, longing, and faith. Kruse describes her work as contemporary illumination. Like the medieval monks who perfected the art of illuminated manuscripts, she seeks to awake in the viewer a sense of spiritual contemplation. Her first exposure to the idea of illumination came when she studied Medieval and Renaissance music in Italy. Her background in classical music and opera puts her in a unique position to explore the intersection between scripture, poetry, musical works, and the visual arts. Kelly received her undergraduate degree in voice performance from Iowa State University and her masters in voice performance from Indiana University, where she was a student of Costanza Cuccaro. In addition to her visual art practice, she is a member of the music faculty at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River. She also maintains an active private studio and is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Kelly is a Daler-Rowney sponsored artist.