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Why We Need the Visual Arts in Our Formation

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AUTHOR: Gabe Coyle

August 25, 2021

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.  

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