February 7, 2018

Like It's Going Out of Style

If there's one word that defined the 20th century, an argument could be made for "style." Love it or hate it, Modernism brought an avalanche of stylistic trends and -isms that would shape the way our modern world looks; from clothing fashions that changed every five minutes and recycled every couple of decades, to psychedelic graphic design trends, various schools of abstract painting, and a smorgasbord of weird and wonderful architecture. Compared to the previous century, everything moved at a break-neck pace, and that trend seems to only be accelerating as communication becomes wider and more immediate.

The unfortunate victim of this high rate of change was the church. In the early part of the 20th century, most American churches lagged behind the curve a decade or so, but by the 1950s, the whole church more or less had jumped on the bandwagon. There were some holdouts, of course, but at the time, the more "enlightened" folks would have viewed these as outliers—mindlessly imitating the aesthetics of a bygone age. (This is the part where I'm sure some of you will make an argument that the church needs to "exist in the now" or "relate to modern culture" or what have you. Trust me, I've heard every argument.)

The reason I say this is unfortunate is that this idea of impermanence—a key component of style and fashion—has permeated even the church, to the point where we fully expect to tear down or remodel our churches in a decade or two. A former church of mine built a very minimal, barn-like sanctuary in order to convert into a gymnasium in a future stage of expansion. And from what I can tell, this utilitarian approach to building churches has become pretty commonplace. Some even go so far as to make the sanctuary dual-purpose from the get go. And it makes sense, from the perspective that a church built today will likely go out of style in the next five years anyway: "Technology will need to be replaced, the aesthetic will need to be updated, and who knows? Maybe we'll actually have the funds to make a "nice" church the next time around." It also makes sense from the theological perspective of Baptists and Evangelicals who don't believe in the real presence: "If the building is just a place where we come to do some things in God's name for one hour a week, no big deal. It might as well look like a gym." Of course, this doesn't describe the position of a confessional Lutheran, but in recent times, that hasn't stopped us from acting like Evangelicals.

I recently listened to a Let the Bird Fly podcast in which a couple of WELS pastors made some convincing arguments in favor of bringing back the clerical collar. The one that struck me the most was that you never have to worry about your clericals "going out of style" (32:30). Imagine never having to worry about whether your pants were sufficiently baggy or skinny, whether this print of plaid is still in vogue, or whether your shoes were hipster enough.

What if your pastor's clothes were not supposed to make a statement of style? What if they were just meant to say something about who you are in relation to God, and that's all? What if you made a choice to wear what other pastors and priests have worn for centuries, with the knowledge that it isn't going out of style in your lifetime? How incredibly freeing would it be to permanently cut that annoying decision-making process out of your day? To stop wasting time every morning wondering what kind of image you are going to project to the world today? At least, that's one set of arguments Dr. Johnston and Dr. Berg make.

Redeemer Lutheran Church in Louisville, KY - built 1952.
Take that concept and apply it to your church building. What if we decided to treat our worship spaces as the dwelling place of God—not just in theory, but as a matter of fact? What if we resolved that our architecture would say something about who God is, and less about how fashionably modern we are? What if we could rest easy that our hard work wasn't going to be erased by our children in an attempt to correct our bad taste? What if we adapted forms that are so cemented in Western culture that they couldn't possibly go out of style? What if we planned for the future, instead of just for today, and built a church that could truly stand the test of time—both in its aesthetic considerations, and in its construction?

All this is not to say that it is wrong to have a trendy-looking or cheaply constructed church, just like it isn't a sin for a pastor to dress like a lumbersexual. I bemoan even having to write this disclaimer, but in the modern Lutheran church, you can't even whisper the word "should" without someone saying you're being a legalist. (So if that describes you, just stop it. You're being disingenuous.) It doesn't make you a legalist to say that one thing is better than another, and even less so for merely posing the question. If a group of Lutherans wants to have a really hip, contemporary-looking church, presumably there is some utilitarian benefit they have in mind—say, connecting with a demographic of people who don't trust "churchy churches." Or perhaps it's a matter of cost.

That's fine. We are free where Christ has made no law. I mean, chances are good that it's going to look ugly, and in fact you're probably counting on that. But considerations of beauty aside, there are both theological and practical benefits to thinking about our churches in terms of permanence and timelessness, just like there are many practical benefits to wearing a clerical collar. It shows that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, something older, and more important than our changing whims and fashions. It shows that an actual encounter with a holy God is occurring here. When we are freed from the ongoing worry about whether our church's image is completely up to date, then we can focus on other things—like sharing Christ with a fallen world. Chances are good that a traditional church building (with its furnishings and artwork) will even help you in this regard!

We all have different levels of comfort with change. Speaking for myself, I get fatigued by it very easily. But if I may presume to speak more broadly, there are things we all like to stay the same. However we feel about our fast-moving culture, we all make traditions for ourselves. Maybe it's football. Maybe it's pizza and a movie on Friday nights. Maybe it's the holidays with family. Whatever it is, there is something each of us finds comfort in, and that we want to stay the same. Maybe our church can be one of those things?

February 14, 2017

Did Luther Stifle Lutheran Art?

For Lutherans who have a high regard for the arts, I’ve found that Lucas Cranach is also usually held in high esteem. I noticed this at the Luther exhibit in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which I was able to attend in December. Works by Cranach, including many portraits of Luther and other Reformation personalities, are among the highlights of the exhibit. Tour guides took special care to give lengthy explanations for his larger works. Among pastors and theologians, Cranach’s paintings embodying Lutheran theology (e.g. The Law and the Gospel) are held up as an ideal, it would seem, for the creation of contemporary works of liturgical art.

My reaction is usually conflicted. As a Lutheran, I'm happy for any praise Cranach receives. As an artist, I wish he had left us a body of work worthy of emulation.

Lucas Cranach the Younger - Weimar Altarpiece
To clarify my intentions, I don’t want to short Cranach for any of the credit that is due him. The Lord in his wisdom called Cranach to be an artist for the church in that particular place and time. And the task set before him was herculean—to create a Lutheran artistic tradition virtually from scratch. Meanwhile, the followers of Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Calvin were condemning and destroying it. Even Luther was not wholly supportive of the arts in his early years, warming up to them only after seeing the damage done by the iconoclasts. That Cranach created any kind of an artistic legacy is nothing short of a miracle.

Unfortunately, that goal of creating a new artistic tradition went unfulfilled. The equally gifted Cranach the Younger carried on his father’s work, creating the Weimar altarpiece and a handful of other familiar works. And though Cranach the Elder and Younger both were successful enough to employ workshops of artists, they left no successors. After Cranach the Younger’s death, no other Lutheran artist would leave his mark on history.

Hopefully, the question of “why” is as troubling to you as it is to me. The decades following the Reformation were tumultuous indeed, and there are several possible factors that contributed to the decline of art in the Lutheran church. Certainly the peasants’ uprising and the Thirty Years’ War might have played a role, and we actually know of a handful of artists that were executed or killed in battle due to religious conflict. But the more intriguing answer, and the one that matches my own suspicions, is summarized by Carl Christensen.  In Art and the Reformation in Germany, he addresses the assertion that “early Protestantism was excessively utilitarian and didactic in its approach to art.” He writes, “It has been said that, because of a basic ignorance of and insensitivity to the limits of successful artistic expression, Luther and his fellow reformers made subject-matter demands upon Protestant artists that could be met only at the expense of aesthetic integrity. A preoccupation with doctrinal content led to tragic consequences in the area of artistic form.”

Lucas Cranach the Elder - The Law and the Gospel (detail)
Christensen acknowledges some validity to the claim, writing, “...[C]ertain of Cranach’s religious paintings, e.g., The Law and the Gospel compositions, do attempt to present rather complex allegories or schematic renderings of abstract theological doctrine. The extent of the resulting aesthetic failure will be estimated differently by different observers, although few probably would bother to deny that, from a purely formal point of view, these panels do not place among the most satisfying of Cranach’s works.”

This is where the argument struck home with me. I have never understood the rapture of a Lutheran pastor explaining a Cranach painting that, to me, was cluttered, uninteresting, and burdened with an abundance of symbolism. When all was said and done, I thought, “Yes, yes, I get it. But why did it take so long to get to the point?” It isn’t that I’m bored with the theology. I actually quite enjoy it. But if you try to force a work of art to perform the role of catechism, you’ll get something that is not very effective as either.

I don't suppose the issue is a simple matter of looking at it through modern eyes that are accustomed to immediacy and high impact. It’s true that the part of me that was trained as an illustrator follows the K.I.S.S. rule religiously: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s better to paint one truth boldly and confidently than a dozen that compete for attention. Sure, medieval Europeans had longer attention spans than the average American today. But even compared to those of his contemporaries, Cranach’s altarpieces don’t measure up. None of his panels can hold a candle to the power and presence of Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, or Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (see below).

Matthias Grünewald - Isenheim Altarpiece (first stage)

If works of art are sermons, then Grünewald gives us a ten-minute sermon that knocks us out of a daze and demands our thoughts for the rest of the day. Cranach gives us a dryly-delivered, hour-long sermon, which garners enthusiastic nods from a few theologians and puts the laymen to sleep.

And while I admit to having amused myself a little too much with that comparison, the fact that we often compare church art to “visual sermons” is perhaps in itself misleading. It’s a sermon only in the sense that it should tell us something true about God; it’s not a sermon in the sense that it needs to set forth all the teachings of scripture. Luther was right to praise music for its ability to expound on scripture, as many of his hymns beautifully exemplify. But while the visual arts may indeed be didactic, they are not didactic in the same way as music that incorporates sung texts. The visual arts are rather poor at explaining abstract theological truths. Their strength is an aesthetic beauty that is recognized almost at once, but that demands contemplation, and maintains a longer-lasting impression.

Playing the “blame game” is usually not helpful. But perhaps in this case it may be instructive. Was Cranach so overly enthused about the evangelical theology that he decided to cram all of it into every single painting? People more knowledgeable than I am have said, “Not likely.” The body of Cranach’s work suggests that he knew a thing or two about design and composition. I imagine that making a painting for Luther was a bit like making concept art for Star Wars. Maybe Cranach wanted to follow his instincts, but that would have been like telling George Lucas that you think an alien with floppy pink ears and eye stalks who talks like a racial stereotype is a terrible idea. (Good luck with that!) It would have taken an artist of tremendous talent and stature to push back against Luther.

So am I blaming Luther for the decline of art in the Lutheran church? Yes, maybe a little. It’s at least plausible, and at most likely, that Luther’s penchant for sermonizing had unintended consequences on the visual arts. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the pieces Cranach came up with on his own were artistically superior (if theologically deficient) to those made after Luther came into the picture. Cranach was a good artist. Although not a genius, his expertise with design ought to have been sought and heeded. I’m not saying that if Luther hadn’t been so restrictive, we might have had a flourishing artistic tradition. But I do think the evidence points to Luther having more to do with Cranach’s work than he ought to have, and the result was that Cranach’s altarpieces were famous only because Luther commended them, and not because of any outstanding artistic merit. But in any case, Cranach’s ecclesiastical art did not inspire any great imitators or successors. While other factors were probably at play, the fact remains that nothing resembling a visual tradition was ever established in the Lutheran church.

So here’s why I think finding fault might be instructive concerning long dead artists and reformers. Whatever the cause, the visual arts in the Lutheran church have been dormant for a long while. I think they are waiting to be woken. The only productive reason for finding fault is to see that fault in ourselves. We can learn from the mistakes of our predecessors. Given that, a revival of ecclesiastical art would require three important things:
  1. Pastors and theologians should be instilled with a deep appreciation for the visual arts (even more than Luther did), without overemphasizing ‘art as sermon.’
  2. Artists should have a solid understanding of theology, symbolism, and the Western tradition.
  3. Artists, pastors, and laymen need to see liturgical art as a collaborative process and trust in the other’s vocational duties. 
In a way, we all face the same herculean task that Cranach did in the 16th century—that of creating a Lutheran artistic tradition virtually from scratch. The difference is that we are without excuse. We don't have Luther looking over our shoulders. We don't have wars ravaging our homeland. The Roman church isn't trying to kill us, and no one is going to start a riot if we erect a statue of Christ in a church. Let's take opportunity of these blessings and work while it is day!

August 3, 2016

Return to Wittenberg 2016



This past week I was privileged to be a part of the first Return to Wittenberg (R2W) conference, entitled “What Does This Mean?” The event was held at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, on July 26-29. Since this was the event’s debut, I’ll spend a little time explaining what R2W is before reviewing my experience.

Last fall I was invited by several WELS pastors and laymen to consider presenting at the conference and help with the planning. Much of the groundwork had already been laid, so I can’t claim to have contributed much more than a graphic identity. In the early planning stages, the conference was conceived of as an alternative to WELS youth rallies that would be recognizably Confessional and Lutheran. While that may be the easiest way to explain it, it would be an oversimplification to say that R2W is just a WELS knockoff of Higher Things. What it became was a conference focused on the catechism, aimed at teens through 30-somethings, with the intent that all ages would be welcome.

What a conference on the catechism might look like, I had no idea. And although I try to be more involved in Lutheran doctrine and practice than the average layman, I have to admit that it didn’t sound all that exciting. There weren’t really any hot-button issues on the docket, and the only session that intersected with my area of interest was the one I was presenting. I decided I would hope for the best, and take it in stride if it didn’t live up.

Sessions

I’m happy to say that my reservations quickly evaporated. The plenary sessions were meaty, yet engaging and even enjoyable. The plenary speakers (Pr. Johann Caauwe, Pr. Nathaniel Seelow, and Pr. Jon Zabell—pictured left) were all well practiced in their material. The catechism was presented as a guide to Christian living in every area of life—as opposed to a systematized book that will get us through confirmation, but which has little else to do with us. It made me see the Lutheran faith through new eyes. Often-glossed-over areas of the catechism were expounded upon and given a renewed importance, such as private confession and absolution. It’s surprising how many things we tend to think of as being “Catholic,” but which are actually viewed as a necessary component of the faith in Luther’s catechism. In short, Lutherans who endeavor to make the study of the catechism a life-long process will find an inexhaustible wealth of wisdom and guidance, as opposed to studying the scriptures alone.



One of the unexpected advantages of having a small conference (around 40 attendees) is that there was plenty of productive discussion during the sessions. There were four sessions on each full day of the conference, and a panel discussion on the last day. It wasn’t strictly lecture-format, as is typically the case at larger events. Because we all went to the same sessions (there were no break-out sessions), there was a kind of camaraderie that developed between the attendees.

Worship

The worship services formed the backbone of R2W, and they were quite refreshing. The opening service featured a processional cross (Pr. Luke Boehringer pictured at left), which I rarely see outside of worship conferences. There was kneeling, making the sign of the cross, and the singing of wonderful Lutheran hymns—some of which rarely see the light of day (e.g. the Lutheran “Kyrie,” “Isaiah, Mighty Seer,” and Luther’s “Wir Glauben All in Einen Gott”). Daily offices included Matins, Vespers, and Compline. Liturgical responses that are often read in the WELS were chanted. All of this took place in the WLC chapel, which (I just learned) was originally built as a convent. Arched ceilings, marble paneling, ornate columns, and stained glass provided a beautiful space in which to gather around the Word and sacraments and proclaim God’s wonderful works through song.



I think what distinguished worship at R2W from the WELS Worship Conference is that R2W pulled out very little material that would be unfamiliar to someone who uses Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. In other words, while everything is done very well, it is still attainable at the congregational level. There isn’t anything that a good cantor, organist, and small choir can’t pull off. That’s the beauty of Lutheran worship: it doesn’t require a professional choir, virtuoso soloist, or a variety of instruments. At its heart, it really is the congregation that carries Lutheran worship. With only about 40 voices and a fine organist, we filled the chapel with God’s praises.

Because we had a 10-hour drive to Nebraska ahead of us, my ride decided to head out after lunch, so unfortunately we missed the closing service. From the service folder, it looks to have been as good as the opening service. The intent behind having the closing service after lunch is so that the last thing attendees would receive before heading home would be the Lord’s Supper. I think that’s a wonderful goal, and one I don’t wish to diminish. Hopefully there’s a way in the future to still end with the Sacrament and wrap up the conference by noon on Friday to accommodate travel time.

Food and Fellowship

The food service at WLC was excellent. I didn’t get to taste everything, due to dietary restrictions, but to that point, the kitchen staff was very accommodating. For every meal, they cooked me tasty alternatives that were free of gluten and dairy. (There isn’t really a dairy-free substitute for cheesecake, but fortunately I’m also a fan of fresh fruit and berries.)

The one-hour meal slots provided a good opportunity to get to know our fellow conference-goers and chew on the material presented during the sessions. There was also about two hours of free time each evening before Compline. We enjoyed games, discussion, and fellowship each evening. Again, the strength of having a small group was getting to pick the brains of the presenters. Compared to worship conferences with over 1,000 attendees, you would never get that chance. At the end of the 4th day, most of the attendees were on a first-name basis with the others. This was totally unique to my experience.



Conclusion

Mountaintop experiences are important. I still count the worship conferences I’ve attended as high points in my journey towards heaven. But if we just attend these occasional worship events in order to achieve an emotional high, then the rest of our lives will feel like drudgery. It’s not about escapism. I think I’ll look back on this first Return to Wittenberg conference fondly, and I hope many more will follow. But the beauty of R2W is that it focused on the daily life of the Christian in a way that nothing else I’ve seen has done. It didn’t feel like an escape from the daily grind as much as it was a recharging station. Christians talk a lot about “relevance” these days, but I doubt many are looking for it in the catechism, or in the sacraments. But arguably there is nothing more relevant or necessary.

I think it's safe to say that Return to Wittenberg is going to stick around. Look for it again next summer, and tell your congregation. Anyone is welcome to come.

April 21, 2016

Is Change Good?

What's the greatest obstacle to change and renewal in the Church? Lutherans are a mixed bag these days, but most of the time I presume political gridlock isn't to blame so much as apathy. (And perhaps "apathy" isn't the right word. Sometimes it seems almost like a militant adherence to the status quo.) Speaking from my experience, I don't know how many times in the past several years "I've never heard any complaints" was given as a reason not to change something. Its close relatives are: "We've always done it this way," and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It perplexes me to some degree. If I can find someone who is willing to voice some complaint, or at least suggest that improvements could be made, then will you consider changing? What if, like good Lutherans, we're just keeping our opinions to ourselves? Mother always said, "If you don't have anything nice to say..."

The same old argument came out of the bag recently in regard to commissioning artwork to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It's happened often enough to at least give me pause. Is there something to it? Are there times when the status quo is to be honored above change? If I can understand the mindset, maybe that will help me to overcome the rigid apathy.

I consider myself a traditionalist, so in that regard it's somewhat odd that I so often find myself on the side of change. On the one hand, I thank God that my church is a conservative Lutheran congregation. We don't have battles over praise bands, trendy youth programs, or licentious pastors. I think my church is pretty normal among the WELS in that regard.




On the other hand, probably like many WELS churches, we sometimes confuse the status quo for "tradition." They aren't necessarily the same. The traditions of the Church (e.g., the liturgy) were established long ago and for good reasons (e.g. maintaining good order, preaching the gospel, aiding learning). Those reasons still stand. The interesting thing about the traditions of the Church is that even while they remain, they change. What served as the liturgy in the Byzantine Empire won't work for 21st century American Lutherans in Seward, Nebraska. But we still have a liturgy, and we probably sing some of the same biblical canticles that Justinian sang—only they've been translated into English and set to different music with different instruments. The clergy that served in Hagia Sophia would have worn albs, just like our pastor. But their vesture would have seemed distinctly Roman and somewhat alien to us.

Traditions in the church are commended by the Book of Concord as being good and useful, but they change. Aside from regional and cultural changes that occur when Christianity is transmitted around the world, Christians have deliberately and often improved the tradition. This is why Romanesque churches eventually gave way to Gothic—many Europeans thought that pointed vaults, stained glass windows, more light, and greater verticality resulted in a more beautiful and fitting setting for worship. Note: These weren't radical changes—they occurred slowly over hundreds of years, and maintained the same basic layout of churches past. Also Note: There was nothing wrong with the previous style. When Constantine first made Christianity legal, Christians who had worshipped well enough in house-churches didn't remain there; they began building large basilica-churches. Likewise, the Gothic style didn't come about because parishioners complained that they didn't like rounded arches. In both cases, church architecture changed because Christians with artistic sensibilities saw room for improvement.

Jump forward to 1517. Martin Luther reformed many of the traditions of the Catholic Church. One notable example was that he excised the Canon of the Mass from the liturgy. The original reasons for having the liturgy still remained—but the Canon hindered them. It turned the Sacrament of the Eucharist into a sacrifice, thus denying the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ and obscuring the essence of the gospel. This is an example of a change that was not only an improvement, but a necessity.

Luther should serve as a good example for us even in the 21st century. Contrary to the beliefs of some, the Reformation was not a one-time event. The Word and its pure teaching must constantly be guarded; the Church must undergo constant reform and renewal. Our resistance to change is understandable, given how highly Lutherans value their heritage, and given the many pressures within the church to conform to an increasingly godless culture. But we can become so wary of negative changes that we fear any change. I see that attitude in myself often enough. Change is not the enemy of the Church. Bad changes are the enemy. Good changes are the work of the Holy Spirit. It may sound like a corny corporate policy, but Meme Dwight is right: improvement is always possible.

Of course, the Church doesn't change for the sake of change. We search the scriptures and test the spirits. We want to make sure: first, that there are good reasons to change; and second, that the change will actually be an improvement before we implement it. We should always resist bad changes. And for that reason, we can find cause to commend at least some of our Lutheran stubbornness. But if Lutherans are not open to change of any kind, then we're not open to improvement, either.

And that, I think, is not a tenable position for a Christian to have.

February 3, 2016

An Artist's Vocation in All of Life

The following was written as a feature article for Lutheran Forum, an independent theological quarterly for clergy and laity, with contributing authors from the ELCA and LCMS. It will appear in the spring 2016 edition.

It may seem cliché, but it was like being on a different planet. I stood underneath the massive dome of Sta. Maria del Fiore in Florence, gazing up at one of the greatest engineering feats of the last two millennia. I marveled at the scale of Vassari’s "Last Judgment" fresco, which covered the dome’s interior. The cavernous void between the vaults and the smooth marble floors was enough to induce vertigo. The whispers of awed visitors carried through the space with crystal clarity. I wondered, why was this place of worship so completely alien to the experience of an American Lutheran?

I know that I’m not the first Lutheran artist to visit magnificent churches in Europe and to be astonished by them. But for me, it wasn’t just a romantic escape f
rom the rural American landscape—it was a burning bush experience. It’s hard to imagine seeing works by Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Carravagio, and not being utterly transformed by them. They are beautiful, to be sure. And for a student of art history, visiting Florence is like making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But gazing at those old masterpieces, I felt the uncanny urge to remove my sandals for a different reason. They weren’t just individual “expressions” of faith—they were more akin to a divine collaboration. God was indeed present there, in more ways than one.

I wanted to make art like that. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and produce the kind of work that would transform a bland, Lutheran landscape into the kind of sublimely spiritual experience that Europeans had produced more than 500 years ago. But first I would have to make Lutherans want it. They seem to be happy with the status quo: white walls, plain glass, a steep roofline and a couple of empty crosses. Why had the visual arts, which once had flourished in the Lutheran church, almost disappeared? Whatever the reason, I was resolved to remedy it.

Since that hallowed Italian experience, I’ve come to understand my own artistic vocation much more deeply. It didn’t come to me in a flash of inspiration in the Duomo. It came by reading Holy Scripture, by the instruction of wise mentors, by reading the works of studied men of faith, and by personal experience.

The Word of God is always the best place to begin and end. For many years, I was ignorant of this passage from scripture (if I had read it before, I had probably glossed over it as many do with those tedious Levitical laws): “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri... and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze... And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you’” (Exodus 31:1-4,6). God called Bezalel by name. For any artist struggling with whether or not art can be a “legitimate” vocation, the answer is there in holy writ. Add to it that Bezalel is the first person in the Bible of whom it is said that one was “filled with the Spirit of God.” If that doesn’t light a fire under you, what will?

Unfortunately for me, Bezalel wasn’t on my radar in graduate school, and I was deeply conflicted. I was attending a secular school for the first time in my life, because I felt this need to make my artistic abilities into something “productive” for a career. I found myself suppressing my desire to make overtly Christian works of art. On some level, I didn’t want to face criticism from my faculty and peers of various faiths. I never denied my Christian faith, but I was trying to compartmentalize my faith life and my vocation. It took a devout Catholic mentor to talk some sense into me. James Langley is a liturgical artist working and teaching in Savannah, Georgia. I interned with him as a studio assistant, where he saw in me a suppressed desire to make sacred art. He nurtured that spark, and advised me to do my Master’s thesis on resurrecting liturgical art. The paper practically wrote itself, and to my surprise, my faculty advisers were thrilled with it. In time, I realized that Langley was the latest in a long line of teachers, mentors, and family members who had been gently encouraging me in this direction from my childhood. I finally grabbed it by the horns.

As it turns out, fulfilling one’s vocation is not as simple as just accepting it as a reality. It took a good deal of wrestling with disappointments—one after the other. I did manage to get a teaching job at a Lutheran college shortly after graduate school, but rewarding though it was, it wasn’t the “big break” I was hoping for. I kept at it, working part-time jobs, pushing mops and doing whatever it took to pay the rent. With a wife and kids, I was less willing or able to put everything on the line to go and chase that dream job—even if it is the one I thought God wanted me to have. Things just seemed stagnant. Had I not paid my dues? I kept asking myself. Then I would mentally slap myself. You don’t earn God’s grace. “It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9).

Be patient. God knows best. My parents had recommended Gene Edward Veith’s God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life to me. When I read it, it was my second big wake-up call. It opened my eyes to my other vocations—in the home, as a husband and father; at my workplaces, as an employee; and as a Christian, to my church, and to everyone around me. Whether or not I was making a living with my artwork, I had opportunities to show Christ’s love to countless people. I had no right to despise those everyday vocations simply because they were not the one vocation I felt most passionate about. This helped to take the anxiety out of waiting for something big to happen. When the fog of self-pity had cleared, it allowed me to see that God was working small things for my good all the time—and my business was steadily growing. Every year I was getting more clients, more opportunities, and more exposure.

Realizing that vocation is not about finding the right “career” is incredibly liberating. It’s about serving God and one’s neighbor; it’s about providing for one’s family. How could I do all of those things, while exercising my unique gifts? That’s what vocation is about. Vocation is always in the present. When I saw a need that could be filled, I filled it. I started designing logos for Lutheran churches. I started teaching for Wittenberg Academy, an online Lutheran high school. I started creating church banner designs that have theological depth and artistic integrity. I even did a smattering of web design projects. Sure, those jobs are less glamorous than making an altar painting for a cathedral or being a consultant for an extensive church renovation project, but they are rewarding in their own right. I get to mold young minds with a Lutheran understanding of the arts. I get to help churches make a visual confession about who they are and what they teach. And most importantly, I have the joyous privilege of helping people focus their eyes and hearts on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.

It’s all about Jesus. Christ lived for me. Christ died for me. Christ rose for me. If ever our work becomes about us, it will seem like drudgery. Worse, it muddies the water instead of clearly proclaiming Christ. When I paint for the church, I don’t set out to express myself. What inspired such awe in me when viewing the works of the old masters is that however great the artist’s talent, the work was most powerful when it was subordinated to Christ and his Word. It was as if God’s hand was moving in tandem with the artist’s, in order to show his love to generations of viewers. The painting or sculpture becomes a kind of veil behind which we can glimpse a portion of God’s glory, his artistry, and his reckless love for mankind. It’s humbling to think that God may choose to use my brush, my hands, to accomplish that.

As I said before, the Word is a good place to begin and end. “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2). Perseverance sums up the Christian life pretty well. Don’t expect glamor and riches and fame. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Run the race. Remember that Christ has already won it for you—and Christ himself is the prize.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jonathan Mayer

December 29, 2015

A Lesson in Point-of-View

Once in a while, I'll try to take on some art topics that are more related to the mechanics and principles of design than the theology of art. (Although today, I'll get a wee bit of both in.) Today's topic is point-of-view: where is the viewer in relation to the subject? Why is it even important?

Detail from The Maestà, Duccio, 1311
We don't often think about point-of-view, unless the artist forces us to. We must first realize that point-of-view is something that has changed over the history of art. It didn't even become a topic that could be discussed concretely until the Renaissance, when perspective was formulated (or reformulated if you prefer, since the Greeks discovered it first, then we forgot about it). For instance, the viewpoint in Medieval art was limited to only a few options: the viewer was either watching events unfold on a flat stage, or perhaps floating above a scene as a disembodied spectator. Duccio di Buoninsegna's Entry into Jerusalem (left) from The Maestà altarpiece is a good example of the latter. Duccio was anticipating the advances of Italian artists who followed closely after him in that he was beginning to think of objects in three-dimensional space, instead of like stacked playing cards. But since there is no horizon line and no consistent vanishing points, it's difficult to tell exactly where the viewer would be standing in relation to the subject.

Detail from Holy Trinity, Masaccio, 1427
What Renaissance artists like Brunelleschi and Masaccio finally realized is that in real space, parallel lines appear to recede to a single point on the horizon, called a vanishing point. When the artist placed the subject in believable space, it suddenly gave the viewer a "way into" the work—he could determine his own relationship in space to the subject. For instance, in Massacio's famous Holy Trinity fresco (left), the lines of the barrel vault above the Holy Trinity recede downward to a single point near the viewer's eye level, thus creating the illusion that the viewer is looking up at the Godhead.

Why should you care? Because since the advent of perspective, point-of-view is no longer arbitrary; it can carry meaning. Does the artist make you hover above the scene as a detached observer, or does he place you into the scene? If he places you into it, does your position in relation to the subject have significance? Are you gazing up at the subject, level with it, or looking down at it? All of these questions were immediately explored to their fullest. Frescos on church domes depicted saints and angels as seen from below.  Instead of seeing holy martyrs stacked like sardines at eye-level, the viewers could crane their necks and gaze up at their blessed posteriors as they were carried to heaven by angelic children.

Scapegoat Studio, 2010
The invention of the camera forced us again to reconsider point-of-view. You can put a camera anywhere—on an airplane, on a tripod, on the ground. The placement of the camera has an impact on our interpretation of the work. Had it not been for the influence of modern cinema, I probably would have never considered putting the viewer belly-down in the dirt next to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11, right). It's unorthodox to be sure, and you probably won't find an illustration like this in any Sunday school materials. We'd much rather see Jesus' face. In fact, we'd rather be standing next to him, looking with pity down on that "sinner." Maybe we think to ourselves, I would have shown her mercy! But what does the point-of-view here say about our relationship with Jesus? Because of our sins, we belong in the dirt with the adulterous woman, clinging to the hem of Jesus' robe. We dare not even lift our eyes to his. And yet, his loving hand reaches down to touch us, to forgive our sins, and to lift us up out of the dust.

So the next time you look at a painting, a photograph, or illustration, give at least a few seconds' thought to your point-of-view. You might see something the artist is wanting you to see.