Growth in Faith and Art is a Risky Business

adult learning, arkansas, art, brain plasticity, change, Children, Creativity, Faith, Holy Spirit, hope, Icons, Imagination, inspiration, john wesley, Ministry, New Year, Painting, Pantocrator, perfection, photography, purpose, risk, Spirituality, vision

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This is because the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression and art offers it certain beautiful forms, through which it may realize that energy. Yet most people who look at artworks judge them for the degree to which they represent “three dimensional reality,” in either two or three dimensions (painting, draw,or sculpture and assemblage).

Often I’ve been asked about my colorful landscapes, “Don’t you ever paint these in normal colors?”

My answer is usually, “How do we know the colors we see today are the original colors of Creation? After all, we now live in a fallen and broken world. Perhaps these bright colors were God’s original palette.” I’m not painting just what I see, but what was and what is yet to come. These are visions of a better world, where the leaves clap their hands for joy.

In art class, we not only struggle to master drawing shapes “as they are,” but also to challenge our minds to break free of our need to exactly reproduce the shapes before us. We always have the tension to make only a “copy of the image before us,” rather than to meet the image on a spiritual plane and portray an intimate portrait of its inner truth.

When we meet a stranger, we can hide behind our masks and keep our distance. Likewise, we can fail to become intimate with our painting’s subject matter. The resulting work is cold and dead, like a limp handshake. It’s a risky business to bare your heart to the canvas and paint. The brush will tell if your heart and soul is in it or not.

We get more comfortable with this risky business by practicing risk taking. It’s not like we’re facing tigers in a circus cage or jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. We can’t lose our salvation in Christ if we make a bad painting. We only have a new level from which to start afresh. All growth requires risk and failure. We discover what works, keep that, and eliminate the unuseful.

Willingness to learn is related to the “growth mind-set.” This is the belief your abilities aren’t fixed but can improve. This willingness is a belief not primarily about the self, but about the world. It’s a belief every class or learning experience offers something worthwhile, even if we don’t know in advance what that something is. Every teacher or parent worth their salt has to believe their students or children can learn and grow, or they need to give up their profession so another can grow. The first lesson even the most recalcitrant student needs to learn is to believe growth and progress is possible.

Christ on Tree of Life, San Clemente Basilica, 12th Century mosaic, Rome, Italy.

The Christian life has a parallel to the growth mindset. The whole of the Christian life is wrapped up in this faith: with God’s help, we can go on to perfection. This is a basic Methodist belief known as sanctification. We also call it going on to perfection in love of God and neighbor. Some of us think because we’re not able to change on our own, we don’t need to grow in our love. God has done all the work for us in Christ. The Holy Spirit was sent to be a truthful guide:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;
for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears,
and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)

Christ in Majesty, Book-Cover Plaque, French, Limoges, enamel, ca. 1200 CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Paul speaks of this truth in Philippians 3:20-21, when he reminds the people of their present state as sojourners in this world, while their citizenship is elsewhere:

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that
we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed
to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him
to make all things subject to himself.”

Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child Mary Cassatt, 1880

If life is a journey, the Christian life is even more of a pilgrimage. We all go through stages of faith if we seriously reflect and consider our beliefs when our life experiences intersect with our faith. Our earliest stage of faith begins with our parents or caregivers. Here we learn to trust or distrust, as we experience an embodied faith. The next stage is early childhood (age 3-7). Faith at this stage is experiential and develops through encounters with stories, images, the influence of others, a deeper intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, and innocent perceptions of how God causes the universe to function.

Michaelangelo: Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The next stage has been labeled “Mythic-Literal Faith” (Ages 7-12). Children at this stage have a belief in justice and fairness in religious matters, a sense of reciprocity in the workings of the universe (e.g. doing good will result in a good result, doing bad will cause a bad thing to happen) and an anthropomorphic image of God (e.g. a man with a long white beard who lives in the clouds). Religious metaphors are often taken literally, thus leading to misunderstandings. If God’s rewards or punishments don’t apply in proper retribution, in the believer’s mind, their faith in God’s system becomes fragile.

Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris.

“The Conventional Faith” stage (12-adult) arises when individuals join a religious institution, belief system, or authority, and begin the growth of a personal religious or spiritual identity. Conflicts occur when one’s beliefs are challenged are often ignored because they represent too much of a threat to one’s faith-based identity.

Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,”painted in 1818–19, is nearly 17 by 23 feet large. It commands its space as any proper historic painting of the past ever did. Rather than present a moral lesson from the past, the artist instead chose to paint an event from his present time: the rescue of the abandoned sailors and slaves from a wrecked ship. The French nation had sent the new governor of the Senegal colony, his family, and some other government officials and others on the Medusa. The government officials went to secure French possession of the colony and to assure the continuation of the covert slave trade, even though France had officially abolished the practice. Another group aboard the Medusa was composed of reformers and abolitionists who hoped to eliminate the practice of slavery in Senegal by engaging the local Senegalese and the French colonists in the development of an agricultural cooperative that would make the colony self-sustaining.

On the way, the ship ran aground and broke up. The officials and their families were put in lifeboats, but the 150 others on board got a makeshift raft, which was tied to the lifeboats. When the raft impeded the lifeboats, the officials cut the raft loose and all the lives with it. Only 15 were rescued after days at sea, and only ten lived to tell their tales. It was a scandal of the times. Géricault read all the newspapers, interviewed survivors, and made studies from ancient sculptures to inform his design. When younger artists saw his inspirational work in the Paris Salon, they knew a sea change had happened. Conservative critics and writers were appalled and accused Géricault of creating a disgusting, repulsive mistake. They were not yet ready to leave the past behind.

William Faulkner once said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore” (The Mansion , 1959). When we meet that initial storm, our first thought is to bring our fragile bark into port. In life, we batten down the hatches and book it for a safe harbor. In art class, we want to fall back on what we’ve always done before, what we know we can do, and what we’ve been successful with in the past. This is our “safe harbor.”

“Individuative-Reflective Faith” (Mid-Twenties to Late Thirties). The individual takes personal responsibility for her beliefs or feelings, often by angst and struggle. Religious or spiritual beliefs can take on greater complexity and shades of nuance, and a greater sense of open-mindedness. These can also open up the individual to potential conflicts as the different beliefs or traditions collide.

To progress and grow in our art skills, or to move through the “dark night of the soul” when we question our formerly held spiritual truths, is a crucial time. Crucial is a word sharing the same root as crucifix. The crux of both of these situations results in a life and death situation. Not that the person quits breathing or their heart stops beating, but will their old life die and their faith be reborn anew? Also, will they trust a power greater than themselves to bring them back from the depths? Many of us aren’t willing to give up control to anyone, and certainly not to a God we can’t see. We’re two year olds in our spiritual lives too often, for “I can do it myself!” Is our answer to everything and everyone. (Test it out—how many of you read the directions after you start putting a project together?)

The Cross that Spoke to St. Francis, San Damiano Chapel, Italy, 1205 CE

“Conjunctive” Faith (Mid-Life Crisis). A person at this stage acknowledges paradoxes and the mysteries attendant on transcendent values. This causes the person to move beyond the conventional religious traditions or beliefs he may have inherited from previous stages of development. A resolution of the conflicts of this stage occurs when the person is able to hold a multi-dimensional perspective that acknowledges ”truth’ as something that cannot be articulated through any particular statement of faith. This is where the Holy Awe begins to fill all the nooks and crannies from which it was once forbidden.

Face of Christ (All People of the World), photo montage

“Universalizing” Faith (or ”Enlightenment”). (Later Adulthood). This stage is only rarely achieved by individuals. A person at this stage is not hemmed in by differences in religious or spiritual beliefs among people in the world, but regards all beings as worthy of compassion and deep understanding. Here, individuals ”walk the talk” of the great religious traditions (e.g. ”the kingdom of God is within you”).

“Jesus of the People” by Janet McKenzie.

In 1999 Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s competition for a new image of Jesus by judge Sister Wendy Beckett, host of the PBS show “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting.” In the words of Sister Wendy, “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus—dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.” The model was an African-American woman and the painting includes a yin-yang symbol of Eastern traditions and feather of Native American traditions. (Photo courtesy of Paul Smith)

Next week, we’ll still be working on order and chaos. We got started on this at our first meeting, and the concept is a challenge. I’ll write about our class work then. We’re always open to anyone joining us, for you come as you are and begin where you are. Our art group is a “one room schoolhouse” with all levels of students mixed together. We may all be doing the “same project,” but everyone does it at their own skill level. I give you special attention according to your needs.

Remember, “The only way you can be behind is if you never start.”

Joy and peace,

Cornelia

Life Imitates Life | Lapham’s Quarterly
https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/swindle-fraud/life-imitates-life

The Stages of Faith According to James W. Fowler | Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.
https://www.institute4learning.com/2020/06/12/the-stages-of-faith-according-to-james-w-fowler/

Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa – Smarthistory
https://smarthistory.org/theodore-gericault-raft-of-the-medusa/

Video and photo slideshow: The many faces of Jesus
https://religionnews.com/2014/01/28/video-photo-slideshow-many-faces-jesus/

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