On Visual Theology
Not much has been written on visual theology. As this video shows I spent the last two and a half years on a commission to illumine the Four Holy Gospels for the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. Lane Dennis, the founder of Crossway publishing who commissioned me, told me that there has not been a commission given to a single artist to illumine the four Gospels for over 400 years. At first I could not believe this to be true, so I did my own research and found that he was quite right. So not only there is not much written on visual theology, any effort to bring together visual imagery and scriptures is scant as well.
I was brought up bi-culturally, born in Boston, and spending much of my grade school years in Kamakura, Japan. Then my family moved back to US. As an American citizen, I received a Japanese governmental scholarship to study as a National Scholar in the ancient art form of Nihonga, a method that harkens back to 11th century. I was chosen to be part of a long standing lineage of Nihonga masters, and spent six and a half years studying in Tokyo. My works combine my early influences of Abstract Expressionist era painters like Arshile Gorky, de Kooning, or Rothko. It should be noted here that in the Japanese tradition, the merging of images are words are assumed and immense part of their tradition; their language itself is visual, a merging of both Chinese visual ideograms and lyrical phonetic alphabets.
Arshile GorkyWillem de KooningMark Rothko
Many have pointed out that we are now in a visual age; with the advent of technology, the way we communicate has become visually dominant. The National Endowment for the Arts Reading at Risk studies show that there is a steep decline in reading interest at all ages. We are inundated with images through advertisements, video games and movies. The media saturated world feeds us pop images and easy sound bytes constantly. Some warn that this is a degenerative trend, as images may overwhelm the Word. Though I agree with the observed symptoms of demise, I do not think the Word can be overwhelmed. Rather than responding with fear only, I see an opportunity.
When I recently exhibited at MOBIA (Museum of Biblical Art in New York City’s Columbus Circle), my works were displayed in the background to the history of the Bible during these four hundred years. They began with the illumined manuscript of 12th century, then ended with some contemporary versions of printed Bibles. Visual imagery simply decreases in these four hundred years, to the extent that a visual exhibit, as opposed to a historical exhibit, of these four hundred years is simply impossible. My works fell into this great gap, or maybe a rabbit hole, and I was forced to create a new category of what an exhibit of this kind can do.
Exhibition of the Four Holy Gospels paintings at MOBIA alongside historical printings of the King James Bible
When I walk into many churches in America as a visual artist, I keep spiraling down the rabbit hole. There are many admirable qualities to the churches in America, but beauty, especially in visual arenas, is not one of them. We assume that the reason is that we live in a pragmatic world in which everything is measured by so called utility and function. I note “so called” here, because when one considers both utility and function, you should find beauty there, but in America, this is not assumed. The design of now defunct Concorde airplanes, to thriving Apple computers assume both function and utility, but they do it in an efficient, beautiful way. Beauty accompanies function if you really think about it. I can even make a case that something that is ugly is wasteful, as it is not streamlined and does not think of the experience at the user end.
Yet beauty is an afterthought in our everyday lives and in the decision making process of board rooms around the country. Beauty is an afterthought in most elder’s meetings and leadership gatherings in parachurch ministries. Likewise, the arts suffer along side beauty, and are orphaned in America.
I find this odd inconsistency in this country, because you do have amazing art that the world thirsts for; like Jazz and Modern Dance. When you travel around Europe or Japan, these Jazz musicians and Modern Dancers are revered to an extent that you might be tempted to say that they are “worshipped.” They are treated to five star hotels and people line up to hear them play and see them dance. But when they come home, they have trouble paying their bills. And we think that when we have an opportunity to exhibit the best of America, like in a Superbowl half time show, the only way to do it is to bring Hollywood and Janet Jackson to the stage (here her “wardrobe malfunction” was broadcast in China, for the first time in history, as a proper introduction to American culture).
Pragmatism is seen to dominate the bottom-line decisions in board rooms, Capital Hill, and church leadership meetings. We cut things that are “extra,” “nice-to-have-if-you-have-extra-money” categories. So a typical budget meetings go like this. We first put the consideration of beauty as a category, so we create an “arts ministry,” or “National Endowment for the Arts,” or “local committee for the beautification of Holland, Michigan.” We place people who care about these things on these committees. I've been on all of these leadership meetings, except for the “local committee for the beautification of Holland, Michigan.” The greater powers to be invite you to present your case to the budget committees; and usually, at the end of the day, they either run out of time or money to allocate. “So sorry,” they say, “what you are doing is important, but we just can't afford beauty right now.”
Coming out of these pragmatic meeting, feeling utterly depressed, I often feel like a mouse; Fredrick the Mouse to be exact. Fredrick understood beauty when no other mouse, busy with pragmatic work, would. But in the dreary, dark, austerity-measures stricken winters, Fredrick provides the other mice with thoughts of beauty. So undaunted by the pragmatists, I decided to focus on what I call Fredrick the Mouse ministry. I speak beauty into people’s lives as I am told that what I do just does not make it to the top of their agendas. I ask them about their children, whose lives exhibit a kind of hunger for beauty and justice. Usually, the person did experience the arts, in the days when the arts were taught in the public schools, when we memorized Shakespeare, or practiced classical music. I met Senators who love Jazz, or Alan Greenspan, who is a jazz musician, or Condi Rice who is an accomplished concert level pianist. I try to remind them to keep that beauty alive in their lives; because in a certain winter days, it may just be the only thing that will keep us alive.
Frederick the Mouse by Leo Lionni
Today, I am speaking to you about Visual Theology, but I have begun with broader concerns, because everything that happens in society is reflected in the church. Jamie A. K. Smith is correct that we are baptized into the secular liturgy of our time. I would push further, and say that this is more than secular vs. sacred liturgy battling back and forth of our minds and imaginations. It is about Life vs. Death. It is about the Life we can live generatively verses commerce driven, celebrity crazed frenzy. When we encounter bodies of casualties like Whitney Houston, or Amy Winehouse, we wonder what struck us. And yet, we do not realize that we have been worshipping the wrong idols all along, and all of us are capable of such misplaced devotions, misaligned liturgies. It’s not so much of excluding ourselves from the secular liturgies, but to repent that we have not understood what is a beautiful liturgy, or to discover, for the first time, that gifts and stillness was there all along behind the voices of the casualties of culture wars and flash bulbs going off. It’s time to rediscover why and from whom the Greatest Gift of All has come from. But it’s more complex than to diagnose and speculate on what went wrong, when really, Houston and Winehouse are just the tip of the iceberg.
There is not much difference between so called “secular” decisions made in the board rooms of America and “sacred” decisions of church session meetings of elders. The church has adopted the corporate model of running churches like businesses. Bill Dyrness is correct when he notes that many of the society’s problems starts within the church; so if we find ourselves divided into blue and red states, or divided into races, we can put a mirror to ourselves in the church. Is it possible that we are not a beautiful country, because our worship is not beautiful? Is it possible that we are divided because the churches are divided? So visual theology, and our consideration of beauty, is more than a surface problem that require a cosmetic solution. If we do live in a visual culture, then lack of beauty leads to a dehumanized state of our entire culture; and, I might add, poverty of our theology.
As a Calvinist, I have inherited a certain way of seeing theology and the world. So you might be surprised that I am even speaking of visual theology as a Calvinist. You might even accuse me that what I am saying is too radical of a notion to be considered, that such a thought on visual theology challenges how Reformed thinkers have always thought about the dangers of visual elements for…let’s say 400 years. To that, I say, blame Lane Dennis of Crossway to have commissioned me to spend two years thinking about such things as an artist. No, let’s not blame him, let’s blame the Four Holy Gospels, and what we call the “Good News.” As I spent the last two and a half years journeying with this commission, and subsequent exhibits, I am convinced that there is such a thing as a visual theology, and that it matters.
You see, if it was just about artists getting their due, or Jazz musicians getting to pay their rent, or Modern dancers who can sustain their careers without having to pay out of pocket to rehearse, this talk can remain in the category of an arts advocacy, for the need for art in society; but I have become convinced that this was not primarily about the arts. It’s about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So let me go to the Gospel pages, to begin a dialogue. The visual theology I am going to share with you is really small steps toward a development of visual theology. I am taking baby steps. I realized when I began the project that there is no developed visual language that I can rely on, to build upon in recent times. So I had to borrow from elements of the “stones crying out,” and borrow from the visual language of Mark Rothko, from William Blake as well as 16th century Japanese scrolls.
Take this page as an example:
You notice there are lines here; and might wonder why there are lines in a passages that speaks of Pharisees arguing with Jesus. When I was beginning my training in Nihonga, one of the disciplines I had to learn was to draw thousands of lines for six months. They gave me many types of brushes, many types of paper and many types of sumi ink. After a while, I learned how to mix mineral pigments with hide glue, so I began to pour colors into wet lines. I learned that depending on the weather, the moisture level, the temperature, the type of water used, the same lines drawn with the same materials did not look the same. This type of tacit knowledge one cannot learn by reading about it on the internet. One has to do due diligence to fail many times, and learn by doing. After drawing the lines, I was asked to copy ancient scrolls, and I learned that these 13th century artists understood these lines and mastered them. I could, so many centuries later, could “read” these lines and commune with the creators of these art works.
In this passage, Jesus is persuading those who have their religiosity figured out that the law is only the basis of God’s relationship with us. The laws seemed to me just like the basic lines. plain and rigid to some. Yet Jesus came to fulfill the law, and not to abolish it. So I decided to create a symbolic way of depicting the tension between the Pharisees and Jesus, by drawing these lines. But at the same time, I wanted to represent Jesus' fulfillment of the law, so I poured gold and vermillion into the lines while they were wet. The gold (mixed powder with hide glue) and vermillion (also a finely ground pigment) spreads within the lines as Jesus filled the laws with divinity and his sacrificial blood.
If theology is a way to illumine how God is to be understood, then visual theology is illumination of the Biblical words as expressed by God. Do the images reveal what words cannot? The Word of God is generative, and gives birth to faith. Illuminations, then, should do the same. I am not arguing here to replace or compete with the Word of God at all. One can have the Word of Life at the center of the discussion, and the role of visual design as the lens to see through. The Word of Life gives birth to sensory experiences and intuitive, tacit knowledge.
What I am doing here are akin to what Jeremy Begbie does in Theology Through Music efforts at Duke and Cambridge Universities. Jeremy uses music as a theological base to argue for Gospel centered theology. The rabbit hole I fell into has to do something similar to do with visual theology. Though definitely, I am far behind his efforts in coming up with a cohesive system, and developed understanding. Music and theology share overlaps, and usually the church is far more developed in use of music than the visual arts. Jeremy and I are good friends and we are embarking on a project together right now. I am grateful for his efforts as what he has done so brilliantly in the field of music, and his overall effort for creating a framework for Theology Through the Arts, critical for our discussions here.
Why Theology Through the Arts, and not Theology of the Arts or Theology about the Arts? Jeremy positions theology in a phenomenological sense, to affirm the sensory knowledge base, rather than information, rational base only. There is “play” involved in music, and that alone contributes to much of what is not usually discussed in theology.
This plate shows Luke 18, and it is another page in which I used the lines to depict Jesus' having a tense discussion with the Pharisees. But accidentally, I made a mistake in the top of these pages, and dripped paint. So I endeavored to start over. But then I noticed what this passage was all about, how it ends. Jesus notices that children were trying to get to him, and the disciples trying to keep them at bay, he then invites the children: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.”
One thing that children know how to do well is to play, to be messy; beauty intrudes in such simple, innocent ways. My little mess here, and hopefully a mess that reveal theology that is incarnated in paint, followed. As I followed the Spirit into the beautiful mess, a firework of explosive Gospel took place in front of me, in ways only possible with lines and splash that I knew well. I was God’s child resting in the lap of a Savior. And He is whispering in my ears that I am not just a child of God, but that I was God’s designated prince, that I will inherit all things, so I need to do my best to act like one, to display his Riches that His Heirs possess. We need to indeed reflect the glory, as the princes and princesses of God. We need to extravagantly do so with an abundance of beauty and joy.
Visual theology happens, when we are engaged with scriptures, with fulness of our imaginations. (Visual Theology is Art in Action: it is Art in Action being energized by the Holy Spirit.) It could happen on ordinary Sunday mornings, as shown through these extraordinary sketches by John Hendrix, an illustrator friend. When I Tweeted that I will be speaking on this topic, and asked “Visual Theology - does it exist?” John tweeted back that “That’s what I do every Sunday morning!” Visual Theology happened when a group of special education students came into my exhibit of the Four Holy Gospels at Azusa Pacific University; they just went through the historic section of the four hundred years of the KIng James exhibit and were guided into the gallery where my paintings hung. They were quite confused with the discrepancy between the two exhibits - they just could not see the connection. Then the teacher showed them Crossway’s the Four Holy Gospel with the colorful images they were seeing. “It was as if life came back into their faces, full of delight…one student asked 'wow, it’s ok to draw right in the Bible?' And the teacher said, 'Yes.'” I wonder what would happen if we designed our church bulletins with large margins to encourage such doodling, and made available color pencils and markers. What would happen if we did invite children into our theology, to dance, to improvise, to play and to draw beautifully? You see, it does have to do with the Gospel, in our true identity as the heirs of Christ, as princes and princess of the Great King. The Feast is to come, the Wedding is about to start.
A wedding is planned: and it will require all of our senses, and all of the arts. What wedding have you attended that did not include all of the arts: dance, poetry, design, fashion, culinary crafts? By advocating for the arts, we are planning for the Cosmic Wedding to come. Christians are Wedding Planners. The nard, the precious perfume of Mary spreads with its extravagant, sacrificial aroma to anoint the Bridegroom. “She has done a beautiful things to me,” Jesus commended Mary’s act. “Whenever the Gospel is told, what she has done will also be told.” (Mark 15) May that be true of us.