Namuth - Pollock.jpg


Phil 2:12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,

Phil 4: 1Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you must stand firm in the Lord, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you, my true yokefellow, to help these women who have labored with me for the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.…


Some time ago, some wag took a photo of about a square inch of his painter’s overalls and posted the results, replete with stains and splatters. It’s a Jackson Pollock, he said, and dared us to prove otherwise. I think the point he hoped to make involved modern art, subjectivity, and random meaninglessness. I’ve stood in front of a few paintings by this artist (Pollock)  in my time, as have some  of you….and I suspect (or at least hope)that you would agree   that the work is substantial and has merit. If you are not familiar with the artist or the work, then look.

He received early training   as a landscape painter, and then later began to fill   his surfaces with surreal symbols and semi abstract imagery. He finally took off all the filters and went for the heart of the matter, dripping his paints onto a sea of raw canvas. If we  stand back and take in the whole picture mounted on the museum wall, then Pollock’s  control, color choices  and  compositional  approach  come into fuller (elegant?) view. Everything he learned from his forays into landscape, and surrealism is in those drips and splatters. Pollock’s declaration ‘I am nature’  suggests that the particular dragon he was chasing  has its roots in Romanticism,  hacked its way through a Surrealist undergrowth  and  hit upon an endgame of pure action and gesture. Cut out the middleman. Go for the jugular.

Another uncompromisingly abstract painter who hit with a visceral punch was Mark Rothko. When I’ve entered a dedicated Rothko room, or even stood for a while in front of one of his paintings, I’ve felt a definite change in atmosphere. Rothko decried the critics who wanted to `explain’ his work by simply analyzing its formal elements of color, scale and so on. He wanted his viewers to experience something a bit more grounded, borderline …even `transcendent.’ I suspect the dragon he was chasing was in some ways similar to Pollock’s, but with Pollock, you get the feeling that he thought (at least, at one point) that he had broken through `to the garden’…whereas Rothko stood outside, access barred by an angel with a sword. I feel a sense of melancholy and exile come across in Rothko’s work.

By now, you might be wondering how I hope to convincingly segue into some remarks on Paul’s epistle to the Philippians…with some emphasis on the `fear and trembling’ verse….Phil 2:12. More than once I have found myself deep in conversation with some  anxious soul who wants to know `how they can work out their salvation’ ….and how does this square with all the stuff Paul says about  God’s saving grace and our utter helplessness and inability  to make any contribution to  getting into his good books. The full range of possible meanings behind `the stuff Paul says’   is well explored by others elsewhere. I am limiting myself  to how `we’ read passages like this in this letter (and, incidentally, look at modern abstract art)  What I am about to say is not really new or original….I did a brief online search and found that  others had studied the epistle and formed similar conclusions. However, as Philippians (and Jackson Pollock) have come up in a couple of conversations recently, I thought I would share…

`Fear and trembling? work out your own salvation?’

Well, the good news is  he’s not talking about YOU  and even better  news is that trying to squeeze volumes of theology out a couple of verses  is as about as facile as trying to pass off a photo of  a bit of your painter’s overalls as a  rediscovered Jackson Pollock. There is a bigger picture involved. It only comes into view as you read the epistle as a whole. An overall (npi) read of the epistle should give you the following impression. There is a bit of tension at the church in Philippi, and Paul cannot intervene in person because he’s in prison. He names the two people who appear to be going at it (but appeals  to the others….so perhaps some `sides taking’  was going on?) and `beseeches’ them to take it down a few, and find a point of harmony and agreement. He tells them they have the resources to work out a resolution to any current conflict, and provides them with some powerful images of the resources  he is talking about. In my opinion, these images and their connection to each other only fully come into view when you stand back and take n the document as a whole.

The first image is the famous one. (It is) Christ taking the form of servant, even to the point of dying for the ones He was serving. Paul points out that Jesus stepped away from all the privilege and position one might associate with divinity and took the role of a servant. He was later vindicated by God who raised Him from the dead. Look at that example, Paul suggests to his conflicted readers. Adopt an attitude like that and apply it to the current situation. He then moves to another example. There is a young man that he regards as a `spiritual son’ and no doubt, an excellent role model.

Paul’s second example is… Timothy. Paul talks about the virtues and selfless lifestyle of the young man, and says he wishes he could send him along. People in this church, wondering how to untangle and `work out’ a solution to their current dilemma could learn something by looking at Timothy…But apparently sending young Tim is not in the cards. Upon reflection, Paul decides on sending someone well known to them. This is someone who has been a courier/messenger between Paul and the church. He is personally upset by what he hears is going on. In addition, he has health problems. Paul thinks it `necessary’ to send him back to Philippi. His name was Epaphroditus. They are familiar with Epahroditus. Paul suggests that his concerns, efforts, and willingness to go the extra mile are commendable. Hold such a one in high regard, says Paul (and while you are at it, look and learn…) So, Timothy and Epaphroditus are implicitly offered as role models to this struggling congregation.


Finally, Paul puts his own cards on the table. He gives a brief description of his learning and privileged position as a Jew, and then summarily dismisses it in order to establish new allegiance and priorities in Christ. He describes himself as striving to take hold of all that God has for him in Christ. He is not asking the Philippians to do anything he is not doing. He is doing it   in order to demonstrate and experience the truth of the Gospel. He wants them to, as well. At this  point Paul trains both barrels  on `the enemies of the Cross’…those who prey on congregations and stir things up  by either introducing unnecessary rules, or by  trying to suggest that people can do whatever the heck  they like, without fear of consequences. Avoid these people, says Paul. Paul also points out that there `is no law’ that prevents them from focusing on the truly good and beautiful. Maybe such a focus will help the congregation sort itself out a bit, and avoid the risk of inappropriately taking sides in the disagreement.

All this goes some way towards answering what it might mean to `work out (one’s) salvation, with fear and trembling.’ The larger patterns sensed throughout the document   are the ones that should govern how we interpret  the little puzzling bits.


It is the pattern and image of Christ, laying aside position and privilege in order to serve that is offered to the people at Philippi. There are minor elaborations on the theme, in the examples of Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul himself. In my opinion, this does not quite come into view as part of the compositional architecture until we step back from our parsing and micro managing of `verses’ and such like, and take in the big picture….just like a Jackson Pollock painting.


A blast from the past!  This was originally posted a year ago,  but as I recently  reconnected with Dianne Collard, one of the people featured in this blog, I felt this was worth re posting……


Sorting through a number of boxes of loose bits of paper you kept for obscure and long forgotten reasons can be a bit daunting. It is always a good thing, therefore, when you stumble across buried treasure. In this case the treasure is a photocopy of an interview from British magazine THIRD WAY (March 2000) with Neil MacGregor, then director of London’s national Gallery. The interview took place during the much-celebrated `SEEING SALVATION’ exhibition. This event brought many out to see and reflect on the spiritual themes and issues depicted in some of the masterpieces of European art. MacGregor was quick to note that these artworks provided gallery visitors with a context for reconsideration and evaluation of fundamental Christian doctrines. Great art, in exhibitions like this one, planted seeds in the hearts of minds of those who might never visit a church or endure a sermon. 

 In this interview he was also asked about public spending and `money for art’ when faced with other pressing social needs. He made the point that great art was both a highly prized commodity, but also something provided in service of a public seeking refreshment and renewal as they spent time gazing at publicly owned national treasures. Macgregor felt that such masterpieces of great art served as a reference point and an oasis for the receptive viewer. The very act of looking carefully at great art had restorative properties. He pointed out that many city workers would come and spend an hour or two in the gallery seeking such restoration.

 Perhaps we can say that great art has a humanizing and socializing function. However, one of the things art `asks’ us to do is slow down. This can be very hard to do in our world of summary glances, snap decisions, instant access and all enveloping media.

Art critic Peter Clothier talks about `Slow Looking’ and provides a `one hour/one painting’ experience in different museums and galleries in the US. Here he encourages those that sign up for his sessions to adopt a more receptive and meditative approach to exploring the surface of a designated piece of artwork. Here, the issue is less about the canonical status of the painted surface, and more about the slowing down and opening up of the act of perception. In our media saturated era, both MacGregor’s hurrying city worker, and Clothier’s seated `mindful’ viewer can find their souls renewed by art, and the intentional act of slow, receptive exploration of an object or surface. (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012)

Dianne B Collard was working with her husband Glenn in European missions when she received the awful news about the murder of her eldest son in California. I have often heard her tell the story of the profound anguish and the deep soul searching that followed. As she wrestled with the thoughts and questions that grow in the shadow of a terrible event like this, she sought solace in nearby galleries. At first, she would spend time with the classics, but then I have heard her tell of the first steps she took towards some emotional equilibrium and restoration in gallery rooms with abstract art on the walls. It was there, surrounded by artwork celebrating the essentials of form, color and line that she found the beginnings of peace and the seeds of a new direction, a new journey. Sometime after that, she began to write a book (`I choose to forgive’) that explored the dynamic of extending reconciliation and forgiveness towards her son’s killer. The first version of the book evidently struck a chord. It has been translated into over sixteen languages. The revised/expanded version will bring readers/followers up to date  on the story, including  describing  the ongoing restorative relationship with the killer as he prepares for life after prison.  When I last saw Dianne, she was being interviewed at Fuller Seminary by artist Makoto Fujimura of   I AM and the Brehm Center about  the progress on  the film version of this amazing story.

We recently corresponded about a magazine article talking about abstract art challenging the eye and brain and pushing us to see the world in new ways. While I believe that Dianne came to see the world `in new ways’ I have never heard  her using  the language of art theory or history  when describing the profound impact the abstract art  had on her.

Both Neil MacGregor’s hope for the benefits offered by looking at the great masters on display, and Peter Clothier’s message about the value of slow looking/mindful viewing of paintings seem to find a deeper confirmation here in Dianne’s experience with abstract art and the path she subsequently found herself walking.  (http://ichoosetoforgive.com/)

We have probably all heard some version of John Ruskin’s famous aphorism about `hundreds talking, thousands thinking, but the one who sees gets at the heart of everything. Seeing wraps poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one’

In different ways we have talked about thinkers and practitioners of `the art of seeing’  that might help some of us  out of the box of our own preconceptions and bad perceptual habits when it comes to thinking about and looking into art, be it  classical modern , post…and even metamodern! Let’s keep our eyes open.





Andrew Garfield has been on TV recently , promoting the new Martin Scorsese film `Silence’  and talking about   some of the things he learned  while preparing for his  role in the film  as a 17th century Jesuit priest in Japan. This film was adapted from the novel by Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo. Some of Garfield’s comments touched on some of the spiritual disciplines in the Jesuit tradition. It sounded like these practices, plus some of the `big questions’ at the heart of the story left their mark on the actor.

At the risk of over simplification, here is a very brief sketch of the film’s story: Two Jesuit priests go to japan in order to learn the whereabouts and fate of their spiritual mentor Ferreira. They go because they have heard he has abandoned the faith. They go and  also to minister among the hidden or secret Christians in the Japanese villages. Persecution comes to the villages from the Japanese authorities. They are intent on eradicating `Christianity’, seen both as a superstition, and an attempt by foreign trading partners to seek some sort of leverage. Ultimately, the priests themselves are challenged to act and spare the villagers further suffering. It is that challenge and its aftermath that creates a moral and spiritual crisis for Garfield’s character (Sebastian Rodrigues)

This film is a labor of love for Scorsese. He has worked for years to bring it to fruition. We feel that the issues and questions that resonate throughout the film are very personal for him. The film is not so resonant at the box office, perhaps because the subject matter  is a tough sell among viewers  hungry for superheroes and digitally animated characters……..and awash in viewing choices and formats.

(However) Seeing this film on a big screen is desirable because the muted colors and mist shrouded landscapes work well on a large scale, carrying echoes of Asian landscape art. The soundtrack composed largely of natural sounds is similarly unobtrusive, and yet atmospheric. The director has done an excellent job of translating into film the qualities of indirection, allusiveness, and understatement that we find in Japanese novelists and poets. The preference for the worn, the simple and the rustic  that informs  some Japanese aesthetic theory  is  also quietly acknowledged  in how Scorsese composes his images, and the drama that they contain .

For me, Rodrigues’s journey of faith and realization is one compelling path throughout the film. His initial quest is to learn about his mentor and his spiritual state. His own faith is challenged and perhaps deepened by the fervent faith of the villagers that come to him to receive the sacraments and absolution. It is challenged in different ways as he witnesses the persecution they undergo, and as he is forced to listen to the rationale of their persecutors, and finally, even his former mentor. He wrestles with his conscience as he considers how his own act of `breaking faith’ by stepping on a holy image would spare villagers further needless suffering. Is his mentor right in asserting that these villagers simply   base their faith on a few misunderstandings of words and phrases? Or is there something deeper there? In the end: Is it Jesus himself urging him to take that step onto an image on behalf of others or is it merely a form of spiritual deception? Is he breaking faith or simply breaking with tradition and pride? He eventually breaks down and steps on the image.

The film ends with Rodrigues  now assisting his former mentor in searching through imported goods for evidence of Christian symbolism and imagery. He now lives with a Japanese wife and child and observes a Buddhist way of life. When he dies some years later, he is cremated according to local tradition, but we are left with a hint that there is a gap between reality and appearance.

Along with the lackluster box office, there have been some critical voices…

Some point out that a stronger grasp of global church history (and futures) will give us some critical distance when considering implicit commentaries on `Western Christianity’ and colonialism. It is by no means the whole story of the church and its growth. .

Some Japanese Christians today have pushed back and pointed out that Endo’s book was used in school to teach the `indifference’ of the Christian God to the suffering of his followers. They also point out that their own commitment and faith as adults is not linked to ` holy’ images, so that stepping on one to relieve another’s torment is no big deal.

Other voices  are echoing the mentor Feirrera and wondering if we (here)  make similar mistakes in understanding as we construct  our belief system from words , phrases and stories that  are part of the Christian narrative .

All good….and well worth wrestling with. It may be, as Andrew Garfield  has suggested, that spiritual discipline (s) are greatly enriched by imaginative reconstruction as we work towards a faith that  is a tough negotiator  in today’s globally connected `post’ postmodern world.

I’ll close by mentioning one of my favorite characters in the film, and one of my favorite scenes. The character is Kichijiro, someone who describes himself as `a weak  shoot’…not given to spiritual heroics, but more inclined to expediency and survival. Throughout the film, this character publicly denies his faith when challenged or threatened,    but then always comes to R later for absolution and forgiveness. On occasion his lapses bring danger to Rodriguez yet it is to R he returns, seeking to confess. As the film begins to draw to its conclusion, he shows up yet again, wishing to repent and seek absolution. . This time he is `too late.’ Rodrigues tries to tell him he is no longer worthy to hear confession, as he too has publicly denied the faith. The other man wishes to confess anyway, and in the following scene we catch a glimpse of both men as equals, feeling abandoned, and `beyond redemption’ but perhaps hoping for a measure of scarcely imaginable `grace.’ The two men are in sparsely furnished room. Just in view are some rudimentary tea making utensils. We pick up visual echoes of the Japanese tea ceremony, its humble origins, and perhaps something of its original intent.

I have said elsewhere that Endo’s novel `Silence’ came into sharper focus for me when I read his other novels. They, too, address spiritual and ethical concerns against a Japanese backdrop.

I am impressed by the visual and dramatic impact of Scorsese’s adaptation of this work. I hope more people see it before it leaves the big screen.

I wish Andrew Garfield well in his exploration of some of the ideas he encountered  as he prepared for his role in the film.


Scott, Stephen. “When Worlds Collide: The Novels of Shusaku Endo.” RADIX , 1985.







Towards the end of 2005, CANA (Christian Arts Networking Association) held a small international arts conference on the island of Bali. This event was special to me for a number of reasons. It was the third time I had been to Bali for a conference, and my first time as director of the arts organization. We were holding this conference in the shadow of a recent terrorist bombing. Many tourists were leaving. I think the local people were glad to see us. I had been in Bali earlier that year and asked artist, dancer, and puppet master Nyoman Darsane to prepare and perform a Balinese shadow play for us, using traditional elements in combination with contemporary dance by Tina Bailey. I wanted them to tell some stories chosen from one of the Gospels.

The Balinese shadow play (Wayang Kulit) is one of the principal art forms that ties together the entire Balinese worldview, linking cosmology, society, and individual person. The puppet master pulls from a repertoire of traditional tales and retells them with an emphasis on contemporary moral and spiritual lessons. The art form itself is believed to embody an underlying spirituality that some say is more `real’ than the audience watching. Because of the complex of spiritual and artistic issues woven through the layers of the Balinese shadow play, I felt it was an appropriate vehicle for stories about the author, sustainer, and redeemer of all created reality, Jesus Christ. I also felt the s lessons woven into these chosen stories had much to teach us.

I had picked three stories from the Gospel of John.

All of the chosen stories referred to `feet.’. In one story, Mary was anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume. In another, Jesus was washing the feet of the disciples. In the third story, Judas leaves the upper room and hurries away to betray Jesus to the authorities. I wanted these stories performed as part of our conference communion service so that we, as artists, might later reflect on their message. I wanted us to remember that beautiful actions, like the one in which Mary anointed the feet of Jesus have their place in the life of the church. Lessons about hospitality and service are concentrated in the foot-washing story. What can they mean for us? Judas’s mindset is a dangerous one. He voiced a public criticism of Mary’s `extravagance’ and then used the occasion to promote himself as truly socially concerned. Some days later Judas embarked upon his final act of betrayal.

However, as I am coming to realize, it is not simply outright betrayal that is a problem.

On a more recent visit to Cambodia I spent some time at the Metta Karuna reflection centre in Siem Reap. Here I saw an image that also had much to teach me. On the grounds of this center were a series of sculptures. One in particular showed a man kneeling to wash the feet of another man, and learning that the intended recipient of his service had lost his foot by stepping on an unexploded landmine. This piece, entitled `I have no foot to wash’ was a stark reminder that sometimes there is a gap between our very best intentions and the actual needs of the people that we say we want to serve.










Recently I gave a copy of the book `Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath to a friend who was making some important decisions and  vocational changes. The authors explore, among other things, the different ways in which we sabotage or short-circuit our decision making process. Actually, I found the book helpful in thinking about some of the details in a popular story from John’s gospel. This story concerns the man `born blind.’  However, in order to talk about what I mean we have to take a brief side trip into art history.


A few months ago, I was looking at a huge collage by an artist friend in Southern California. The artist had glued images and materials around a reproduction of a painting based on this very story. We both drew upon what we knew of art history in our attempts to figure out who the artist of this painting was. I managed to misidentify several important compositional features and ended up assigning the piece to the wrong artist. Even then, I was not quite sure. .There was something oddly familiar about the look of the central Jesus figure. Later, I discovered my vague suspicions had been right. This  was an early work by  a particular painter (El Greco) who  at that stage of his career was still  being influenced  in some ways by  some of the other artists I had been trying to assign the work to. Once I had learned all this, I felt I had behaved a bit like the bystanders on the street where the man born blind used to beg. They said things like `Yes, I think that’s him…..maybe, maybe not….’ My seeing, my learning and my interpretive habits needed to be open to revision. I have to learn not to jump too hastily to conclusions based on limited knowledge, or paint myself into a corner with false choices rooted in ignorance.

This is a lesson that can take a lifetime to learn.

However, El Greco’s painting contained other important lessons for me.

The  disciples and the other bystanders are depicted moving their hands around expressively in the empty air as they try on this or that wrong explanation for the circumstances `in front of them.’ This was not the case with Jesus. One of the things that really struck me was Jesus’s extended hand and physical contact with the sufferer. The artist has depicted Jesus’s touch as an indicator of how He saw the individual.  More on that later.

touchhhhh                   11117469_10152766823738364_824420241_n

We are certainly capable of generating our own empty gestures. I am learning that we can be like those expressive but mistaken characters in that painting. We sometimes box ourselves in or paint ourselves into a corner with our presuppositions about a situation. It is usually only in retrospect that we see that we limited our understanding by insisting that either A or B were the only two possible explanations or conceivable solutions. It is only in retrospect that we see that there might have been more options in terms of either explaining a particular situation, or finding a solution to a particular problem. This much I learned from re reading `Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath., and reflecting on a painting by El Greco. This learning threw some light into the corners of this story from John’s Gospel.

In this story Jesus and those with him come across a man born blind begging in the street. Jesus makes short work of the philosophical debate around this man’s condition and restores his sight. Because of this,  the hostile temple authorities who are trying to build their case against Jesus interview the man. Twice. The second interview does not end well.

At the beginning, the disciples and those with Jesus want to know if it was this man or the parents that created the problem of his blindness. Were the disciples thinking about Karmic payback of sorts? Were they familiar with the rabbinic speculation that it was possible for babies in the womb to sin … hence being `blind from birth?’

In some ways, the followers of Jesus reveal something of their own blindness here. They `see’ the unfortunate beggar as a `theological’ test case first, and a real person a somewhat distant second. Jesus speaks in a way that completely reframes the picture. He proposes a radically different future. However, just as we see in other stories, the `reframing’ and the `different future’ comes with a price tag.


The story as it unfolds comes with character studies and plot twists. Jesus continues to challenge the scholarly elaborations on the `dos and don’ts’ of the Sabbath day, this time by making clay  by spitting into some handfuls of earth and smearing it upon this man’s eyes. He instructs the blind man to go to a pool called `sent’ and wash off the clay. Our storyteller says that the blind man did this and `came back seeing’…The brief, laconic statement here carries faint echoes of the description of the `water into wine’ miracle at the earlier village wedding. However, at this point, we can leave aside the echoes and just focus on the story itself. When we focus, we see both comedic elements as well as threatening shadows growing around Jesus. In addition, we learn something about sight and blindness.

According to our narrator the disciples with Jesus were willing to discuss the man in `the abstract’…..even as he sat and listened! Were they oblivious to his presence? Later, when the man `formerly blind’ returns to his street the `sighted’ are not sure they recognize him! Were they too used to seeing him sitting and begging? Was it so hard to `see’ him apart from his designated role?

The narrator may indeed have been trying to score incidental points concerning the fallibility of some eyewitness testimony. He picks this theme up elsewhere with confused crowds in the temple, and skeptical disciples like Thomas. However, I think the larger point in this particular story is unavoidable. We categorize and `see’ in ways that limits our options and dehumanizes our neighbor.  Our storyteller subtly suggests this, in my opinion.    Might we also glean this inference from El Greco’s depiction of a  seeing, touching and empathic Jesus?

The authorities are much more pragmatic  and robustly skeptical. They want the man to deny that Jesus did anything miraculous. If there WAS a `miracle’ they hoped   to use it as further proof that Jesus is a wonderworking troublemaker. They even interrogate the formerly blind man’s family!  Sadly, even the family holds their son at arm’s length. `He is an adult. Ask him’

Meanwhile, the formerly blind man grows increasingly bold in his own interviews with the authorities. Our storyteller gives us ample evidence of the man’s growing insight via his increasingly detailed descriptions, and his own speculations concerning the man that healed him. Things, of course, take a darker, edgier tone. The formerly blind man is ridiculed, insulted,   and thrown out of the synagogue.

Jesus locates this man and asks him if he `believes in the Son of Man.’ the man asks where he might find this person. Jesus points out that the man is both seeing him, and hearing him speak. I imagine that this man developed superior auditory skills during his years of blindness. I would guess that he recognized the voice of the man who spoke in ways that completely reframed his options and painted a brand new picture.


At the end of this story, there is an enigmatic exchange between Jesus and some of those with him. Jesus holds forth somewhat cryptically on vision and blindness, and some of the listeners take offence at his words and react quite strongly.

As I read the story again, and imagine myself there with the others, I would hope that there was still a chance to  take my place  among the short sighted disciples and  the confused  people on the street and agree that we all  jump to mistaken conclusions , and we do not really see or know very much. I would hate to find myself counted among `the Pharisees’ who think they have it all figured out and then bristle when someone suggests otherwise.







I  wrote this a few years ago and it appeared on the Clayfire website……This site was publishing a number of different artists and writers who were in a conversation about  some emerging trends in Church worship. I simply juxtaposed a couple of my very different performance experiences.  I wanted to reflect a bit on the concerns, questions and images that might arise out of a combination like this.


When I was in Jakarta, Java, in the late 1980s, I spent a few evenings wandering through the red light district, and striking up conversations with some of the girls I met there. I took with me a small album of pictures of my baby daughter, and a concealed cassette recorder. I wanted to see what the girls would say about the pictures (among other things) and I wanted to record the results. When I got back to the US, I took the recorded conversations and transferred them to a digital sampler, and then used selected fragments of the girls’ voices as the basis for a spoken word/performance piece called NO MEMORY OF YOU. I narrated the story of my encounters over a sound bed of those selected fragments, and some additional synthesizer tracks. The result was included on the album THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (Blonde vinyl 1992)

A couple of years later I was invited to do a spoken word performance tour in Europe…. I was able to perform tracks like NO MEMORY in Amsterdam and other parts, including  the poetry tent at that year’s  Glastonbury Festival in the UK. One performance, in Belgium, sticks in my mind even today. One young girl, who had trekked to a couple of performances and was familiar with my material, requested NO MEMORY as an encore. She, and others, liked `the humanity’ of the piece, she said. As much as she liked the work,  she became a bit defensive during our conversation and bristled at the (apparently implied)possibility that she was `not a good person’ ….asking if it was  because she did not have `Jesus stickers plastered all  over the handlebars of her bike.’ The conversation ended on a friendlier note as we looked at snapshots of my family. `She’s a very happy baby’ she said with a hint of mischief in her voice, knowing that she was quoting word for word  what one of the girls in Jakarta had said to me.

The bartender was more critical. He wanted to know how a `God’ who created all this misery and suffering in the world could be a `good God.’ He dismissed my attempted explanations and suggested that this `God’ should, therefore,  leave little babies alone and save all the starvation and misery for philosophers and theologians because they, at least, would understand why it was happening.




A few years later, I was performing work from a mixed media collaboration with painter Gaylen Stewart, called `Crossing the boundaries.’  Gaylen and I had corresponded about natural systems, ecology, plants and animals and come up with an installation that combined his paintings with my soundscapes and spoken words. In this case, I and my children had made some recordings of birdsong at the local nature reserve, and I had used these recordings, with additional music, behind some of the poems. In a gallery setting there were fifteen paintings, and seven CD players, all playing different tracks.. The result was an ambient, immersive experience…something akin to being in a small, bird (and Steve)filled forest in early morning. As well as the gallery/installation, there was a 15 track CD of the resulting work, plus a number of performance/lectures and published articles `about’ the work that, in some ways, extended the artwork and its processes   via sequential listening and theoretic unpacking. (one of the lecture/essays was included in the expanded edition of my book `Crying for a Vision’ originally published in 1991 in UK, and reprinted in US in 2005.)

One performance of the poem `Resurrection of the Body’ took place in a church in Cambridge during the C.S Lewis summer institute in the late 1990s. It was here that I learned how elements outside of my control could enrich and expand the dimensions of an art experience.

To illustrate my remarks, and the poem, I showed a few slides of Gaylen’s paintings. Because of the light still filtering into the building, Gaylen’s projected images were somewhat faded. They looked like ancient tapestries.  The  images were also surrounded by radiant stained glass windows. These brilliant windows  added to the tapestry effect in Gaylen’s paintings, and also complemented his depictions of natural systems with stylized imagery rich in Christian tradition and cultural association.  Also, the ornate metal fixtures and the polished pews in the building  added  resonance and depth to the echoing  sound loops of birdsong accompanying the poem I read.

When I think about my own practice as an artist, or my potential contribution to a Church worship experience,  I find myself less interested in whether I  might qualify as `ancient/future’ or `emergent’(or…??)   I am more interested  in whether or not  I am making room in my work for questions, even ones that remain hanging in the air long after the  event is over….and whether or not I am open to elements outside of my control taking a particular piece of work in a deeper, richer direction.





your brain on john


I was attracted to a recent news story about the new images and models we now have of the human brain and its connections. The article I was reading pointed out that this new map of the brain depicted a region housed within the larger area dealing with language. This region, 55B, lights up, apparently, when an individual listens to a story. I have already commented in a previous blog about how our sense of identity and social connection is  linked to telling and listening to stories. Here I was reading about  some of the brain wiring  behind such ideas.

I decided to dig into this a bit more, and ended up watching H Sebastian Seung’s TED talk about some of the new findings in brain mapping and neural pathways. Seung was professor of computational neuroscience at MIT and is now at Princeton. The Wikipedia entry describes him ` as a multidisciplinary expert with ongoing work and research in neuroscience, physics, and bioinformatics.’ His proposal, sketched in his TED talk, and fleshed out in a subsequent   book (listed below) concerns ideas about identity formation. In Seung’s informed opinion, this formation is less about genetics and more about connections. Who we `are’ or who we are becoming  is less about prior coding, and more about  the bridges, highways , neural paths and passages that build  meaningful relationships within the brain. There is now even a National Institute of Health project called `The Connecticome’ exploring this developing hypothesis further. In fact, I wonder if part of the brain lights up as we listen to new stories about how the brain works. Is it all simply a case of `I connect, therefore I am’??

Just prior to watching  Dr Seung’s TED talk I had been on the phone  with  a film maker friend  visiting southern California from the UK , and I had been describing my own inquiry into the Gospel of John as a possible resource for some of our  ideas about  and examples of creativity and innovation.

I had done some reading on John and his storytelling style,as examined  in the light of the social and cultural background of the time. Some scholars emphasized the   Jewish background to John’s work, referring to the temple and feast symbolism throughout the gospel. These scholars also pointed to an audience, who, along with the author, had deep exposure to the founding narratives of Israel, via repeated listening to recitation, paraphrase, and commentary. The shared cultural frame of reference  is described as  `Oral-Scribal.’

Other scholars emphasize possible Greco Roman influence, alluding to everything from Greek dramatic structures to Roman trial procedure as a framework for John’s narrative units. Scholars would also talk about the way in which some classical orators at the time   would mentally create `memory theaters’ and  elaborate visual cues in order to help them remember the different points of the speech they wanted to deliver. That is the approach that John took when he was composing and proclaiming his gospel, they argue. These various fields of inquiry into  oral scribal culture and the Greco Roman  rhetorical  strategies  overlap  as parts of   what has been described as a `first century media culture’……I list some resources for further reading at the end.

Another resource that sparks my thinking is one-man theater performer Brad Sherrill. In a class I was teaching, I used some video clips of him performing sequences of John’s gospel from memory. I was pointing out how he used simple visual props and even physical engagement with the audience at times as aids for his own recall. At this point in the class, we were discussing liturgical practices in which images, symbols and actions played a role in both personal   recollection, as and the passing on of what some call `social memory.’ I also noted that not only symbols, images and gestures, but engagement with the gospel itself  served to transmit and transform.   Sherrill had pointed out , when interviewed,  that the very act of memorizing John’s Gospel `changed him’

Michael Wheeler’s book on the impact of the fourth gospel on Victorian visual and literary culture seems, at first, somewhat distant from what I have been talking about so far. The author gives an account of the Gospel’s significance in  that era, both in terms of those that gave  a faithful, conservative reading of its stories and themes, as well  as those who  engaged with  the  emerging questions concerning the gospel’s authenticity  and history. Poets, hymnodists, engravers, and painters attempted to breathe new life and shed new light on familiar passages and narratives. Once we have dipped below the surface of their imagery, rendered perhaps all too familiar in numerous reproductions, we can perhaps learn something from their studies and breakthrough


Perhaps we can  step back and  imagine   the ways in which the background to the earliest  proclamation and reception  of John’s Gospel ,  the hard earned insights of one man theatrical performers , and the  informed appreciation of this gospel’s impact on Victorian culture can richly overlap. Will this shed new light  on the rich dynamic and potential of this gospel  for our  own thinking on creativity and innovation? Let’s work together to make this possible. What stands in our way?


In some circles, the term `Silo thinking’  describes a mode of thinking in organizations in  which different departments  stay internally focused and do not share  information and ideas  with other departments. This negatively affects the growth and mission of that business. We can stretch the concept and wrap it around a larger failure of the imagination .  Will this kind of failure prevent us from making meaningful connections?

Of course, our favorite `’Silo Thinker’   in John’s Gospel is the Rabbi Nicodemus. John depicts Jesus growing frustrated with the other’s inability (or unwillingness) to hear how the older prophecies of renewal and restoration  had personal application. Some scholars suggest today that both Nicodemus and Jesus had with them a circle of followers when they met that evening. Nicodemus’s opening gambit ` we know you are a teacher sent’ was, apparently, more an acknowledgement   of what `some were saying ‘rather than evidence that the Rabbi had any serious skin in the game. The  infamous remark about reentering his mother’s womb sounds more like an attempt at wit, perhaps at the expense of Jesus and company. Was Nicodemus playing to the gallery? Did Jesus rise to the challenge?  The emphatic push back suggests so. . `You!? THE teacher of Israel?? (etc) Well….let me tell you what WE know..!!’   OK, so it is not ` Hamilton’…… but as exchanges go, it feels a bit more volatile than an initial silent reading off a page might suggest.

At least john’s description of Nicodemus’s clueless remarks carries faint echoes of other major characters in Israel’s overarching narrative. Abraham asked his mysterious visitors how his aged wife could possibly get pregnant. Ezekiel reflected on the improbability of a valley of bones coming back to life. If there was hope for these questioning characters, then maybe there was hope for Nicodemus, and, elsewhere, the dense disciples. Perhaps there was also hope for the ones in John’s  first audience, listening to the storyteller, and struggling to join up the dots.



Maybe Lilias Trotter broke John Ruskin’s heart in some way when she abandoned a promising career in art and went to Algiers as a missionary among the Muslims. Ruskin was a highly regarded art critic and social theorist in Victorian England. His influence and ideas were profoundly important to many of the artists and writers that Wheeler talks about in his study of the Fourth Gospel and its impact on the arts of that period(see above.)  Ms Trotter had been Ruskin’s protégé at one point.  Ruskin was sorely disappointed in her radical  decision . However, we can see that the luminous drawings and watercolors of the landscapes and peoples she travelled among still give clear evidence of her prodigious talent, and Ruskin’s guidance and teaching. She not only retained her artistic skills, she also brought imaginative insight and creativity to her approach to missions. This becomes apparent in the way in which she used the Gospel of John. At one point in her work, she had gained audience with the somewhat reclusive Sufi Muslims. She wrote a study for them on the `I am’ sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel, called `The Way of the Sevenfold Secret.’ She decanted each of the identity statements into a form that both preserved their integrity while making them approachable for her Sufi friends. For example, she described   `The Way, the truth and the life’ of John 14 as being somewhat like a path, a light to guide on the path, and the strength to walk the path. Jesus’s own conversation with His followers echoes such an understanding. In fact, this understanding makes it available for meaningful conversation with other traditions and their symbols, such as `the triple gem’ of Buddhism. Let us remember that Jesus also offered His bewildered and frightened disciples a house with many rooms and an abundant vineyard as two potent metaphors for refuge.

We have travelled a long way from the new map of the brain, and the section that glows when listening to a story. I cannot say how the scholars and practitioners I have talked about would react to the use I have made of their ideas and expertise.

I can only say that trying to make connections between these ideas has helped my own thinking on art, creativity and mission.


Here are some of the sources I drew from for these remarks.


Seung, Sebastian. Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. New York: Mariner Books, 2013.

Brant, Jo-Ann A. Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

—. John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament). Edited by Charles Talbert , Mikeal Parsons. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, ed. The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture (The Library of New Testament Studies). Bloomsbury T&T Clark; Reprint edition, 2013.

Cotterell, Peter. “Sociolinguistics and Biblical Interpretation.” Vox Evangelica, 1986: 61-76.

Wheeler, Michael. St John and the Victorians. Cambridge University Press , 2012.


Brad Sherrill    http://www.gospelofjohn.com/homepage2.htm

Lilias Trotter   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilias_Trotter








Recently I began sifting through over thirty years of published material in order to pull together another book on the arts. In the light of what I write below, I definitely wanted to arrange the material within some sort of narrative framework. I want to reflect not just certain kinds of opinions and ideas, but also shed some light on how I stumbled upon (or over) some of these things in the first place. I dug out three quotes that I found helpful as I begin to sift and winnow.

 ‘He finds in every work of art. in every part of the world, a trace of that heavenly spark which went Out from Him, through the breast of man, into man’s own lesser creations, from which it sends its gleams back to the great Creator. The Gothic is as pleasing to Him as the Greek temple. And to Him the rough war chant of savages sounds as sweet as the art of choral and church song….’

                                                                 Outpourings from the Heart of an Art Loving Friar’ 1797.

When I first used this quote by Wilhelm Wackenroder (1773-1798) in an article   I pointed out that the Christian faith tradition acknowledged diversity in creative expression and the variety of cultural traditions. I also suggested that even where there was no explicit faith confession, a `common grace’ echoed in the different works and traditions of the human family, a family `created for creativity.’

I am well aware that the more recent `multiculturalism’ trend was dismissed by some as a fad. Some argued that it was a rhetorical feint intended to deflect criticism from work that others might describe as inferior art, or transparent in its posturing and propaganda. Others suggested that `multiculti’  was little more than `flavor of the month’ for a privileged audience   who regarded  other  ethnicities and cultures as `exotic,’  and their cultural products as  simply there for the sampling in our wonderful, connected,  smorgasbord age. Still others, such as the art critic and scholar, Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013)) trenchantly criticized attempts by some to exhibit `primitive art’ not as much as exotic artifacts, but as illustrations of a particular thesis about the `nature of art’ (see `Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief: Primitivism in twentieth century art at the Museum of Modern Art.’ in Artforum 23, 1984)

Nonetheless, Daniel Flemming, writing in the 1940s, sounded a hopeful note, and provided  a generous, but focused frame of reference  for   my own ongoing learning about  a `redeemed cultural diversity’ of expression.

`As at Pentecost, Parthians, Medes, and Elamites heard the message “every man in his own tongue wherein he was born,” so we see Chinese and Japanese and Indian expressing Christianity’s universal language, each with his (sic) own brush’


’ ` It is hoped that this limited number of pictures “will suggest that Christians in every land, when possessed by the Spirit of the Lord, will be impelled to use to the Glory of God the artistic genius they possess.’

Thank you, Daniel. It may well be, as Victor Segalen suggests, that `Diversity is a form of energy’

My third quote comes from German Art theorist Hans Belting (1935)

`Those commenting on art or art history today see each theory they might seek to promote already devalued by any number of other theories. One can no longer take a position that has not already been advanced in another form. It is best to insist on the standpoint one has decided upon and accept that others will find it mistaken or, if they agree, probably have misunderstood it.’

`Art History after modernism’ (2003)

In many circles, there has been an increased focus   on the business and the dynamics of storytelling. Narrative might be as good a means as any for conveying Ideas we think are important, especially  in  the light of Belting’s  quote above.  However, story and narrative are  important in other ways. There is a field of psychological research called `narrative identity theory.’  This descriptive term pretty much unpacks itself. According to some theorists, we use narrative in forming a coherent stable picture of who we `are’…growing from child to adult. Others have done research on how our brain responds when we listen to someone tell a story. There are (apparently) chemical changes that promote both critical focus and empathy. Therefore, some forms of narrative, in the light of these theories, could be said to help us see ourselves, and bond with others.

On a larger scale, the best and brightest speakers today weave a patterned tapestry of stories that contain the important ideas they hope to convey. . . Whether I am watching  an artist like  Marcus Coates  tell the story `behind’ his project the Trip or  Cisco’s John Chambers explore  the internet of things, or Sir Ken Robinson  talk about the future of education, I am aware that these speakers tell stories, and  place their stories in a larger explanation , like stepping stones in a rapidly flowing river. This image of a `rapidly flowing river’ gives us still other reasons why stories are valuable and somewhat `sticky.’ If we truly live in a digitally connected, rapidly mutating world of enchanted objects and frictionless communication, then `theory’….at least in its older forms of expression, simply cannot keep up. Theories are eclipsed, or capsized, as Belting suggests, by newer theories, or misunderstandings. I am hopeful, then, that `story’ provides some important ways of negotiating this world, and perhaps the next. Ever mindful of the Buddhist proverb `the Raft is not the shore’ I am hopeful  that story  can be a raft that brings us closer to   the shore of a boundless grace, sensed in  and celebrated with  a diversity of cultural  expressions, as Wackenroder  and Flemming described above……..





This essay, from a few years back, uses the metaphor of relationship(s)’ to describe the different ways people talk about art. Along the way it namechecks L’Arche, John Ruskin, Lilias Trotter, John Cage and Joseph Beuys……and implicitly offers the Gospel of John as an important  resource for  `a spirituality for Cultural Creatives’……..What’s not to like??   This first appeared in SEMI (Fuller) in 2009.


                   To contemplate is to see: to minister is to make visible: ‘ Henri Nouwen

`What is art? Why is it important to the Christian life?  Is it individual or communal? ‘

These are big questions, and many have tried to answer them. I can only hope that my stories and observations throw a little bit of light on some of the issues…

During our CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association) conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2002, art makers from all over the world came together to worship, reflect  and share ideas and artwork representing  Christ centered  creativity and  communication  rooted in many different cultural traditions. One morning we viewed a slide presentation of artwork made by members of the Eastern European branch of the L’Arche community, made up, in part, of people with developmental disabilities. I had asked one of our other artists to thank the presenter at the end of the slide show. She was unable to get very far in her remarks, however, as she was too overcome with emotion in response to the artwork.

Obviously, art can be a very powerful medium…..in celebrating cultural traditions and building bridges of sensitive communication. At times, as in the story above, it can reach across boundaries, tear down barriers and affect us at a deeply personal level.

At its simplest level art is all about relationships

Art makers and historians are going to talk about the relationships between the lines, colors, musical tones or words inside the artwork….or the relationship between what is on the surface of a work and the idea or emotion behind it.

Anthropologists  might talk about social values and communal traditions coded into seemingly abstract patterns and designs.

Social and economic theorists might step back further and observe the artwork in its institutional context, whether a museum wall or a body of art historical and critical writing. They might reflect on the institution in the light of the marketplace, and the role of the arts in sustaining that marketplace

Needless to say in the (much) bigger picture some of these categories overlap, and have different levels of influence in our own culture, and also the cultures of those we wish to communicate with. Accordingly some kind of cultural engagement be  it creative or analytical is critical  to our approach to understanding and communication..

Today the postmodern revolution of ideas has some church leaders drawing upon artistic and creative metaphors in order to describe the kind of community they feel they are becoming. Others see that revolution as a platform on which to mount their own critique of the collapsing `metanarrative’ of enlightenment era modernity….an era, incidentally, which birthed some of our current ideas about art, and the corresponding ideas about the creative artist.

Victorian art critic and social theorist John Ruskin also wrote about the complex relationship between spirituality, culture and the marketplace. He deplored the decline of artistic standards, the degradation of the person and the disintegration of social values in the shadow of the industrial revolution… He argued for true beauty, championed  the work of artists he believed in and  offered a sustained and  powerful critique of the economically driven social and cultural agendas of his day…..all while looking at the world around him through Biblically  informed lenses.

But what are we to make of his protégé, Lilias Trotter? This young woman tore down the barriers between art and life in ways scarcely dreamed of by avant garde figure heads such as Yoko Ono, John Cage or Joseph Beuys.  Against Ruskin’s advice, she abandoned a promising career in art, and went to North Africa to pour out her life in ministry among the Algerian Muslims. She wrote a number of books on the spiritual life, and illustrated them with   drawings and watercolors based on her astute observations of the natural world. She also wrote a devotional commentary on the Gospel of  John that (even) today makes   a valuable contribution to building bridges of understanding between Christians and Muslims.

However, John’s Gospel itself has even more to offer us. This transparently `intentional’ narrative explores and reveals the dynamic relationship between the `image’ and the `word of God’. We find valuable insights for Christian artists, whatever their cultural background. John’s earliest `miracle story’ takes place at a wedding in the village of Cana. Here, Jesus redeems   a potentially embarrassing social situation by taking ordinary material and cultural tradition, water stored in jars for purification purposes,  and miraculously creating new wine. This not only enriches the wedding celebration, but also transforms that celebration into a symbolic reference to the coming kingdom.  I, for one, long for the day when Christian artists can do something this relevant and creative.


Guns I.P. 2 views JPEG

A few years ago I  posted this brief reflection on the Esther Augsburger  public sculpture  `Guns into plowshares’ via Artway (artway.eu) I am posting it here in the light of recent events.  I hope some find it relevant in some small way.  I am sorry to say that my recent (2016) online searches to learn about the current fate of this artwork are not yielding much  information.  I have posted a couple of links at the bottom. One of them provides  links to other art done in this spirit. Perhaps you can find more .


For twelve years,   the sculpture `Guns into Plowshares’ could be seen in Judiciary Square, close to the Capital in Washington D.C.

When I told the artist, Esther Augsburger that I wanted to write about this piece she sent me a quick condensed narrative of   the origins of the work…..and some rather perplexing news concerning its current fate.

Esther wrote.

`Guns into Plowshares’ is a large sculpture of steel, in the sculptural shape of a plowshare, with 3000 hand guns welded onto it.  The guns were collected from several Metropolitan Police Department turn-in programs in which (the American boxer) Riddik Bowe donated $100 per hand-gun turned in to them. In turn, the Chief of Police negotiated with me (Esther Augsburger) to build the sculpture, expressing that we can turn our weapons of destruction into that which will cultivate peace–a plow- a symbol of providing for the bread of peace.  The theme was taken from Isaiah 1:14, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

 Our son Michael, gifted in art, and I designed and built the sculpture, a steel plowshare nineteen feet long and sixteen feet tall, with over 3000 guns welded onto the form. The guns were not melted down, but welded onto the form as a full expression of their being instruments of violence.

I remember hearing Esther first talking about this project during workshops and lectures at different art conferences in Eastern Europe and South East Asia in the late 90s/early 2000s. I remember looking at the projected images and being impressed by the balance of graceful form and weighty theme in the work. The stories of the inspiration and the circumstances behind the work also impressed me.

Along with the elegant design and the supporting narrative came the added bonus of a widespread response from people in different parts of the world as they learned about the piece and its inspiration. Not only was the artist’s imagination set on fire by  the Biblical theme of `swords into plowshares’  and the opportunity afforded by a city wide gun amnesty, but  others caught the vision and responded in some way, allowing the theme to resonate in their own life situations. Some would think about creativity. Some would pray. Some would imagine an end to violence in the cities and countries where they lived.

It is wonderful when art   builds bridges into life in this way. It does not lose its status as `art’ by embracing a wider frame of reference, nor does it `transcend’ its material limitations or historical occasion. Instead it validates and dignifies   those things while also being present to us, here and now.

Of course, the work also  addresses us in  potentially uncomfortable ways.

The guns were not melted down, but welded onto the form as a full expression of their being instruments of violence.

It would have been too easy to melt the guns into malleable anonymity. However, their clearly gun like forms are present on the sculpture’s surface.  We  are not allowed to forget the `former careers’ of these pieces of metal, even as they are redeemed and  transformed  in an artwork  intended as a sign post  pointing to Grace. Nor should we lose sight of the overall artwork itself, even though it was quietly moved recently from its former location without the artist’s knowledge or consent.  This was done, apparently, to `make room’ for an ornamental fountain.

There are many rich lessons of dialogue and cooperation that we can learn from the stories surrounding how this piece came to be. I do not doubt that those who have seen it or learned of it in some way continue to be touched in their hearts and minds by both its artistry and its message. However, I believe that the artwork itself, properly displayed somewhere in a public place still has much to tell us in our volatile but fragile world of the 21st Century …..