Wednesday, February 22, 2017

We Too Must Write Bibles
A Sermon for First Austin: a baptist community of faith
Meredith Massar Munson

Repent, for the kingdom of the Lord is at hand! 

... As a pastor’s daughter, I have always wanted to say that from the pulpit. Thank you all for the gracious welcome and thank you Griff, Abby, Blake, and Jude. I’m so glad to be here this weekend. This church has meant so much to me and so much to my family. I have to admit, when Griff first asked me if I wanted to preach here at first Austin, I thought he had meant to ask my dad, instead... but Over the past few years, Griff and Abby and I have spent many many hours around dinner tables, having these wonderful deep discussions about where we saw God taking us, and I feel like Griff wanted me to share a bit of that today with this congregation because he felt this was something you would resonate with. I am really excited to talk about art and how art can lead us to see God in new lights and lead us into deeper relationships with God and with each other.
Today is going to be slightly untraditional, but I’d like to start with talking about what I do and how I came to this place, and then I’d like to use that to talk about what I think art can tell us about God.
To begin with, I have always loved art – I have been drawing and painting since I could hold a crayon, I think. There is something in the act of art-making that is so moving to me, and deep. Regardless of what actually ends up on the canvas, the moment of action is what I love, and how things take shape in surprising ways. I think writers say something similar, when they say that characters do things that the writer wasn’t expecting, or change in unforeseen ways. The art-making process is a remarkable way to tap into these deeper currents of our lives and of God at work in them. In a related vein, today, however, I want us to sit for a bit and think about how experiencing art, even as viewers and not makers, can also shape and change us, and teach us things about God. I came by this interest honestly. I have always been deeply immersed in religion, obviously, with my father being a pastor – and though I wanted to or not, being at the church whenever the doors were open. I was so fortunate that my religious upbringing was in churches like this one that encourage different ways of thinking about and experiencing God. 
In my studies, when I got to Baylor, I eventually found my way into the art history department, which was such a spark to my curiosity. I loved learning about how art works in culture and how it teaches us about who we are and about our history, and how it reflects our struggles and aspirations. I loved it so much that I went on to pursue my masters in art history at TCU.  In the midst of this, though, what I found to be odd was that time and again, wherever I went, the narrative of the discipline seemed to assert to me that modern art, and especially modern American art, is decidedly secular. Some paintings and sculptures that I loved seemed to visually contradict this idea, so I thought that was a bit strange... this didn’t necessarily seem so carved in stone as the historical narrative would suggest. For some historians, there is a tendency to see religion as a monolithic and static thing, unchanging. This is where my personal history comes in though.. as Baptists, I think one of the things we can all agree on is that it is hard for us to agree. Even within this congregation, there is probably a wide spectrum of belief and diversity of ways in which we all interact with God. Knowing that there are different ways to experience God, I wanted to look at how artists were conveying this in their work. With this in mind, I decided to go on and to dive into this course of study a bit further. Naturally, Berkeley, California, seemed to be the obvious choice for me to go and study the importance of religion in art... That statement is a bit tongue in cheek, strange as it is to find in Berkeley, this is the only PhD program in the United States that is a religion and art history joint degree. 
For years now in my work, I am focusing on artists, all based in New York City right after the turn of the 20th century, who I believe had a vibrant spirituality, although the modern world regards them as at best, spiritual but not religious, and at worst, as openly antagonistic toward the institutional church. For example – Georgia O’Keeffe is regarded by many as this kind of mythic mystic wandering in the desert. But when we turn from her depictions of Ranchos Church or crosses silhouetted against the New Mexico sky to Manhattan skyscrapers, what do we do? Is there still a sense of the sacred? Is spirituality a faucet that you can turn on and off? I don’t think so. This painting is called the Shelton with Sunspots – this is where she lived with her husband, and there is this strange lighting effect that she puts on it at the top. Why did she feel the urge to create this odd painting?
We are so lucky that when she died, she left her correspondence and her library of over 3000 books intact, so we can see who she is writing, what she is writing about, who and what she’s reading, so we can begin to get a glimpse behind the canvas. And what we find when we do look behind the canvas is an artist that strove to find and interact with God, and to capture the movements of God in the world around her. Even here, she marks a skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan as a sacred space, complete with a halo. 
This was a loaded connotation, because the city in the first few decades after the turn of the 20thcentury was a subject of great anxiety – of estrangement from nature and from each other, growing materialism, growing crime, this is the era of Al Capone – the city was a place where you could get lost – or worse, lose sight of God at work around you. Everyone was so worried about what would happen to the city and what would happen to us in the city. There was even an article in the New York Times in the twenties titled - “Is New York a Babylon?” The fact that some writer even took the time to make this argument in this article fairly represents the anxiety around the city at the time. Would the modern city be Babylon, or is it going to be the New Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill, envisioned by the first puritan settlers? How could skyscrapers or images of the city have anything to say about God, particularly in this moment? When we begin to look closely, we start to see that at this time, these artists were working under the belief that their art could help to shape the future of the city, that their art would spark a passion and a search for the divine in the city, turning even Babylon into New Jerusalem. Through art, they could inspire their viewers to work to make their city a more beautiful place, figuratively and literally. O’Keeffe and all of her fellow artists had this perception of their roles as artists in the avant-garde that they were to literally lead the country forward and improve their surroundings. I think this idea still has resonance for us today, in many ways.
This idea stemmed especially from a person that all of these artists were reading, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is this incredibly dynamic figure in American history for many reasons, but today I want to talk about him briefly today because of how he believed that art should work in our culture, but more importantly, how art is a natural expression of religious feeling. Emerson says that art and beauty are vital to inspire belief, that they affect us at our core, in our soul. So he develops this idea that the poet and the artist were the new prophetic and spiritual leaders of America, more so even than the philosopher or theologian, sorry Griff and sorry dad, if you’re listening on podcast. But Emerson understood that art can speak to us in unique ways. He wrote, “Genius hovers with his sunshine and music close by the darkest and deafest eras. . . The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world.” What does he mean by that? Genius, especially artistic genius, brings joy and brightness to our lives. In the history of cultural creations, through songs, paintings, and sculptures, art is a visual record of our continued conversation with God, sparked by our experiences of the world around us. The bible was written by humans inspired by God, and we too, when we are inspired by God, must write new bibles to continue the work of bringing the kingdom of heaven to even the darkest of earthly places. In this sense, if we experience God for ourselves, then we would necessarily be inspired to act: to create, to write, and to lead others to do the same... so art will then inspire future viewers, in a kind of chain reaction of belief.
Thinking about this, I want us to hold the two passages of scripture that Blake and Abby read this morning in our minds together, side by side. What do they tell us? Genesis tells us that God is a creator who delights in the act of creating. Furthermore, if we are created in God’s image, then we too are creators and should do likewise. Romans assures us that the world exists waiting for the next moment of creation. And in the midst of the waiting, the Holy Spirit is a creator, giving form and shape to our prayers when we cannot express them ourselves. In this way, I believe that art functions as a visible expression of the Holy Spirit. Art gives shape to the unspeakable. 
Walt Whitman saw himself as the first heir of Emerson, as the first poet-prophet whose art existed to call America forward. Whitman is fascinating to me because he was so inspirational and influential not only to the artists that I study, but because I think he has so much to say to us today. In “Song of Myself,” he writes, “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Barbaric yawp. What is a yawp? It is untranslatable, but we have all experienced this moment. A yawp is this moment when words are not enough – you give up trying to express it and you just shout. In the moment of the yawp, I believe, is when the Holy Spirit creates its finest work, its most eloquent prayers, and its most beautiful art. 
For example, I want us to take some time to look at the work of Mark Rothko. Griff and I have talked at length in particular about the Rothko chapel, which I’m sure some of you have visited in Houston. Rothko’s paintings, in many ways, are manifestations of this moment, of this barbaric yawp. Rothko was an immigrant Jew, who witnessed the atrocities of world war two. The war changed him, and changed his artistic style. He begins to operate under the proscription of Theodor Adorno, a post-war critic who said that to write poetry after Auschwitz is Barbaric. Now, is Adorno saying not to write poetry? No. He is saying that because what we have been through has changed us, what we have to do is to find new means of expression. In this moment of extreme pain or extreme emotion, Rothko uses art as a new means of speaking. In doing so, he creates this new kind of color field painting as an environment that envelops us. He actually wants us to step up close to the canvas so that the pure color is all we see. He wants us to temporarily lose sight of our other surroundings, opening us up for new spiritual and emotional experiences. There is a reason that he created these paintings in particular for a Chapel setting – he thought of these paintings as vehicles to meet God wherever we are. With this painting up, I’d like to return to the Genesis chapter. First, this painting immediately takes me to Eugene Peterson’s translation of the bible, the Message, where he writes about “the moment of creation, when earth was a bottomless emptiness, a sea of inky blackness.” This painting, while conveying a deep sadness, is also an environment teeming with possibility, waiting for the presence of God to call it to life. If we move forward in scripture, we find that on the 7th day, God rested. To see and appreciate the Good that God had done, God had to stop. 
Similarly, with these paintings, we too have to stop. We have to sit with them and move beyond them as flat black canvases to see the blues, purples, and greens. In the midst of darkness, new colors gradually emerge. They are necessarily both incredibly cathartic paintings, but also contemplative, as well. These paintings in this chapel setting surprise us, and in the quiet space, we find ourselves open and receptive to wait for a new word, or if we go back to Adorno, a new poem from God. In other words, God took pause to consider creation on the seventh day. Likewise, to be moved, we have to first be still. 
This may seem like an odd turn, but one of the most powerful jobs I have ever had was at the Dallas Museum of Art, where one of my classes I taught was in the galleries with children ages 3 to 5 and their parents. What was striking was that the parents were often reticent to speak, especially when it came to unfamiliar works of art or visually strange objects – they were afraid to use wrong language or terminology, but the children, if you actually gave them a chance to look at and absorb the art, often would say things that would be incredibly perceptive, and sometimes shocking to their parents. Now I have many examples that I would love to give you, but I don’t think I could say many of them in the pulpit, but let me give you this one... One day we were looking at Romare Bearden, who is this incredible African-American artist who did this collage called Soul Three, with shapes and textures that make up these three really unusual-looking musicians. The adults were looking fairly puzzled, observing it quietly, which made it extra obvious when a little girl leaned in to her dad and said, “Listen! Dad! I can hear the banjo!” The adults laughed - but I loved it. She got it. There is an innocence, an openness, and a boldness in childhood that we lose as we grow up. Perhaps this is what Christ is talking about when he says come as a child. Art helps us to see differently, to hear differently, and to feel differently, which opens us to depths we didn’t know existed before.
I really think that this is the kind of awareness that Whitman and these artists were referring to. They constantly encouraged us to move beyond intellectualization so that we don’t miss God moving in our midst. I want to close with Whitman, reading a stanza from a different section of Leaves of Grass:
And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.
I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment thin,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.
By entreating his readers to “Be not curious about God,” Whitman was emphatically NOT saying don’t believe in God: in saying this, he is saying don’t intellectualize God, but instead to get out of your head and look to experience God in the world around you, even in unlikely places. Visual art and poetry call attention to these places, these thin places, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls them, in which we can be attentive to how the spirit of God is moving around us, in us, and through us. Our challenge as Christians is, whether we create art or go to galleries to see the expressions of others, or work with numbers or letters or what have you, our challenge is to sit and be still and to allow the Holy Spirit to create new forms, shapes, and colors in us. Truly we need to stop and realize that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and God, the continuing creator, is asking us to engage in turning our Babylons into new Jerusalems. We need to be attentive to look for letters from God dropped in the streets around us – even the streets of Austin - so that we too can write bibles.
Let us pray. 
Creator God, thank you for instilling in us a deep desire for beauty. We acknowledge that so often, we get caught up in our day to day lives that we don’t carve out a time to appreciate the remarkable aspects of the world you made for us and in the challenging and beautiful creation of the artists around us. In the midst of the darkness and angst of these days, oh God, we ask that you give us the grace to be still and to wait for a new word from you that calls forth a new experience, a new existence, a new creation. We are beings who long to be moved, oh Lord. Let us be open and aware, and ready to see how we can participate in shaping your future kingdom here and now. Amen.

*Art: Creation, Donald Jackson, Hand Illuminated Frontispiece for The Saint John's Bible, Saint John's University,


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