Sunday, December 4, 2011

General update from Bird&Key

Hey All,

I had hoped to do a more extensive piece on some things I have been thinking on lately, but having a paper due on Wednesday coupled with holiday activities curbed that notion for now.

I will tell you WHAT I have been thinking about lately, and I hope to write some things on both these subjects in the future. I have been reading a book on "evangelism" during my devotional times of late and it has caused me to think more on that subject...a subject that is quite "taboo" in our culture. So I have been formulating a "defense" of sorts, on evangelism. I don't want to give a defense strictly from the Bible because even a cursory reading of the Bible does a good job of defending itself in that. I want to focus in on the humanity of persuasion....or evangelism...or proselytizing. We hate those words, but I would argue that they are closely united to what it means to be human - perhaps that is why they are hated so much. Frankly we "evangelize" every where, all the time...we just don't admit it.

The other area I have been thinking about is related to the series of talks I have been listening to done by Malcolm Guite on the Inklings...CS Lewis, JRR Tokien (the more well known), Charles Williams, and - the one I've heard the least about but am now excited to read more of - Owen Barfield. The question Guite argues they wrestled with most was the relationship between reason and imagination. This has spurred me to think about beauty and imagination, about reason and beauty, and about art and imagination. I have posted a couple of his talks on our Facebook page (click here to access and "like" our FB page), and plan to post them all quite frankly. I've listened to three and have not been disappointed at all - in fact I just finished the talk on Owen Barfield today and I am on the verge of adopting him as a new literary hero (Click here for the site with the Malcolm Guite talks on the Inklings).

Finally, I thought I'd let you know of our travel schedule over the holidays. We plan to be in the Maryland area for Christmas, New Years, and on into January. We would love to connect with you all to say hello and catch up, so please send us a "Hey you!" I will be speaking at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Newark, Delaware on Friday, January 13th on the subject of Beauty. More details will be posted here and on our Facebook page. If you are in the area come on by. There are a couple of other possible dates I will be speaking but won't post them until they get solidified. At the end of January (27th-29th) I will be participating in a weekend event called a "Forum on Beauty: Three days of Exploration". I will be doing some speaking, but most exciting of all we will be interviewing and interacting with artists about their works and exploring the depths of all things beautiful. It will be in Rock Hill, South Carolina more details to come (click here for some details).

Happy advent, friends...unto us is born!
Kirk & Sarah

Bird and Key

Friday, November 25, 2011

Googling "Thanksgiving Fine Art"

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Considering the holiday I (Kirk) wondered what kind of fine art existed that was made in the spirit of Thanksgiving. In America the holiday is about 150 years old, but the kind of celebration it is based on, “fall harvest” has been around much longer. So I “Googled” it and found a couple of websites that I thought I’d share with you. Most of the links I surfed were related to education for kids, but even there I found some gems. I liked all the pieces listed in the “Glencoe” site. As I looked at them all I felt a sense of connecting with the history of the holiday in America. Enjoy:

Of course in America the artist that comes to mind is Norman Rockwell, and you will see a lot of his work at these sites. Sarah and I last year while in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC saw a retrospective of his work from the collections of filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It was a surprising little discovery in a beautiful Museum, one we frequent when we are in town. Summaries of that show are here:

Sarah and I both hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving!

Peace from Bird & Key,

Kirk & Sarah

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Place of Beauty: A historical and theological observation - Part 6

This is the sixth and final post of a series on the subject of Beauty, the Art World and the Church. It is based on a paper I did for Dr Charles Mackenzie on Theology and Aesthetics at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando.

Gravity and Grace - Cinnabar by Makoto Fujimura

For the last few weeks I have explored the idea of Beauty as related to the Church and the art world. We looked at a definition as well as the source of Beauty, and I argued for a dialogue to be opened between the Church and the art world that would be mutually beneficial. But is there an actual visible expression of this kind of dialogue? Is there a place where theology and art meet? These “diametrically opposed” ideas, one conservative, the other liberal, can they live in harmony? Is there a practical example of an art that is both obedient and transgressive at the same time?

Makoto “Mako” Fujimura has been doing art for several decades. He grew up both in the United States and Japan.[1] He studied in both nations, doing his undergraduate work at Bucknell in Pennsylvania and his graduate work in Japan. The style he studied and does to this day is the thousand year old method called “Nihonga” which essentially means “Japanese style painting.

Makoto Fujimura

Nihonga is a method of painting where mineral pigments and precious metals, like gold, silver, or platinum are used to create beautiful art. The pigments are crushed and mixed with an animal glue and applied to a strong paper called “cloud skin” in English. This process takes a long time with the application of layer after layer of mineral or metal. It is not only time consuming but also expensive – some, including Fujimura himself, would even say extravagant – in price to make a piece of Nihonga. When done correctly and expertly though, the minerals in a piece will reflect and even refract the light causing pieces to change before the eyes. Over time the metals used will burnish and layers may even “come off” revealing different colors and thereby transforming the piece into a new piece of art.

It was while he was in Japan that Fujimura began to experience a crisis that led him on a pilgrimage. His crisis was similar to what the art world experienced in the 90’s, a crisis in beauty. He writes in River Grace:

The problem that I could not overcome with Art and religion is that the more I focused on myself, the less I could find myself. A schism grew inside between who I wanted to be and what I did. I wanted to love my wife, but I saw, more and more, the distance between us. Art as self-expression became a wedge in our relationship. Meanwhile, every day, I sought higher transcendence through the extravagant materials. I found success in expression through Nihonga materials. And yet the weight of beauty I saw in the materials began to crush my own heart. I could not justify the use of extravagance if I found my heart unable to contain their glory. The more I used them, the moodier and more restless I became. Finding beauty in nature and art, I did not have a “shelf” on which to place that beauty inside my heart.[2]

The best example of his crisis is in a story I’ve heard him tell multiple times of when he was studying in Japan. One day a mentor and friend came into his studio to see what he was working on. When seeing a piece that Fujimura had out he exclaimed, “That’s so beautiful it’s almost frightening” and he walked out, leaving Fujimura in the heavy silence of such a powerful statement. Fujimura says he destroyed the painting because he had no ability to connect such an amazing compliment to what he felt inside himself…no beauty at all. How could someone who isn’t beautiful, create such beauty? Perhaps Fujimura was sensing the loss of van Balthasar’s “three sisters”.

It was from a moment like that and his discovery of the poet William Blake that led Fujimura to conclude that the only source of such beauty is God himself – incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Where Fujimura’s heart couldn’t carry the beauty and extravagance he created, God’s heart could.

But what is it about his art that is a crossroads of theology and art?

First, you see it in his chosen method. Both the distant past and immediate present are apparent in his work. The school of painting, Nihonga has been around for over a thousand years. Fuimura – in his medium honors the past by utilizing this tradition. But he uses it in a very contemporary way. At first glance his paintings would seem unintelligible because he uses colorful swipes and pooled water stains to attain his goal – a very contemporary style; past and present are together.

Christianity is similar in honoring the past and present. The past is respected because of reliance upon historical record of the life of Christ and even the blessings that God has bestowed in the past[3]. The present is also important to Christianity, living for God and others is encouraged over and over again much like the layers in one of Fujimura’s paintings.[4] The Bible encourages thanking God always for what He has done in the past in order to live in the present.

Second, theology and beauty cross in Fujimura’s work in the technique he uses to progress from an empty canvas to a completed work. Multiple times he has described the method he goes through as a meditative prayer.[5] Many times he has the Bible open and near a piece he is working on almost as if he wants to lift the words from the page change them to a color and swipe them on the paper. He has even “hid” Scripture in his works under layers of mineral or metal where you can try to read them immediately or wait until a layer disappears before you see them (this could take decades or centuries even).

Third, you see the crossroads in the subjects of his work. Two examples come to mind – a series of works he did many years ago and a recent series that was produced. The first series he calls his “grace” series which he completed in the mid 1990’s.[6] Many of these works (and I think others since then he titles with the word “grace”) are loosely based on Simone Weil’s book Gravity and Grace. Weil had her own encounter with God that affected much of her later writings, and those writings have impacted Fujimura’s own ideas that he put to paper.[7]

A more recent series that Fujimura has done that is indicative of a meeting between theology and beauty is his Rouault series. The Museum of Biblical Art recently showed work by the late 19th early 20th century painter George Rouault. Alongside Rouault’s work the MoBIA commissioned Fujimura to do paintings inspired by the Rouault works to be shown. Rouault was a Catholic Christian in France who was trained as a stained glass maker but turned to painting instead. His works are primitive, with thick lines and simple subjects, but striking in their emotional expression because of the subjects he chose.

Finally a last example of Fujimura’s work being a crossroads for theology and Beauty is his own words. There are many words I could put here of his writings over the years but these short lines seemed most appropriate as they were written in the days after 9/11 – a time of particular stress for all including the Fujimura’s.[8]

Create we must, and respond to this dark hour. The world needs artists who dedicate themselves to communicate the images of Shalom. Jesus is the Shalom. Shalom is not just the absence of war, but wholeness, healing and joy of fullness of humanity. We need to collaborate within our communities to respond individually to give to the world our Shalom vision.[9]

So Fujimura, by his work and his words, is a crossroads for theology and Beauty. He is remaining true to his conclusions about what is true about the world and yet at the same time fully engaged in the current social climate and how to influence for positive change. The art world and the church would benefit from inviting Fujimura, and other artists like him, into their communities to speak to how beauty, art, and God make for better human beings.

Beauty and its pursuit (art) are important. Knowing where beauty comes from is important – perhaps even essential for human thriving. If beauty only resided in the heart and mind of a human being and nowhere else, then it would be conceivable that beauty would be anything a human being would put their hand to – good or ill.

From a Judeo-Christian worldview the source of all things good, true and beautiful is the triune God of the Bible. If He made all things, then he must be the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty; it is from his being that these things flow. It is from His character that we can find both the objective and subjective aspects of beauty. If there was not a transcendental source for goodness, truth, and beauty then it would be difficult to find any basis for life other than what I think or the next guy thinks or the next guy…or the next. And then all we would have is noise, not beauty.

We believe that what is beautiful in this world…possesses a total dimension that also calls for moral decision. If this is so, then from the beautiful the way must also lead into the religious dimension which itself includes man’s definitive answer to the question about God and, indeed, his answer to the question God poses to him.[10]

[1] You can find his story in two publications one called The Restaurant of the Soul, and the more recent River Grace.

[2] Fujimura, Makoto. River Grace. New York, NY. 2007, p6.

[3] See Luke 1:1-4, I Chronicles 16:8 & 12 are a couple of examples.

[4] See Deuteronomy 30:19, II Kings 18:32, Matthew 22:36-38, Romans 12:1-2

[5] See his recent book Refractions published by NavPress 2009 for accounts of this. I’ve also heard him personally say this.

[6] Some are found in his gallery catalog release called Images of Grace, published by the Dillon Gallery in 1997.

[7] Some of Weil’s thoughts on her encounter with God can be found in her book Waiting for God. There is debate as to whether she was actually a Christian or just a dabbler, I have not read enough of her work to draw a conclusion, but even then it is not up to me.

[8] The Fujimura’s lived in a loft a mere 2 blocks from Ground Zero and at the time his studio was just 10 blocks away.

[9] Fujimura Refractions p51

[10] Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, p 34

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Place of Beauty: A historical and theological observation - Part 5

This is the fifth of six posts on the subject of Beauty, the Art World and the Church. It is based on a paper I did for Dr Charles Mackenzie on Theology and Aesthetics at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando.

The Trinity 1635, Jusepe de Ribera

That being said, is perceiving integrity, proportion, and radiance in an art work truly enough to see and know full Beauty? I don’t think so. I came across many descriptions of beauty from people in the art world that are similar to Nehamas’ quote in the last blog post. Some descriptions were almost other worldly, or transcendent.[1] The latter half of Elaine Scarry’s quote I used earlier ends with a description of Beauty’s immortality, “What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere.”[2] If Truth is in the immortal sphere and Beauty is united with Truth then Beauty is also in the immortal sphere.

I have shown some characteristics of Beauty that have their foundations in Aquinas’ short exposition in the Summa. Maritain and his fellow “Neo-Thomists” base their perspectives on Aquinas, and even Fuglie, whom I’ve cited quite a bit, bases his thinking of Beauty on Aquinas. But, what is at the heart of Aquinas’ position on Beauty?

Christus-Ravenna icon

The context of Aquinas’ statements on Beauty is the 2nd person of the Trinity, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Aquinas saw the source of Truth, Goodness and Beauty as a transcendent source, as well as a personal source, he thought the source was God. Aquinas’ Beauty is theologically based:

Comeliness or beauty bears a resemblance to the properties of the Son. Beauty must include three qualities; integrity or completeness – since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness – we call things bright in colour beautiful. Integrity is like the Son’s property, because he is a Son who in himself has the Father’s nature truly and fully…Right proportion is consonant with what is proper to the Son inasmuch as he is the express Image of the Father; thus we notice that any image is called beautiful if it represents a thing, even an ugly thing, faithfully…Brightness coincides with what is proper to the Son as he is the Word, the light and splendour of the mind.[3]

Aquinas’ definition of Beauty hinges on a belief in God. Beauty is something that is transcendent, bigger than us, beyond but not outside our understanding—rather like God.

Aquinas and the Neo-Thomist – when talking about Beauty – usually did so in concert with Truth and Goodness, together sometimes called the “transcendentals”. Both Truth and Goodness are characteristics usually attributed to God.[4] As I quoted von Balthasar earlier, he believed that the loss of Beauty paralleled a loss of knowing and doing what is good. He elaborated on the relationship of Truth, Goodness and Beauty:

Beauty…dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face like a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Von Balthasar’s warning about Beauty—though directed at religion (the church)—could also caution the art world. This is why Truth and Goodness are important—because Beauty is important. Scarry called Beauty sacred, unprecedented and lifesaving—three characteristics that seem very close to describing God.[5] This is why theology needs to participate in reforming the art world’s concept and content about Beauty, and why the church and the art world need to be in dialogue.

[1] See Arthur C Danto’s works, and Dave Hickey’s, The Invisible Dragon,

[2] Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

[3] Aquinas, Summa Theolgica

[4] For Goodness see: Genesis 50:20, Ezra 8:18, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19; For Truth see: I Kings 17:24, Psalm 25:5, Psalm 51:6, John 1:14 & 14:6

[5] Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Place of Beauty: A historical and theological observation - part 4

This is the fourth of six posts on the subject of Beauty, the Art World and the Church. It is based on a paper I did for Dr Charles Mackenzie on Theology and Aesthetics at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando.

Thomas Aquinas

So what is beauty?

A good source for characteristics of beauty is Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. Several key advocates of the arts in the Church have referenced Aquinas as a guide to thinking about beauty.[1] In the Summa Aquinas writes:

Beauty must include three qualities: integrity or completeness – since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness – we call things bright in colour beautiful.[2]

Fuglie recounts that in the 20th century while the art world was humming along ignoring the content of beauty, there were several key “Neo-Thomists” who espoused Aquinas’ characteristics of beauty; one of those was Jacques Maritain.[3]

Jacques Maritan

Maritain – in his book Art and Scholasticism – explained Aquinas’ summary of beauty this way:

If beauty delights the intellect, it is because it is essentially a certain excellence or perfection in the proportion of things to the intellect. Hence the three conditions Saint Thomas assigned to beauty; integrity, because the intellect is pleased in fullness of Being; proportion, because the intellect is pleased in order and unity; finally, and above all, radiance or clarity, because the intellect is pleased in light and intelligibility.[4]

What Aquinas/Maritain meant by integrity was not merely an “integrity” consistent with the artists skill and materials, but also the particular time the artists did their art. For example, the art of Picasso had a level of integrity because it remained within the boundaries of his medium…he wasn’t doing multimedia pieces, and the subjects he was creating were expressions consistent with the philosophies of the time and his own personal worldview. Had Picasso done his works in earlier centuries they may not have carried as much integrity due to being out of sync with the culture.

What is meant by “proportion” is in the work itself. Are the subjects in proportion to or harmony with one another within the art work? For example, Picasso’s “Guernica”. At first glance, some might observe that there is little in the work that seems in proportion because everything,—including persons, animals, and objects—is distorted…out of proportion. But remember that EVERYTHING in the work is out of proportion, so there is a harmony or proportion of distortion. Second, there is harmony between the subject and the distorted treatment of the painting. Picasso was portraying the physical horror after the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by emphasizing some aspects over others. Again, Picasso is showing a proportion or harmony of distortion. Third, there is harmony with the subject emotionally in Guernica. Imagine being in Guernica as this bombing is taking place, wouldn’t the world seem out of proportion as the bombs fall?

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

As for “radiance”, Fuglie states that Aquinas/Maritain gave precedence to this characteristic.# Fuglie continued by quoting Maritain:

This mode of apprehending beauty is knowing “the splendor of the form on the proportioned parts of matter”; or alternatively, “it is a flashing of intelligence on matter intelligibility [harmoniously] arranged.” Maritain implies that radiance or clarity is knowable best when the mind is simultaneously relaxed and alert. By guiding our intellect to a contemplative state we set a “tripwire of anticipation” in our intellect to apprehend the integrity, harmony, and radiance that await our discovery in a work of art – or conversely, that are found to be absent.[5]

So radiance takes into account the other two characteristics. I believe the key point concerning radiance is the “tripwire” Fuglie mentions. Does the work hit you in some way? Picasso’s “Guernica” certainly shows—by history’s response to it—both, positive and negative that it does have “radiance”. I believe truth is certainly integral here. One of the “hits” a radiant work of art must do is hit you as true. “Guernica” seems to do just that.

None of Aquinas’ characteristics of beauty are beyond the reach of the current art world. In fact, they need to be explored and adopted in order for beauty to make its full return. It appears that Aquinas’ “radiance” is not far from the art world’s psyche, as Danto – when asked for a definition of beauty – said “you know it when you see it.”[6] Danto could have been saying that a beautiful work of art is one that hits you, perhaps one that has truth in it. Scarry wrote: “What is beautiful is in league with what is true…”[7] Alexander Nehamas describes an encounter with beauty that smacks of Danto’s statement:

Imagine yourself…on a street, in a restaurant or a gallery, at a party, during a lecture, a concert, or a game. You cast your eyes around, recognizing perhaps some people you know, stopping for a moment to glance at an outfit or two, lingering when you notice people talking to one another, distinguishing, so to speak, foreground from background, those you are especially aware of from others who mean nothing to you. And then, all of a sudden, everything becomes background – everything but a pair of eyes, a face, a body, pushing the rest out of your field of vision and giving you a moment of awe and a shock of delight, perhaps even passionate longing. For a moment, at least, you are looking at beauty.[8]

Nehamas is describing an encounter with Aquinas’ radiance - Fuglie’s “tripwire” – he is describing an encounter with beauty. “Radiance”, integrity and proportion are all needed to truly see and understand beauty

[1] Taylor 103-121, Wolfe, Gregory, “The Wound of Beauty”, Image Journal #56 (Winter 2007-2008), pp3-6, Fuglie 72-74.

[2] Aquinas, Thomas. transl, O’Brien, T.C, Summa Theologiae, New York, NY, 1976, p133

[3] Fuglie p72

[4] Maritain, Jacques. transl, Scanlan, J.F, Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays, 1924, p28.

[5] Fuglie pp73-74.

[6] Fuglie p68

[7] Scarry p31

[8] Nehamas, Alexander. Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, Princeton, NJ, 2007, p53.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Place of Beauty: A historical and theological observation - part 3

Head of Christ by George Rouault (1939)

What is significant about the art world’s rediscovery of and the church’s growing interest in Beauty? First, I think it is indicative of human nature. As human beings we long to experience good – particularly beautiful—things in life. The initial paragraph of Father Thomas Dubay’s book, The Evidential Power of Beauty says this:

Every human person is drawn to beauty. A night sky can thrill, as can an exquisite orchid, a Mozart concerto, or a lovely face. John Henry Newman, an intellectual and literary giant, would on occasion weep with delight as he played his violin. The more gifted among us are sometimes so vibrantly alive that even created splendors touch them deeply. Because their receptive capacities to be enriched by and responsive to reality are deep, they grow to a maturity far beyond the usual. They live life to the hilt and themselves become works of art – to borrow a phrase from Saint Paul (Eph 2:10)[1]

Second, is the opportunity for dialogue between two parts of society that have shared little interest in each other for the last 100 years. A few years back I helped run an IAM conference on “Artists as Reconcilers” where Yale Seminary professor Dr. Miroslav Volf spoke. In the course of his research he found out that the then head of Yale’s art department, Richard Benson, had been asked what the relationship between art and the church was. In short, Benson’s reply was that there was no relationship; Volf summarized Benson’s thoughts stating, “art is fundamentally transgressive, religion is fundamentally conservative, the two are at odds with one another.”[2]

Theologian Miroslav Volf

Perhaps they are not as far apart as Benson thinks. The Church and the art world have an opportunity to dialogue about art and beauty and learn from one another – the Church, to learn how to make art, the art world to learn what is the true source of Beauty. As one who believes there is a supreme Creator who has His hands in history, I truly believe this parallel interest in Beauty is not an accident.

At this point it might be appropriate to bring some definition to beauty. This is no easy task as it has been pursued for many millennia, and I for one am not assuming that I could bring any new insight into the matter. Also, our limitation as human beings is not an insignificant factor.

We must accept the fact that we are talking about a concept that may ultimately be beyond our comprehension. However, I am not willing to concede that we cannot know anything about Beauty because we cannot FULLY grasp every aspect of it. I believe we can apprehend beauty, see and understand it, but I do not believe we can know everything there is to know about beauty. This is not unlike the other two transcendentals Beauty is usually accompanied by – Truth and Goodness.

Can anyone really say they know all Truth? Can anyone know all Goodness? We can know Truth, and Goodness, and we can know them truly, but knowing all Truth and/or Goodness comprehensively is problematic.[3] Is it wise to simply dismiss any possibility of knowing Truth, Goodness and Beauty because we can only know part and not the whole? I don’t think so.

I would assert it is the same with my knowledge of God. I can know God truly, I can apprehend Him, but to say that I know Him comprehensively would mean I would need to be God to know Him completely, and that’s just impossible.

Much of the Church may not have been exercising any creative expressions of Beauty in teh 20th and 21st centuries, but they do have the intellectual and theological content on which to base Beauty. This is a great boon for the art world, who seem to lack the ability to define Beauty beyond "You know it when you see it."

[1] Dubay, Thomas, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet, San Fransico, CA, 1999, p11.

[2] Go to for an audio of this talk by Volf.

[3] When I wrote this paper for my Professor Dr. Charles Mackenzie he told me at the time that he was working on a book about the nature of infinity in science, based on lectures he gave at Stanford some years back. As we discussed this concept he told me when scientists run into a seemingly incomprehensible idea, possibly associated with infinity, they usually give the idea a name and move on in their research and understanding. They see their limitations, but are not daunted by them. Apprehending Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is no different.