There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work (1 Cor. 12:4-6).
It was an unusually rainy day, and I was sitting with my father-in-law in his apartment. His flat on the sixth floor of a high-rise in Hong Kong overlooks a park, where on clear days you can see people doing tai chi down below. On this day, though, the only people outside were scurrying, umbrella in hand, to the nearby subway station inside the neighboring mall.
As the rain gently blew into fine streaks across the window, our conversation wandered from talking about the weather to talking about art. Now, there’s one thing you need to know about my father-in-law: he’s a world-traveled theologian, and a creative one at that. This is evident from the many books he has written over his lengthy career. We often have very provocative discussions when we have stretches of time to talk together. Typically I find that he has thought long about many things and understands the richness of ideas and topics in ways that help my own ideas to blossom. So it was a surprise when he asked me, “Can you teach me how to look at and understand art?”
How could someone with such a deep understanding of many things have no idea how to look at a painting and come away with some new insights or understanding?
At first I didn’t know what to say. As an artist, looking at art and creating it is second nature for me. It’s like reading a novel or going to a concert—art has the power to move me emotionally as well as intellectually. But his question opened my eyes to the fact that this is not necessarily the case for everyone. For some people who want to understand art, visual artists are a people whose strange and foreign customs render their expressions inscrutable and mysterious. Instead of making the invisible visual, visual artists just seem to be contributing to a fog clouding the camera lens of understanding.
I don’t recall exactly how I responded to my father-in-law’s question that day. But I know I pondered it for some time. I came to see that as an artist I needed to at least try to clear the fog for my father-in-law, and maybe for others who want art to enlighten their own imagination.
Different Kinds of Intelligence
In college, as an art major, I noticed a troubling pattern. One day a professor opened an art class by asking how many of us had ever been told that we had a learning disability. Most of the students raised their hands. I’m not suggesting here that creative people all have learning disabilities. To the contrary, these people were highly gifted visual communicators. But it does illustrate that our culture values certain ways of showing intelligence more than others. There are many ways for people to express their intelligence, and yet too often we—including people in the church—reinforce the cultural bias toward verbal and mathematical intelligences over other ways of expressing intelligence.
I often give presentations on multiple intelligences (see sidebar) to church groups, talking just a little about each kind of intelligence to explain the theory. I ask group members to identify each way that they feel comfortable learning by standing when I describe one of those ways. People are often amazed to see that there is no one style of learning that best fits most people. For most groups, information needs to be taught in about three or four styles simultaneously for an entire group to learn something.
What does that tell us? I always marvel at how affirming it is to people (many of whom never knew this information about learning styles) to hear that they are not stupid for having difficulty learning by reading, by listening to someone talk, or by reasoning (the way much instruction is done in Western cultures). In fact, it seems biblical to conclude that God created all of us with this internal diversity to make the world an interesting place! As the apostle Paul explains, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). He goes on to describe how we should not reject each other based on our differences, but instead see those differences as gifts that each of us can contribute to the health of the body as a whole.
This idea is further illustrated in the “learning pyramid” (see p. 20) that succinctly indicates how much information is retained based on the way in which it is taught. The more senses we use in learning, the better we retain what we have learned. For visual artists, the learning pyramid is especially affirming, as it skillfully shows how the use of visual expression greatly aids in the retention of information.
But the learning pyramid also has a lesson for artists. Whereas any lecture or sermon can be enhanced through the use of visuals, it also suggests that art is most meaningful when it is not left to speak for itself. As artists, we have a responsibility to help our communities and congregations become more visually literate, which means taking time to explain how to look at art.
The learning pyramid suggests that the more people participate in their own learning, the more they retain. However, the way the learning pyramid describes what active learning is like has a verbal bias as well. Imagine for a moment that people can respond actively to information in any language they choose. I myself am most fluent in the language of paint, and so am likely to respond using this tongue. Others may respond with the vocabulary of dance or music or song. Some may choose the written word over the spoken word. There are many ways besides verbal dialogue to “participate in a discussion.” Having a discussion, particularly with the God who knows our hearts, can take any expressive form. This knowledge comforts me as an artist because I can rest in the knowledge that God understands me even when what I have difficulty finding the words to express my thoughts and feelings.
But for those who are not visually oriented, how can looking at a work of art lead to deeper spiritual growth? The answer to this question cannot come from deductive reasoning, I think, because artwork is not designed to be understood this way. Art is not logic, science, or theology. It is not even illustration, which depends on words. It stands on its own and can only be understood on its own terms through practices of wonder and reflection. To use a biblical parallel, works of visual art are less like the book of Romans and more like the book of Psalms.
Art can only be understood when we take time with it. A work of art is valuable because it is created by one of God’s children whom God loves to see creating, just as God is a Creator. Knowingly or unknowingly, works of art are visual prayers to God, a cry from the heart of the artist to the heart of God. Art is precious because God collects all of our prayers and sentiments like tears in a jar. Art is vital because it begs us to sharpen our abilities to perceive the hints and whispers of God’s presence. Art asks us to remain alert to God, training our eyes to see him and our hands to know him.
Sometimes, though, we still don’t understand—and this too can be good for us. When I look and don’t understand, I am reminded that sometimes I also am unclear, yet God understands me completely. I am challenged to look at art through the eyes of grace, trying to understand another person the way God understands me. For that reminder I am truly thankful. May we all continue to grow in the art of childlike wonder as we learn to see God.
Looking at Mei Yun
The central idea of grace undergirds much of Reformed thought. Since color is a central part of the visual experience and, in this case, is a central method of communicating the ideas contained in the work, I will describe the color palette as needed. Let’s use this painting as an example of ways to explore the ideas evoked by a visual image.
What is immediately striking about this piece is its size and materials. When hung on a wall, the painting easily towers over the viewer. Its surface is covered in semi-transparent gold, which, upon close inspection, allows some of the dark background surface to remain exposed, giving the work a luminescent quality, while not perfectly uniform. Given proper lighting, the painting appears to shine, though the figure of the woman, dove, and falling cherry blossoms are all painted in a flat, nonreflective paint, which further accentuates the luminous quality of the gold.
The dove flying above the woman’s head gracefully cranes its neck toward the woman, her hand upraised. Her face bears a contented, quiet smile. Her hair is dressed with some of the same cherry blooms that are falling from the flowering twig carried in the beak of the dove. If you look carefully, you’ll notice a tiny shower of petals that the woman appears pleased to be on the verge of catching in her palm.
The dove and the seated woman form a classical triangular composition, which allows the viewer’s eye to traverse the work while contained within this idealized composition.
So what can this image teach us about grace? For some people, this image will be little more than an interesting footnote. For others, it will be a powerful way to enter into the presence of God. Here are some ways to comprehend the idea of grace more profoundly through this particular visual image:
1. Ask yourself what you notice. Every viewer will be struck by something different when looking at a piece of art. Visual artists may perceive different qualities in the work than someone with lesser degrees of visual sensitivity. This is good, because we all enhance each other’s understanding through sharing what we observe. For example, if you have difficulty transposing your impressions into verbal language, try expressing your ideas “in kind” by creating a visual response on paper, canvas, or clay. A person with musical intelligence may be able to create a melodic response, while a kinesthetic learner may best be able to respond through movement, dance, or gesture. The interpersonal learner will notice more about the painting through a discussion about the work, while the intrapersonal learner would rather reflect privately and then record her thoughts. Verbal learners will, naturally, find it easy to attach language to their impressions, whereas logical/mathematical thinkers will be more apt to notice whether or not aspects of the painting correlate with their ideas about the notion of grace. Logical thinkers who also do not share a visual inclination may need questions from a leader to help them enter into the value of exploring this visual experience.
2. Linger with the image. The temptation in Reformed circles is to transpose all truth into the familiar forms of verbal expression and logical reasoning. Although these are valuable, they are not the exclusive forms through which understanding of biblical ideas happens for all people. They must be balanced with the other ways people learn. So, as shown above, linger with this image and find your own means of responding back to God.
An easy way to encourage this kind of thoughtful response is to encourage congregants to develop expressive forms of reflection on Scripture or sermons, responding back through visual creations, dance, music, writing, and reflection. Collect these responses regularly and incorporate them into worship and sermons as often as possible to broaden the power of the ideas presented in church.
3. Be aware of the bias of church language. We often talk about “listening to God” or “talking to God” to describe how people develop intimacy with God. This gives congregants the idea that God primarily communicates with people verbally. While it is true that we come to know God first through the written and spoken Word, nowhere in Scripture does God assert that these are the exclusive channels by which God communicates with us. If, as Augustine postulated, the world is comprised of “signs pointing to God,” these signs can (and do) take any form. As you look at this image, what signs point to God? Where could you notice God? How might God be using this image to get your attention? Finally, if God has your attention now, what could God be trying to communicate to you?
Dr. Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University, developed the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. Up until this time, it was assumed that our ability to learn was based on an innate ability called an “intelligence quotient,” or IQ. What Dr. Gardner proposed is that there are seven different kinds of intelligences that account for a broad range of human potential in children and adults. These intelligences are:
- Visual-spatial (picture smart)
- Verbal-linguistic (word smart)
- (number and reasoning smart)
- Bodily-kinesthetic (body smart)
- Musical-rhythmic (music smart)
- Interpersonal (people smart)
- Intrapersonal (self smart)