Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Imagination and truth-telling

Written by: on October 18, 2018

Some of you may remember that I am co-sponsoring the Spark Initiative, a granting and mentoring opportunity for millennial social innovators who are paired with millennial givers. We will be meeting this weekend at the Leadership Studio at Muskoka Woods located two hours north of Toronto. As a part of this season’s work, all of us worked with a coach who guided us in the Birkman, a personality and career guidance tool. It revealed that my main interests are Literary (97%) and Artistic (91%). How do you feed these needs?” was an obvious question from my coach. I feed my Literary need by reading and writing; this course helps a lot. But what about Artistic? I had nothing to say, really, to my coach’s question. Except maybe now I just go to church.

William Dyrness in Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue Engaging Culture begins to unpeel the layers on this onion. Post-evangelicals like me have been stranded like a beached whale with a church culture that is stripped of any meaningful engagement with the arts. It’s part of what drew me into the multisensory experience of Catholicism. I’m wooed by the complexity of the multiple stories frozen in glass and wood; I’m nurtured by the tangible materiality – wet water drips from my fingers and forehead, cleansing, refreshing baptismal commitments; acrid smoke smelling of frankincense is breathed in, and out comes prayer. Art is the doorway to enriched faith.

Dyrness states,

“Art, then, is that human activity that goes beyond the useful to embody in allusive color, shape, or sound the joy or pain of being human…. [A]rt is a way of acting in the world that engages with its materiality in such a way that it illumines something about the world’s depth and reality. It is an activity that involves a way of knowing as well as doing; it shows us something we can learn in no other way.”[1]

The distinctiveness of this sort of faith, says Dyrness, is that it moves beyond the mind and into the body. Since the Enlightenment, we’ve been conceptualizing faith, reducing it to doctrine and ideals in our heads, and living it out in our bodies less and less. I think this divorce leads to the intense disillusionment millennials sense today with the church.

Let me correct myself on not knowing how I feed my Artistic side. While I can’t (yet) call myself a painter, nor do I draw nor write fiction, I do subscribe to Image, the quarterly journal that offers a motherlode of poems, essays, stories, and images. “Art – Faith – Mystery” is the tagline. This week I picked up the latest issue at my PO Box in Maine. Karen not home, I took Issue No. 98 with me to Carmen’s Diner. Alone for dinner, and sitting beside the jukebox, I was introduced to Barbara Kruger, an artist who I also stumbled across as I read Visual Faith. Dyrness says,

“Barbara Kruger is a contemporary artist whose work is sometimes considered radical or, some would argue, anarchic. But she is very outspoken about the purpose of her work: “I’m interested in making art that displaces the powers that tell us who we can be and who we can’t be.” Her work reflects certain deep commitments to freedom from oppression and the misuse of power.”[2]

Kruger’s work lives at the convergence of art and social commentary, of photo shoots and justice. I bet she and anthropologist Sarah Pink would be friends. Lauren Winner, in her opening editorial in Image, speaks of Kruger’s ability to tell truth using images. She offers this:

“The standard thing to say about truth and art and Barbara Kruger is that she interrupts our gaze in order to show us what consumerist graphic design is; she forces images to tell the truth about themselves…. What I like best is something she once said in an interview: ‘I always say I try to make my work about how we are to one another.’”[3]

Kruger’s works of art are often harsh; they feel like a sucker punch to the solar plexus. For an example from Kruger’s vast oeuvre, click through for Man’s best friend. (I would reproduce it here, but I’m concerned about copywrite infringement. You need to see it, so please click through.)

Let the image sink in for a bit. When I first saw this image, I was immediately struck by the non-politically correct, non-inclusive term “Man”, especially strange for a female artist. Then, surfacing below the words was the image of a Greek-styled building. Finally, it dawned on me (not being American, it didn’t hit me immediately) – it is the Supreme Court in Washington. And surprisingly, personally, the image took me to Hong Kong, where I watched the Kavanaugh hearings with Dave and Chris one evening, all of us yelling at the TV in frustration.

Kruger created this image in 1987, decades before Kavanaugh, and yet how immediate and fresh this piece is today in 2018. How much hasn’t changed if the courts are still man’s best friend. Whether Kruger comes from a place of Christian faith or not, it is irrelevant to whether her art speaks into faith. Her works, and any and all works of artistic expression, will challenge, critique and empower faith.

How is art informing your spirituality? Let’s welcome the imagination back into our spiritual stories.


[1] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 99.

[2] Ibid., 88.

[3] Lauren F. Winner, “Alphabetic Art”, Image No. 98 (Fall 2018): 4.

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

8 responses to “Imagination and truth-telling”

  1. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    I clicked on “Man’s Best Friend” because I thought it was going to be a dog picture, and I love dogs! What a thought provoking picture and it still has me thinking.

    Hope I got our Zoom chat right when I mentioned you in my Blog…

    I wondered if you might comment in a way that was close to what I remembered, and you did not disappoint, “It’s part of what drew me into the multisensory experience of Catholicism.” There it is! Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. M Webb says:

    I like the colorful image and introduction to your post. I agree with you, the Catholic’s have some great art that inspires reverence, motivates holiness, and encourages obedience. When I was deployed to a Columbian location I found a marvelous outdoor mass facility. It had a roof, open sides and back, wonderful stain glass in the front, around the alter, and beautiful sculptures around the outside and courtyard. There were wooden pews in the facility and it was open to anyone going by to stop, pray, reflect, and worship.
    I remember, there were multiple art forms at the mass, plus the green and lush Columbian countryside that created an artistic image that helped me worship and glorify God. I think this is an example of what Dryness was talking about.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  3. Hi Mike,

    Well, you know the way to my heart bringing up Colombia. Did you know we lived there for 3 years and have visited often, and it’s my preferred place in the world.

    Your description of a Catholic setting there brought back some good memories … the one in particular was a visit I made to a red zone near Barracabermeja on the Magdalena River. I went with the Jesuits into the jungle, and saw firsthand how they were involved in peace and reconciliation work between government and guerrilla groups. We even visited a Pentecostal pastor and family who were stuck in the middle of that challenge, and witnessed the suffering of that fine couple trying to minister in a setting of conflict.

    We must put our heads together in the UK to find out if our paths somehow crossed. I have a few stories that won’t be posted here. Ha!!

  4. This: “Whether Kruger comes from a place of Christian faith or not, it is irrelevant to whether her art speaks into faith.”

    I think (and I could be wrong here) that all art either points to God our reveals our deep need for God. When I was a pastor in a church I was sometimes criticized for reading non-Christian literature. But I see God in all forms of literature. Reading stories always points me back to God, either by displaying God directly or displaying what humanity looks like apart from God; thus awakening in me a deeper longing for God. While this is something I have noticed in literature, I’ve never tested my hypothesis in thie visual arts. I’ll start looking a art differently now, seeing if my hypothesis holds true.

  5. Dan Kreiss says:

    I thought this particular quote was interesting; “I think this divorce leads to the intense disillusionment millennials sense today with the church.” I have been pursuing the reasons for the shift away from the Church by emerging generations and had not considered the visual/sensory as a possible cause for some of it. Your post caught my eye for that reason. I also appreciate your explanation of the Catholic worship experience and how that fuels your soul in ways different from your Evangelical past. I wonder if you have noticed any stronger connection by emerging generations in the Catholic tradition than what it being experienced in much of the Protestant church.

  6. Greg says:

    Loved the sensory description of your entrance and participation in worship. I have found myself several times sitting in the quiet of a catholic church basking in the holy silence mesmerized by the art, symbols and the beauty that draws me to God.
    Art (including pictures) have a way of bringing that truth on an event in a way that is remembered and impacts in unique ways

  7. Chris Pritchett says:

    I think we need more art in worship and in the Christian faith in general, especially Evangelical faith, because in our effort to resist idolatry, we have made the Bible into a very destructive idol that does things like justifying a military response in order to keep caravans of migrants from finding a future and a hope. What’s needed, according to Richard Hayes (Duke Div), is a “biblical imagination.” Can’t do it without art

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