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SNAPline newsletter

Spring 2017

What Kind Of God Is That?

Download this issue now SNAPline Spring 2017: GOD

This essay was collaboratively written between:

Robin Willey, whose text is in the white font, and
Carolyn Jervis, whose text is in the light blue font.

Outside of worship music that usually references the musical stylings of the late 90s, art is a rare sight in most Evangelical churches. That is, unless you’re in the former “Furniture Capital of the World.” In 2014, my research into the roots of Canadian Evangelicalism led me from Edmonton, Alberta to Mars Hill Bible Church, just outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I (Robin) was surprised to find the church, which is located in a converted shopping mall, packed full of art. This included the sanctuary (members endearingly call it “the Shed”), which featured several paintings and installation pieces, including two that were actually commissioned by the church. When I approached a woman at the church’s information desk and asked why there was so much art in the church, she looked at me, rolled her eyes, and responded, “Because it’s Grand Rapids.”

In April of 2009, Rick DeVos, a twentysomething member of a family whose billions make it one of Michigan’s wealthiest, announced the creation of Art Prize, an art competition in Grand Rapids where any artist who can find a venue, indoor or outdoor, can participate. The art event is unprecedented due to the scale of artist participation (1,262 artist participated that first year; 1,453 in 2016), the enormity of its audience (over 200,000 in 2009; an estimated 400,000 in 2016), and the size of its cash prizes ($500,000 is awarded by popular voting and juried voting each year). Art Prize eclipses the number of visitors at major international biennales and art institutions by tens of thousands, all from a city whose population totals less than 200,000. Although there is no doubting that Art Prize fundamentally changed the city’s relationship to art in 2009, Grand Rapids’ relationship to visual culture and design is not without precedent. It was known as the “Furniture Capital of the World” for its booming furniture industry from the latter half of the 19th century to the 1930s.

This proliferation of art in the Grand Rapids area has influenced the religious culture of the area. The most notable
example is likely Rob Bell — the founder of Mars Hill, former pastor and current Oprah Network star — who first ventured into speaking about the value of creativity and its connection to suffering in his 2009 book Drops Like Stars. That said, the influence of art on Bell’s theology is most evident in the first pages of Love Wins, his 2011 book that shook the Evangelical world and debatably forced Bell to step down as Mars Hill’s pastor:

Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series on peacemaking, and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone. Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?

And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know. Bell’s move towards a more universalist view of the afterlife sent a shockwave through the Evangelical world. Some critics went so far as to declare Bell as “dangerous” and a “heretic.” Nonetheless, the work of art and note stuck to it legitimized alterations in Bell’s theology that had been taking place for over a decade; it provided him the catalyst to write Love Wins and more thoughtfully articulate the cosmopolitan God that has been evident in his work for some time and stands in stark contradiction to the more tribal and parochial God that dominates Evangelical theological discourse.

Art has long recorded changing relationships with God. This may seem an obvious statement because the history of religious patronage is more than clear in the seemingly endless supply of Virgin Mary and Jesus paintings in major art museums in the western world. There is, however, a more subtle link that is relevant to this discussion: leading up to the Enlightenment, art trends reveal a changing relationship with visuality that is inextricably linked to a changing understanding of God. Over the course of the 15th and 16th century in Western Europe the relationship between God and art fundamentally changed. Many artists and thinkers were coming to understand that they could learn about the world directly through observation, rather than channelled through divine knowledge. They began interpreting the observable world and experimenting with representations of the fleshly body of Jesus.

The early modern innovation that one’s visual observation was worthy of consideration elevated individual interpretation, displacing the prevailing conception of the artist as purely a vessel for representing divine knowledge. This provides us with a historical precedent for the action of the person who placed that note on the artwork at Mars Hill and the intellectual pivot it catalyzed for Bell. We cannot take for granted this idea that a particular artist can have a perspective on a religious concept that is not just a transparent reflection of a monolithic church. The changing relationship between realistic looking figures in religious paintings and this moment with an artwork in Bell’s former church are both examples of how art plays important roles in making distinct religious discourses, and interpretations of religious ideas, visible.

As Robin and I were working through writing this piece, we realized the significance of a local example of varying interpretations of what a relationship with a Christian God looks like. On a Friday afternoon, we sat down with local artist Borys Tarasenko and reflected on his exhibition, Sweet Jesus, which took place at Bleeding Heart Art Space in Spring 2016. Tarasenko starts his artist statement for that show, coincidentally, with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” He told us a story about a visit to the exhibition, which featured a life-sized colouring book of Jesus and various Christian figures engaged in actions biblical and otherwise (such as Christ himself barbecuing hot dogs). Visitors from a local church just happened to visit Bleeding Heart while Sweet Jesus was on display, and in part interpreted the invitation to colour whatever they wanted on the walls as an opportunity to promote their own church community. This self-promotional text saw a further interpretive layer, as its letters and numbers were dissolved into decorative drawing by subsequent people, who deemed the parishioners’ choice of engagement inappropriate. Both the assumptions made by the church members and by the following people engaged in the exhibition, much like the note-writer in Bell’s story, reveal an otherwise hidden ideological position on engaging with ideas of God.

It was situations like the above story that led Tarasenko realize that Sweet Jesus had become a “metaphor for the Bible” — a text that many assume can only be interpreted in a certain way, but is in fact subject to an endless number of interpretations. Sweet Jesus became a place where various Christianities could interact in a way that is not normally made available. Mars Hill’s peacemaker show worked much the same way. It enabled an artist to feel comfortable enough to submit a piece that included a quote by a non-Christian to an Evangelical show in an Evangelical church; it enabled a more conservative congregant to feel comfortable enough to leave a note critical of the piece; and finally, it provided a space for a progressive pastor to see both interpretations and use that moment to legitimize his own theological position.

Download this issue now SNAPline Spring 2017: GOD

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