January 9, 2012

What is This Thing?

A second guest post from SPU professor, Dr. Brian Bantum, reflecting on his participation in a recent art installation ("Paradigm Shift") on campus based on the gospel of Mark. Check out photos of the installation HERE!

Hopefully, those who are a part of the Seattle Pacific University community have had an opportunity to see and walk through the installation in Martin Square. Many of you might have asked yourself a simple question, “What is this thing?!”

I might reply to you, “This is an installation that was part of a group’s reflection on the Gospel of Mark.” But this answer doesn’t necessarily give you any more information. Why? Because an answer to this question, “what is it?” is not simply a question about the installation, but also about art and about the Bible.

What is art? What are the Christian Scriptures? Do these questions have anything to do with one another? The relationship between art and Christian Scriptures depends somewhat on how you define Christian Scriptures. For many, Scripture is a veritable “answer book,” an encyclopedia of living that points us to the answers of our daily and lifelong questions. If understood this way, art that is done in conversation with Scripture is simply material that expresses some underlying idea. Put differently, art is a riddle to be “figured out,” deciphered so that we can get to the real meaning.

The group that designed and built this installation began with the book of Mark. We read through it several times over the summer, reflected upon specific parts, prayed diligently and gathered together in September to share the ideas, impressions and passages that we saw, felt, and read. What we discovered was not only a variety of similar themes, but also that these themes were understood in different ways. We grabbed onto hope in similar places, but for different reasons. It could be said that the “answers” we saw, put different questions to us that we then had to re-approach the text with.

In the process of talking and reflecting we came to find that the book of Mark was not a puzzle to be figured out, but a living thing that seemed difficult to pin down, that brought us into something, encountered us with someone. This idea of encountering is another way of thinking about what Scripture is. Scripture is, itself, something that arose out of a people’s attempts to understand and share the significance of an event, of a person. In many ways, we could say that the gospel of Mark arises out of an encounter. While written after Jesus’ death, the book attempts to make sense of his life, death and resurrection and re-encounter people with Jesus’ life.

This process of narrating Jesus’ life was not the singular task of one man, but a communal process of stitching together various stories, teachings, and accounts of this man’s life in order to faithfully tell who Jesus was and what he means for the world. What our group came to find was that this communal process of discerning our encounter with the gospel of Mark was not much different. The patching together of observations, connections, impressions, and themes all served to create a space where Jesus and his work could begin to be discerned and lived within.

If Christian Scriptures are about proclaiming this encounter of God and the world, about giving voice to a community’s discerning of what they saw in this particular man Christ, perhaps we can also begin to see the connections, in fact the necessity of art as we interpret the Word of God. In art, the visual (the aural too) work to encounter the viewer with beauty or pain, anguish or peace, or all of them together. Art confronts the viewer with something about the world and ultimately requires the viewer to ask something of themselves and their place in the world.

When we read Scripture we might come to find its truthfulness more profoundly when we stop seeking from it “answers” and become open to the encounter beckons us to. This truth of this installation (or Mark?) is not to be puzzled out or deciphered, but comes only when one sits with, looks upon, prays with, not once or twice, but returns again and again each time spotting new shadows, seeing new lines, listening for the shifts of sound. But even more its truthfulness comes when we are not satisfied with our perceptions or lines of vision, but offer them to one another and allow ourselves to be surprised in the process.

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