The Study of God is an Abstract Art


“Guernica” – Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is one of the best known artists of the 20th century.  He is largely credited for being one of the founders of cubism.  “In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.”[i]  But this is not how Picasso started painting.  I’m sure that he began by drawing stick figures, much like most children, and as his skills progressed he eventually developed the abilities to produce highly realistic and representational works of art.  And as he continued to develop his skills and explore the boundaries of art and what it meant to express the depth of a subject matter, his painting style changed and his abstract work is a part of that exploration.

People seem to either love or hate Picasso’s cubist work.  There’s a story floating out there, I’m not sure if it’s true, that captures people’s reaction to Picasso’s abstract work.  “A wealthy man commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a portrait of his wife. Startled by the non-representational image on the final canvas, the woman’s husband complained, “It isn’t how she really looks.” When asked by the painter how she really looked, the man produced a photograph from his wallet. Returning the photography Pablo observed, “Small, isn’t she?”[ii]

Picasso’s comment illustrates that no work of art or photograph for that matter can ever really capture the essence of reality.  So the question we might ask is this?  If it is so hard for any of us to capture or express reality, can we truly express or fully comprehend who God is?  And if we’re exploring the boundaries of the world we live in, trying to understand it and/or God, will any of our discoveries or new insights be truly representational?

What if our understanding of God needs to grow in abstraction?

"Life with God" Anneke Kaai

“Life With God” – Anneke Kaai

Some Christians gravitate to a quasi-scientific approach to understanding the Bible, parsing out each word in an attempt to prove the validity of God to those around them.  Others simply gravitate to a relative approach to Bible and treat the words as truth to live by if you so choose, often as only one of the buffet items in the religious smorgasbord.  When we approach our understanding of God in a scientific way, we will always come up short.  Even the sacred text of the Bible begins by telling us that the one tree that humanity may not eat from is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Trying to pin down an understanding of God in a scientific way is like trying to collect butterflies and pin them to a board.  It may help you understand the distinctions between each butterfly but you remove the life and beauty.  And when we approach our understanding of God in a purely relative manner, we put ourselves at the centre of the universe as though any sort of truth is defined only by our choice to believe it.  Making truth relative is to fall into the trap of the old story that says people who follow religions are all blind people feeling different parts of an elephant and describing the elephant from the part they’re holding.  Except to describe God in this way assumes that you are the only one who isn’t blind and have the ability to see what everyone else doesn’t (rather arrogant and condescending).

But to understand God in abstraction is to acknowledge a definite truth but admit that our understanding of the truth is limited and can best be expressed by trying to get at the core colours, shapes and lines of what we believe.  Abstraction is different from relativism in that it isn’t saying that I define what is true, but it is saying that there is something deeper to be understood than just what I can see and know.

When the gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus said, I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”[iii]  It isn’t that he’s telling us that our faith must become ignorant and blind.  It could be argued that he’s telling us to become abstract.  Let us return to the journey of the artist.  Sometimes we hear people comment on abstract art saying things like, “My kid could paint that.” But anyone who has studied art or spent time with a trained artist will understand the idiocy of such a statement.  But there is a similarity between children’s art and abstract art.  A child expresses what they see and know and it is often filled with colour, shapes and lines.  Children’s art is beautiful because through their expression we see the world in a very simple yet profoundly complex manner.  This is true of abstract art as well, but there is an underlying journey underneath this art that adds to the complexity.  The abstract artist has honed their skills, learned to shade and draw or paint landscapes or portraits with the greatest of detail.  But as the abstract artist has learned to reproduce things in the greatest of detail, the desire to capture the essence of what they’re producing causes them to look deeper into the images and thoughts of the world(s) we live in.  It leads them to produce lines, shapes and colour which appear to not contain the detail but in truth expresses the deeper detail of our world in so far as we can know it.

"Baptized and Beloved" Jan Rihcradson

“Baptized and Beloved”
Jan Richardson

Our journey with God must be similar if we adhere to Jesus teaching.  We begin our lives believing in simple truths (Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong).  But as we grow the world becomes complex and the questions grow.  To be faithful is not to ignore the complexity or the questions but rather to grapple and grow with them.  But the journey of exploration should not lead us to perfect representations of God in our lives that we can hang on our walls as though we can contain His truth.  The journey should lead us to abstraction whereby the beauty and simplicity of colour, lines and shapes (Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong) make us want to look deeper each time to see something more.

[ii] Found all over blogosphere

[iii] Mark 10:15



I know nothing, except what everyone knows. If there when Grace dances, I should dance. 

-W.H. Auden


I have known of Auden’s quote for many years now.  My mentor when I served with Christian Reformed World Missions would quote it frequently.  I always thought it was a cute quote and it hasn’t been until recently that I began to understand just how important Auden’s perspective is.

The church I serve as pastor is seeking to find ways to be a transformative church in our local community.  We, like thousands of churches scattered across North America, want to reach our community.  We dig through books with countless strategies.  We send staff and volunteers to myriad conferences.  All with the purpose of finding the secret to ‘outreach’.  We treat ‘outreach’ like it is a complex code that must be broken down systematically by experts.

At Visalia CRC we are finding that the truth about outreach is that it isn’t advanced trigonometry.  It is far simpler.  It is so simple that four year old children do it all the time just to torment their older siblings.  The answer is “copy-catting.”  We are learning to ask, “Where is the Holy Spirit working in our community?”  Or in the words of Auden, where is God dancing?  Once we have answer to that question then we just have to ask, “How can we join the dance?”  Or, “How can we copy it?”

I remember my first High School dance.  It was awkward.  The music started and the dance floor stood mostly empty.  Only a few of the upper-class kids danced.  My friends and I clustered around the outside of the floor in a small group.  All of us trying to ignore the reason we came to the dance, which was, shockingly, to dance.  For nearly half the night we talked about dancing, but we didn’t actually dance.  I was terrified of looking like a fool, of demonstrating my total lack of rhythm.   But then a girl pulled me out onto the floor.  I danced.  It was fun! It was easy.  Don’t get me wrong, I was a TERRIBLE dancer.  But dancing was easy because I was joining a dance, not starting one.  I was becoming part of something that had a life of its own.  

The Holy Spirit has begun its dance in creation.  The Kingdom of Heaven is here said Jesus.  It is not something we have to start or build.  It is here.  God’s grace is found in the nooks and crannies of our society as well as the big and the grand.  We the church can stand on the sidelines and talk about starting to dance.  But really, the dance has already begun.  It has a life of its own, God’s own rhythm.  By joining the dance His life pulls us into the rhythm.  All we have to do is copy-cat Him.  Let Him lead.  

The questions we must repeatedly ask in our churches is, “Where is God working (dancing) in our city? And how can we join in?”  Because, if Grace is dancing we’re gonna want in.  That is one Heaven on Earth of a Party!


You Gotta Love the Church

“You gotta love the church.”

That was the simple–and sincere–advice a mentor gave me when I started ministry.  But these days, it sounds more like the kind of statement that would serve as a punchline to someone’s church horror story.  The kind of thing that would be accompanied by the dismissive wave of a hand.  A rolling of the eyes.  A shaking head.  Pfft.  You gotta looove the church.”  

Fifteen years ago, the author Anne Rice was best known for her vampire novels.  But then she grabbed headlines when she announced that she had converted to Christianity.  (She was viewed, it seems, as an unlikely convert!)  Ten years later, Rice was in the headlines again.  But this time, it was her declaration that, while she remained committed to Christ, she was leaving the church.  Rice posted her decision on Facebook.  She wrote: It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.  For ten years, I’ve tried….Today I quit…My conscience will allow nothing else.”  

Anne Rice isn’t the first (or the last) person to shake the dust off her feet and walk out of church–even while claiming to follow Christ.  (Her Facebook post received several thousand “likes’!)  And to be sure, while Rice may come off as a tad self-righteous (even about the self-righteousness of others!), there is some element of truth in her critique.  The church is far from perfect.  I suspect that nobody knows that better than the people who work in the church!  But is it right for us to to storm away in disgust?  To focus only on her flaws?

A few years ago, a friend of mine was having trouble with her mother-in-law.  And I mean big trouble.  One Friday evening after a tense supper, things came to a head.  My friend’s mother-in-law sat her and her husband down at the kitchen table and pulled a small black notebook out of her purse.  She opened it and began to read.  My friend sat in stunned silence as she realized the notebook contained a catalogue of all her shortcomings and failures (at least all of them her mother-in-law could think of). The torturous litany of sins went on for several agonizing minutes until finally, my friends husband took her hand in his, gazed across the table and said, “Mother.  Stop it.  She is my wife.  She is my wife. And I love her.”   

The church is not perfect.  And God does not put his stamp of approval on every crusade, or lousy sermon, or thoughtless act She commits in his name.  And yet, he still calls her his “bride.”  So maybe next time we’re tempted to dismiss her with a contemptuous wave, maybe we need to here Christ say: She is my wife. She is my wife. And I love her.”

He loves the church.  In fact, he loves her enough to die for her.  And that means we’ve gotta love her, too.


The Church (Derek Webb)

I have come with one purpose
to capture for myself a bride
by my life she is lovely
by my death she’s justified

I have always been her husband
though many lovers she has known
so with water i will wash her
and by my word alone

So when you hear the sound of the water
you will know you’re not alone

‘Cause i haven’t come for only you
but for my people to pursue
you cannot care for me with no regard for her
if you love me you will love the church

I have long pursued her
as a harlot and a whore
but she will feast upon me
she will drink and thirst no more

So when you taste my flesh and my blood
you will know you’re not alone

There is none that can replace her
though there are many who will try
and though some may be her bridesmaids
they can never be my bride

Dixie Cup Christianity

Dixie CupsAnd Jesus said, “Go learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Mtt. 9.13

Jesus must have been a wildly entertaining person to listen to.  You never know what he is going to say.  He could be blunt, “you brood of vipers!”.  He could be challenging, “As the Father sent me so send I you.”  He could be demanding, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.”  He could be uplifting, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He could be utterly disappointing, “I tell you the truth in [heaven] there will be no giving or taking of marriage.” (If any of you were married to my wife you would know why this disappoints me so). Jesus could also be confusing, saying something that you just know means more than what you initially understand.  One such saying is when Jesus addresses the religious leaders of Israel in Matthew 9 saying to them, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Why must sacrifice and mercy by at odds?

Experimental Psychologist Richard Beck ran an experiment where he asked people to spit into a dixie cup.  Then he asked them to drink their own spit.  Absolutely disgusting, right?  Why?  We have spit in our mouths all the time and swallow it frequently without even thinking of it, so why does the idea of swallowing our own spit from a dixie cup disgust us?  But something happens psychologically, says Beck, when the spit leaves our mouth.  When it is not inside us any more but is outside us we become disgusted by it.

Disgust is all about setting boundaries.  Disgust marks something as ‘outside’ and foreign.  The second our spit leaves the boundaries of ‘self’ it becomes ‘other’.

Sacrifice also is all about marking boundaries.  Sacrifice is about naming and claiming something as pure and holy.  It is about admitting what is ‘clean’ and expunging what is ‘unclean.’  Mercy, on the other hand, crosses the boundary of purity.  Mercy brings clean and unclean into contact.  Perhaps this is the tension, why sacrifice and mercy are at odds with one another.  You cannot both build a boundary and tear it down at the same time.  Is this what Jesus was getting at when he talked to the pharisees?  You gotta choose, which is it going to be? Building boundaries or ripping them down?

Is it possible that the tension between sacrifice and mercy is psychological?  I have heard and used myself the popular Christian phrase, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  It sounds good theologically.  But psychologically, how in the world is a person supposed to treat someone with empathy, love and tenderness while at the same time harboring moral outrage and indignation at that same person’s behavior?  Is this even possible?

Take for example a current hot-button topic in our society and church – homosexuality.  How well do we the church actually balance outrage and empathy over homosexuality?  I would argue, not very well.  The number one reason (according to Barna Research) people under 30 give for refusing to go to church is that “The church hates homosexuals.”  Somehow the ‘hating the sin’ has become muddled quickly into hating the sinner.  I saw it at the Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Years day.  The parade was preceded by a crowd of Christian Crazies bearing signs proclaiming, “God hates Fags.”

Now, most Christians would never propagate such a vicious lie.  But that doesn’t mean that we also don’t struggle with preferring to erect boundaries rather than tear them down.  We are comfortable with labeling experiences and things as secular and holy.  We prefer sacrifice to mercy.  We are lead in our faith by a psychology of disgust. Wanting to be apart from what might contaminate us.

Disgust might just be a leading influence amongst Christians in how we think about and experience holiness, sin and atonement.  I wonder if it is entirely possible that we the church have drifted towards a theology and practice of faith that resonates with a psychological ‘feel’ of what is right and true.  And this ‘feeling’ is largely influenced by what disgusts us.

I read this last week that a church hosted a fashion show complete with a runway and models and a big name designer and all this took place DURING A WORSHIP SERVICE.  I was disgusted that a church of my own denomination would support an industry that does nothing to help positive body image and encourages opulence and do it during ‘holy’ time.  But now I wonder, is that disgust I felt hospitable? Probably not.  Maybe it is possible that in that blurring of the secular and sacred worlds God was worshipped in a unique and valuable way. Maybe.

Could this be what Jesus might be asking us to consider today as he asked the Pharisees to consider 2k years ago?  That perhaps we need to leave our petty ideas of purity behind and embrace hospitality – the abolition of secular-holy, us-them, sinner-saint.

I admit that when I consider the Incarnation of our Lord I often dwell on the sacrifice God made for our sake.  But perhaps that is incomplete theology.  It must be balanced with the mercy that inspired his Incarnation.  Perhaps the fulcrum of John 3.16 is “for God so loved” and the apogee of that love is “that he gave his only son.”