Art and fundamentalist legacies (I)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

“When you finally leave it’s like hearing a massive steel door slam shut behind you. People who have not gone through it simply don’t understand.”

Bev Wilson said that to me as we shared lunch in a college cafeteria. For the life of me I’m not sure how college cafeterias manage to achieve such precise levels of mediocrity. Bev and I had met for the first time that weekend, but as she talked I increasingly felt we had known each other forever. Have you ever had that experience? A Canadian, she lives in Vancouver, is an artist and warm conversationalist, alive to the flickers of grace that shine out through unexpected cracks in this sadly broken world. She exhibits both the wisdom that comes when ancient truth is seriously embraced, and the easy wit that comes by not taking herself too seriously. Bev had attended my breakout session and approached me afterwards to tell me her story. As she talked I kept hearing echoes from my own past, phrases that seemed to hint at a common heritage, events shaped by similar experiences. My hunch turned out to be accurate. We had both been raised in and then left the same fundamentalist movement, known to outsiders—they don’t accept the name—as the Plymouth Brethren (PB).

“It seems so final,” Bev said, “when you leave.” I knew what she meant. Growing up we had heard so many warnings about the worldliness and compromise that was outside that leaving was almost impossible. Then you step through the door, it shuts behind you, and all you’ve known socially, religiously, psychologically, and relationally is gone.

It wasn’t a topic I had expected to be talking about when I arrived. Bev and I were in the student cafeteria at Bethel University in St Paul, MN for the biennial CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) conference (June 18-21, 2009). The days at the conference were filled with stimulating conversations, thoughtful sessions, an amazing book table by Hearts & Minds, and a chance to see the work of photographers, video makers, fabric artists, sculptors, painters, art scholars and a few whose chosen medium and style of work don’t fit into any neat category that I can name. It was like being suddenly immersed in a brilliant explosion of human creativity, and I loved it.

Each day at the conference ended with what is a long time CIVA tradition, the Late Late Show. Artists attending the conference are encouraged to submit digital images of their work. The images are projected and each artist is given exactly 4 minutes—a limit that is good naturedly but firmly enforced—to talk about what we were seeing. The work we saw ranged from poor, to immature but promising, to mature, finely crafted, and thoughtfully allusive.

I arrived at the CIVA conference expecting to talk about art, beauty, and the gospel. I see now, however, that reflecting on the fundamentalist heritage of my childhood was unavoidable. The experience of beauty has played a key role in my pilgrimage. And though I am in my sixties, the old fearful, guilt-laden warnings of “worldly” and “unspiritual” that had always been attached to art and culture still echo in my memory.

…to be continued.

This entry was posted at Saturday, July 04, 2009 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Post a Comment