Why Illumine?

Do images detract from experiencing the word of God?

Appears in Fall 2012 Issue: The Word of God and the City of Man
November 1st, 2012

I'm so grateful for [Fujimura's] new illuminated Bible. . . . According to Christian theology, the Illuminator is the Holy Spirit, and therefore I believe from what I can see that the Illuminator has illumined the illuminator of the illuminated Bible, and will continue to illuminate through both the images and the words.
—Tim Keller

During my recent two-year journey to illumine and exhibit the Four Holy Gospels pages, commissioned by Crossway Publishing, the question of "why illumine?" kept on popping up. Why do we need illumination at all? Do the images detract from experiencing the Word of God?

In thinking about this question, I have learned to follow a sequence of thoughts that may be helpful. The first issue addresses the common assumption that by not having images, no visual decisions are being made. The second issue considers if, indeed, visual decisions are critical in presenting the Bible, and whether visual decisions can assist in pointing to what "the Word" is. Third, the Word of God revealed needs to be treated with the utmost reverence and awe, and illumination can be considered to be part of our theological journey toward giving the highest gifts back to the Giver of gifts.

Let me take these thoughts and develop them one by one.

First: Everything is designed—even the decision to not to design something is itself a design decision. Hundreds of visual decisions are made in the design elements of the Bible regardless of whether there are any images present. The fonts used, the spacing between the texts, the cover design, and so on all give critical direction to how the Bible is presented. On the other hand, a lack of awareness of the presence of design decisions can lead to a kind of negligence. A bad design is a result of neglect. A badly designed tract neglects to consider the reader (although, of course, God can use anything to open people's hearts), and a PowerPoint presentation with confusing multiple fonts communicates a neglect of attention to the unique characteristics, and beauty, of each font.

In his beautifully designed book, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, Edward R. Tufte, a guru of information design, writes of the sequence of events that led up to the space shuttle Challenger's disaster. Engineers had suspected that the cold temperature of that morning might cause the rings to fail to stop the fuel from leaking, but in the drawing of the O-rings that was faxed over before the launch, this critical information did not communicate the danger. Tufte writes (bracketed explanations mine):

The chart makers [who tried to stop the Challenger from being launched] had reached the right conclusion [about the vulnerability of the O-rings in the cold temperature]. They had the correct theory and they were thinking causally, but they were not displaying causally.

Even simple drawings matter, and a bad visual design can lead to failure of communication or invite disaster. Of course, the drawn O-rings need not be beautiful or embellished. But beautiful or not, visual communication can and will influence decision making.

Applying this reality to the Bible, we may begin to see that design can impact utility as much as aesthetics. The Bible has plenty of design elements, even in the most simply laid out version without illuminations. The Gideon Bible, given out to the public in the streets of New York City, communicates visually. Its compact size communicates utility, accessibility, and convenience.

The usual concern here is that design elements can get in the way of reading the Bible. I agree that such obstruction can occur. Yet there is often a deep-seeded theological assumption, more than the issue of utility, behind such a position. It assumes that the Word of God is, literally, the words on the pages of the Bible, and not the incarnate Word in Christ. Therefore, in such a position, what is sacred is the actual object, inks, and printed pages. This literal position extends to the reader's responses, too; take the printed object seriously, and the usual instruction is a strictly literal response. Anything other than a machine-like literal receiving of information is to be suspect. Such a position makes imagination the enemy of the Truth, rather than seeing imagination as a Godgiven faculty to help people to know the Truth.

John's Gospel tells us that the Word is Christ, and in him, and only in him, both the mystery and pragmatism meet. There is paradox inherent in God/Man that cannot be addressed with black-and-white literal terms. Our poiesis knowledge is necessary for full wrestling with Christ. Christ as the Word of God is the postresurrection Gardener whose revealing begins with the calling of our names and follows with re-naming us in what is principally a poetic act. God is the Artist, and we are little artists created in God's image. When we are awakened to Christ's presence, and our hearts are burning within us, then the Word manifests in all areas of our lives, filling and redeeming our senses. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we will see visions and we will create. God is love. Love is creative, and the provenance of art and creativity is Love.

The Bible speaks of sunrises, dragons, perfume of nard, cubits, and tambourines. Jesus spoke of wine (the best), feasts, and lilies. It is impossible not to imagine visually passages such as this: "The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire" (Revelation 1:14). The Bible assumes our visual reaction, as well as aural, tactile, and even olfactory responses. Sure, a word to provoke the senses being used does not prove that the Word requires these sensory modes to be part of the Bible itself. My argument here is not to presume that such modalities are necessary, but that they form a reasonable experiential language to accompany the Bible.

Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, also spoke in parables—a metaphorical, poetic device. The sower sows seeds. The Gospel seeds land on soil. The parable points to the need of caretakers creating a good soil conditions as much as the power of the seeds themselves. Jesus suggests that even the best seed can be choked by thorns, eaten by birds, or simply crowded out. These agrarian parables show the importance of caring for the soil, that the condition of the soil on which the good seed lands is just as important for growth as the seeds themselves. Art and poetry create an ecosystem of a cultural reality, and are part of the cultural soil that allows the roots of ideas, principles, and Biblical messages to penetrate our hearts. As much as we have neglected this cultural soil, and as much as weeds and pollution have taken over, we need to reconsider our stewardship responsibilities. As James K. A. Smith notes in Desiring the Kingdom, our liturgies are based on false realities of the idols of the world, rather than the soils cultivated and carefully maintained by the love of God toward the fallen world. A well cared-for garden is generative, allowing an entire ecosystem (not just for the church, but for the common good of all people) to thrive; and the Word of God is the central Tree of Life, which generates many sensory experiences and artistic incarnations. In our culture, false liturgies often use visual means to allure and trap imaginations to dehumanized ends. Visual, cheap trinkets have taken over in lieu of enduring, carefully crafted visual statements that glorify the Maker.

Illuminations are art expressions that shed light on the condition of the current soil while providing nutrients to the soil. An illumined work, whether it be visual art, poetry, dance, or music, is a generative catalyst in the cultural soil of our times. And in such a visual age, visual responses of illuminations are one of the most natural outcomes of such rich soil properly tilled and fruit that has naturally shown forth.

As I consider the Word of God to be sacred, the holiness of such an experience sheds light onto the complex and mysterious working of such a soil. Just as the parables of Jesus cannot be understood in literal terms, illumination requires a type of allusiveness—or shall I dare say "abstraction"—that points to God's presence. Such an attempt is not escapism, but an honouring of a sacred trust we have been given through the Second Commandment not to attempt to depict God through the Second Commandment. The Bible is full of abstract images, from designs within Solomon's Temple, flowing through the visions of the prophets, and leading to the core message of St. Paul being the "mystery of the Gospel." At the same time, if the incarnate Word is Christ, then all means of expression—abstract, figurative, non-representational, and representational— can be explored. Christ's incarnation allows us to trust in the particularity of reality, of flesh being filled with sacred possibilities.

What I have endeavoured to do with The Four Holy Gospels project is to illumine in a way that glorifies God, but at the same time exegetes visual dictions of contemporary and Asian (particularly Japanese) art. Both of these areas are seen to be alien, even hostile, to the Biblical perspective—yet I see in both authentic longing for the greater reality and a visual vocabulary useful for illuminations. Perhaps, when done in such a way as to honour these traditions, a proper Biblical perspective will help fulfill the cultural language that these traditions captured.

Visual illuminations, then, can bring to the page one artist's response to the living Word of God. That's why Tim Keller noted at the opening of The Four Holy Gospels exhibit at Dillon Gallery in New York City's Chelsea neighbourhood that the illuminator has to be illumined first to make illumination possible. As I noted in the artist's statement for the Four Holy Gospels, I hope this century will see many other responses of illuminating the Bible with diverse results. Further, I contend that we are all illuminators—we illumine with our lives the Truth we inhabit and which we centre our lives around. All artists are illuminating something, consciously or unconsciously. Mine, along with works of Fra Angelico, Giotto, William Blake, and Vincent van Gogh, have an explicit dimension tied to the living Word of God. May such conscious work result in liberating the expression of art, and lead us into illumined lives and an illumined world.

 

Makoto Fujimura is a painter drawing on ancient Japanese and recent New York City traditions. He is also the founder of the International Arts Movement, and served a member of the United States' National Council on the Arts from 2003 to 2009.

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