A framed copy of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night hangs in my office at church. The back story of this work of art profoundly shaped my understanding of the body of Christ.
Ten years ago I volunteered as an art docent at my daughter’s elementary school. Each month we studied a different artist and led children through a hands-on art project. One month we focused on van Gogh. His post-impressionist paintings had always intrigued me. I was surprised, however, to learn about his faith in God.
From an early age, van Gogh wanted to be a pastor. In his mid-twenties, he served as a missionary in a coal-mining region of Belgium. The plight of his impoverished parishioners weighed heavily on his heart. Van Gogh chose an equally poor lifestyle as he lived among them. He captured their despair in brown-toned, realistic paintings of village life.
Church authorities did not support van Gogh’s passion for the miners or his artistic works. They felt he disrespected his pastoral office by focusing on the hopelessness in the coal miners’ lives. Van Gogh, nevertheless, continued to paint scenes of poverty allowing others to know of the struggles. The religious leaders responded by dismissing him from his ministry position. Disillusioned and embittered by the church hierarchy, van Gogh never stepped foot inside a church again.
Following his dismissal, van Gogh began to pursue an art career in earnest. His distinctive style of vivid colors in short brush strokes developed. Starry Night is from this time period. Many interpretations of the stars and moon and town exist. Among them all, one fact remains: the only structure without a light is the church building. Van Gogh had given up on the church. He lost faith in the body of Christ and her leadership. According to his letters to his brother, however, he held fast to his faith in God. Yet he never again experienced the fellowship and embrace of a church family.
Van Gogh Returns to Church
Paradoxically, Vincent van Gogh became a mentor of sorts to me.
My copy of Starry Night keeps my ecclesiastical journey Christ-centered. The painting reminds me of the God-given giftedness of every person within our church family. Whenever I experience new expressions of faith such as non-verbal sermons, liturgical dance, or live painting during worship services, van Gogh’s story returns to me.
Tension in the pews, however, rises as we embrace the arts. The church misses a unique voice when we silence the creatives among us. As long as I represent the church as one of her staff members, I choose to support the men and women who reflect faith through various forms of art.
Over the years, I have worked with my church to host art galleries for young artists, put on massive theatrical productions, and commission paintings for our sanctuary. I wish I could say the experiences all went smoothly. Unfortunately, tension between our creatives and our administratives crescendo to epic climaxes on far too many occasions. We continue to attempt, nevertheless, to learn from our mistakes and to seek avenues in the local church for the artistic passions of God’s people.
Art Stretches Us
Creative expressions of voice and visual art advise our spiritual journey in ways unattainable elsewhere. They propel us beyond our typical, linear-thinking sand trap. Abstract art challenges expectations for order and symmetry. Poetry exposes conflicting emotions through unconventional word use. Music provokes a primitive nature deep within our being.
We discover how awakening the imagination equips us for the surprising and often uncomfortable revelations that accompany our earthly travels. The mental gymnastics to assess works of art stretch us. As the option for intellectual uncertainty become acceptable, we discover an increased tolerance for the unknowns that accompany kingdom life.
Art equips us to experience God’s presence in the most unexpected ways.
Posted by Sharon R Hoover
Photo credit: Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons