The Square Halo Gallery opened a few years ago to be a space in downtown Lancaster for contemporary art inspired by the Christian faith. As such, it is a bit of a no man's land. Like many missionary kids, it sits in the uncomfortable spot of being of neither one culture nor the other. It is in the middle of the arts district in the city, halfway between Gallery Row and the Demuth Museum, and the art that is exhibited is high-caliber contemporary work, but the work comes from Christian artists or the themes in the work are based on Scripture. Therefore, most of the conversations that occur when visitors wander through on First Fridays are ones of translation. How do you explain Ehud, Shamgar, or Rahab to people who have never read the Bible? And on the other hand, how do you explain abstract paintings to people who have never even heard of the Museum of Modern Art?
The Square Halo Gallery's October-November 2016 artist was confronted by similar tensions. Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996) converted from Buddhism to Christianity at 17 years old. He sought to combine his faith with traditional Japanese folk art, katazome. By creating colorful representations of biblical scenes, he hoped the beauty and tradition of the art would speak to his people. He said, "My task is to stand within the artistic tradition of Japan .... Theology will not take deep root in Japanese soil if it is merely an import." In his art he clothed all the biblical characters in Japanese dress. Noah's ark looks like a Japanese cricket cage filled with a menagerie of animals. He depicted the Last Supper with a spread of fish and sake, and the wedding at Cana with a declawed lobster -- all familiar traditional foods of his people.
The exhibit that hung in the gallery over the past summer was also an attempt to communicate the Bible to a culture who often views God's Word as an alien import into a progressive Western culture. Based on the recent book, Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups, the exhibit of contemporary printmaking sought to incarnate the story of Redemption in a visual language that a modern audience would understand.
The church needs to make good, theologically rich art, because — for good or for ill — art teaches people how to interpret the Bible.
God Himself calls for the making of art -- as when, in the book of Exodus, He gives elaborate instructions concerning the artwork for the Tabernacle and the Temple. It should come as no surprise, then, that from the beginning Christianity has been a rooted, earthy, and representational religion. Art bears witness to the faith, and makes it more accessible. With this power comes responsibility. The art of sculpting the Golden Calf shaped the faith of the Israelites in a negative way, while the sculpting of the cherubim for the Ark of the Covenant shaped the faith of the Israelites in a positive way. The church needs to make good, theologically rich art, because -- for good or for ill -- art teaches people how to interpret the Bible. Was Adam with Eve when the Serpent deceived her? Was David a young boy or a grown man when he fought Goliath? How many wise men visited Jesus? All of these questions have been impacted by art over the centuries, and the answers have colored our readings of the texts.
The art world is an odd mission field and often a lonely one. But just as Bezalel was called during the Exodus by God and filled with His Spirit to make art "for glory and for beauty" (as the Lord said to Moses in Exodus 28:2), so today many are called to use their gifts in the arts for the glory of God.
Ned Bustard is the curator of the Square Halo Gallery and a graphic designer for World's End Images and Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). He is also a children's book illustrator, author, and printmaker. His books include Squalls Before War: His Majesty's Schooner Sultana,The Chronicles of Narnia Comprehension Guide, It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, The Church History ABCs, Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who, Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups, and the History of Art: Creation to Contemporary. He serves on the board of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) and The Row House, Inc. See more of his work at WorldsEndImages.com.