Video: Gracious and Green

How can a synod, diocess, district or other church judicatory launch a “green church” initiative? One Lutheran bishop, John Schleicher, is leading the way in his own synod, with help from Dr. Santmire. This video was produced by Bishop Schleicher to tell the story of a synod leadership retreat that he hopes will inspire his entire synod to be green.

If you would like to schedule a workshop or seminar to help your church “go green,” please contact Dr. Santmire.

Santmire Luncheon m4v mpeg4 online sd from MassBible on Vimeo.

A Note on Scything

Scything up here in the Maine foothills of the White Mountains of New Hampshire is indeed a wonderful exercise. The exercise itself, to begin with, is good, of course. But there are other benefits. Scything keeps our large field from turning into a forest. Scything also can and typically does produce many piles of “green manure,” as we call it, which a year or two later I dig into our veggie garden. Then there’s all the time I invest standing there, catching my breath, and contemplating the mountains to the West, which were especially beautiful on this crisp, fall-like day toward dusk. There are liabilities, to be sure, like the time when I sliced through the hive of some paper wasps, hidden in the tall grass, dozens of which landed on my legs, which is particularly bothersome to me, since I am allergic to insect stings (I lived). The liability today was walking in from the field and feeling every muscle in my body strained, wondering whether I would make it to the house. But all in all it was a great afternoon.

Georges Rouault: Thoughts at the End of an Exhibit

This was a blockbuster exhibit that was one of the art world’s best kept secrets. Boston College hosted what may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime retrospective of works by Georges Rouault, August 30 to December 7, 2008. Did anyone notice? Did anyone care?

Fifty years ago Rouault was celebrated as one of the great artists of his age. When an exhibit of his works appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, the philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote from Princeton, words highlighted by the art critic Leo J. O’Donovan in a superb essay in Commonweal (October 10, 2008), that Rouault’s Apresent glory is the purest glory a great painter has ever known in his lifetime.

Rouault was an important figure in my own spiritual development. As an undergraduate at Harvard College in the nineteen-fifties I was introduced to his images of clowns and of the Christ figure at University Lutheran Church, Cambridge. As one who had grown up with representations of the Christ figure like Sallman’s Head of Christ (a friend of mine once called that the image of Deus Businessmanus), I was overwhelmed by the power of Rouault’s Christ — and clown — figures. They helped to keep my faith, such as it was in those days, alive and growing. Rouault was also a favorite of Paul Tillich, with whom I took several courses during my undergraduate years. Tillich was a great interpreter of art, especially of existentially challenging imagery such as often appeared in Rouault’s works.

Today very few even know Rouault’s name. That an exhibition of this import was held at — where? — Boston College and not at the MoMA or some comparable institution (no disrespect to B.C. intended; kudos only), tells its own tale, as does the fact that this blockbuster event was a kind of esthetic one-night stand, not a traveling exhibit intended to introduce a major voice in twentieth-century art to seekers or to the just-curious in a variety of settings.

Why was this one of the art world’s best kept secrets? O’Donovan observes that, after Rouault’s mid-twentieth century public accolades, Rouault’s approach to art during his own lifetime he was called, with scornful intent, As the last romantic gave way to Pop and Op Art, to Conceptualism and Minimalism. In other words, Rouault’s works went out of style. Which, of course, is a commonplace of art history.

But I think that that was only part of the story. The audio commentary on the exhibit by its curator, Stephen Schloesser of Boston College, is most revealing in this respect. Schloesser interpreted this exhibit as a kind of dialectical unfolding (my terms) of two aesthetic perspectives, realism (e.g. Daumier) and symbolism (as in the French poets known as symbolists and in some of their painterly followers, one of whom was a teacher of Rouault). Sometimes, Schloesser told us, Rouault’s works were more realistic, sometimes they were more symbolistic, and sometimes they found a way to integrate the two perspectives That was, in many ways, an illuminating interpretive stance to take.

I had expected something more, however, signaled by the exhibit’s theme, also the title of the exhibit’s companion volume, Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), edited by Schloesser. Several essays in that volume, as a matter of fact, explore or at least refer to Rouault’s spiritual heritage.

But the experience of the exhibit itself was something else, both as the exhibit was organized and as it was introduced to museum-goers (very few of whom, in all likelihood, were going to part with eighty dollars for the companion volume). This was Boston College, mind you, a historic center of Catholic learning. Strikingly, Schloesser never even mentioned that Rouault was baptized as an adult or that Rouault’s art is suffused with perennial themes of Catholic spirituality, above all the suffering Christ and the suffering poor. Think of the case of St. Francis who was marked by the signs of the Cross and who ministered to the Savior in the persons of the poor. In this sense, call much of Rouault’s painting iconic, even christological. That is a historical fact. But if Boston College cannot bring itself to introduce Rouault’s creations to the public in those terms, who will? And if what is arguably the creative center of Rouault’s life-work, his profound christic mysticism, is no longer of interest to those most responsible for framing the discourse about artistic expression, the critics and scholars themselves, is it any wonder that the entirety of Rouault’s achievement has more or less been shelved, as far as the public mind is concerned?

Not that Rouault’s spirituality must be welcomed by everyone. But it should at least be publicly acknowledged. (I find the same thing going on in popular and scholarly interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s works; but that is another story.) If scholars, to begin with, will not talk publicly about Rouault’s iconic spirituality, whether because of esthetic fashion or personal taste or academic parochialism is a secondary matter, how are the eyes of all the rest of us who care about art to be tutored in a way that will allow us to encounter the animating power of works by artists such as Rouault?

Spirituality, Liturgy, and the Specter of Gnosticism

I am all in favor of spirituality and of spiritual experience more generally. I discuss such matters in personal terms in a chapter of my book Nature Reborn.

But not a free-floating spirituality, where anything that “works” is treasured. The specter of Gnosticism has always been lurking at the door of the Church, as the counter-festimonies of Irenaeus, Augustine, and Francis of Assisi show. In our own world, one does not have to maintain that Gnosticism is the American religion, a la Harold Bloom, to see signs of the Gnostic spirit everywhere: precisely in the free floating quest for spirituality that is so popular in American church circles where the experience of the individual has become the treasure-trove of so many of the faithful. Witness the interest in Jung, still, to this day. Witness the influence of New Age trends practically everywhere. Witness even the radical individualism of some forms of post-pietist pietism, whether bequeathed in the sophisticated form of Bultmannian theology or the popular forms of “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” evangelicalism. In all these settings, the faith of the individual rules. It becomes the norm even for preaching at times: visiting a Lutheran congregation while on vacation, I heard the preacher say from the pulpit words like these: “I don’t need to tell you about Jesus. You know all about Jesus. What you don’t know about is yourself.” Mercy.

Spirituality if it is not to fall prey to the Gnostic spirit, I believe, must be rooted — in the classical liturgy of the Church (see my book, Ritualizing Nature). But it must be precisely the classical liturgy of the church, and not a spiritualized adaptation. A case in point: the Eucharistic Prayer. This prayer announces the whole Gospel narrative, creation, redemption, consummation. It is in this universal context that the Eucharist has its existential meaning. What is given “for me” is the full Gospel truth, not just the truth of my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sadly, however, that prayer if often truncated, reduced just to “the words of institution.” In that way, I become the center of the Eucharist — given for me — rather than God. My experience occupies the center of the stage, not the grace of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When spirituality is properly rooted in the catholic liturgy, then it can inspire us to praise God in all things and to know God with us and with every creature, overflowing with power and glory and grace. With spirituality thus rooted, the specter of Gnosticism can be revealed for the false “gospel” that it is.