The wonder of art

"Presbyterians have always valued the intellectual, through our emphasis on biblical study and lifelong learning, but we should also embrace the power of wonder," writes Teri McDowell Ott.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

I’ve always loved this line from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It’s startling to think of God as “pissed off.” But wouldn’t any artist be upset by a passerby who doesn’t notice the beauty they’ve created?

For 10 years, I worked as a chaplain on a college campus. The route I walked to many of my meetings took me past the art building. Typically, I’d be running late, race-walking to make it to my meeting on time. Addicted to my smartphone, I’d also be scrolling my feed to make sure I didn’t miss a single email or message via social media.

But inevitably, something caught my attention by the art building. Once, a large, yellow plaster snake sat staring at me in the grass. It wasn’t a scary snake. It had a little smile and a cute pattern of pebbles running down its back. Another time, chains of red and blue Solo cups emerged from and circled the art building’s windows, like the legs of a giant octopus. Student artists yarn-bombed the trees outside the building, knitting them in colorful sweaters. Broken bike parts were reassembled into new and curious sculptures. All these creations gave me pause. They made me stop, lift my eyes from my smartphone and recalibrate my trip across campus, sometimes even recalibrating my mood for the day.

What else, I wondered, was I missing?

Art is a powerful medium. Liturgical art – whether sewing paraments, directing a choir, or reenacting a dramatic scene of Scripture – gives us creative and satisfying ways to express our praise and prayers to God and leads us to wonder, to reclaim our divine sense of awe.

“Have you ever watched a three-year-old blow the wisps off a dandelion for the first time?” writes Cole Arthur Riley in This Here Flesh, her book on spiritual and bodily liberation. “Children are made of awe.” Riley advises we reclaim this childlike awe because wonder is what protects us from the despair of disillusionment.

“When we grow accustomed to neglecting beauty,” Riley writes, “we eventually become creatures of hatred. We lose our imagination — a virtue to which wonder is helplessly tied “Wonder helps us get free,” she writes.

Presbyterians have always valued the intellectual, through our emphasis on biblical study and lifelong learning, but we should also embrace the power of wonder. Art is wonder’s medium, and worship through art presents us with opportunities to encourage our imagination. Music, poetry, preaching, visio divina, incense, color, candles: inspiration can come through all our senses.

We usually encounter art in its own environment: museums, sculpture gardens, theaters and concert halls. But art creeps in when we open ourselves to wonder in all things, and with it, the Spirit surprises us with divine connection. Throughout my life, whether I’ve been sitting in a pew or leading, I’ve experienced moments of awe in worship — moments when I’ve heard a word from the pulpit that resonates or felt my heart stirred by music or marveled at the beauty of a sanctuary lit by a hundred hand-held candles. These art-inspired moments give me pause and oftentimes fill my eyes with unexpected, joy-filled tears. Such experiences are liberating. They are like noticing the color purple in a field for the first time, and knowing God is pleased.