On the Arts: Unity and Diversity
David A. VanderMeer
David A. VanderMeer is the minister of music and fine arts at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
As I write this column, we have just passed the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the report of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, finalized in Lima, Peru, in January of 1982. Its publication four decades ago represented an even longer span of the work for the commission, since it summarized agreements that began in 1927, more than fifty years earlier. Even today, almost a century later, the commission’s process serves as a model for ecumenical cooperation. Quoting the preface, “In leaving behind the hostilities of the past, the churches have begun to discover many promising convergences in their shared convictions and perspectives.”
Baptism of Christ, Dave Zelenka, 2005
The World Council of Churches does not claim any universal authority. The Council consists of
more than three hundred member denominations and strives for close collaboration, not necessarily agreement, in Christian witness and service. It celebrates the diversity of cultural backgrounds, traditions, languages, and governance represented in its membership, but at the same time it strives for visible church unity. Art, too, relies on both unity and diversity, and I believe that church unity in the midst of diversity can be acknowledged, explored, understood, and enhanced through the arts. We can approach this from at least two different perspectives—one that feels like finding the unity in our diversity, and the other that seems more like finding the diversity in our unity.
As the writers of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry worked to find common ground, they identified five meanings of baptism, five different ways of understanding the sacrament. Various artistic representations of the baptism of Jesus and baptismal practice through the centuries also reveal how different artists understood what baptism means. Art about baptism invites viewers to consider their own understanding of baptism as well, and, most importantly, art throughout church history can lead us toward an understanding that “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” can unify us even as we enact belief in many different ways.
Googling “images of the baptism of Jesus” produces thousands of representations made by
artists alive today and artists who worked only a few hundred years after the actual baptism of Christ! I have chosen a few pieces from the collection of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, a fabulous source of art images for church use, as examples. Look carefully at each of the works—they were created centuries apart and in a variety of media. They reflect different cultures and, certainly, different understandings of baptism. But they share powerful commonalities: all reference water in some way; all include the image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove; all show the presence of God, either in the form of rays reaching down from heaven, or in the case of the Armenian Gospel book, the visible “hand of God.” Two of the works even include sin, and overcoming sin, represented as the serpent in the two older pieces. Though these works are different in many ways, there are unified in their diversity.
Baptism of Christ, Xač˛atur, Armenian, 1455. This Armenian Gospel book was produced in (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet and was illuminated by the priest Xač˛atur.
On the other hand, there are other works of art that help us to explore the diversity in our unity. In the mid-nineteenth century, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Music is the universal language of [hu]mankind.” This statement has been quoted many times since it originally appeared, but in 2018 three scientists at Harvard University initiated a study1
to determine whether it was, in fact, true. Ultimately the study was expanded to include a research team of anthropologists, psychologists, biologists, musicians, and linguists from top universities around the globe. They researched a vast array of music from sixty different countries and more than eighty different cultural groups, and they concluded that Longfellow
was correct! Music is a universal language across humankind.
Baptism of Christ, Peter Koenig, 1976
Of course, I would not argue with Longfellow and these Harvard researchers, but I would expand the idea to include many other art forms. Art invites us to learn about and relate to each other in all our diversity, even when our language differences create barriers to communication and understanding through words. It would be trite, but relevant, to note that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” especially if the words are in a language we don’t speak or write. But it is more than that. Consider the Peter Koenig painting titled Baptism of Christ, where, though we see the feet of John the Baptist and of Christ in the upper left of the painting, the focus is not on Jesus but on the others present. The painting depicts people who seem to be watching in
awe or in fear of what they are seeing and hearing. They are standing where we would have stood had we been present. We see the scene from our own perspective! This is a very different view than we may be used to from other representations of the baptism of Jesus, but perhaps it is one that invites us to think more about our own role in the story.
River, John August Swanson, 1987
Another very different view is from Chinese American artist He Qi. Dr. He Qi’s art training was
in China, but he now lives and works in the United States and is presently artist-in-residence at Fuller Theological Seminary. He interprets scenes from the Bible in the style of traditional Chinese painting. In his Baptism of Jesus the elements that are common to the vast majority of paintings of the baptism of Christ—the water, the dove, the presence of God through descending rays, and even the serpent. But the brilliant use of color, the fierceness of the figures’ facial expressions and even the dove’s expression, the icon-like flatness of the figures, and the boldness of line and form are typical of the tradition of Chinese art that He Qi references. The
elements of the biblical narrative are there, but the style differs from what we see in Western art we have examined. He Qi’s work shows us that we interpret the text through our own cultural lens, not just in how we read the written words, but also in the visual language we use. The stories unite us, even as we interpret them in our diverse contexts.
So, what are the implications of unity and diversity in the visual arts for congregational worship? Typically, we attend carefully to what the congregation hears— the language we use in our liturgy and hymnody—but we also must attend carefully to what the congregation sees and feels. In addition to using visual art on the worship bulletin however it is presented, we can also incorporate art objects into our worship. For example, we might drape blue fabric from the font so that it spills out onto the floor, reminding those gathered of their constant connections to the waters of baptism. In congregations I’ve served, we have used blue kite banners with a small fabric dove attached to wave over the congregation during the opening hymn or following the sacrament as the newly baptized is introduced to the congregation. This lifts the eyes of the worshipers and helps to foster an environment of wonder. I have used small glass droplets during a renewal of baptism service and asked each worshiper to come forward to the font to draw out a glass droplet and keep in their pocket every day. These options, and others you might consider, help us to find the unity of the experience in the diversity of the ways we experience it, and at the same time be open to the diversity of the ways others might experience it.
In our deeply divided world, one yearns for unity as the writers of Baptism, Eucharist and
Ministry sought unity in the foundational beliefs of Christianity. I think it helps if we remember that there can be diversity in our unity and unity in our diversity. The visual arts can be a powerful tool in helping find the way forward together.
- Jed Gottlieb, “Music Everywhere,” The Harvard Gazette, November 21, 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/11/new-harvard-study-establishes-music-is-universal/.