Book Reviews

The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community by Robin M. Jensen

Where Has All the Art Gone?
Yes, Yes, YES! Kept popping in my head as I read the words of Robin Jensen in her book The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community. From the first chapter I found myself drawn in as she talked about the place of art in the church – or rather it’s absence altogether. Where has all the art gone? What happened to chapels with painted ceilings? When did beauty and design become frivolous and unnecessary in the church?

As a graphic artist I’ve often felt “hushed” by the church, silenced like a small child that should know when to keep quiet. “Excuse me!” I would say eagerly. If I were in a classroom my hand would be raised and I’d be stretching my fingers wildly and rocking about to get attention, but this isn’t a classroom, just a drab conference room that once again is stripped bare of any personality or design. “What if we added a bit of color to this wall?” I would ask sincerely, my imaginative mind rife and overflowing with possibilities. My question would be met with blank stares and incredulity. “Who is the new kid?” their expressions would say. Then audibly they would respond, “Well, that’s a nice idea (read: bless your heart), but that’s not in the budget.” I quickly learned that the old Japanese Proverb, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, was indeed quite true. Thwack! I felt the hammer often as my ideas were slammed down. It hurt. It stung on the inside as much, if not more, than a literal pounding on the outside.

At the church where I worked my creative skills were seen as a “nice-to-have” but definitely not a “must-have”. What I thought was just as necessary as a bathroom and chairs; the church thought was superfluous and at times laughable. However, in my experience, budgetary constraints were not the only limitations to church beautification. Even if the artwork could be done for free it was still not valued. Sure it may have looked nice, but did it really function any better? The feeling that I felt most often was dismissed. “Please go away with your creative ideas, we have more important projects to attend to.” While my experiences at this church might have been unique, from what I gathered from Jensen’s book, they were and still are quite common.

Art is Critical, Not an Afterthought
To the artist, art is the foundational element, not an afterthought. It is step one in the planning process, a crucial cornerstone. Art is the heart and soul, the core, not the icing on the cake.

What Jensen seemed to highlight in her book is that Instead of leading with beauty and art, the church has led with form and function. Sterility is a virtue. Boring is synonymous with spiritual. Being forced to worship in a room that is as barren as a cave or a monastery is the only way to truly communicate with God, as if art and beauty are distractions, not something that could incite passion, love, desire or faith. Besides, beauty is not to be elevated or worshipped. No, that is idolatry. Art should know it’s place and it is not in the church, especially not in the sanctuary.

So what has the treatment of art by the church communicated to the artist? That their skills are of limited worth and value – which communicates that they are of limited value. Each artist considers their work part of who they are, a reflection of themselves just as creation is a reflection of God. To not see our art is to not see us.

Art and the church often don’t mesh well because art is controversial. Art elicits a response. It asks a question. It stirs emotion. It causes riots. It causes splits. The church doesn’t have time for that.

Christianity and the arts used to have a great marriage. It was a love affair, a partnership that allowed artists to make a living by doing what God created them to do. But for the most part art and church have been divorced and there seems to be no simple path to reconciliation. Why did church and art become two things that couldn’t coexist in wonderful harmony where each elevated each other? The reasons are many but the most simple are money and then tension that exists between the church and the artist. Art is a form of self-expression; it can be beautiful, abstract, ugly, and awe-inspiring. It is often hated and misinterpreted, but it cannot be ignored. True art speaks. It cannot be silenced. Since the creation of time art has been speaking. “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” (Rom 1:20 NLT)

It is through art that the world was created. It is through visual imagery that ideas are reinforced and it may be for this very reason that art has been removed from the church. Art causes us to feel and feelings are complex. Instead of living in a world of logic and fact, art lives in a world of fantasy and “What if?” This can be frightening.
Art and Entertainment
In very recent times there does seem to be a shift toward an entertainment model of church. Big screens and flashy media along with graphic backgrounds and other “art” are often used in large churches. However, even these uses of graphic design are often met with criticism. “Couldn’t that money be spent on missions?” “Shouldn’t we spend that money on the poor?” Where does the church draw the line between sensational production and misappropriation of resources? As a church should we be trying to compete with a rock concert or multimedia conference? The questions are endless and there seems that there needs to be some balance between marketing, creativity and the purpose behind our “art.” As a graphic artist I know that sometimes resources are very limited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be creative and find other ways of implementing art without spending a lot of money.

Offensive Art
In chapter six of Jensen’s book she mentions some artists whose art can be extremely offensive to some people. An excerpt from the book, which is talking about an art exhibit called Sensation, reads:

One object in the exhibit got special attention in the press, becoming notorious as the “Virgin Mary with Elephant Dung” painting (otherwise known as The Holy Virgin Mary) by African artist Chris Ofili. During the time of the show’s run, the media gave so much attention to discussion of the exhibit in general and this painting in particular that the show became a kind of blockbuster, a result primarily of its deliberate intent to be shocking and even offensive (hence its name).

When we hear about art that is shocking or offensive we have to run it through our own personal and cultural filter. What might induce apoplexy in America may be mundane in Milan. Artists whose work features religious items mixed with feces, blood, or urine, like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, are sure to elicit a response – most likely anger, from anyone who has been raised in a religious household or who loves Christ. However, because art is a form of self-expression it is hard to define what exactly is “true” art and what is just an attempt to infuriate a religious group or organization merely as a publicity stunt. So where does that leave churches and religious organizations that want to incorporate art into their buildings and sanctuaries? It seems that the best approach to this is to create a guide for artists to follow as well as educating their congregation and church members about the purpose of the art in the church. As an artist my clients request specific artwork and while I get to input my own creative stamp on it, I understand that if they ask for a picture of Jesus I better not paint him to look like Satan. When it comes to artwork that is done on commission then there is a balance, a push and pull that happen between the client and the artist. For me, it is in that struggle that some of my most creative work happens. I believe the same is true for the church. There will be conflict, there will be times when we disagree, but we must fight, and fight fair, in order to progress, otherwise we stagnate.

Book Reviews Stories

Perhaps We All Have Multiple Personality Disorder

I just finished reading “Switching Time” by Dr. Richard Baer. It Blew. My. Mind. Do not read this if you are afraid of course language. I don’t mean to be graphic, but in retelling this true story there is no way to convey the story any other way.

People who suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder or MPD, have normally suffered something tragic in their lives that cause them to split mentally in order to protect themselves. Don’t we all do that when we are in stressful situations? We become someone who we aren’t, sometimes only momentarily, but for a brief moment we don’t even recognize ourselves. The difference is we are aware of this behavior when it happens, but what if we were suddenly forced into extreme situations repeatedly – how would we handle it?

In the book “Switching Time” Karen, the patient with 17 multiples inside her has suffered in ways that I am not sure any human can bear:

1. Gang Rape by people in her neighborhood and the priest at her church
2. Satanic rituals which involved extreme physical torture
3. Pins stuck into her body from the time she was 1 year old
4. Forced to eat excrement
5. Molested by her father and grandfather
6. Prostituted out for money
7. Forced to watch pornography
8. Fish Hooks stuck in her chest
9. Face burned with curling iron
10. Forced into ice-cold water with blood in it and then stuck in a coffin for hours
11. Multiple items inserted into her body cavities including hammers, hangers and waterhoses
12. Religious torture and brainwashing
13. Electrical shocks
14. Tied to the bed naked and beaten
15. Forced to steal and then punished for stealing

I read this book in 3 days and could not put it down. I’m amazed at the mind’s ability to protect itself. Each of Karen’s distinct personalities had traits of their own. Some were crippled, some had allergies and vision problems and when she’d take medication it was effective on some of the personalities but not on all of them. One of the personalities claimed to be able to make Karen’s body temperature rise at will and for rashes to appear.

Each personality had a function that helped Karen to cope with her life. One personality handled school work and one could draw while others would cook, clean or drive. The personalities were not limited to female either. Karen had 4 male personalities along with her 13 female personalities.

When we were growing up my family was very spiritual. We were Christians who believed in demons and demon possession and we were taught that MPD was a form of demon possession. After reading this book I’m not so sure this is true. I’m sure that in all of our lives there are things of a spiritual nature happening that we do not understand, but are all multiple personality disorders demon possession?

In Karen’s case she did not turn against God despite this ordeal. She was told repeatedly that she was evil and her tormentors played Choir hymns while they tortured her. At her communion her father took her into the back room in her white dress and stuck a cross into her vagina. A priest molested her and forced her to make child pornography films.

What is astounding throughout this story is that Karen was able to fool people into believing that she was okay. She protected her attackers and one of her personalities was always happy and played dumb when she was asked about her injuries. Even with a child denying how she was injured, you would think that her teachers would have suspected foul play and done something to intervene and help Karen.

At the end of the story, Karen writes a brief message to the reader telling us to watch out for children that have a glazed look in their eyes and seem to be disconnected from society. When a child feels that they can’t talk to someone about their problems they have no where else to turn but inward.

Dr. Baer’s story is a compelling and despite the dark topic you are carried on this emotional wave of hope. Despite Karen’s constant desire to kill herself, which is something I think many people would have done in her case, she presses on and after 18 years of therapy finally becomes a whole person.

I’m impressed by Dr. Baer’s patience and as someone who wants to enter into counseling, I found this book very educational. Sitting all day and listening to problems can be emotionally draining and physically exhausting. Dr. Baer gets a divorce during the time that he is treating Karen and despite the fact that he rarely mentions the toll his therapy with Karen is taking, it is evident that is must be destructive on multiple levels to his own emotional health.

I recommend Switching Time to anyone who wants to further understand the power of the human psyche and the impact we can have on people when we are willing to work with them and be patient. As Americans I don’t know many people who could suffer through 18 weeks of intense listening and understanding let alone 18 years. I have a new respect for all counselors after reading this book and I can’t help but applaud both Dr. Baer and Karen for this remarkable recovery.

Book Reviews Relationships Stories

Meeting Heather B. Armstrong in the Flesh

Heather Flails her arms about wildly, but looks beautiful and pregnant nonethless
Heather Flails her arms about wildly, but looks beautiful and pregnant nonethless

Last night I drove down to Austin to meet Heather B. Armstrong a.k.a Dooce.  It was a treat…

When I first started working at Texas Instruments I HATED my job. I sat in one of those cubicle that only goes about 3 feet how and makes you feel exposed like you are a kid urinating at a trough with your pants around your ankles and everyone can see your buttocks – except now you are an adult and this is totally unacceptable.

Texas Instruments was a thirsty tick that was sucking the lifeblood out of me and I couldn’t help but surf the net for a little bit of an escape from my suicidal reality – and that is how I stumbled upon Dooce.

Immediately I was taken aback by this woman who was writing some of the most hilarious and sometimes bawdy tales of her life. See this excerpt here that was written before her daughter was born and after I had already been reading religiously for a while:

I’m a Slave 4 U(nemployment)

I’ve cleaned every surface in this apartment: every tile, every crevice, every hidden corner littered with dust bunnies the size and attitude of Texas. Alas, I’ve nothing left to clean.

I always said that I’d strip this place bare once I had the free time to do so, much like I’d strip the sleeves from Britney’s trembling shoulders if ever given the chance to hit her, baby, one more time. Two weeks into unemployment and that mission is accomplished (the cleaning mission, not the Britney mission, you pervert). Now what the hell do I do?

As you can see the language is often “colorful”, but the writing is downright creative and sometimes so hilarious that I would sputter and snort in my cubicle. I was supposed to be helping someone figure out how to double-click but instead I was finding a way to cope with that fact that my life sucked  – Heather/Dooce helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one with some serious issues and that sometimes you need to get help with those issues.

As the years went by I got to watch as Heather went through depression and pregnancy and how Mormonism has affected her life. I have read about her political views and ideas on same-sex marriage and although often times I find myself disagreeing with her it has never changed the fact that I have loved her like a sister – a far away online only sister, but a sister nonetheless.

Heather got up and read an excerpt from her new book – it was a story that we had read on her website about how it took seven months after giving birth vaginally with her first child before she was able to have sex again or what she called “Reconvening the Procedure”.

I suppose I could look for a job; that’s what any ambitious worker-bee would do. If I were any ambitious worker-bee I would put my shoulder to the wheel, as the Mormons might say, and find me some effing gainful employment. After all, I’m a healthy blonde college graduate with seriously long legs. Finding a job shouldn’t be that hard.

What I love most about Heather is not the hilarious side, but the softer side. I love her monthly newsletters to her daugher Leta and the times when she stops and takes a moment to express her love for her husband Jon, like she did in this paragraph:

So it feels really good to have all these emotions toward Jon that I don’t normally experience because of our proximity. I miss everything about him, even the incessant talking and bear feet. It’s a longing that is somehow invigorating, and once where I would have been annoyed that we’d talked six times already on the phone I find myself getting a text message and hoping it’s from him. I ache to get back to the hotel room from whatever I’m doing so that I can call and hear his voice. Which I am about to do right this second, call and see if he slept well, ask if I can interrupt SpongeBob to say hello to Leta, and then stop and savor this feeling of missing the weight of his body on the bed next to me.

The way she expresses her love for her family  is so genuine and intimate that it makes me, as a single dude, hope and pray to God that someday I will find a love like that.

I plan to insert a picture here later that I got with Jon and Heather. I was elated to get a picture with both of them and I hope Jon doesn’t mind me using his photo at the top of this post. I was standing right behind him when he took it and so this was the angle that I had during the hour that she spoke.

Jon Armstrong, Dooce, Eddeaux - all equally popular... almost

Book Reviews

A Review: Skinny B~tch (Rated R)

Authors Note: Profanity is used in this review, but only when quoting word for word from this book. I would have used niceties like “The F word or the S word, but I think we are all adults here and I wanted to give you the facts instead of putting perfume on a turd.


I listen to 106.1 Kiss FM in the morning and I heard Big Al Mac, one of the morning personalities, confess, “Yes, I am currently reading Skinny Bitch.”

I sort of chuckled and put it out of my mind. Then last night I went to Borders and saw the book prominently displayed on one of their stands. I scooped it up and made my way to their coffee bar, purchased a caramel latte and proceeded to read.

From the first chapter the authors of Skinny Bitch are telling you that you to “Give it Up”. You need to give up beer, cigarettes, caffeine, coffee and sugar. The Skinny Bitches go on a diatribe of not only why you should stop these bad habits: bad breath, extra pounds, makes you ugly, they also give you the reasons why they make you fat and ugly and immediately start dropping chemical names like butylated hydroxyamisole and butylated hydroxytoluene. Then they say things like “Coffee is for pussies” and “you need to exercise, you lazy sh~t”.

Wow Rory and Kim, I know you used to be models but are the vulgarities necessary to sell your books?  Maybe so.

The two women continue to discuss everything from animal cruelty to pooping in the remaining chapters: Carbs: The Truth, Sugar is the Devil, The Dead, Rotting, Decomposing Flesh Diet (Atkins), The Dairy Disaster, You Are What you Eat, The Myths and Lies About Protein, Pooping, Have No Faith: Governmental Agencies Don’t Give A Shit About Your Health, Don’t Be A Pussy, Let’s Eat, and the final chapter is called Use Your Head.

This book is actually only about 140 pages of actual reading, the rest is recipes, food, a month’s worth of menus, websites and other helpful information to start your vegan lifestyle.

Here are the things you need to give up to be a Skinny Bitch:

  • All Meat Products
  • All Dairy – no cheese, eggs, milk, yogurt, nada, zero, zilche
  • Caffeine
  • Processed Foods like white flour, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white rice, white bread, etc.

What can you eat?

Vegetables, preferably organic because if they aren’t certified organic then they are probably genetically modified or full of pesticides.

  • Tofu
  • Soy
  • Whole Grains
  • Nuts
  • Organic Fruit
  • Fresh Squeezed Juices
  • Water
  • Beans

After reading the book I am actually surprised that I am on board with some of their suggestions. They mentioned chicken pens full of cockroaches and chickens that have their beaks seared off and their feet that have grown around their wire mesh cages. If that wasn’t enough to keep me from wanting to eat chicken and eggs, they talked about hormones pumped into these poor birds as well as the inhumane butchering processes – and that was just the chicken!

Pigs are butchered by boiling them after their throats have been slit, but sometimes they are still alive when they are dropped into hot water to remove their hair. They are then drowned by a revolving arm. Not to mention that pigs are pretty much fed whatever is rotten. Even Ben and Jerry’s, the ice cream vendor, feeds some of its waste to pigs because it is too toxic to put into the dump. Then these pigs are butchered and fed to us. I’m not ignorant when I’m eating my bacon, but after hearing about some of the cruelty that goes on at these slaughtering houses I must say that I will pause before getting bacon and eggs at IHOP.

The Skinny Bitches continue to list the horrors that happen to our food on every level. Cows get milked by machines and sores and puss develop on their udders and of course that puss goes into the milk along with all the hormones they injected into the cows so that it will produce 100 pounds of milk per day. The milk is pasteurized to rid it of all these impurities, but it still contains lots of chemicals that the FDA deems perfectly fit for human consumption.

The authors of this book did their homework. The data, even if you only believed 25% of what they say is compelling. I have a gallon of milk in the fridge and I couldn’t bring myself to eat my Fiber One with it this morning. Instead I had oatmeal with a banana and cinnamon sweetened with honey.

Other tips for becoming skinny:

  • Don’t drink any diet drinks or artificial sweeteners (including Splenda/Sucralose)
  • Exercise
  • Drink water, but don’t over do it or else the water will leech your body of necessary nutrients
  • Fast – do a juice fast or raw food fast and then eventually do a no-food fast

There are no new ideas presented in this book for losing weight other than the becoming a vegetarian part. I’ve heard most of this information before, but I’ve never been slapped across the face with it boot camp style. Apparently riddling your book with phrases like, “Yeah, eating onions and garlic makes your breath smell like someone took a sh~t down your throat” will sell diet books because we’ve heard the information presented every which way possible and so yeah, these girls did give us something new in the way of profanity.

Lastly, the book does provide the reader with countless resources for finding Vegan foods.

Some of the website provided:

Truthfully, I can’t imagine my life filled with organic cereals and soy milk, but I think I can at least limit my intake by 75% of these foods and better my health. I think what is important is making healthy decisions that not only impact your health, but the world we live in. I think this is a message you can convey in a smart and fun way without telling people they are lazy-shi~ts, but hey, it creates a buzz and gets people talking and so I can’t say that I don’t admire Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin for their achievements.

Book Reviews

River God

I just finished my latest Wilbur Smith novel – River God. 

At the end of the book there is an author’s note that this book was based on a true account of the slave Taita that lived in Egypt during 1780 b.c. No other author has ever moved me to such depths or taught me so much. When I finish reading something by WIlbur Smith I feel like I have learned in a few hours what some people never learn or understand in a lifetime. 

What I learned most in this book is how to be a servant and to find true happiness in the selfless service of others. When we love people we serve them without restraint or regard for self. Our motives are pure when we seek only the happiness of others. 

I hope to be more like the slave Taita who although he was treated so cruelly by his masters never lost his ability to find compassion and love even for his greatest enemies.