Adventist Forum Conference attendees had the opportunity to view and respond to John McDowell’s art for a couple days before hearing the artist give a formal presentation Sunday morning. Dr. McDowell, of Burman University, is Dean of the Division of Arts and Professor of English. First, he thanked Bonnie Dwyer and Adventist Forums for the invitation adding, “At the Adventist Intellectual table there is not often room for discussion of art and aesthetics.”
Then, McDowell showed a photo of one of his pieces, an angel with a deformed wing that was bound with three cords. The white sculpture had red eyes and seemed to weep. McDowell felt this piece reflected the state of freedom in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
To give insight into the function of art, McDowell quoted author, Jeanette Winterson:
If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it.”
True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”
Since this was a conference on the Bible, McDowell focused on his work that involved decorating Bibles. Biblical art is not new. McDowell showed several photos of ornate and guilded Bibles dating back several centuries. In the past, decorated Bibles symbolized the wealth and power and beauty that came with use of the holy text.
Dr. McDowell said that in creating his three dimensional Bible art he is interested in how people use the Bible, instead of the Bible itself.
His creations stimulate a relationship between the art and the viewer. What the viewer brings, their past experiences and values, will be foundational. McDowell’s work is of a different sort than the embellished Bibles from centuries ago. Since it can be sort of elusive to write about visual art, I refer you to his website and to his talk (below) in which you can view some images of his work.
All of his renderings captivated my imagination, but for the sake of brevity, I will describe only two:
First, is the image of a Holy Bible with a fire alarm on it. Some plug their ears and run when an alarm sounds. An alarm can save. It can also irritate or stir up anger. If it is unrelenting, then it is annoying. One cannot live an abundant life and be in a constant state of alarm.
I was most moved by what he did with The Living Bible. In this simple, but profound work, McDowell mounted a mirror on the cover reflecting the notion that people often see what they want to see in scripture.
The conference audience found McDowell’s presentation compelling as evidenced by numerous questions. Some expressed discomfort with setting anything on top of the Bible as this could be viewed as disrespect of the text. Yet, there is also the realization that the true value in a Bible is when people hear it and are transformed by it. That is McDowell’s main interest. How do 21st century people use their Bibles?
Conference planners wanted this weekend to be about hermeneutics but realized the tension that exists between finding intellectual meaning in words of scripture vs. how scripture impacts people's lives. McDowell’s work helped move our thoughts into realms that are larger than mere thinking. We are grateful for him and for his willingness to participate.
WATCH: Session VI of the 2017 Adventist Forum Conference titled, "Art and the Bible" which featured two sections: Dr. John McDowell who spoke on the topic of "Reading the Bible: Views of a Relationship" and a panel that discussed "Sacred Texts and the Church." The panel was moderated by Zane Yi and featured Kendra Haloviak Valentine, John Brunt, and Terry and Kara Johnsson.
Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.
Image Credit: SpectrumMagazine.org / Video Still
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