From the Editor: Soli Deo Gloria
For a century now, the term “modern art” has acquired certain associations in the public mind—abstract, rebellious, playful, willfully obscure, an art at war with the past and ambivalent about its own audience.
From Picasso onward, modernism was a revolutionary art—turbulent, breathtaking, jarring, shrouded in strangeness but forcing us to see the world anew.
Yet for all its daring iconoclasm, it was always curiously squeamish about a particular subject: religion. The theme of faith was somehow banished early on, tabooed, written out of the script by practitioners and critics both.
We could offer sociological reasons (or excuses) for this. The devastations of World War I tainted all social institutions that had loudly promoted the war, including churches. The result was a new sort of alienation announced by the era’s poetry (Eliot and Pound), music (Stravinsky and Schoenberg), and visual arts (the modernist camp).
Around the same time, urbanization—electrification, motorization, mass transit, new population densities – quickened daily routine and crowded out the past. The anxious grain of urban life, the new economic booms and busts, gave people a secularized sense of self-sufficiency—or powerless- ness. Suddenly tradition’s questions and answers looked stale. The “shock of the new” eclipsed the themes of old.
Artist Carol Bomer is certainly familiar with this history. She admires the giants of high modernism. She is intimate with their methods. But she’s not terribly impressed by their underachieving scorecard on questions of faith. Bomer creates her own very contemporary canvases by claiming an inspiration unusual in the art world even now – the power of God, the God of the Bible.
“In modernism, faith was pretty much outlawed,” she says. “But I love abstract art and realist art too – God created both. I think the modernists, whether they knew it or not, were looking for the One who held it all together. I think all artists are trying to find the One. But it’s right there. It’s Christ holding the world together.”
I got acquainted with her work through the remarkable Museum of Biblical Art (MoBIA), located near busy Columbus Circle in New York City. MoBIA is dedicated to reviving an old conversation that was interrupted by the last hundred years of mainstream artistic taste-making—a dialogue about the perennial power of religious art. The museum is especially devoted to the Bible’s place in shaping the history of art. Through its various exhibits, the museum’s mission is to demonstrate how Scripture continues to stir artistic creativity and visual culture in the twenty-first century. (See mobia.org).
Bomer is a native Canadian who has lived in North Carolina since the early 1980s. She is a teacher, a married mother of two, a devout Christian—also an artist eager to seek bridges between faith and intellect, spirit and flesh.
She started out as a landscapist and watercolorist, but her deepening faith of the last two decades sent her into other realms of artistic inquiry – more ambitious, often more abstract, but in the service of expressing the presence of God in the world.
“I had been painting beautiful landscapes, but I also wanted to deal with issues of truth. I wanted to try to show Christ, find the mystery of Christ, explore the issue of authority, the power of the Word.”
She still does landscapes, portraits and commissions, but her new “postmodern” materials include mixed media, collage, symbolism, the human body in mystical aspect, bits of newspaper or computer code or fragments of sacred text or hymns. Her work Purified Lips (Zeph. 3:9), from her Global City Babel Series, appears on the cover of this Reflections. Her work suggests the noisy human condition after the Tower of Babel drama in Genesis. She borrows a famous tower image from Bruegel, but undergirding the frenetic scene is the notion of divine foundation. The texts you see in the work are from Zephaniah and the Gospel of John in English, French, and Swahili, emphasizing the power of the Word to regather a fractious world. The bold divine “I AM” shoots vertically down the left side.
She is keen to convey the dualities of existence but also question their mutual antagonism—the split between imagination and intellect, faith and science, language and silence, purity and impurity. These polarities have defined western intellectual debates for four hundred years, fragmenting the ego, fragmenting the world. But Bomer witnesses to the overwhelming divine power that oversees the human fray and beckons humanity back to peace and wholeness. She sees healing potential in Scripture itself. Reading and meditating on the word of God is a decisive source of her own inspiration. Indeed, the name of her studio is Soli Deo Gloria – for the glory of God alone.
“To reclaim the holism of imagination and intellect, spirit and flesh, I believe that artists must find direction and truth in the richness of the Holy Scriptures,” she writes in The Next Generation: Contemporary Expressions of Faith, a book produced by MoBIA in conjunction with a 2005 exhibit that included Bomer’s work.
Against a church culture that often nurtures its own suspicions of the imagination and settles for triteness in Christian art, Bomer insists believers should look to art as a window on the great cosmic dramas.
The essays and dispatches in this Reflections, wrestling with some of the same perennial dichotomies of faith and reason, or tradition and innovation, make their own plea for fearless inquiry, a commitment of passion, imagination, intellect and faith.
“People are so often afraid of imagination,” Bomer says, “but you need intellect and imagination working together. God gave us both.”