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The Square Halo Gallery: A Place to Encounter Christian Art in the Midst of the City



Most people have a secret dream, a far-fetched vision that they keep tucked away in a hidden room in their hearts. Some may long to be famous singers. Others might long to travel around the world or to be the monarch of an important nation. Fame, money, power—these all are rolled into one in my ridiculous fantasy. If you were to catch me in reverie, I would most likely be planning and organizing The Square Halo Museum—a beautiful collection of contemporary art inspired by the Christian faith.

In 2013 my good friend Dr. Robert Bigley was tasked with starting a performing arts center in our city, in the empty husk of the Lancaster Trust Company.1 He said to me, “I can’t give you a museum, but how would you like to have an art gallery?” I must have confessed my vision for The Square Halo Museum to him one night over a bottle of wine with our wives. Regardless of how he found out, I lost no time in giving him my reply: I immediately accepted his offer, and my first exhibition of art went up even before the doors to the rest of The Trust Performing Arts Center2 had opened. The inaugural show of the Square Halo Gallery featured art by a number of the artists from It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Since then, I have averaged a new show every other month, showcasing a wide variety of artists—both living and dead, famous and should-be-famous.3

Square Halo Gallery is in the middle of downtown Lancaster and in the middle of the arts district—a block from “Gallery Row” and The Fulton Opera House.4 Over time, I found that the gallery was also in the middle of an aesthetic and theological no-man’s-land. Of the Christians who entered the gallery, assuming it was a “safe” place for their tribe, many found that the art they considered “too modern” made them uncomfortable. And of the non-Christians who came in believing that the gallery—like any other downtown art gallery—was a “safe” place for their tribe, many were made uncomfortable by art they considered “too religious.” This led me to eventually realize that my role as a curator and gallery director is actually that of a translator—explaining contemporary art to the church, and explaining the Christian faith to the unchurched. I have come to appreciate that the calling of the Square Halo Gallery is to be neither a fancy museum nor a cooler-than-thou moneymaking gallery but to be a place to educate and beautify the city for God.

The apostle John also had a dream, a far-fetched vision we now call the Book of Revelation. In it, he saw a glorious New Creation and the city of God that defies description. That city has been the plan since the beginning. When God gave mankind the cultural mandate at the dawn of time, He was calling us to be city builders. “Cities are the ‘culture-forming wombs’ of the society, made by God to be so.”5 Cities are places for building, making, and growing. In cities, people come to work together, live together, and blossom together. Business, justice, science, architecture, and the arts find a place to grow in these “wombs of society.” Aesthetician Calvin Seerveld says,

The reach of God’s rule, the city of God—Augustine’s civitas Dei— involves government, commerce, education, media, families, transportation, hospitals, organized sports, centers of art—all societal institutions. God’s city is the place where God’s will is to be done and cultivated as a tangible signpost on earth of the rule of God currently in place at God’s throne, which sinless “city of God” Jesus will bring fully to earth at the end.6

Seerveld has also observed that the biblical vision of the city of God is distinct from but related to the church, therefore charting “a wide open terrain for Christians in the visual arts. This biblical perspective helps prevent us from assuming ‘church art’ or ‘liturgical art’ is the primary model for Christians in the visual arts.”7

Should Christians be involved in growing cities? Tim Keller says that the “single most effective way for Christians to ‘reach’ the US would be for 25% of them to move to two or three of the largest cities and stay there for three generations.”8 In fact, Keller insists that “We can’t not be involved in shaping culture.”9 If this is so, what vision could we embrace to help us work towards cultural transformation? Keller writes:

For a possible model, think about the monks in the Middle Ages, who moved out through pagan Europe, inventing and establishing academies, universities, and hospitals. They transformed local economies and cared for the weak through these new institutions. They didn’t set out to take control of a pagan culture. They let the gospel change how they did their work—which meant they worked for others rather than for themselves. Christians today should strive to be a community that lives out this same kind of dynamic, which will bring the same kind of result.10

Before founding the Square Halo Gallery I tried to follow the model of the monks and set up a gallery in the narthex of our church. Our congregation included an unusual number of artists for a Presbyterian church at that time, but that venture only lasted for several shows—it was closed down after some members told the leadership that they wanted to go to church, “not to an art museum.” My brothers and sisters did not understand that our calling to creativity was woven into our DNA in the Garden of Eden. This was disheartening, but it helped to prepare me for the educational aspect of the Square Halo Gallery’s calling to the city for God. Therefore, much of the work I do is to communicate to the church that “being made in God’s image means—it must mean—that human beings reflect in some way God’s creative work.”11

I find myself frequently reminding them that the first record of God filling a human with His Spirit is when the artist Bezalel is set apart for artmaking. (Ex. 31:1–6) Often I need to repeat Leland Ryken’s affirmation that the “Bible endorses the arts . . . [and] there is no prescribed style or content for art. God-glorifying art can be realistic or fantastic, representational or symbolic or abstract.”12 But the educational calling of my gallery occurs at both ends of the spectrum. For example, I have had visitors come into the gallery and ask “Why does that man have holes in his hands and feet?”—demonstrating the illiteracy of my community concerning even the basics of the gospel. And even the most rudimentary of Sunday School stories—Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Jonah and the Great Fish—are unknown to many who step through our doors on a First Friday.

One of the earliest titles from Square Halo Books is It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, a book I contributed to and edited. Over the years I have found that, if by chance someone has heard of the book, it is usually because they read a quote from it by Tim Keller. In his essay for It Was Good, he asserts that Christianity needs artists because “we can’t understand truth without art.”13 The transcendentals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are so organically intertwined with one another that to we need beauty to pull truth from our heads to our hearts. Keller wrote that

Art is a natural vehicle for pouring out the praise we long to give God. Without art, it is almost impossible to praise God because we have no means by which to get the praise out. We can’t enjoy God without art. And even those of us who are terrible artists have to sing sometimes.14

And so, as my gallery has grown, a calling equal—if not greater—to that of education has emerged: that of getting God’s praise out through beauty. It has been a delight to watch parched souls come in and drink with wonder (and amazement) from the wells of beauty they have found in the iridescent paintings of Makoto Fujimura, the gilded drawings of Sandra Bowden, the exotic prints of Sadao Watanabe, the scrumptious collages of Mary McCleary, and more. Real, honest beauty is such a rare thing in our society that to see it in person often produces a profound, indescribable experience in the hearts of my gallery’s guests.

The impact beauty has on people is not a rare or debatable phenomenon. We are not surprised when people are moved beyond words by the sight of the mysterious Giant’s Causeway, the majestic California Redwoods trees, the epic Grand Canyon, the lush Great Reef, or the massive Uluru. In fact, entire industries have grown up to take us to visit them. But because art is man-made, the visceral reaction it can generate often catches us off guard. We need not be flabbergasted, for “At its best, art is able to . . . satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God has made for his glory.”15 When we are swept up into the glory of natural or man-made beauty, we are, in a sense, returning to the creation of our entire reality that is described in Genesis. For, as poet Malcolm Guite reminds us, “at every moment in which we are conscious and perceive God’s world, God is in that same moment creating it.”16

Every human has been made in the image of God; we are by design creative beings. The artmaking of both the atheist and the follower of Christ is worth considering as praiseworthy because “all art and all creativity declares His glory, even apart from the content or the intent of the artist. As Author and Originator of all creativity, His signature is written on the creative act itself.”17

Of course, Paul wrote, “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), and the apologist Francis Schaeffer warned that “not every creation is great art . . . So, while creativity is a good thing in itself, it does not mean that everything that comes out of man’s creativity is good.”18 That caveat for our fallen nature acknowledged, it is important that we seek out and encourage “artists to stimulate that imagination and to show us that things have meaning,” as Keller writes, because “Artists have a special capacity to recognize the ‘other country’ and communicate with the rest of us regarding the greater reality. A good artist will reveal something about the greater reality in an indefinable but inescapable way.”19 Calvin Seerveld explains some of how this is when he writes that

God’s Spirit calls an artist to help her neighbors who are imaginatively handicapped, who do not notice the fifteen different hues of green outside the window, who have never sensed the bravery in bashfulness or seen how lovely an ugly person can be—to open up such neighbors to the wonder of God’s creatures, their historical misery and glory.20

I love the work of education and beautification the Square Halo Gallery does for the good of our city and the glory of God, and I still have a dream of seeing it become a full museum. But I have an even more glorious vision now—to see artists who follow Jesus be inspired by the creeds of His church and anchored in the strange and glorious Story our Creator is spinning. I long to see artists who, like Bezalel, are highly skilled and filled with the Spirit of God, making imaginative art that “goes beyond what we can think of and rises to lofty heights where it contemplates the glory of God.”21

 

This essay originally appeared in Ordinary Saints from Square Halo Books.

ENDNOTES

1 In 1912, Lancaster’s largest bank, the Lancaster Trust Company, finished construction on its new downtown headquarters. Sparing no expense in the process, the Lancaster Trust Company built one of the region’s most stunning buildings, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece from the imagination of Lancaster’s leading architect, C. Emlen Urban. A century later, Mr. Urban’s architectural treasure was re-imagined as The Trust Performing Arts Center.

2 In 2013 The Trust Performing Arts Center (https://www.lancastertrust.com) was established to honor God by encouraging excellence in the work of student and professional artists and by enriching our community through inspiring, challenging, and redemptive experiences. “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Ps. 37:3).

3 Some of the artists I have had the honor to feature in my gallery include Mary McCleary, Sandra Bowden, Guy Chase, Marc Chagall, Matthew Clark, Ruth Naomi Floyd, Makoto Fujimura, Daniel Finch, Jimmy Abegg, Mark Potter, Ryan Stander, Sadao Watanabe, Caleb Stoltzfus, Christine and Donald Forsythe, Wayne Adams, Steve Prince, Najwan Sack, Stephanie Lael Barrick, Brent Good, Craig Hawkins, Matt Stemler, Edward Knippers, and Georges Rouault. To learn more, visit https://www. squarehalobooks.com/sq-gallery/.

4 The Fulton Opera House, also known as the Fulton Theatre or simply The Fulton, is said to be the oldest working theatre in the United States. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. 5 Timothy Keller, “A Theology of Cities,” CruPress Green, accessed January 15, 2022, https://www.cru.org/ content/dam/cru/legacy/2012/02/A_Theology_of_Cities.pdf.

6 Calvin Seerveld, “Helping Your Neighbor See Surprises: Advice to Recent Graduates,” from Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds, ed. W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 213.

7 Ibid.

8 Keller, “A Theology of Cities.”

9 Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), Chapter 26.

10 Ibid.

11 Paul Buckley, “Genesis 1 and the Pattern of Our Lives” (sermon), October 20, 2019, Wheatland Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA.

12 Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1989), 62.

13 Tim Keller, “Why the Church Needs Artists,” from It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, ed. Ned Bustard (Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2007), 121.

14 Ibid.

15 Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 8.

16 Malcolm Guite, Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God (Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2021), 56.

17 Stephen Roach with Ned Bustard, Naming the Animals: An Invitation to Creativity (Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2020), 10.

18 Schaeffer, Francis A., p.52

19 Keller, “Why the Church Needs Artists,” It Was Good, 120.

20 Seerveld, “Helping Your Neighbor,” 211.

21 Keller, “Why the Church Needs Artists,” It Was Good, 120.

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