It Takes Time to Learn to See

By Joseph Tenney

Note: The photos that accompany this essay are part of the traveling exhibition Time and Again.

As a pastor, I love having an art gallery in our church.  I have found it to be deeply formational for myself and our people because artwork stirs us to adopt valuable willingness to inquire, to engage, to receive, and it demands that we take time.  It takes time to sit and pause and reflect.  It takes time to really see what’s in front of you.  It takes time to learn to see, to open yourself up to revelation.  It takes time to surrender, and this aspect of surrender is a profoundly powerful posture in today’s climate of cancel and rights rhetoric. The practice of engaging with art has a way of cultivating surrender in our lives to make us the kind of people who, if we will give the necessary time, listen well and learn patiently. 

C.S. Lewis comments on appreciating artwork in An Experiment in Criticism:

Mount Tabor, June 2017, Michael Winters, Archival hole punched inkjet print.

We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles.  We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations… After the negative effort, the positive.  We must use our eyes.  We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there.  We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it.  The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.  Look.  Listen.  Receive.  Get yourself out of the way.  (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you can not possibly find out.)… the many use art; the few receive it… The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself.

Oh how important and necessary is this work!  There are so many beautiful benefits to incorporating the visual arts in the life of the Church, and I have found this to be one of the most significant – to foster a moment of receiving, looking, listening, surrendering. The world needs people who have disciplined their eyes and bodies and minds in this way. If you want to grow as a listener, go find a great chair and sit in front of a work of art. It will help shape you to be a person who doesn’t listen ‘half-eared’ as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, with your mind already made up as to what the other person has to say. It will help form you into an attentive and patient listener.

The Long Dark Night, Photograph from the Advent Series, Gerik Parmele, 2012

What’s more, as followers of Jesus, our entire existence is to be storied by the gospel above any other story. That’s why our church has joined our gallery to the liturgical calendar; so as to orient our time and our year visually around the story of Jesus, directing our hearts through different seasons back to the gospel. The liturgical calendar spans the life of Christ across the year from the anticipation of Jesus with Advent, to the hope and arrival of Jesus at Christmas, to the transcendence and revealing of Jesus at Epiphany, to the holiness of Jesus during Lent, to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and redemption with Eastertide, to the unleashing of the Holy Spirit into the world at Pentecost, to the mission of Christ advancing through the Church to reach the world with the gospel through long, numbered days of Ordinary Time.

Rhythms matter. The early Church established these annual rhythms so as to be storied by God’s story, reminding the people of God to make the life of Jesus center stage in their own hearts and minds, and to understand their time in light of his life. We do this because we become consumed by the complexities of our lives and distractions abound. We embrace lesser stories and are visually captivated and prone to wander into empty narratives, or even more deeply identify with stories contrary to the gospel of Jesus.

Carpet Maker, Mark Samuel, archival pigment photograph.

This is where the grace of the visual arts is felt. Jesus lived and died for our sins and rose so we might walk in new life, empowered by the Holy Spirit. If we would surrender our preconceptions and interests to the work in front of us, and receive what’s before us, then we might experience the jostling loose of calcified thoughts, the warming of our affections where they’ve grown cold, the rediscovery of forgotten truths about ourselves and this world. In a word, we will get beyond ourselves to be opened up to the new and unpredictable tapestries the Holy Spirit might be weaving before our eyes. When we view our time and year through the lens of the gospel, accompanied by visual work and a heart and mind surrendered in wonder to the transcendent reality of God, we live our year in the rhythm of God’s story in a way that is, as Thomas Torrance notes, appropriate to the intrinsic significance of the resurrection, worshipping the risen Jesus Christ as the Lord of space and time.


Joseph Tenney is an elder and the music and arts pastor at Church at the Cross. He lives in Texas with his wife, Kimberly, and their two girls, and is a singer-songwriter in their band, The Tenneys.
Find Joseph on Instagram: @josephtenney

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