Baptist Artists, part 2

“Music brings people together.”  (Dr. Gary Furr in a recent interview with Vestavia Hills Living Magazine)

Many of you in the Birmingham area are familiar with the local bluegrass band called Shades Mountain Air.  And if you know about Shades Mountain Air, I’m sure you’re also aware that vocalist/guitarist Gary Furr is in fact a Baptist pastor.

Music has always been an important part of Dr. Furr’s life.  On his website he talks about growing up around bluegrass music.  He is most definitely not the only musician in his family.  Besides growing up in a family that loves bluegrass, Dr. Furr sites such influences as the Carter Family, Allison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, and Johnny Cash, to name a few.  He formed Shades Mountain Air in 1997 with some friends and the band is still going strong.  I first had the privilege of hearing them years ago at a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama.  I was still in college; admittedly I hadn’t at that point learned to appreciate bluegrass and roots music.  But I remember that the band had incredibly tight musicianship and tight harmonies – not a ragtag bunch of hobbyists.  This band was (and is) the real deal.

Besides being an outstanding musician, Dr. Furr is also an exceptional pastor.  When I say “pastor” I don’t mean that he’s just a good preacher (which he totally is).  I remember taking part in a spiritual formation workshop that Dr. Furr was helping to lead when I was in college.  I remember being struck by his genuineness and warmth.  He was not there to merely inform us; he was there to gently lead and guide.  He was serious about listening to us confused college students, and helped us to find the inner resources we needed and didn’t know we had.  I remember feeling like I had been in the presence of a true shepherd – a true pastor.

Dr. Furr has also been committed to standing up for traditional Baptist values such as the individual’s freedom before God.  I asked him if he saw a connection between what he does with music and creativity and his vocation as a Baptist.  This is what he said:

Creativity leads us into the realm of listening to the Holy Spirit—being open to the “new” that God brings into each moment and to the possibilities of life.  It is also an area of connecting with the unconscious realm.  This requires a receptivity that is only possible within a religious system that accommodates and tolerates freedom.  The Baptist movement is not, of course, always renowned for its tolerance of freedom these days, which is curious.  Rigidity and conformity seem to rail against all that birthed us as a movement, and yet we constantly fight against this in our actual history.  It says that we live with great uneasiness alongside this gospel freedom.

We are not alone in that struggle.  All Christian expressions have their various ways of accommodating both freedom and order.  For Baptists, at the least it would seem that soul freedom would help us to incorporate the tension of the artist within our community.

The music of Shades Mountain Air can be heard online at and at

Published in: on July 28, 2010 at 7:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Baptist Artists, part 1

Many of you remember that I had started work on a series of blog posts focusing on Baptist artists.  The phrase “Baptist artists” is pretty broad: Not all the individuals featured here are still Baptist, and the art that they practice may be visual art, writing, music, etc.  I was pleasantly surprised that there are plenty of Baptists (or folks associated with Baptists) who use creative gifts.  One individual is Cheryl Totty, a graphic designer living in Atlanta, Georgia.  Here’s our conversation:
Tell me a little about yourself, and about how you use your creative gifts.
I’m originally from Alabama, but have been living in Atlanta for a little over four years. I attended the Unversity of Montevallo, a small liberal arts university just south of Birmingham, and earned my degree in graphic design there. (It was called “commercial art” back then.) As fate would have it, the year I graduated from college was the year that the first Mac computer with mass appeal (the Mac Classic) came out. Needless to say, in just a few years, all of the tools I learned to use for graphic design were obsolete. Fortunately, I took to the computer like a fish to water, and have been using them extensively ever since.
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had design jobs ever since I graduated… some more focused on the production aspects than the design aspects, but all in all, I’ve had a good bit of autonomy in what I’ve created for others. I’ve worked in areas where I met with clients directly to produce logos for them, where I’ve worked under art directors, where I was an art director as part of an editorial team, as a creative director overseeing the work of others, and as a freelance designer who creates everything from start to finish.
Currently, I work with a software company in Duluth, Georgia, where I am the Creative Marketing Manager. I oversee the CM department personnel, help the Marketing VP come up with marketing solutions that support our sales team, as well as continuing design and production work as needed.
I’ve always been a fairly strong illustrator, but there’s little need (nor time) for that now, so I, like most other designers, use stock images and then manipulate them as necessary with the appropriate software. I’m currently renewing my interest in photography, and hope to turn it into a paying avocation. If it doesn’t happen that way, I’ve at least rediscovered a creative outlet.
Who/what are your influences?
I had several teachers in school who praised my illustrations done for reports and such. None of these were art teachers, as art was not offered in our school. Since I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do as I entered college, I just set out on that path and sort of fell into it as a career.
I didn’t really have artists who I emulated in my design work. Being a designer who works for others, one has to do what pleases the client first, then apply one’s signature style if there’s room left over.  I was always fascinated by illustrators who were meticulous with details… Norman Rockwell comes to mind, as does Escher.
Would you say your creativity and your spiritual journey have impacted each other?  If so, how?
I would say that I’m surprised that I took the risk to make a living as a creative type. Growing up rural Southern Baptist surrounded by a family of farmers, the arts were seen more as triviality that got in the way of hard work. My mother wanted me to be a teacher, and my father wanted me to be a postal worker. Granted, at the time, they were occupations that were definitely more “secure” than being what they perceived being a graphic designer would be. They could not separate the “starving” artist from the path that I intended to take.
At least as I grew up, the only thing I remember as being remotely creative in the church was craft time during Vacation Bible School. I loved that!! Of course, there was the music side of the arts, but I was a drummer, and so again, I was pretty much shut out of participating in services. (The drums were considered “too African.” Oy.)
I don’t really see many parallels between my spiritual journey and my graphic design, but I see it quite a bit in my photography. One of my favorite things in taking photos is capturing macro images. It absolutely fascinates me to see the intricacy of leaves, flowers, insect wings, wood, etc. Intelligent design or evolution aside, the ways in which nature has adapted to its environment almost always results in beauty of the awe-inspiring sort. And in those moments when I capture that, I feel what the Celts called “thin places” where the veil between heaven and humans is so thin, we can almost glimpse the other side.
What would you say to someone who is a person of faith interested in the arts, but unsure of how to go about it?
I’d say the same thing I’d say to anyone, faith or no… If you want to create art for art’s sake, just jump in and do what feels right… in music, theatre, painting, etc. Getting into the arts as a personal creative outlet is not about pleasing others, it’s about what it means to you. If it brings you pleasure to create, go for it.
However, if you want to make a living in the arts, it’s a whole other can of worms. The first thing is to develop a thick skin… even if you have talent, you will not please everyone, but you can’t let criticism break you. You MUST let constructive criticism inform you, however. If you don’t, you will become one of the “starving” artists in a hurry!
One must know their strengths and weaknesses. I would love to be a singer, but I’m not good at it. Doesn’t stop me from singing at the top of my lungs to the radio, but it would be foolish of me to try to make a living singing.
Take classes, research online, be willing to start small and establish a reputation for good work. Word of mouth will open doors that no portfolio will ever even see. Work hard to perfect your craft…. talent will only get you so far. Talent with a good work ethic and good attitude will allow you to make a good living.
Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 9:48 am  Comments (1)  

The Project is Brewing…

As you know, I’m beginning a new project.  I’m hoping to start interviewing people who are a) artists and b) Baptists.  As a Baptist interested in the arts, I grew up being kind of frustrated that there weren’t many Baptist “art heroes” to look up to.  So hopefully, in time, the Den can start to remedy that situation just a little.  The second purpose of this project, which is no less important, is to bring to people’s attention the fact that we Baptists can be a pretty artistic bunch when we put our minds to it.  I hope that in time the readers of this blog will start to realize that being creative and being Baptist don’t work against each other, but instead that they complement each other.

A HUGE thanks to those of you who have provided me with names.  Please, keep ’em coming!  If you know any Baptist who plays in a band or orchestra, does paintings, writes poetry, acts, makes pots, anything like that – please let me know.

Thanks, everybody!

Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

One Semester Down

First semester of seminary is officially over.  It was actually over last week – finals were Monday and Tuesday – but I spent the rest of the week getting moved into a house with some fellow seminarians, getting unpacked and settled, etc. so it only hit me today that I don’t have class or studying to do.  Unless a sudden need arises, I won’t be taking summer courses, at least not this summer.  I’ll be working part time and helping out at a local church.  You’ll get more details about that as they materialize.

I’ve been asked what I’ve learned this semester.  I’ve obviously learned a lot, both in and out of the classroom.  A few things come to mind:

1. Atlanta, Georgia is really, really big.  I’ve learned that I’m a fairly impatient driver.

2. The busier I am, the more time I need to spend in prayer and meditation.  Slightly counterintuitive, but true.

3. Even though the work load in seminary is demanding, if you’re willing to sit down and do the reading, the studying, the research, etc., then it is possible to get an A.

4. Rabbis are cool.

5. Scholarly articles analyzing Hebrew poetry are not cool.  Fortunately the Hebrew professor is.

6. I am such a bookworm that I still check out books from the library to read just because they look interesting.  This is on top of a full load of courses.  I can’t even help it.

7. Strangely, having far less spare time somehow makes me more motivated to accomplish things that require spare time.  I think I’ve done more artwork during the past few months than in the past couple of years before seminary.  (That doesn’t mean it was all good artwork…)

Here’s hoping for a productive (and somewhat relaxing) summer.  And as always, I hope to hear from all of you!

Published in: on May 24, 2010 at 11:34 am  Comments (2)  

One semester almost down, and the journey continues…

"Refugee Mother"; pen on paper

A quiet evening after a busy week.  Hard to believe there are only about three weeks left in my first semester of seminary – well, maybe not too hard to believe.  It took me a while to get used to things around here.  But now that I think about it, I’ve made some good friends, got a part time job, and this summer I’ll start helping out at an awesome local church as their artist in residence (and whatever else they need me to be!).  All in all, it’s been a good semester, even though I jumped in at the deep end – five courses requires some knowledge of how to swim!  But somehow I’ve done well in all my classes, although finals are still to come, so I’d better not jinx it…

Three out of my five of classes have been history classes: history of Paul and the early church; history of the church from the Reformation to present; history of the Jewish people.  In the midst of all the new movements and achievements of various people, it is sobering to realize how much history has been dominated by human suffering.  And on a more personal level, it’s interesting to realize that my wandering mind will dabble in various religious ideas – especially after being exposed to so many different ideas in class – but then I always come back to the fact that people are suffering.  People have always been suffering: because they’re Anabaptist, because they’re Jewish, because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, etc., etc.

This has made me re-evaluate a lot of things, and it’s also reinforced some old convictions.  I can tell already that the next two and 1/2 years are going to be interesting.  I’m going to get stretched.  Again.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I think I’ve known this was going to happen for a while; at least I knew it when I did the above drawing last year.

I’ve never been one for easy answers, so this post isn’t going to end with some platitude about social justice.  At the risk of completely embarrassing myself, I think I’ll end with a poem I wrote a few months ago (at a point when I was once again being haunted by Matthew 25).  I’m still refining my poetry skills, so please bear with me…

You called to me for attention

And I ignored you,

For your accent was difficult.

You called to me for a ride

And I ignored you,

For I was afraid of where we’d go.

You called to me for a touch

And I ignored you,

For your breath and body stank.

You called to me for justice

And I ignored you

For no wrong had been done to me.

I called to you to save yourself

And you ignored me

For you were not the one in need of saving.

I called to you to tell me your name

And you ignored me

For I knew your name all along.

Finally I called to you for forgiveness

And you said nothing

For it had already been done.

And I ignored it.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 8:44 pm  Comments (1)  

The Heresy of Bad Taste

I came across this while perusing Daniel Siedell’s blog:

“The Seventh Ecumenical council Nicaea II (787 AD) affirmed the necessity of the veneration of icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints as a means to preserve the mystery of Jesus Christ as the God-man. In some ways, Nicaea II is simply an affirmation of the traditional aesthetic taste of the Church. To dismiss it as “merely” about images, symbols, and the like which are barriers to hearing the Word of God reveals bad taste. And in the context of Nicaea II having bad taste is much worse than it sounds. It reveals a lack of aesthetic imagination. And without an aesthetic imagination, embodied in and shaped through icons, how can we appreciate—see—God’s mysterious and beautiful work in the world through Christ?  Nicaea II claims that bad taste, in this context, is not a failure of culture, it is a failure of dogma. It is, then, heretical.”  (See the whole article at

This speaks for itself, so I’m not going to type a page of commentary.  All I’m going to say is, imagine if Protestants still held to this principle.  If we realized that having something to look at isn’t idolatry any more than we worship hymns or microphones or guitars – or sermons.  If we realized that God created our imaginations too, and that it would help if the church gave us a strong visual alternative to the images we get bombarded with every day.  If we thought that a church that doesn’t look interesting or mysterious means we believe in a God who isn’t interesting or mysterious.

Things to think about…

Interior of Chartres Cathedral

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 3:21 pm  Comments (1)  

Prayer & martyrdom

"Widows and Orphans", drawing by Kathe Kollwitz

Jurgen Moltmann is a theologian I’d recommend to anybody.  He’s deep, but not impenetrable.  I’ve slowly gotten my toes wet with his writings and concepts over the past year, and whenever I’m willing to put in the time, I come away amazed.

Well, maybe not so much “amazed” as “left feeling both inspired and uncomfortable”.  That’s what the best theology does, in my humble opinion: it opens up vast new possibilities while also spelling out just how difficult those possibilities are going to be if we’re serious about it.

Case in point: in the quote below, Moltmann completely rewires my conception of prayer and at the same time – here’s the scary part for comfortable people like me – makes perfect sense while he’s at it.

In prison, the person who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake is stripped of everything he loves.  He is cut off from all human relationships.  Celibacy is forced on him.  Under torture, his nakedness is laid bare and he is subjected to physical mortifications.  He loses his name and becomes a number.  His spiritual identity is destroyed by drugs.  In the silent cell he falls into the dark night of the soul.  If he is executed, he dies ‘outside the camp’ (Heb. 13.13) ‘with Christ’ and is buried with him ‘in his death’.  The way of mystical experience [in prayer] is really the way of discipleship and resistance against the oppression of men and women. (“Experiences of God”, p. 72).

Of course this doesn’t mean that all this is necessary for true discipleship.  But I think it does mean that the life of prayer and the life of service can’t be separated.  And the point that Moltmann brings across with admittedly shocking language is the fact that true discipleship and true service can be dangerous.

Kathe (usually pronounced like “Cathy”) Kollwitz was a German artist active from about 1900 to her death in 1945.  Her haunting images document and meditate on the lives of the forgotten and underprivileged in her society.  The image at the top is one of her less disturbing  – but no less poignant – works.  Kollwitz was no armchair activist; her pacifist stance and commitment to justice once got her a visit and a threat from the Gestapo.  She understood what it was to suffer with the least of these: she survived her youngest son (killed in World War I) and her grandson (killed in World War II).  She once said, “While I drew, and wept along with the terrified children I was drawing, I really felt the burden I am bearing. I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate.”

Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 1:02 am  Comments (2)  
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Battered Heart series – Part 3 of 3

"Everlasting", Acrylic on paper

I thought it would be appropriate to end this series on Ash Wednesday, as we remember our own incompleteness and mortality.  One thing I should point out, that doesn’t show up too well in the scan, is the fact that in the middle of the black mass at the top is a line of copper paint.  I chose copper because it is just precious enough to be used for many things – mostly pennies, wires, and sculpting materials – but it is not as precious as gold.  I thought it was an appropriate metaphor for the underlying theme of the series.

I wish everyone a blessed Lenten season.  May we all learn more about ourselves during these next forty days – our weaknesses and our strengths.  And as we gradually learn to die to ourselves, maybe these words of the Rev. John Donne will serve as inspiration:

“Seal then this bill of my divorce to all,

On whom those fainter beams of love did fall;

Marry those loves, which in youth scattered be

On fame, wit, hopes (false mistresses) to thee.

Churches are best for prayer, that have least light:

To see God only, I go out of sight:

And to ‘scape stormy days, I choose

An everlasting night.”

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 7:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Battered Heart series – Part 2 of 3

A very weak and splintered cross: not the gilded symbol of victorious empires, but the realization of an imperfect individual.  The realization that true peace is only possible when we look beyond (crucify?) ourselves and toward community.  “That they may all be one…”

“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love, and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy:

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 10:31 pm  Comments (2)  

Battered Heart series – Part 1 of 3

"Of Elements" Acrylic on Paper

Beginning a series of short meditations on three small pieces I did a while ago.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of incompleteness lately, especially after reading N.T. Wright’s book “Surprised by Hope” a few months ago.  The underlying concept is that our Hope is the hope of completeness, which will come about at the final resurrection.  Until then, we live in the hope of resurrection, and we look forward to it, even as all of creation groans for it (Rom. 8.22-25).

At the same time I was reading a lot of John Donne’s poetry.  Sometimes the mind makes connections that aren’t there, but in this case I think the connection was obvious.  In Donne’s poetry, I read about an individual caught in the classic Christian predicament: the struggle between present faithfulness and future glory.  The now and the not yet.  The process of becoming.  The knowledge of being complete, and yet the hope of one day being made complete.

I’ve called the piece above “Of Elements”, having taken the title from the poem quoted below.  In this piece, and the forthcoming ones, are meant to look not quite finished while at the same time struggling to find their own sense of balance – and maybe even beauty.  I’ll let John Donne say the rest for tonight:

“I am a little world made cunningly

Of elements, and an angelic sprite,

But black sin hath betrayed to endless night

My world’s both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high

Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write,

Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might

Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,

Or wash it if it must be drowned no more:

But oh it must be burnt! alas the fire

Of lust and envy have burnt it heretofore,

And made it fouler; let their flames retire,

And burn me O Lord, with a fiery zeal

Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.”

Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 2:35 am  Leave a Comment