Icons, Fighting Conches, and Abundant Giving in the Kingdom of God

I was standing inside the book shop window of Gene’s Books on Sanibel Island, enjoying the solitude of the “religious books” section, when I picked up Madeleine L’Engle’s Penguins & Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places. (Never before have I read Madeleine L’Engle. Egregious on my part.) Fresh off the beach, my friend and I were passing time before an early dinner. With sand still on my toes, I put back Thomas Merton and began reading L’Engle’s story about an unlikely trip to Antarctica and a particularly transcendent interaction with penguins, an experience so memorable and meaning-filled that she began to see penguins as a kind of icon. She created her own definition of “icon” to mean those moments, or places, or things, or people that remind us of God, or theology, in some way. As she put it, icons are “an open window to God.”

On her trip, L’Engle learned first-hand that penguins are extremely communal creatures. They never do anything alone, always waddling about in little groups. But L’Engle was surprised to learn this one fact: penguins lack intimacy: “Unlike some of the great birds who mate for life, the penguin does not. If, at mating time, last year’s mate appears, well and good. If not, another mate will do.” (8). This is because “intimacy is dangerous. If you open your heart to a mate or a chick and in the next hour that mate or chick gets eaten, you open yourself to loss and grief” (4).

L’Engle reflects on the way in which humans, too, avoid intimacy as a way to protect themselves, or they overlook the incredible amount of time it takes to build intimacy, even allowing for relationship missteps along the way. These thoughts led L’Engle to iconize the penguin: “An icon is something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God and God’s demands of us, el’s mortal children, than I would otherwise. It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable as we open ourselves to intimacy, an intimacy which leads not only to love of creatures, but to love of God” (7).

She goes on, “Perhaps one price we must be willing to pay in order to be what we call ‘human’ is to be vulnerable. To love each other. To be willing, if necessary, to die for each other. To let each other die when the time comes. So the penguin, lacking intimacy by its very nature, became an icon for me, an icon of vulnerability” (7). (If you’re thinking this writing sounds a bit like Brene Brown, you’re not wrong. Indeed, Brown quotes from this passage of L’Engle’s in a variety of lectures.)

I purchased the book and walked out back into the sunshine, pleased to have a met L’Engle and to have made a new literary friend. That night I went to sleep with icons on my brain.

The next morning, my friend and I slipped out of our Airbnb in the dark, quietly making our way back across the three-mile causeway to Sanibel island. We were hoping to make it to the beach before sunrise. As we approached the west-facing sand, the white sands were empty except for my one friend and our one book of sonnets. It was Easter morning.

To our right, the pearl, pale pink horizon was lifting the white sky above gray emerald waters, and to our left, the sun was just beginning to peak above distant midnight palms. The whole earth, the beach, the coast, was enshrouded in silent white and pearl pink.

“I’m crying. I can’t read the poem. You read it,” I told Janae.

She read Malcolm Guite’s fifteenth Stations of the Cross poem (“XV Easter Dawn”). We had meditated on the other Stations of the Cross sonnets the night before, saving Mary’s sonnet for Easter morning. Reading that poem, in that place, was a moment of deep beauty.

Arriving at the beach at sunrise also meant we were arriving at low tide, the prime time for shell collecting on one of the most shell-dense shores in the United States. We scampered about along the beach with our little plastic bags, offering each other treasures, and delighting over each other’s finds. I found a leopard crab shell, and many miniature cone-shaped shells, and after an hour of hunting, many, many, broken Florida fighting conches. (Not so very significant.) The beach was empty except for a few walkers. As we were bending over some shell mounds about half-way through our walk, a tall, dark-haired woman and her husband approached us.

“Are you looking for any in particular?” she asked.

“Not necessarily!” we murmured, barely looking up from the sand.

“Look at this one.” She approached me and handed me a perfectly polished Florida fighting conch. “This one is whole, with no imperfections. It’s a very good one.”

“Oh, wow, it’s beautiful!” I exclaimed. Not sure how close I should approach her (we live in COVID times, after all), I fingered its wet, dark brown coloring. “I love it!”

I handed it back to her, but she pushed it into my hands.

“You can have it,” she smiled.

“Are you sure?!” I asked.

“Yes!” She laughed. “I have dozens of them at home!” She and her husband walked off.

I gasped with delight and handed it to Janae.

The woman’s husband soon turned around with another shell.

“Did you see this one?” It was finely turned lightning whelk. “This one is also unique. You may have it!”

The moment of accepting that shell on the beach, accepting a gift, no matter how small it was, moved me. I was struck by this simple generosity. It was no-doubt a familiar courtesy for them, but rare for us as visitors, with our one-day desperate hunting. To our surprise, as the couple moved further down the beach, we began finding perfectly whole fighting conches nearly everywhere.

I suppose my story ends there: Some strangers gave me a shell at a beach. But the moment was so pregnant with meaning for me. During my vacation I managed to read Makoto Fujimura’s newly published Art + Faith from cover-to-cover, and I was completely taken with it, especially in its emphasis on generosity in the Kingdom of God. Fujimura is an American painter trained in Japanese tradition whose style includes abstract expressionism, and whose muse includes the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is what I call a theologian in his writings on Christianity and the arts, and he published his most recent book in January. I was pleased to read the foreword by N.T. Wright that hinted at some of the themes from Duke Divinity’s conference on theology and the arts in 2019 (at which he spoke and I attended); in the foreword, I heard some themes that were discussed extensively there. Indeed, Fujimura counts Wright as one of his influences, for Fujimura draws on N.T. Wright in several passages.

In Art + Faith, both Wright and Fujimura depict a shift away from the classic Protestant cycle of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration” to a slightly more nuanced cycle of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation.” Fujimura calls this theology the theology of making, and as sure as it is a step away from fundamentalism’s heaven-or-hell binary, it also moves a little further past the “God is putting everything to rights” “fix-it” sort of theology. (If you’re not familiar with this theological shift gaining popularity particularly among artists, I suggest Fujimura’s book as an introduction.)

What is beautiful about having theological discussions with artists is the possibility which they bring to conversations. And the possibility Fujimura brings is that he reminds us of the incredible abundance of the Kingdom of God. He writes, “When we make, we invite the abundance of God’s world into the reality of scarcity all around us” (4). This contrast of abundance versus scarcity is striking.

It’s not as if Fujimura doesn’t see the resistance: “A Theology of New Creation may at first seem ‘too good to be true’: excessively generous, even gratuitous. This generative path challenges our obsession to reduce everything to utilitarian pragmatism and presuppose a scarcity model. But there is not an iota of scarcity in ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ The God of the Bible is the God of abundance” (78). This focus on generosity and abundance is what brings freshness to Fujimura’s writing.

As Fujimura contrasts a familiar sort of “fix-it” theology (what he calls plumbing theology) with the theology of making (or the theology of the New Creation which God breaks open into the world), I thought of my own work in education, and the way that it feels like we are plagued by the scarcity model. All too often in Christian schools, we are stretched to the seams, and as institutions, we position ourselves in the “fix it” theology mode. I confess that I somewhat wistfully respond: what luxury making must be. To make. And further, to make a Christian school as it should be. Can you imagine this?

To be sure, Fujimura is not writing of the religious school; he writes mostly of artists doing the work of culture care, but catch what he says here of the industrial mindset: “Ever since the Industrial Revolution, how we view the world, how we educate, and how we value ourselves have been all about purposeful efficiency. But such bottom-line utilitarian pragmatism has caused a split in how we view creativity and making. To what purpose, we ask, are we making? If the answer to that question is ‘we make to be useful,’ then we will value only what is most efficient, what is practical and industrial” (19).

If you’re unsure why this emphasis on practicality is problematic, Fujimura extends his plumbing metaphor to explain “fix it” theology. He suggests that many people go to church each week to “get fixed,” or to receive a tool to fix some pipes, as it were, each week, in their lives. The problem with this kind of thinking is that once the pipes are fixed, then what? “What are the pipes for?” he asks.

That transcendence is what artists help us to understand, for according to Fujimura, “Artists already live in the abundance of God. They see beyond the pipes. They hear the ‘music of the spheres’ and desire to respond; they see a vista beyond the world of gray utility; they desire to paint in color; they dance to a tune of the Maker who leads us beyond restoration in the New World to come” (31). Indeed, “God does not just mend, repair, or restore; God renews and generates, transcending our expectations of even what we desire, beyond what we dare to ask or imagine” (31).

Reading Fujimura’s book is like drinking a glass of water. It inspires and refreshes those tired, dry bits of yourself, especially those bits laid out in the work of culture care. I was encouraged by two points by Fujimura. First, he encourages those artists (who are also believers) who feel pulled between two worlds. He describes artists as “border-stalkers,” “found at the margins of society, meandering into the borders of established thought patterns” (46). I must admit that at times I feel as such a border-stalker, especially as it seems education falls so regularly along utilitarian lines. When you find yourself as a person who sometimes faintly hears that music of the spheres, it’s encouraging to hear Fujimura support that “border-stalkers have the ability to learn and communicate extratribal languages, and they can transcend tribal languages” (46). Indeed, it is helpful (dare I say useful) for the church to have people that “speak” a variety of languages. For is it not through the arts that our imaginations are formed, and that we learn to desire such a New Creation?

Second, Fujimura’s work made me think about how (if at all) the theology of making can be applied to the religious school. To me, it seems rather difficult to be an “artist” or a “maker” within the Christian school at this time, yet Fujimura reminded me that “an artist hovers in between what is conventional and what invokes the future” (48). How needed are these prophetic voices both within education and the church. So I was encouraged to think of the abundant, generous Kingdom coming about by new methods, apart from fix-it theology. Fujimura writes: “In building for the Kingdom now, we must move beyond the gospel of fixing things and instead set our hearts on the theology of Making. Again, redemption is more than fixing; it is a feast of healing and transformation” (54).

Don’t get me started on how fasting and feasting play out in our theology; they are the direct antithesis to scarcity models that were evident even among the disciples who asked of Mary’s gratuitous pouring of perfume, “Why this waste?”

So we are thankful for this feast. And may we ponder: what does feasting look like for us in the Kingdom of God? What does feasting look like in the religious school? What of the theology of making, there?

Fujimura expresses how beauty is connected to sacrifice, and he writes of the gift that is given through art, a kind of gift that is invaluable.

So I thought of gifts that morning there on the beach. I thought of giving that is abundant, generous, and gratuitous. I thought of my own work in education, and I thought of the theology of making. I thought of people who have offered themselves to me as a gift. I thought of a particular person who has been regularly pouring into me for 11 months. I thought of their input as a gift, an abundant Kingdom gift.

And I was reminded of a line from a poem by Malcolm Guite, from his Ordinary Saints collaboration with Bruce Herman and J.A.C. Redford. In his poem “A Shared Motif” he writes,

“To be a person is to be a gift,

Given in love. For each of us receive

The gift of being from another and we lift

Each other into light with every glance,

Given and returned in this long dance.”

The Ordinary Saints project is a series of icon-like portrait paintings and accompanying poetry and musical works, a work I was introduced to at Duke Divinity’s 2019 conference on theology and the arts. I attended a workshop in which Guite, Herman, and Redford explained their artistic process of Herman painting twenty portraits and Guite creating poems for each painting/person along with Redford’s music. The unifying concept of the work is the “sainthood” of everyday persons. It is true that sometimes we “go into nature” to glimpse God, forgetting that our cities are brimful of the image of God, for each person is made in His image. The artworks and poems speak of each person as an “ordinary saint.” At the workshop, there was a painting from the collection, a portrait of the artist’s father. Herman remarked, “You go to a gallery and you are never allowed to touch the paintings. You can touch this painting. There is nothing you can do to it that I haven’t already done to it.” And so we were able to touch and interact with his painting.

The workshop took the “ordinary saints” theme one step further. After Redford presented his music, the presenters asked us to take a quiet moment to regard the stranger sitting next to us. We were to turn to the stranger next to us and look them in the eye, and imagine them as an ordinary saint. I was sitting next to a middle-aged man in a suit, no doubt some musical director, and I turned, and it was a vulnerable, beautiful moment. A kind of communion.

For Guite had just read from his own poem, the “Ordinary Saints: Epilogue”:

“How shall we know each other now? Will all

That we have seen recede to memory?

Or is our sight restored, and having gazed

On icons in this place, will clarity

Transfigure all of us? We turn, amazed,

To see the ones beside us, face to face,

As living icons, sacraments of grace.”

_________________________

These thoughts flooded my mind, and I was left tightly clutching my shell as the sun rose higher. The strangers disappeared beyond the beach.

 “To be a person is to be a gift

Given in love.”

I can’t be sure, but perhaps that shell is my own little icon, a sacrament of grace.

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One thought on “Icons, Fighting Conches, and Abundant Giving in the Kingdom of God”

  1. If you are getting into L’Engle you might enjoy “Walking on Water” about art/writing. Her Wrinkle in Time quintet varies quite a bit in my opinion….so I don’t necessarily have any stong opinions on them other than thought-provoking….but I personally would recommend you don’t assume all the books are similar to the first.

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