We have a guest post on the blog today! Jeremy Miller is a liturgical artist who attends our church. I asked him to share his thoughts on art and how it can enhance our spiritual lives. Jeremy is a gifted theologian (as you will quickly see) and encourages us to think about what we are choosing to see and in helping our little ones see the beauty of God. His art show—Of Christmas and Catechism: A Journey Through the 12 Days of Christmas—opens at the Ephrata Public Library on November 30. Enjoy the photos of some of Jeremy’s art, some of which are also available as greeting cards and prints.
Helping Their Eyes to See Him:
Symbolism as a Catalyst for Spiritual Formation in the Home
Liturgical Teaching Artist Jeremy P. Miller
It all started with a photograph… or did it? No, I suppose the photograph was just a turning point; a new perspective.
The day our son was born, I quaked with the realization that this small new life in my arms was dependent on us for his every need. As I sent silent prayers heavenward, I knew something else. With God’s help, I was going to protect this little man with everything I had to offer. Nothing could be more precious to me. Nothing would enter his world without my okay.
But 9 months and 16 days down the path, clarifications were coming into focus. We had invited a college friend, a gifted photographer, to come and capture the growth of our little man in her classic black and white style. I couldn’t wait to see what her lens would capture!
Ripping open the envelope from our local 1-hour photo stop, we were delighted with the images. And then I saw it… a photo that gave me pause. The picture showed my son sitting in the backyard, looking off just beyond the camera’s reach. His eyes—the same eyes I looked in every day as I held him, sang to him, played with him—captivated me. What were they looking at? They seemed like the windows to an old soul. Was he concentrating… processing? How did he see this crazy world around him?
From this single snapshot in time, I began to realize that despite my best efforts his eyes would be subject to many images regardless of my permission or naught. Taking the multiple copies we had purchased for ourselves and loved ones, I wrote a simple, perhaps inadequate, phrase on the back of each one. “God bless the wonders that little eyes see.” That was it… and that was the beginning.
For those of us that are Christian parents, it is easy to take a reactionary stance in light of the culture in which we live. There are so many things that we want to shield our children from seeing. In many cases it is pure common sense. There are life situations that bombard us that simply are not age appropriate for those within our care.
But I wonder sometimes if we are so bent on guarding that we forget to guide. Do we remember to switch from crisis-mode reaction to heart-molding direction? Rather than wearing ourselves out through defensive maneuvers, are there offensive strategies that we could employ? I suggest that one such strategy may be molding the heart by directing the eyes.
There is both biblical and historical evidence for this Judeo-Christian concept. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were instructed to teach through a type of eye-heart-action instruction. Deuteronomy 6:4–9 instructed the Israelites to visually remember the promises of God. They were told:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (ESV).
This passage speaks to the usefulness of images in reminding us of God-shaped truth.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul encourages New Testament believers to consider where they direct their attention:
“Finally, brothers whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (ESV).
It is no secret that our children will follow our lead when it comes to what we consider worthy of praise. Little mouths often repeat unsavory speech picked up in passing. Surely this also applies to visual stimulation. We need to model for our children, while not becoming legalistic in terms of artistic taste, what it means to see the beauty of God around us. Our children notice when our eyes linger and will observe the ethos of an image by how we respond. “This Is My Father’s World,” a well-known hymn of the nineteenth century, rightly teaches, “He [Jesus] shines in all that’s fair.”
After Jesus’ ascension, as the church began to multiply under the threats of persecution, Christians found solace and encouragement through the visual expression of their faith. It is a fascinating study to research the renderings and stone etchings of this period in history. Imagine those ostracized by the Roman government hiding in less than desirable living quarters still illustrating their fervent faith through the creation of symbolism; symbolism that would become important to the church for centuries to come. These believers were putting into practice the use of imagery to teach truth, and through doing so, encouraging one another in an understanding of whom and whose they were as Christians.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the adornments of the church—architecture, vestments, and illuminated manuscripts—were the primary teaching agents for a people condemned to illiteracy by their station in life. Though lacking in a clearer understanding of Scripture that would come later through the advancements in translation work and the innovation of the printing press, faith at this time was very closely connected to an appreciation for liturgical aesthetics.
Just like these Christians of long ago, we live in a visual age. Today the linear ingestion of information gained through reading left to right has gone amuck. Instead the eyes of our students—our children—are more apt to skim a computer screen filling in the blanks between the brightest graphic or the biggest font with a hurriedly (because this is the pace at which we live) concocted assumption. Yet, in the midst of the visual bombardment of our times, we no longer know our own visual language spoken through Christian history. We live in an age where we have forgotten the images that once taught faith to an earlier generation. How do we get back there? How do we retrace our steps and restore our understanding of the Church’s visual past?
Let me suggest three ways that families can reinstitute the use of Christian symbolism into their family life and encourage spiritual formation within the home:
- Enter into a study of how images were used in the past and what they meant. Ask yourselves, “Why were certain pictures used? What concepts were the artists trying to convey? What pictures would we use to tell this story?”
- Create artwork with your children that incorporates these images. In many cases it will be helpful for your children to digest aspects of truth by putting their own artistic spin on the pictures they create.
- Display it around your home and engage your children in conversations about it just as the Israelites were instructed to do in Deuteronomy 6:4–9.
The presence of Christian imagery in your home will not block out sin’s effect on the world around you. However, in the midst of a sin-saturated world, these images will provide you and your family a place to cast your gaze; realigning your hearts with God’s truth. With skillful instruction, they will provide context for the wonders that little eyes see.
Jeremy’s involvement in the arts as participant, educator and advocate are deeply linked to his faith. He believes that the creative process is a God-directed pursuit. The recipient of three degrees in theological studies and an ordained pastor, the majority of Jeremy’s watercolor and ink creations translate the teachings of the Bible through the use of historic Christian symbolism. As a catalyst promoting new expressions of faith, Jeremy often speaks in churches aided by his creations. Jeremy’s work is on permanent display on the campuses of Lancaster Bible College, Capital Seminary, and Dallas Theological Seminary. An interdisciplinary teaching artist, he has had the opportunity to nurture the creative gifts of K–12 students abroad and currently in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Millers have been an active homeschooling family for the past seven years. Jeremy, in the company of his wife and son, lives and creates in Akron, Pennsylvania. For more information, follow Jeremy’s artistic journey on Facebook and Instagram at “Art by Jeremy Miller.”
2 thoughts on “Art for Spiritual Formation”
An excellent article, its concepts much needed in today’s world, especially. Thank you, Jeremy.
Beautifully stated. An inspiring read for fellow homeschooler and mama of two. Great reminder to take the proactive, guiding approach. Thank you!