Does the song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen to it?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and if this is true, then I would argue that a sculpture is worth a million. Unlike a picture, sculpture invades our three dimensional reality and offers an encounter. As I offer my first blog for Belle Meade, I feel compelled to share just such an encounter.
I have served the past 5 years as the part-time youth pastor at Bethlehem United Methodist Church in the Grassland area of Franklin. Prior to my time at Bethlehem, I served various youth ministry positions both part-time and full in the Memphis area over the past 20 years. I came to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt Divinity school and to further explore the intersection of art and theology via their Religion and the Arts and Contemporary Culture Program. For the past 5 years, I have been discerning, interrogating, deconstructing, re-forming, crafting, and creating my own theological identity.
Even beyond what I can remember, I have been an artist. My parents tell me of my childhood adventures peppered with coloring books, creations, drawings, leaves, sticks, rocks, bottle caps, and other artifacts of wonder that filled my tiny hands, pockets, head, and heart as I tried to soak it all in. As an artist, I began with coloring, but throughout the years have progressed to drawing, painting, pottery, sculpture, and photography. Although I love them all, I have discovered my greatest artistic love in sculpture, especially, sculptural ceramics. In my work, I often explore the human form, embodiment and being, and the human experience of the natural world. During my tenure at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I have had the privilege of further honing and exploring my affinity for sculptural ceramics while simultaneously honing and exploring my affinity for theology.
What does art have to offer theology? The answer to this question has both plagued and comforted me during my studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. This question leads to other questions. Questions that push toward play, mystery, embodiment, and being. Questions that upset the paradigm of theological education, knowing, and being known. Questions that resist functionality and utilitarian ideals. Questions that break the binds of certitude and rationality. Art, like mystery, shall not be tamed. Like mystery, art resists function and pushes people toward being. After all, are we not human beings?
Shaped by the above questions and experiences, I often explore the human form, embodiment and being, the human experience of the natural world, and the mystery and beauty of life in my artwork. Likewise, in my theological formation I often explore the experiential coupled with the transcendent, the everyday and the ordinary coupled with the supernatural and the extraordinary.
I share all the above to give you a better idea of my own interior theological landscape and framework so that you will better understand the encounter I now describe.
Nearing the end of my time at Vanderbilt Divinity school I began to try and discern what my next steps might be. Initially, I had thought that I might stay at Bethlehem and accept a full-time position there and also take some time to rest from the rigors of the academic world. However, God had other plans. Through some conversations with some of my mentors, I was lovingly nudged to put some other “fleeces” out there for discernment. I began to circulate my resume and apply for other positions at area churches and agencies.
As part of that process, I became aware of the youth position at Belle Meade when I received a conference-wide email. Sam McGlothlin was listed as one of the contact people in the thread. I was immediately intrigued as Sam and I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School and were very close during our time there. I called Sam and then sent my resume in for consideration.
After an initial phone interview, I was invited to come to the church for an in-person interview. Before the interview, Sam took me on a tour of the church. As part of the tour, we came to the sanctuary. When Sam brought me into the foyer of the church, I was dumbfounded. There in front of me was a museum quality bronze sculpture. Not only was it a sculpture, but is was one of my favorite presentations from within the Christian narrative, a pietá.
A pietá is a sculpture or image depicting the moment just following Christ’s crucifixion before his body is placed in the tomb. It depicts Mary holding the body of her child one last time before his burial. This moment is not depicted in the words of scripture, but one cannot help but intuit that it could have occurred. According to the gospels, we know that Mary was present at the crucifixion. As a mother, would she not long to hold her child one last time? Would the Roman machine refuse a mother such rights? We cannot definitively discern. Either way, the beauty, mystery, and suffering of this moment disarms me.
As an artist, one of my favorite spiritual writers and artists is Kahlil Gibran. He is the author of The Prophet and many other amazing and poetic works that speak of mystery, beauty, and wonder. He is also known for his paintings and drawings. I wear a ring on my finger gifted to me by my mother that carries one of his sayings, it is the saying that opens this blog: Does the Song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen to it?
Looking at the sculpture I was awestruck, flooded with fear and delight, and caught up in waves of emotion. I approached the sculpture, read the plaque and suddenly I was lost in an ocean of mystery and wonder. The plaque read: Kahlil Gibran, Pietá, 1959.
I have since learned that this Kahlil Gibran is not the same as the poet and writer I adore. He is instead Kahlil George Gibran, the second cousin to his namesake. This point is irrelevant to me though, because the sign still rings true. Though he is not the same, the sign is still crystal clear as it was crafted especially for me. God has called me to this place and this time through an encounter I shall not soon forget.
Steve Stone Jr.
Pastor of Youth and Families