The National Gallery has an exhibit of J.M.W. Turner’s works. There are a lot of paintings, and as is often the case, they are displayed chronologically. The first room has watercolors that are so specific and detailed they might be photographs. These early paintings are often buildings, in what the materials describe as “the fashionable Picturesque aesthetic, which embraces qualities of variety, asymmetry roughness, and decay.” However they are characterized, the paintings are lovely. Later works are done in oil and take on epic topics: war, fire, storms. There are some biblical themes, too: an angel in the sun, Moses, the fourth horseman, the flood. But here is what I notice: the progression of the work is from precise to abstract. There is more and more of what seems to be to be experimentation, the same scene from multiple vantage points, with lavish use of color shifting with each new view. And finally, at the end, the paintings are almost pure color and light, so open as to demand the viewer’s own interpretation.
I see here somehow the progression of my preaching work. When I began, I thought I had to present a clear depiction of what the text was saying. I thought I had to show it exactly as it was – meaning exactly as I perceived it to be, although I don’t think I had that level of self-awareness. I’ve tackled my own epic themes, and I’ve come at the same text from multiple perspectives. And the longer I’m at this, the more I see my preaching opening up. My intention is no longer to say what I see, but rather to try to create some kind of space and light that pushes others to do their own interpretive work. I want to suggest, to use color, to work with layers of meaning, but I do not want to illustrate, to copy, to try to duplicate. I want to experience what is before me and draw others into their own experience.
Here is how one contemporary described watching Turner paint: “He began by pouring wet paint onto the paper until it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos – but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its exquisite minutia, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph.”
And so I preach, tearing and scratching and scrubbing and immersing myself in chaos -- praying all the while that something will come into being by lunch time.