by Barry Moser

When artists pray

BARRY MOSER is the designer and illustrator of the 1999 Pennyroyal Caxton Bible. He has designed and illustrated scores of books ranging from the Bible, to the classics, to children's books. He is currently on the faculty of Smith College where he team teaches a course called "The Bible as Art" with Karl Donfried. this article was first delivered as a lecture sponsored by Auburn Theological Seminary, "An Evening with Barry Moser: A Bible for a New Millennium," The Grolier Club, New York, February 27, 2001.

"On ne va jamais si loin que lorsqu'on ne sait pas oł l'om va."
-- French Proverb

We never go so far as when we don't know where we are going -- or so says an old French proverb. An abiding truth about being a writer or an artist is that if you're really doing your work -- trying to do it as well as it can be done -- you can never be certain about it. You can never be certain because you are always aware of your shortcomings. Aware of your failures. Aware of what the work could be, if only you were better at it. Aware that your ideas are only your puny ideas -- and this immediately casts a long and dark shadow against the possibility of there being eternal verity or deep truth in the work.

Yet it is veracity that we are after in our work -- as elusive, transmogrifying, and undefinable a quarry as that is.

My friend Ethel Pochocki wrote me a while back and suggested that the question, What is truth? was "probably the first question scratched into the sand. . . after What's for supper?" She said that God, our "God of jest and irony," knows that our innate spirituality needs satisfying. Wants answers. Craves answers. Wants to know what the real story is. What was Christ really like? What is God? "Who is he, or is it a she or not nobody but a force. . .?" We humans want neatness and order, she said. Want exactly right and satisfying answers. Want perfect solutions so we can say, "Ah, that's it!" And no matter how hard we try, we fall on our faces. Fall on our faces because we are human -- and humans fall on their faces. Humans are flawed and imperfect beings. We scramble around trying to find meaning, listening to other flawed and imperfect humans telling us this is the way, the only way. It all boils down to mystery. And, she concluded, "truth is a mystery, [that we'll not] know on earth."

I don't think any of us has a choice but to follow the truth as we see it and as our conscience dictates, hoping that we're not too far off base. And therefore I had no choice but to go with the truth as my eyes see it. As they have seen it as a witness, both through my own lenses and the borrowed lenses of the photographers and limners of other times and places have seen it -- Soldago and Evans, Goya and Bosch, Breughel and Witkin. And the truth I see is that the Bible is populated with people like you and me. People who are flawed and imperfect. People who have crooked teeth and bad skin. Who have stinky breath and dirty feet. Who don't always know the difference between right and wrong. Who are self-serving and capricious. People caught in the conflict and dichotomy between good and evil, between the sacred and the profane, between beauty and ugliness, and between the bright and the moronic. People who hope -- and many believe -- that they are made in the very image of God.

My biblical journey was long and circuitous and it embraced, at one time or another, all these conflicts. It began, I think, in childhood, possibly with my aunt Velma's giving me a copy of Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scripture for my eighth birthday. I carried it to school with me in the back pocket of my corduroy knickers. It was bound in limp suede and shaped itself to the contours of my small backside. I thought it was a Bible for the longest time -- and that's reasonable given that I never read it. I probably assumed that having God's Holy Word so close to my butt it would somehow protect me and transfuse into me by some sort of miraculous osmosis that didn't require reading, an activity at which I did not excel.

A few years later, when I was in military school and coming full into my testosterone, I started going to church for the express purpose of meeting girls. To qualify for church-sponsored hayrides and summer retreats I went to Sunday morning services and to Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings on Sunday nights. And in so doing I discovered that a young man can't keep exposing himself to that sort of thing, week in and week out, without promises of salvation and redemption making inroads into his psyche -- no matter how hormone-laden that psyche might be, nor how uncertain as to what, exactly, salvation and redemption are.

I was particularly susceptible to salvation and redemption during summer revival meetings where girls wore demure, lightweight cotton dresses. I am here to tell you that cotton dresses with tight bodices got me saved two or three times before I turned seventeen.

But then, during the Christmas break of my first year in college, I had an experience that took these considerations to another level.

It happened when my brother and I were hunting. We were hiding out among the branches of a big, uprooted hackberry tree in the middle of a grassy field out near the airport. It was a warm, sunny day and letter jackets and tee shirts were fine for warmth and protection. My brother had a crow call and was trying his best to hoodwink some birds into coming close enough so that we could shoot them. Of course it didn't work. The crows stayed their distance -- as they always did.

There was another hunter out there too -- though we were unaware of his presence. He didn't know we were there either, hidden in the innards of that uprooted tree in the middle of the field making loud, crow-like noises. When he pointed his rifle at our makeshift blind and squeezed the trigger, I was holding my rifle in my right hand, standing with my weight on my right foot. For no particular reason I shifted my weight to my left foot -- most likely while the bullet was en route -- moving my torso perhaps three inches to the left. I felt the tug at my pocket before I heard the report from the rifle. The bullet tore through my jacket, through the pocket, and through my tee shirt, leaving two small holes in it about an inch apart. It did not touch my skin. Not so much as a nick or a graze. Just made two holes in my tee shirt.

Had I been smarter, and had I seen fewer films like The Robe and A Man Called Peter, I might have imagined that if God's hand were at work in all this, perhaps He might have had something other in mind for me than becoming a preacher. But, alas, that's what I thought. I felt certain -- there among the twisted branches of that toppled-down hackberry and between those two tiny holes in my tee shirt -- that I had received a "call" to preach the Gospel. I felt that this brush with death was an all-too-obvious sign that I had been spared to preach God's Holy Word. Never mind that I had not read any of it at that point -- just a few incomprehensible passages from that little brown-suede stand-in I carried in my knickers not all that many years before.

But I couldn't see beyond that, given my background. I certainly couldn't have seen a life in books at that point in my life, much less seen myself as designer and illustrator of a fine press edition of the King James Bible forty-two years down the road. I couldn't see anything but the obvious nor imagine anything other than what was acceptable to my family. They wanted me to be a military officer. Or a doctor. But they were okay with my becoming a preacher, especially if I were to one day become a Reverend DOCTOR Moser. It was certainly more acceptable than my becoming an artist, a profession that was not to be considered, because -- after all -- we know what artists are like, even if we don't know any. And we know for sure you can't make a living at it.

So, acquiescing to my family's prejudices and desires, I set out to be a minister, imagining myself one day being the chaplain to the U.S. Senate. Another Peter Marshall. I sought the advice of two local Methodist ministers; I looked into the curriculum of a religious education; I transferred schools and I studied a little Greek.

Then I applied for a license to preach in the Holston Conference of the Methodist Church. It was granted on March 24, 1960. To earn it I had to read selections from The New Testament and a few books about John Wesley, the history of Methodism, and the power and practice of prayer. I took an examination on the reading and witnessed to my calling before the preachers in the Chattanooga District. I was nineteen years old. I still hadn't read all of the Bible, though over the next two years I would have read it two or three times.

The clarity and certainty of that experience led me to embrace Christianity with a degree of philosophical assurance unparalleled in my life. My belief in the Bible was resolute and pertinacious. My conviction that Jesus was my own personal Lord and Savior was unswerving and steadfast. I carried that resolution and conviction with me at home, at school, and even into the chapter room of the Kappa Alpha house at Auburn University where I led Sunday night prayer meetings for skeptical fraternity brothers nursing hangovers. Eventually I would preach it from the pulpits of rural churches in East Tennessee and North Georgia.

But as fundamentalist as I was, I was not fundamentalist enough for my cousin Wayland, a pious, newly reformed drunk. He told me unequivocally that I was wrong. Told me with absolute certainty that God had NOT spoken to me, because if He had, I would know, as he did, that only members of his Church of God or Christ or Whatever-it-was were the only ones on the true road to salvation and paradise. Weren't gonna be no Methodists or Episcopalians or Cathlicks in heaven. No, sir.

He also told me that "nigras" bore the mark of Cain and were destined to servitude by the will and act of God almighty. Told me that a woman's "place" was to serve her husband and to keep her tongue. Told me that the Bible (King James Version, of course) was indeed inerrant and infallible and that I must accept it as such and refrain from any attempt to interpret it. Told me that the Bible says that anyone who changes one word of it will have his name stricken from the Book of Names, and that I'd best be careful if I knew what was good for me.

When I reminded him that he was actually quoting the book of Revelation which says that this celestial editing of the Book of Names will happen to anyone who changes any word of "this book of this prophecy," and that the author was obviously referring -- by his own words -- to the very book he was writing, Wayland said -- without a hint of irony -- "Well, that ain't the way I see it, son."

My journey away from the church was nearly as abrupt and unexpected as my journey to it. My first clerical position was as an assistant minister and youth director at a rural church outside Chattanooga. I preached on Wednesday and Sunday nights. I assisted in Baptisms and the serving of the Lord's Supper. I organized hayrides, square dances, and retreats for the kids in the MYF. And I called on the sick and infirm.

In the summer of my second year a girl in my youth group got pregnant. The preacher, by innuendo, suggested that it was I who was responsible, if not through venery, then certainly by negligence of responsibility. Up until the time I got fired, the only place that girl and her boyfriend were welcome was in my Sunday school class. That was my first good whiff of the bile of hypocrisy and intolerance, and the stench of it made me so sick that I began to turn away.

But the stench got worse.

Remember that these were the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The original Freedom March that began in Chattanooga on May 1, 1963, instigated a lot of conversation and controversy within my family (who numbered among them two known Klansmen), and among my new congregation in North Georgia (which likely numbered among them a few Night Hawks, Kludds, and Klexters). I found myself siding with the marchers and the protesters and becoming more and more an outsider to my congregation and my family for my "radical" views on segregation.

My reading of the gospels -- despite my racist and xenophobic orientation -- told me that Jesus spent most of his time with outcasts. With common people. With whores and tax collectors and noisome fishermen. That he championed the little over the big, the poor over the wealthy, the worldly over the pious -- and in doing so taught us, by example, the grand mystery of God hidden away in the dailyness of human life.

I concluded -- despite what was being preached from the conservative, rural white pulpits like mine and what was presumed unimpeachable at my family's kitchen table -- that Jesus, and most of his disciples, would have been right out there on Highway 11 with Robert Gore, Sam Shirah, Richard Haley, Winston Lockett and the rest of them, though they would probably not have been as well-behaved as they, nor as well groomed. And I might add that they would have been less welcome in my church than that young woman carrying her baby was.

So I fell away from the church. I stopped calling myself a Christian. And for the most part I divorced myself from those who did. Or at least from those who did and practiced it with sanctified calumny and pious animosity in the enclaves where I lived and worked.

But I did not fall away from the Bible. The language, the rhythm, the poetry, and the unparalleled grandeur of the King James Bible stayed with me and continued to inform and flavor my thinking, my language, my writing, and my images.

And when I came to it again, thirty-seven years later as designer and illustrator, the surgically sharp edge of certainty that I knew as a preacher-boy had given way to a ragged and rusty edge of uncertainty. The uncertainty of a middle-aged agnostic reprobate. The only things I was sure of in 1995 were the verities of my own heart, the polemics of my imagination, and the certainty that the work ahead of me would be prodigiously and fearfully difficult. I was also fairly certain that the work would be, by its nature, hermeneutic -- even homiletic -- no matter how much I wanted to avoid such things.

The idea of interpreting the Bible, of preaching the Word, was not a comfortable place for me and I didn't want to go there. Didn't want to go there because since my preaching days and that time of dissidence and dissolution I have not been much moved by the words of priests, pastors, radio preachers, or televangelists. I am not moved by dogmatic sermons, knee-jerk sanctimony, or contrived catechisms. Not moved by the teachings of men who struggle to divine God's will and "know" it in such a way that they can call themselves His chosen -- to the exclusion of others. I am not moved by the homilies of men who struggle to understand "the word of God" and then interpret it to suit their own purposes and agendas.

I am, however, profoundly moved by the sometimes small and sometimes grand religious predilections of ordinary men and women who have raised their flawed and uncertain voices to God. Raised them in the form of painting, and architecture, and sculpture, and poetry, and prints, and reliquaries, and other sorts of things, perhaps most of all in music. Lifting their voices in praise of that something-beyond-themselves which, whether they hold to any religious principles or not, breathes life into their very nostrils. Life into their stone and concrete. Life into their music and their voices. Life into their paint and clay. And, pray God, breathes life into engraved illustrations for new Bibles. Don Quixote tells us that if we wish to travel and avoid the fatigue, expense, suffering, and inconveniences of things like heat and cold and hunger and thirst and insects, we should sit comfortably by our firesides and travel by maps. Had I done this work when I was nineteen I would not have been plagued with the heat and hunger of doubt. My journey, had I embarked upon it then, would have been a journey into certainty. A journey into self-confirmed comforts taken with a map of absolutism. And it would have undoubtedly produced images that were immature, pious, and poorly executed -- a triad of ineptitude that is, unfortunately, all too common in contemporary religious art.

When I did come to it I was an older, work-callused journeyman and I did not venture into certainty or absolutism. I ventured into uncertainty -- and into self. I traveled in the cold much of the time, and often on very thin ice. I did not have a map. And for this kind of work I think that this is the only place to be -- uncomfortable, uncertain, and unarmed.

My journey was, in some ways, like Ruth and Naomi's journey to Bethlehem (or at least as I imagine them). A journey clouded by doubt and by the fear of having begun something I couldn't finish. In my image of them, Ruth and Naomi are seen at the beginning of their journey. Naomi is standing, hand to mouth, uncertain and fallible. Orpah has already turned back towards home. Ruth is sitting down, perhaps wondering if she too should go back home. Wondering if she is making a mistake. Knowing that what she does at this point is irrevocable once she commits to it. But she does not know that the painful emptiness she endures now will later give way to a joyful fullness.

One cannot journey into the book that generations have gone to for nearly sixteen hundred years for sustenance, guidance, and truth without being also sustained, guided, and relumed by it -- even if it's unwitting, unwanted, and unwarned.

The most obvious sustenance is that it offered my inventive, sometimes overproductive nature, a big meaty bone upon which to mouth and chew and eat.

A less obvious sustenance is that it opened the door to a project, the nature of which would push me to the limits of my endurance and capabilities. Would thrust me into five years of celibacy and solitude. That would challenge my intellect and my sense of daring. That would plunge me into the world of ecclesiastical music, to the exclusion of all other music -- except at martini time.

And a project that, once it was over, would cradle and comfort me in the loving and gentle arms of a wonderful woman. As Shakespeare said in Twelfth Night, "Journeys end in lovers meeting."

And I began to pray. But not in the same terms as I did as a boy preacher. Prayer was, as I came to see it and feel it, the very fact of my work. My work had been my prayer. My work is my prayer.

Thomas Fuller said that no weary traveler complained that he came too soon to his journey's end. Perhaps. But when my journey ended and the work was no longer there to sustain me, I was downright lonely for it.

And then one night, as I sat on the edge of my bed, getting ready to turn off the lights and listening to the first strains of Thomas Victoria's Missa pro Defunctis, I was overwhelmed by a deep and painful loneliness. So painful tears pearled up in my eyes and ran down my cheek. I was staring into the dark space of my bedroom and said, out loud, "I miss you." And then the emotions came on like gangbusters. My throat swelled to near closing. The shoulders began to heave with sobs, and then I thought, "Why don't you just get down on your knees and pray, you son of a bitch?"

"What? Are you kidding me? I haven't done that in fifty years."

"Are you too good to get down on your knees?"

"No, it's just that I am going to feel really stupid if I do."

"Yeah? So what?"

"But my knees hurt when I get down on them."

"Tough luck, mister. Prayer ought to be painful for you."

And so I did.

Hauled my naked self off the bed, eyes blurry with tears, took a pillow off the bed and threw it on the floor next to the bed and knelt down on it. And I prayed. Or at least I began to pray. But like setting out to do this Bible I didn't know where I was going with it. Or why, really. Or how. I was just compelled to do it. So I did.

When Ike, my 185-pound English mastiff (who sleeps in the room with me) noticed this strange course of events he got up off his bed to investigate. He came up behind me and stopped. I could feel his big, hot breath on my naked back. And then he sat down, and as he did he raised his great paw, intending, I imagine, to maul me as he so often does looking for attention. But his paw, instead of lacerating my back, went between my arm and my chest, and looped across my forearm. Then he laid his enormous head down on the bed beside me and cut his deep-set, curious eyes toward me as if to say, "I don't know what you're doing, Bubba, but I'm gonna do it with you." My tears gave way to laughter and I never finished the prayer. The prayer I never really began, not knowing how. Not knowing how to address the Creator. Maybe Ike did.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2002, Vol. 52,  No 2.