UNCERTAIN, AND UNARMED,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Are you too good to get down on your knees?"
"No, it's just that I am going to feel really stupid if I
"Yeah? So what?"
"But my knees hurt when I get down on them."
"Tough luck, mister. Prayer ought to be painful for
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
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.