David Nystrom, PhD
In 8 A.D. he was banished to a bleak town at the ragged edge of the empire. Ovid was acknowledged as the master of the Latin language, but he had run afoul of Augustus. Upon arrival at the windswept and forlorn outpost of Tomi Ovid realized the genius of Augustus' punishment: no one there understood Latin. In a moment of self-indulgent pity he wrote that there on the far shore of the Black Sea he was the barbarian, understood by nobody (barbarus hic ego sum, qui non intellegor ulli. Tristia V. XX). An artist strives to be understood and to render the sublime understandable.
Loren Baker was such an artist. Loren as I knew him was immensely kind. He was not hasty. He was sensitive and discerning. His laugh and his smile were the companions of weariness. He had been knocked about a bit. He understood that wisdom comes to us through suffering. He was also a Christian within the evangelical tradition. Both his faith and his art were important to him. And therein lay one of the paradoxes of his life.
The role of the artist who is also an evangelical Christian is not altogether unlike that of Ovid in far-off Tomi. Many currents within the broad stream of Christendom are richly enthusiastic about artistic endeavor. For reasons of historical particularity, however, evangelicalism is not to be numbered among them. It tends to prize propositional truth, but lacks abundant familiarity with the arts and the broader sensorial heritage of the Christian faith. This heritage is rooted in scripture itself. The Biblical story asserts that God created the physical world and that he formed human beings out of the dust of the earth. God works with the physical and all of the attendant senses. When finished God observed creation and declared it good. The stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel that follow reveal something darker: we have within us the capacity for unflinching self-interest. Addiction to our appetites can cause us to despoil what God has wrought, even those elements of creation that we love. And so Cain is told to master his capacity for sin, or it will master him. This self-interest can blind us to God and our true purpose. When Cain is sent east of Eden he refused to raise his gaze higher than the horizon, and he hoped for no more than he could see. These stories express that the physicality of creation has been rendered subject to corruption and decay, but still it bears the stamp of that original goodness that God declared at creation. The physical is God's self-expression. It is both the object and material of his redemptive work.
The physical is also center-stage at the great act of salvation in the story of scripture. The two cardinal miracles of the life of Jesus involve physical embodiment. In the incarnation the God of the universe assumed human particularity in the person Jesus. Jesus lived and worked and walked among us. He experienced life in its complexity and simple beauty. In the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus in bodily form suffered and died and after three days God raised him from the dead, the marks of suffering still evident on his resurrected body. Jesus knew pain and sorrow and rejection as well as friendship and love. And he invited others to grow. When asked why he taught in parables Jesus responded that he aimed for his listeners not to understand. He eschewed one dimensional answers and instead offered the invitation to think deeply about and to experience fully the most important and complex matters human life affords: suffering and faith and forgiveness and beauty and justice and love and human nature and our need for God. He invited us to consider the fact that we can save our lives only by losing them for his sake. He aimed to enlist not mere observers, but active participants in great drama of life lived with a heart annealed to God. These he called disciples.
This theme of embodiment suggests that all of our senses are crucial for understanding the drama of God's interaction with his creation. Jacob experienced God through dreams and a wrestling match with an angel. For many of us, perhaps, this is alien territory. It was familiar ground for Loren.
Loren was a disciple. In his work he sought to help us break free from the detached observed and observer dynamic that so often characterizes our relationship to art and even to life itself. Instead he invited us to participate. Consider his multidimensional "Crucifixion." Perhaps its form is strange to you. Linger with it anyway. Its familiar elements orient us to the nature of the work. Its non-familiar elements heighten our senses so as to be aware of what we see and feel as we pause to consider the piece. The telescopic effect invites us to participate in the drama of the crucifixion, not simply to observe it. We are invited to consider the love and sacrifice of Christ not in abstract, but as an act surrendered up for each one of us. With Loren human creativity was pressed into service to entreat us to participate in the living of our faith and not merely the more narrow endeavor of thinking about it. As an artist and a Christian Loren invited us to consider the full range of human life: its beauty and order and our chaotic appetites and wild capacity for love. He invited us to recognize that we are broken and cannot save ourselves, and that ultimately we are rescued only by embracing the crucified savior, who loved us and gave himself up for us. Loren knew that only the wounded can be healed, that only the guilty are eligible for pardon. I thank God for Loren, for his wounded-ness and kindness and gentle compassionate weariness. He knew how to point the way.