Ceci n’est pas una pipe

written by Kat Bair
6 · 05 · 24

This past weekend, some of my colleagues at Ministry Incubators and I had the pleasure of kicking off a series of on-site gatherings for the Compelling Preaching program in the Mountain Sky Conference of the United Methodist Church. As we got to a section of the curriculum about guarding preaching from harmful theology, my colleague (boss) Trey scribbled in the margin of the page, Ceci n’est pas una pipe, or This is not a pipe. 

The reference was to a 1929 painting by French surrealist Rene Magritte. The painting (formally titled “The Treachery of Images”) depicts a pipe, with text underneath reading “Ceci n’est pas una pipe.”  Because, of course, what we see on the canvas is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe. 

The Treachery of Images, by Rene Magritte, 1929.

As Trey elaborated to the group of preachers, when we speak of God, when we take the pulpit, what we offer is never God, it is a painting of God. Whatever metaphors we use, images we construct, analysis we offer, it all falls short of the greatness of God. Because we are finite and God is not, whenever we describe God, we conceal as much as we reveal. 

How does that affect how we preach, lead, and pastor? It seems to me it both humbles and empowers us. 

It humbles us by removing the expectation that we are the gatekeepers of the right thoughts, words, and images of God. Even the most orthodox, well-educated, doctrinally-aligned pastor in the world commits some heresy every time they open their mouth. God is not ours to own, define, or offer to others. God will move how God moves and our call is to join in on the work God is doing, knowing that our understanding will always fall short. Whenever we take the pulpit, we do well to keep in mind that none of us have any idea what we’re talking about. 

This knowledge also liberates us. If there is no perfect text, no perfect theology, no perfect doctrine, then we are free to learn from those before us and also to incorporate our own experience, reason, and the guidance of the Spirit. I was witness to a whole argument (online of course) between two people about translations of scripture, with one arguing that because the King James Version was a word-by-word translation of an “uncorrupted” version of the original text, it was the only translation that was truly the Word of God. I found myself marveling at how little room this perspective had left for us to dance with the Holy Spirit. Did God reveal Godself only one time to only one group of people? Has God stopped guiding the hands of those doing faithful work in pursuit of God? What little space that grants us! 

Maybe we can all be liberated in the reality that every work of translation, explanation, proclamation is a painting of what we don’t have the dimensions to present in reality. Maybe that can open up space for us to use new colors, or textures, or mediums in our attempt to capture new angles and images of an infinite God. Maybe by understanding and embracing that we will always be at least a little bit wrong, we can learn new ways to be right too. 

We at Ministry Incubators believe that the Spirit’s work is not done yet. Not in closing churches, not in struggling communities, not in burnt-out pastors. We believe that God is at work, and that we are called to continue to prayerfully work and search until a new way of believing and following comes into shape. For our friends in this gathering of Mountain Sky, that search looks like convening lay and ordained preachers so they can learn from one another and support one another. It looked like expanding the definition of preaching, of sharing tools, formats, and exegetical frameworks, and trusting that God had continued to call each of us to this sacred work. 

What new shapes are emerging in your context? What new images of God are you beginning to notice and learn from? Reach out to our team, and let us know what is coming up for you, and we’d love to paint alongside you. 

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Kat Bair

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