`Rites & Remedies’ – Edgy seminary exhibit shows the Bible transformed

Paul Roorda haunts flea markets, thrift shops and eBay, looking for Bibles no one wants any more.

When he gets them, he often burns them. If he doesn’t do that, he might drive a nail through the pages, so they can’t be opened. Other times, he’ll cut each page into strips, then fold those into tiny scrolls and place them into gelatin capsules.

Paul Roorda’s “Meringue with Gold and Ashes” features egg white meringue cookies topped with gold leaf and flakes of ashes from burned Bible pages. PHOTOS COURTESY WESLEY THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, PAUL ROORDA

While this may sound like someone who has gone over the edge with sacrilege, Mr. Roorda is an acclaimed artist. His bold, thought-provoking sculptures and mixed-media collagesmade from discarded Biblesare currently on display at Wesley Theological Seminary’s Dadian Gallery.

The 24 works in “Paul Roorda: Rites & Remedies” might be considered the shadow side, or at least the flip side, of the typical seminary exhibit, where rare, beautiful Bibles from centuries past are hauled out and placed under glass for straightforward admiration.

Mr. Roorda will do just anything to an old Bible, in the interest of shaking people up, and getting them to think afresh.

“I do know that it makes people uncomfortable,” he said of his approach. “I like that discomfort. That’s a big part of the intent of my work. I want to challenge people. But there’s also an acknowledgement in the work that (faith) is a difficult topic, and it’s not to be taken lightly. I hope that’s apparent in the art.”

Trudi Ludwig Johnson is curator for the Dadian Gallery, a program of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley. Ms. Johnson said the seminary wants students to think hard about faith, and she sees Mr.

“Antidote” consists of glass vials containing burned Bible pages, a comment by Mr. Roorda on how people tend to turn to Christian faith during a health crisis.

Roorda’s art as a great catalyst for such thinking.

“It really crawls under your skin, and that’s what we’re trying to do here, all the time,” she said.

Mr. Roorda, 48, is a Canadian who exhibits regularly in galleries, as well as in academic and religious institutions. He’s a past artist-in-residence for Kitchener, Ontario, and was featured in The Artist’s Life, a Bravo TV program that profiles artists.

Religionalong with, and sometimes combined with, medical science and environmentalismhas been a preoccupation for Mr. Roorda. As a boy, he joined his family in regular attendance at a Christian Reformed church.

“I grew up fully immersed in that, and fully believing in what I was taught,” he said. “My life has been a journey from that. … It’s been a process of deciding what to hold onto and what to let go of. That is the constant theme in my art work, too.”

While Mr. Roorda works in various forms, he especially likes to use found objects in making sculptures and mixed-media collages. Old Bibles, he points out, are easy to find. Thanks to the era of mass printing, there are many millions of them.

“The older and the more worn out, the more intriguing for me,” he said. “That means it comes with a history. … That gives me a rich object to work with.”

Mr. Roorda notes that while other religious traditions have instructions for how to dispose of sacred objects, Christianity doesn’t for Bibles.

He recalled the first time he set one on fire.

“I didn’t do it lightly,” he said. “I didn’t do it bitterly or with anger. It was really with a lot of questioning or hesitation. … I was really willing to go ahead because I felt there was something about doing it that could help me discover something about what the Bible meant for me.”

The bottles in “Once Daily” contain gelatin capsules that themselves hold pages of a small hand Bible that Mr. Roorda folded into strips and rolled into scrolls.

For the work titled “Antidote,” Mr. Roorda put burned Bible pages into vials with corks in their stoppers. The idea came to him during a particularly bad flu season, and people in his community were openly worried.

“Where do we turn when we’re frightened for our health, when we’re concerned for our mortality?” he said. “We often turn to the Bible.”

Mr. Roorda used Bible page gilding and burned Bible pages with egg yolk and clove oil in “Icon II,” displaying the results on a board in an antique frame.

“I’m disposing of the Bible by taking elements of it and memorializing them in the form of an icon,” he said.

Burning a Bible can be seen as a destructive act, or as a symbolic rejection of the Bible’s contents, Mr. Roorda said. But to him, it is just as a valid to see it as an act of transformation, including a rite of purification.

“I really love the layers of possibility, the layers of contraction, the complexity,” he said.

For “Nail Arch,” part of a series in which he turns open Bibles into new objects, Mr. Roorda pierced the pages with a nail to create an arch that supports them but also keeps them from being separated in order to be read.

Mr. Roorda and Trudi Ludwig Johnson, curator at the Dadian Gallery.

The work called “Once Daily” consists of bottles filled with gelatin capsules that in turn contain pages from a pocket-size Bible, which Mr. Roorda cut into strips and folded into scrolls.

“The light-hearted title refers to the sort of ritual approach we have to the Bible,” he said. “A lot of people in my own church tradition would read the Bible daily, a chapter a day.”

Mr. Roorda uses art to explore the role of faith and superstition in people’s approach to health, and he acknowledges a fascination with the miracle stories of the Bible, as well as contemporary accounts of faith healing.

To make the work titled “Small MiracleWine Into Water,” he said he boiled 10 gallons of red wine, collecting the condensed steam and then repeating the process at a lower temperature, to let the alcohol boil out. He put the remaining water (including impurities) into communion glasses surrounding a medicine bottle.

Inverting the story of Jesus’ turning wine into water was his clear strategy.

“I do enjoy the element of surprise and humor,” he said. “It’s a way of drawing people into a work of art.”

Though Mr. Roorda acknowledges that some people find his work upsetting, he said he has encountered little outright hostility. He hopes and believes that’s because the care he takes with his objects suggests he’s serious in the questions he means to raise.

“Nail Arch” is part of a series in which Paul Roorda transforms open Bibles into new objects.

Ms. Johnson said that Mr. Roorda approached Wesley with the idea of having an exhibit of  his work theresomething she was delighted to work out, though the scheduling took a while.

The artist praises the Dadian Gallery as “a gem.” He also reported happily on a gallery talk he gave to Wesley students, finding their questions insightful and stimulating.

A seminary which welcomes critical thinking is, he believes, his best venue.

“I know my art is of particular interest to people who are coming at life and their study with a perspective on faith and Christianity,” Mr. Roorda said. “I do make a point of putting my work out there in that kind of community.”

“Paul Roorda: Rites & Remedies” continues at the Dadian Gallery through May 24. The gallery is in the Kresge Academic Building at Wesley Theological Seminary, 4500 Massachusetts Ave., Washington, D.C. Regular hours are Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The gallery is closed weekends and holidays.

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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"While this may sound like someone who has gone over the edge with sacrilege…". Yes, it does, actually. This is like something Hannibal Lector would do with Bible pages or perhaps Dracula's insect-eating assistant, Renfield. I know art is in the eye of the beholder, but I can't believe foundations give grants for this sort of thing while there are people in the world who are homeless, starving, and illiterate.

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