Written by J. Martin Bailey
October - November 2008
Lifelong dream realized
||"Sarah and Ishmael's Expulsion" from McCollough's book, "The Art of Parables." Photo courtesy of Copperhouse.|
The Rev. Charles McCollough yearned to be an artist.
He had "the eye" of an artist. He always carried a sketch book and drawing pencils. He sometimes slipped away from meetings to art museums, always admiring beautiful images.
But he had to support his family; and was called to ministry, writing and teaching. So he worked for the UCC, first as an educator and then as an advocate for justice and peace.
Still, McCollough wanted — needed — to express himself in images.
Actually, he had lots of opportunity to express himself. His seven books, including "Faith Made Visible, Resolving Conflict with Justice and Peace" and "To Love the Earth," were used in several denominations. He was a popular preacher and a thoughtful theologian, often lecturing on issues of human rights and social justice. He helped influence both church and public policy, including shaping the rationale for the formal apology that the UCC made to the native people of Hawaii. Charles was the principal author of the denomination's policy statement on the environment. He also worked with the UCC's partnership program with the Evangelical Church in Germany, frequently lecturing there at pastoral seminars. On the side, Charles pursued his interest in art, helping to develop exhibits by religious artists at two General Synods, and studying sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Johnson Atelier, the Princeton Art Association and Mercer College.
Though he loved his job, especially lobbying in Washington on issues of peace and justice, something was lacking. He wanted to devote himself completely to creating art.
So, when he retired in 2000 he did just that. There was a barn on the old farmstead near Princeton, N.J., where he and his spouse, Carol, live. Charles turned it into a studio.
During the transition from his national staff assignment in the UCC's Washington, D.C., office, he was an artist in residence at Wesley Theological Seminary, seeking to understand and express how art and theology inform and influence one another. He began getting commissions to create sculptures that would help people see their own lives in his art.
Andover Newton Theological School wanted several pieces when he went there as resident artist. Fifteen of his sculptures are now on the seminary walls. After Andover Newton and an interim pastorate, he became fascinated with the word pictures that Jesus created in more than 30 parables.
As those word pictures began crowding Charles' mind and sketchbook, and as he began to form them in clay, McCollough experienced what the New Testament scholar, C.H. Dodd, described: Jesus' parables had created images "drawn from nature and common life" that "tease [the mind] to active thought."
Charles wanted his sculptures to do the same. So he began reading everything available about the parables — and he found himself not only working in a library and a studio, but sharing his ideas in places like Wesley, Andover Newton, Drew and Princeton Seminaries, as well as with groups of pastors and lay persons and in his local church, Christ Congregation in Princeton, N.J. Princeton and New Brunswick Seminaries are close enough that students come to talk with him in his studio.
Jesus used the parables to talk about the kingdom of God for a reason, Charles found himself saying. "Jesus' friends and neighbors were living under military occupation — they were feeling that stress in their lives. The parables were memorable because they described life under oppression so directly." Charles began seeing that the violence of the Roman occupation was the context of Jesus' ministry, and that the parables are meaningful today because they speak to a similar situation if we only acknowledge it as such.
Because Americans don't live in a "kingdom," Charles finds himself speaking of the "Empire of God" with a capital "E," which also accounts for the economic/political contrast to the Roman Empire in which Jesus lived. "Jesus' parables are relevant for us," he says, "because they speak to the issues of poverty and oppression — just as they did 2,000 years ago."
According to Eden Seminary Professor Stephen Patterson, "Charles McCollough's art captures the drama, humor and irony of Jesus' parables in a way that no prose interpretation can."
Now, having completed a whole series of sculptures on the Parables, he described the process in a book, "The Art of Parables," which the Wood Lake Publishing House of Canada developed with an accompanying CD that presents images for projection and study.
Some years ago, Charles completed his Ph.D. at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, N.J. That United Methodist school has called him back to create a series of 12 sculptures to interpret the origins and interactions of the three Abrahamic faiths. They are being installed in special niches along the seminary walls and are to be dedicated next February. Drew also has eight relief sculptures on the Magnificat that will be dedicated in November this year.
Today, as he works in his studio barn, Charles McCollough has discovered that his retirement is filled with satisfaction and purpose.
The Rev. J. Martin Bailey is former editor of United Church News' predecessor publications, United Church Herald and A.D. Magazine. He also is the former Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches for Education, Communication and Discipleship. He and his wife, Betty Jane, live in West Orange, N.J.
THE ART OF PARABLES
Paperback, 256 pages