Gurdon Brewster’s Bust of Reinhold Niebuhr and the art that sets us free: “Imposters yet true”

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We are treated as impostors, and yet are true
(2 Corinthians 6:8).

I will always associate this verse from Paul with Reinhold Niebuhr’s remarkable sermon from his book Beyond Tragedy which I read while at the University of Chicago Divinity School in the mid 1990’s.

Niebuhr really stretched out in his sermon, reading this verse as a way of thinking of the art of storytelling, myth, legend and poetry as privileged means of theological exploration.  i.e. myths are sometimes seen as ‘impostors’ because they aren’t ‘literally’ true, and yet, as Niebuhr passionately argued, our stories as much as our dramatic, poetic leaps of body and spirit are often the closest we can get to articulating the mysterious truth of God’s presence in our lives.

It was, I realized only much later, a rather brilliant rejoinder to Plato’s dismissal of the artists from his ideal polis, Niebuhr suggesting that there was more “truth in myths” (which I think was the title of the chapter in Beyond Tragedy) than there was in the desiccated reasoning of the literalizers.

Speaking of Niebuhr, I can’t wait for the chance to head to NYC, to visit the library of Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr’s stomping grounds for most of his theological career. There I believe still sits the bust of Niebuhr made by our beloved Gurdon Brewster, who shared with me the story about how Niebuhr growled at him when Gurdon asked to do his bust. “Don’t do it in bronze, I’m not dead yet!” was his response, and then he insisted he was too busy to sit for Gurdon to study and cast him. Classic Niebuhr gesture, who once told Paul Tillich to hurry up on one of their daily theological talk/strolls because Tillich was too busy smelling the flowers. “They’ll still be there tomorrow!” Niebuhr impatiently reprimanded. Score one for Tillich in their ongoing theological debate. Stopping to smell the flowers while on a walk is always good-better-best theological practice!

Gurdon accepted the challenge, by the way, and gathered as many photographs of Niebuhr as he could to do the painstaking work of casting Niebuhr’s bust while the man himself continued to fly about his work with barely a pause to catch his breath. Is the bust an accurate representation of the man? Given that he never stood still, a bust of Niebuhr is in and of itself a bit comical, but I can’t wait to give it a look. Niebuhr was for many years my theological hero and it when Gurdon dropped his name during my first  conversation with him over lunch in 2008, I knew I’d made a friend worth his weight in bronze or gold.

Gurdon Brewster, imposter, yet true…thank you my dear friend!

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