*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 2nd of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
I have a confession to make as an educated professional in 21st century America. I can be a bit snarky and a little incredulous with stories that seem silly to me. I know I make the point on this show, as I did for years in the classroom, that Christians believe in the supernatural. It’s baked right into the Gospel and Jesus himself. That doesn’t mean that ALL supernatural claims are equal. If you listened to yesterday’s show, you heard a story about a horse and an exorcism that I’m going to go ahead and say never happened the way it was reported. But there was some truth to the bigger story about helping others and the supernatural power of the Gospel to do so.
And just because a story seems incredible, and even if I question some of the specifics, I need to be careful not to pigeonhole folks as crackpots because they don’t have my “enlightened” and “modern” sensibilities.
So…now I’m going to tell you the story of an eccentric Baptist minister in the American south in the mid 20th century: Howard Finster, born OTD in 1916. He began preaching at 13 and was a full-time minister by the 1950s. But In the 1960s, he started an art project in his backyard called “Paradise Garden,” a kind of Eden for eccentric creations, devices, and paintings. Like the hubcap tower, which was a tower of hubcaps. And now you’re starting to get where this guy was coming from.
In 1976 Howard told the story himself that he was repairing bicycles for the neighborhood children when he looked at a smudge of paint on his finger. He claims that in color was the picture of a face telling him to make sacred art. Later he claims to have received a vision of a 50 foot Elvis outside his house who confirmed to Howard that he was indeed supposed to paint sacred art.
Howard, however, had no art training and only completed the 6th grade. His art might look somewhat commonplace to you if you are familiar with American folk art tradition. But if not, you would be forgiven if you thought they were the works of a child at first glance. But upon closer inspection, you’ll begin to notice a blending of sacred and secular. If the picture’s messages were unclear, he would often fill the space in his paintings with bible verses.
The theology of Finster was by all accounts a kind of eccentric Southern Baptist theology that stressed personal conversion, the work of Jesus as our only hope, and the need to tell as many people about the good news as humanly possible.
Howard’s work was becoming increasingly popular in the 1970s and 80s, with his pieces being picked up by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and others.
In the early 80s, Georgia, a local Athens band, R.E.M., used Finster and his garden for their first music video (Radio Free Europe). Michael Stipe, the lead singer, asked if Finster would help create the band’s next album cover. The band’s album Reckoning has an image of a two-headed snake drawn by Stipe but colored by Finster with other drawings and words (Reckoning is the album with the brilliant “(Don’t go) Back to Rockville”) The conservative Baptist community knew Finster as a free spirit but thought he was cozying up too close with secular culture.
Soon, David Byrne and the Talking Heads asked Finster to create an original piece for the cover of their upcoming album, Little Creatures. A cover is essentially several small drawings interspersed with Bible verses. The album would be the Talking Heads best-selling album (it’s the one “And She Was”). The album cover was named the album cover of the year by Rolling Stone.
Finster’s fame led him to be the subject of articles by the likes of Esquire, and he was a guest on the Johnny Carson show. But in all of this, this Baptist from Georgia told the story of his art as inspired to the end that all would know Jesus. Finster was eccentric but seemingly without guile or greed.
Today we remembered Howard Finster on the anniversary of his birth on this day in 1916. Finster died in 2001, but his house and gardens are now open to the public, and his works are in museum collections across the world.
The last word for today might seem a bit eccentric- outlandish even- it comes from the 6th chapter of Isaiah after he has a vision of God in the Temple
6 Then on,e of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
The Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of December 2021 was brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who was inspired to roast coffee when he was visited by the 50 ft tall ghost of Juan Valdez. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man inspired to eat his body weight in chicken after a vision of giant Colonel Sanders, Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.