Engineer and Artist

I picked up a book in Hong Kong some years ago on a visit.  The artistic design of the cover attracted my attention.  I almost wanted to buy it without even reading the title.  It is a translated book titled 基督徒人文素養.  The original English title somewhat deviates from the meaning of its Chinese name:  The Christian, The Arts, and The Truth, written by Frank E. Gaebelein (嘉柏林).  Most evangelical seminarians would recognize that name immediately because he is the editor of the 12-volume Expositor’s Bible Commentary.   As I thumbed through the table of content, I realized this book is devoted to the discussions on Christianity and art/literature – a subject that is quite different in the thought process from working with commentaries!  I must say I was quite excited to find a Christian scholar expounded on this marginalized subject.

At the morning I wrote this article, George Stephanopoulos from ABC interviewed Walter Isaacson, the author who wrote the biography on the late Apple’s founder and CEO Steve Jobs.  During the interview, Isaacson discussed what he says in the book that Jobs was “not exceptionally smart but he was a genius.” He explained that he made that statement to describe how Jobs was able to connect artistry with technology.  Compared to Jobs, Bill Gates is someone who has a brilliant mind but lacks that quality Jobs possessed.  I suppose the world of ipods, iphones, and iPads have shown us the significance of integration of art and technology.  While the technology drives our economy and the way we live, art somehow frames and guides that drive.  The world that Apple has created comprises of both elements.  It is not well defined without either one.  I wish I can say the same for the North American Chinese churches.


Having lived in the Silicon Valley for so many years makes me get used to being surrounded by engineers.  My church is full of engineers.  Many of my classmates in the seminary were engineers, which means a good number of pastors in the Silicon Valley were engineers at some point.  Engineers are, by nature, problem solvers.  They frame their question as “How does it work?”  The little boys who like to take their toys apart to answer that question grow up to become men who study the inside of machines and systems to fulfill the same quest.  As Christians, I find them attracted to pragmatism.  They are interested in the three steps to evangelism, the four steps to forgiveness, the five steps to discipleship, and the six steps to something else.  Simply said, they are methodic in their way of thinking; therefore they like applications.  Several great “engineers” emerged in the last two decades.  Rick Warren and Bill Hybels became household names within the community who are into “doing church”.  These sages laid the ground for us to learn “how to”.  They are no Steve Jobs.  They are more like Bill Gates.

Gates built a great company without a great product.  Don’t get me wrong.  Microsoft makes good products, but they were not iconic like anything came out of the annual Apple conference (maybe with the exception of Windows 95).  The success of Gates is largely a result of his vision and leadership.  Like Gates, the “engineers” of the church do a great job in building the church as an organization with good but not great “products”.  In other words, you rarely find people who would say “Wow!  I want to be like that Christian.” But the place is filled with decent people whom you can trust and willing to befriend.  The church will define what Christian things are and you would do them as frequently as you can.  The church hopped along well for twenty years like that.  Then, along came the artists.


Artists do not frame life questions like engineers do.  They don’t necessarily want to know how something works but instead they ask “What can this become?” Like Da Vinci who painted Mona Lisa or Michelangelo who created the statue of David, they all started with a blank canvas or a block of stone with no resemblance to anything that they would finally turn out.  I suspect the life model of Mona Lisa may not truly possess any mystery to an ordinary eye, but somehow she captured the imagination of the painter who gave life to her portrait that outlived the model for hundreds of years.  In the same way, while you and I might only see a piece of marble with rugged edges sitting in the studio, Michelangelo “saw” David hidden inside; therefore, he simply chipped away those part of the stone that did not belong.  When Mother Teresa was still alive, a young man by the name of Shane Claiborne went to work with her for a summer.  He wrote down for us to see how it works with the artist with spiritual matters.

We are the body of Christ, not in some figurative sense, but we are the flesh and blood of Jesus alive in the world through the Holy Spirit–God’s hands, feet, ears.  When Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), he means it.  Over and over, the dying and the lepers would whisper the mystical word namaste in my ear.  We really don’t have a word like it in English (or even much of a Western conception of it).  They explained to me that namaste means “I honor the Holy One who lives in you.”  I knew I could see God in their eyes.  Was it possible that I was becoming a Christian, that in my eyes they could catch a glimpse of the image of my Lover?

If the engineer concerns with application, then the artist concerns with formation.  The former is willing to work with a product that is functional, the latter is obsessed with perfection.  The artist is often bothered by flaws, and he has absolutely no tolerance for look-alike.  He looks for God from the people around him.  He aspires to be God-like in his daily walk on earth.  Only genuine spirituality may satisfy his thirst.  Also, the artist does not necessarily want to work with the church as we understand it traditionally.  He often sees it as a limitation to his expression of faith.  It is not a surprise that the artist does not always fit well in a well defined organization.  The engineer plugs people in the organizational church where they find the place they belong. The artist often attracts others to follow him to go outside the church and become something bigger.  Once in a while, we may have someone who embodied both the engineer and the artist, like Erwin McManus of the Mosaic Church.  But most of the time, we have two separate camps with each thinking the other is an absolute abomination.  That is also the reason why Gaebelein’s book is like a breath of fresh air.

2 thoughts on “Engineer and Artist”

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  2. Seeder,

    Thank you for your comment. I have actually written this article over ten years ago. It’s good to know that it still makes sense to some.

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