McCahon, Colin - by Rob Yule
How the Light Gets In: The Christian Art of Colin McCahon
by Rob Yule
I first encountered a Colin McCahon painting in the mid 1970s when I was Ecumenical Chaplain at Victoria University of Wellington. A gigantic mural appeared on the wall of the entrance foyer of a new lecture block—now known as the Maclaurin Building. It featured an enormous 3 metre-high ‘I AM’ in white and black letters, astride a stylised but recognisably New Zealand landscape, with texts reminiscent of the biblical prophets.
It was a painting to walk past, from left to right. The left panel, showing the lowering darkness of a bush fire or an approaching storm, seemed heavy with foreboding about secular culture, ‘this dark night of Western civilisation’. It reminded me of the words of Fairburn, who a generation earlier had also lamented the burning of the bush and the secularity of New Zealand culture: ‘Smoke out of Europe, death blown on the wind, and a cloak of darkness for the spirit.’
Toward the right of the painting the landscape brightened. The transition from darkness to light was marked by a series of biblical texts, framed by the giant letters ‘I AM’, God’s numinous personal name, indicating his eternal being, revealed to Moses before the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 3:14). The texts, from the Psalms, included a prayer for self-awareness: ‘teach us to order our days rightly, that we may enter the gate of wisdom’ (Psalm 90:12),2 and an invocation of God’s blessing: ‘God be gracious to us and bless us, God make his face shine upon us that his ways may be known on earth and his saving power among all the nations’ (Psalm 67:1-2).
I remember standing before this vast mural, awed by its impact. It was a profoundly counter-cultural statement—not unlike the ‘turn or burn’ preaching of the Jesus People movement with which it is contemporary—warning that our secular, materialistic society will destroy itself, unless we humble ourselves, seek wisdom, and pursue ‘the Lord, our true goal’. Like an evangelist pressing home the bleakness of the human condition and the majesty and holiness of God to bring about a change of heart, McCahon spread a giant canvas to urge his viewers to leave the broad and popular way that leads to destruction and ‘enter through the narrow gate’ that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14).