Our Church Speaks saints by Ben Lansing

Our Church Speaks: The Voice and Vision of Ben Lansing

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If you have spent time on social media with enough other Anglicans, chances are you’ve come across Ben Lansing’s artwork. In a few short years, he has built up a collection of over 250 portraits called Our Church Speaks, inviting viewers to engage with the words and lives of saints from throughout the ages.

His work appears across social media platforms wherever Anglicans are posting. It offers a refreshing change from the steady stream of memes, which tend to oversimplify or flatten everything. And indeed Ben hopes to reach an audience beyond Anglicans. His own history of faith and passion for the diverse body of Christ feeds his hope to reach anyone drawn to a more grounded, historical faith.

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The Voice of the Church

The voice of the church has been calling to Ben for many years. It has whispered invitations throughout each step of his faith journey. He grew up in vibrant, loving, and faithful Christian communities. Nevertheless, he had a sense that something was missing from their Baptist, non-denominational, and house church settings. He felt a disconnect from a greater body of faith. Although he would not have used the terms at the time, he was longing to participate in the ancient, sacramental life of the church.

In 2010, Ben accepted an invitation to try out a new house church, this one rooted in the Anglican tradition. Here, Ben discovered the Book of Common Prayer, which shaped the worship of this community through ancient prayers. The oversight of a bishop connected them to a greater structure. Ben began to feel rooted more deeply in a church that spanned time and space.

Four years later, as Ben and his bride-to-be, Bethany, prepared for their wedding, they knew they didn’t want to write their own vows. They sought out something more solid and tested and found their solution in the BCP. While it would be another few years before the Lord drew them into Anglicanism, their wedding ceremony was essentially an Anglican service.

As newlyweds, the Lansings sought guidance in shaping their new life together. The Spirit led them to the practice of daily prayer. Ben found his days upheld by the time-tested structure of confession, praise, prayer, and psalms from morning until evening.

Ben and Bethany were attending a non-denominational church in Richmond, Virginia when they heard of an Anglican church plant coming to their neighborhood. They sensed God saying, “That’s for you.” In a partnership of prayer and encouragement, the Lansings joyfully joined Redeemer Anglican in Richmond with encouragement and a sending commission from their pastor.

The Birth of Our Church Speaks

In the years that followed, Bethany served on the vestry and Ben received Holy Orders to the diaconate. He continued to feel pulled into a historic stream of the church through the BCP and studied it eagerly. The calendar section, in particular, which lists names of saints, ancient and contemporary, commemorated by the church year after year, fascinated him. Who were all these people? What stories could they tell? How did God use them to build his kingdom?

Ben dove into research, collecting direct quotations that spoke of God’s faithfulness in many generations and cultural contexts. Even in the thrill of discovery, Ben felt a sense of sorrow that these brothers and sisters in Christ, important enough to be remembered on the church calendar, were still so unfamiliar.

All of this research into theology, liturgy, and church history was in Ben’s off time when he wasn’t putting in hours as a visual artist. Ben has been a professional cartoonist since he was fifteen years old, garnering a national audience and a Pulitzer nomination. He began to wonder if there was a way to combine these two seemingly disparate sides of himself. There was the professional artist drawing comic strips, ensconced in a world of silly, cartoony animals, and the avid researcher of church history and theology, driven by a desire for the wider body of Christ. He took the question to his rector, Father D.J. Marotta, who encouraged him to create artwork for the bulletin. He began drawing woodcut-style images in pen and ink to share with his church.

Ben Lansing Good Shepherd
Ben Lansing’s church bulletin illustration, The Good Shepherd.

Then, COVID hit. Like it did for so many other projects, the homebound isolation of the pandemic provided a season of creative incubation. By then, Ben had an extensive collection of quotations. He had a sense of the broad scope of the family of Christ in the beautiful diversity of individual lives. And he had time. Our Church Speaks began to take shape.

Ben set out on his new project with three intentions:

  • to share the powerful words spoken through the saints throughout church history.
  • to develop a uniform template that visually represented the unity of God’s people.
  • to honor the individual subject as authentically as possible.

Ben took a few months to develop the style that would unite his eventual goal of hundreds of different portraits. His first portrait was the Rev. Henry Budd, a member of the Cree people and the first indigenous Anglican priest in North America. When he finished the portrait, Ben sent it to Cree leaders to make sure he was getting it culturally right.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Our Church Speaks now includes over 250 portraits. Each one is the product of meticulous research into historically and culturally fitting details. Ben investigates the clothing, physical objects, facial features, and complexions of each person. But they also share an obvious resemblance to one another in structure. It’s a visual reminder that the family of Christ spans the centuries and the globe. They also include the very words spoken or written by each subject. This is an intentional way to allow these figures to speak for themselves out of their own unique perspectives and, in the ever-evocative words of C.S. Lewis, “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”[1]

A very small sample of my personal favorites:

Bonhoeffer - Lansing

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, depicted in the blue-and-white-striped garb of the Nazi prison camp where he died. In a thoughtful and poignant detail, the lines in the background have been turned into barbed wire.

Joseph - Lansing

The aged Joseph, with a carpenter’s level in one hand and the newborn Jesus tenderly nestled in the other. (We have no recorded quotations of Jesus’s adopted father. So, in this and other similar cases, the text is directly related to the subject rather than his own words.)

Brigid - Lansing

Brigid, Abbess of Kildare, holding a bowl of fire and describing her vision of a great lake of beer for the King of kings and all of heaven’s family to drink.

Sudan Martyrs - Lansing

The young martyrs of Sudan with piercing gazes.

Bach - Lansing

Johann Sebastian Bach leaning over the keyboard of a clavier.

For all the familiar names and faces, there are even more whose stories I don’t know yet. This reflects the hope behind Ben’s prolific collection: to ignite curiosity about this wide and wonderful family of faith that their witness may provoke and encourage us today.

Ben’s goal is to reach 365 portraits. To provide parameters for his work and accountability to church authority, he has determined that his subjects must come from some iteration of the Book of Common Prayer or one of its official supplements. However, these are produced for Anglican communities all throughout the world. Each local BCP includes the historical and biblical saints common to the whole church alongside heroes of the faith tied to a particular region of the world.

Of note, while the portraits bear a clear resemblance to Orthodox iconography, they are not meant to be icons. Although the style incorporates elements from this historic Christian form of art, such as the use of halos and other symbols associated with particular saints, they do not serve the same function. Icons are created according to a longstanding artistic and devotional practice and are utilized in worship as objects of veneration. Ben’s portraits feature his own artistic vision and are meant to be shared digitally and in print for edification. Both are powerful “windows into heaven,” inviting us to meditate on that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.

Our Church Speaks: The Book

Ben’s latest project is a new book, Our Church Speaks: An Illustrated Devotional of Saints from Every Era and Place, published by InterVarsity Press and coming out this fall. It is a collaboration with the same priest who planted Redeemer Anglican and welcomed Ben into Anglican life, Rev. D.J. Marotta. After serving together and encouraging one another for eight years, the two friends found the perfect chance to collaborate.

The vision was simple: fifty-two devotionals paired with fifty-two saints, arranged according to their feast days from January through December. But which fifty-two saints? Therein lay the joyful challenge. They wanted to include a mix representing men and women, nationalities spanning the globe, different denominations, and all twenty centuries of the church. With these intentions, a lot of overlapping diagrams and strong opinions went into developing the final product.

The result is a beautiful collection of devotions aimed at Christians who may feel rootless and discouraged in uncertain times. It can be a tool for study and devotion for parishes, Bible studies, book clubs, or personal use. Ben hopes that Anglicans, low-church evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and others can all find encouragement in the pages of the book, which portrays the church in its fullness.

Takeaways

A whole community has gathered around the Our Church Speaks project, and Ben intends to continue adding to it. It is a project of passion, faith, and generosity. Ben’s website has links to purchase prints of his artwork and a calendar featuring dozens of saints corresponding to their commemorative dates or feast days (I’ve had one hanging in my office for the past two years now). And, of course, the work he does is also available to share and enjoy digitally.

Ben feels very blessed to have found an outlet that builds others up. The longing, the research, and the joy of discovery that filled his own faith journey have all come together to amplify the voice of the church that speaks of God’s faithfulness throughout the ages.

To artists, Ben has this to say: “Pray about what is good, healthy, and whole. Seek out what the Lord has guided you to, and you will create so much more than you thought.”

To church leaders, take encouragement and inspiration from Ben’s story and look for ways to give artists in your own parish family opportunities to stretch and share their craft. Engage with them and find ways to collaborate so that the church may speak all the more to the world in need of God’s love.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.

Hebrews 12:1

[1] In “On the Reading of Old Books,” his celebrated introduction to an English translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation.


Published on

June 13, 2024

Author

Elizabeth Demmon

Elizabeth Demmon is a writer and musician who grew up in the Anglican tradition. She is married to Mike, an Anglican priest and U.S. Army chaplain, and together they have three children.

View more from Elizabeth Demmon

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