Interview with Jenni Ho-Huan

Rev. Jenni Ho-Huan (b. 1966) was raised and ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Her desire is to live with authenticity and help others develop a vibrant faith-life in their particular circumstances and personalities through developing a strong inner life. Her passion is Spiritual Formation, Family-Life, Women’s’ Ministry & developing the Inner-Life of Leaders. An avid writer, Jenni was columnist for Impact magazine; and has authored three books and blogs. Jenni holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS), Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Theology (Trinity Theological College).

Jonathan chats with Jenni about her lifelong love for the arts, the place of the arts in pastoral ministry, and her vision for creative flourishing in the church.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan: To begin our discussion I’d like to ask: what draws you to the arts?

Jenni: I think it’s interesting, and this must be providence because I actually grew up in a very poor family. We had nothing on our walls. I hardly had any toys. While I always loved wordplay, my exposure to the arts can at best be said to be very bare, reduced to maybe only two things. One was Sesame Street, and the other was actually my father, who I believe if he had better circumstances, would actually be an artist himself. He would always come home with odds and ends of things that he would either take apart or build and then sell to pay his gambling debts. My dad was also quite conversant in languages and could play the accordion.

I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect that did feed something in me because when I went to church, I realised that I was always going to my pastor and suggesting that we do things that involve a little bit of beauty, that involve meaningful words. And it’s strange: my pastor actually gave me many opportunities. I got one peer of mine to do ballet during a worship service, which got everybody in the Presbyterian church gaping, like what just happened here? I also persuaded my pastor to let me take one entire service and turn it into a two-hour worship extravaganza and I got the creative people to do up the stage and all sorts of things. This kind of culminated when a new, younger pastor who was a friend of mine, took over and bought me a book. It’s called The Christian, the Arts, and Truth. So unbeknownst to me, there has always been this stream in my life.

I did something similar in school too, you know, it was hilarious. I was in the home economics class and everyone would think that we were dumb, so I was thinking I need to help my classmates feel better about themselves. I ended up choreographing a dance for my cookery class. A group of us went up during one school assembly and put up this dance– we all couldn’t really dance but we danced with our aprons, we danced with our whisks, we danced with our wooden spoons onstage to some Broadway musical tune. I think I would have died in school without all these fun things going on.

But you know how the education system is—the science people are the smart ones. I was actually in the science stream for a while, did very badly, and finally, when I went to university I switched to humanities, where I flourished, thank God. I found my way back to words and that was very life-giving for me.

I have always loved the arts, but my definition of the arts is not clear even to me. It’s very broad. I would consider any pursuit of truth, any expression of beauty, and even any loving labour to be expressions of art. If an artist is angsty about their work, they don’t clearly love it, and there’s a commercial price tag to it, I would have difficulty calling that art, which is why art collecting doesn’t make sense to me. But the simple act of creating a meal, plating it nicely, serving it with love, to me that is art. So I’m not very orthodox in my definition I guess.

But on the other hand, I believe that my definition makes art more accessible and allows more people to consider themselves artists. And I like people to think of themselves as artists because I think it’s a beautiful thought. God is an artist, we are made in His image, and I believe we are all creative and can bring art into our lives somehow. So I need to work with a broader definition as a pastor la, maybe to the chagrin of all my artist friends.  

Photo: Pixabay, 2017.

Jonathan: I like that definition. I love what you said about accessibility as well because that three-fold definition encapsulating truth, beauty and love bespeaks a kind of artistry that is embedded in what we do every day.

Jenni: Actually I got the truth, beauty, and love framing from a theologian whose name is Hans Urs von Balthasar. You need a name like that to make a point like that. (laughs) If you were raised in a propositional faith tradition like I was which is all about faith statements and doctrine, it’s paradigm-shifting to think that truth is one way to God but there’s also beauty and love.

Jonathan: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because on one hand you have this doctrinal, rigid upbringing in the faith, but at the same time, you also mentioned that you were the one who brought in ballerinas and worship extravaganzas to church.

How would you view the place of artistic practice and creativity, not only in the church but broadly in the way that it is woven into people’s lives?

Photo: To Really Live.

Jenni: I think I feel quite concerned because, in Singapore, we are so functional and pragmatic. We like to put everything in boxes, label them, organise them, and then just shift them around. That seems to be how we operate down here in Singapore. It’s efficient, minimum fuss, whatever. That’s been quite disappointing for me when I look back. When I recount all these experiences I had, I feel a certain urgency to do more of these things. I wish I could just tell these stories to more people and tell them to go and do the same if they feel the urge to do it.

In Singapore, I find that, and I don’t know whether it’s true elsewhere, art is too linked to performance, which is why a lot of people will say ‘I’m not artistic’ because they are afraid they have to perform and attain a certain standard. Again I say this, with some reticence because I know that there is also professional art and full-time artists who should be paid for the labour. But if we can in some way decouple art and performance, that would be very powerful.

This is a tension I always struggle with. For example, I believe that there should be pastors and pastors should be paid, but I also believe every person can be a pastor. So, I feel like it’s not an either/or thing, but maybe a both/and. If everyone is a pastor nobody’s a pastor right. If everyone’s an artist, nobody’s an artist, but we need artists to inspire us, to show us that in our ordinary lives it is possible to participate in art. As I said, from cooking to home decor, these are not professional art practices, but they are bringing some measure of beauty, love, truth, and order into people’s lives.

Jonathan: I think that analogy with pastoral practice is helpful especially since it can be subjected to similar pragmatic criticisms– How are you going to make money? How are you going to raise a family? And the material that a pastor works with, in many senses, is like that of an artist. You’re working with texts, you’re working with stories. Maybe some denominations will prioritise a kind of formal textual analysis of scripture, but at least to me, I’ve always found that the pastors I’ve liked most are the ones who can balance exegesis with stories, whether it’s something they’ve encountered in day-to-day ministry with their congregants or something that they’ve read elsewhere.

Jenni: It’s interesting because as you say that the word that comes to me is the word canvas. As pastors, we work with lives, and every life that comes to you thinks they are a complete artwork. This is where I’m at and these are all the things I can’t change about myself.

But I think if you are skilful in your pastoral ministry, you can show them that there are bits of the canvas that are unfinished or can have a do-over. That’s about casting a biblical vision of life and then giving a person certain tools and saying, you can add a couple of strokes here, you can add some shadows, you can throw more light on this side, and a picture will come out completely different.

The covers of books that Jenni has written.

I also want to mention something about anger. In my writing journey, one of the things I realised is that anger is a very useful emotion when creating art, unfortunately. This anger is so high energy that sometimes you write very good pieces which just rail against something. Maybe that’s why the prophets were such effective orators because they were so angry all the time. So there is a place for anger, but how do you be angry and not be dark?

Jonathan: To go back to the initial point you made, you talked about art that you saw that was motivated primarily by angst. And I think it’s a question of how you channel that anger. On one hand, if you just indulge it and allow it to progress without restraint, it becomes destructive and corrosive.

Whereas with the example that you gave of writing, the anger can be funnelled into something that is more creative. Something that builds, something that goes the opposite path. Especially if the anger, as with the case of the prophets or some of the psalmists, even Lamentations, is directed toward drawing people’s attention to injustice, drawing people’s attention to sin.

The anger is over something that can be changed, over something that can be redeemed, but has not undergone that process of transformation just yet. But I think that this is getting to daily territory, how we process our emotions as well.

And I’m thinking about how to channel that anger to God first before one ends up taking it out on another person. To turn it to an infinite source that can handle all complaints.

Jenni: I call him the ultimate sponge that absorbs everything. But I also raise this point because, to be honest, I find a lot of artists I’ve met… maybe have experienced wounding. There’s a certain level of anger you know. Even when you read about great writers and some of their life stories, they’re a little bit angry. They are not happy-go-lucky people. They just care too much, you know? I guess that’s why I liked that definition of an artist as somebody who is in pursuit of truth. To pursue truth you just have to care a lot.

Jonathan: I like that phrasing. Anger is the consequence of caring too much, of really paying attention and being aware of things that other people might not see. And for so much of an artist’s work, whether you’re a writer or a painter or a filmmaker, the creative impulse is often observational. It stems from what you detect and how that factors into something you want to create, especially if it’s about truth and beauty. Sometimes, it can be about directing people to those aspects of truth and beauty in the everyday. But at the same time, it can also be a powerful tool to draw people’s attention toward things that shouldn’t be happening.

I think at the same time, a lot of artists might go through that phase of not being understood. I was thinking that particularly in the Singaporean context, there are always many things to get angry about in the arts. One of them is this broader historical current, as you said, of people in arts not being seen as smart compared to those in the science stream and how that has held a lot of sway over Singapore’s educational system. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like from the ’70s to the ’90s, that was probably dominant, and it’s only recently where people are beginning to push against that.

Jenni: It’s true. I mean, last year we had the non-essential services debacle. But essentiality is also a climb because if you use Maslow’s hierarchy, you wouldn’t put the arts as a security need. But then again, an artist would beg to differ, so it does boil down to your vision of life. If your vision of life is just material sustenance then maybe you don’t need art. But if being alive is more than just breathing, living, or taking up space, then maybe you do need art.

Recently in a sermon, I referenced a story that Makoto Fujimura shared himself about how when he was a struggling young artist and eating canned tuna every day, he came home and nearly flew into a rage because his wife had bought a flower and put it in the living room in a vase.

Photo: Trina Snow, 2018

And that actually reminds me of an even older story by Jane Tyson Clement called ‘The White Lily’. That was a fable about how this old man and boy come across a white lily and bring the white lily home, which was in disarray. Everything was broken and they were dirty and unbathed, back about a hundred years ago in Europe. But when they brought it home, the beauty of the white lily began to transform their home, began to transform them. They cleaned themselves and cleaned their act up to match the white lily. And of course, the white lily is a symbol of Christ in that story. I’ve used that story several times with people.

So it boils down to your vision of life.

Jonathan: That’s helpful though, weaving that into your sermons because the act of telling a parable, telling a story, is Christlike, to begin with. I’d be interested to hear, perhaps not just in your pastoral ministry, but also in your work on The Cathedral Podcast and To Really Live, how storytelling coalesces in the way you see your work of being involved in other people’s lives.

A glimpse of To Really Live’s website.

Jenni: Actually, I really want to thank The Group. Thanks to all these friends in The Group, I’ve gotten more and more courage to live and serve off a broader base. And a lot of that base is art, whether it’s poetry or music and all that. I tried to integrate that, and my main reason is I discovered that art is powerful because it is indirect.

I think the parable is an art form and is very subversive. I really liked that because, over time as a pastor, I realised that people can be really stuck in their ways. To dislodge people you cannot reason with them because the brain works to create possibility structures, right? We all rationalise and explain our behaviour in some way. And sometimes the deeper the problem, the more ironclad the explanation will be because it’s a protective mechanism. I realised that the way to go about this is to blindside people. Something comes and the brain doesn’t quite expect it and suddenly the structure shakes a little and a few pieces fall off, some light comes in, and things begin to happen.

Photo:  Bas van den Eijkhof, 2020.

I have a special heart for pastors being a pastor myself, and last year I started running the Shepherd’s Shalom, which is a half-day retreat for pastors. And we always try to incorporate art right at the first part. You don’t come to sing songs. You don’t come to follow PowerPoints. You don’t come to hear a sermon, a teaching, an inspiration, an exhorting, none of that. It’s completely outside of their typical realm of how things operate.

And I just love it because it’s unpredictable. It moves them to a space of freedom that they have not allowed themselves to move to because they are the ones creating structures and persevering in making sure these structures continuing working week in, week out, year in, year out. They become captives in their own structures, unfortunately. It can happen in any profession but especially in the people-helping professions. I think there’s a lot of scope for that freedom.

The logo of The Cathedral Podcast, which is hosted by Jenni.

In podcasts, I try to bring conversations with artists in as there’s a lot more need for that. And of course, in my new community I founded last year, To Really Live, we try to share things that are in that direction. The one thing I don’t want us to do is to complain. ‘You know, ah, Singapore is like that… Christians are like that.’ Complaining never gets us anywhere­– just look at the Israelites. I think it’s much better to foster new narratives. So a sense of wonder, a sense of surprise, a sense of adventure. This is where art is extremely helpful. So a good film, some good visuals… there’s actually a lot of work to be done.

So I would like my church, the church, to do that more. The pastors can maybe play a collaborative role with artists. I think that will be powerful for the world going ahead.

Jonathan: That leads well to my next question– what would good engagement with the arts look like for church leaders and church members? What do you have in mind when you think about the collaborative labour between pastors and artists?

Jenni: Sometimes in church, we seem to be dealing with crisis after crisis, and that cannot be helped because in a fast-paced city you just have unending crises. But I think it’d be fun to shift gear. Not that you don’t deal with the crisis– you still have to have pastoral care, counselling, and good foundational small group practices. But at the same time, we have to emphasise having deeper conversations about why we have those crises, to begin with.

Let me give an example. Every generation has crises in parenting. So when you get up to the pulpit, you try your best and you’re pulling out Ephesians and you’re pulling up Abraham’s story and you smush it with some pop psychology and you do this inspirational talk, right? Eh… That’s not going to help. What needs to happen is maybe, you know, getting families, artists, different people in a room.

Let’s say we ask the artist whether we can have some kind of experiential piece on all these issues that can get people past talking about them to actually being able to reflect and think harder about them. Maybe we can get to the deeper issues, like when you talk about parenting crises, maybe they’re linked to other things like the vision for life, personal identity, or just communication skills. I think it would be very powerful leh. People can journal and be in small groups talking. A pastor can do a pastoral wrap up and pray for everyone. And after that, people can say, you know, I think this has surfaced some things for me. After that people can line up to see a counsellor because they know the issues better. I think there’s really a lot of scope for this. Let’s not bring the arts for an event. Let’s bring the arts for the lives or even for the season the church is in.

A few Sundays ago was Pentecost Sunday. I belong to an online women pastors’ group and the prompt was, what did you all do for Pentecost Sunday? They were sharing what they did, and one female pastor put a kite in the church with a lot of long tails. People went up and wrote and pinned something that they wanted to see the Holy Spirit do in their life to the kite. I thought, wow, that’s a beautiful, amazing, and powerful experience of the Pentecost.

Photo: FOX, 2015

It’s beyond words, but it probably does a lot more than if you just kept preaching on Acts 1 and 2. But wow. Can’t we do more of those things? I mean, pastors can come with their ideas, but why not ask the members? If you follow any church calendar anyway, it’s easier to get people into the rhythm of it also. Can be fun la. Don’t have to do it so many times, at least once or twice a year.

Jonathan: As a participant, you’re not just a passive receiver, but there’s something you do in response.

Jenni: That’s right, you’re not a consumer.

Jonathan: You’re a respondent in some way.

Jenni: Yeah. I think responding to the arts is a better term than consuming.

However, in order to do this hor, we have to be prepared to slow down. I think that is something of a disease in our society la. I don’t know where we’re rushing to. I don’t know what we’re so busy about. Honestly, it baffles me. I don’t have a ready answer, but I do know that we have to slow down. We have to believe that less can be more. Less with the right things, including the arts.

Jonathan: That seems like a good place for us to end. Thank you so much, Jenni.

Cover image from To Really Live.