Even when procrastinating on YouTube, I still exhibit the embarrassingly obscure interests of a unadulterated nerd. A week ago, a friend caught we wasting time while mesmerized by a clip of English change-ringing—a intricate method of chiming church bells of various tones to produce an eerie, ordered clamor. Sometimes I also watch lectures on theology or literary theory (I spent not a few hours on the latter last summer). Mostly though, if I want to put off work, I find videos on art history, and I will happily consume anything from Lascaux to Nouveau to Rothko. Recently I stumbled upon the YouTube channel of the Tate, a British modern art institute. Judging from my search suggestions, I believe I had visited their site before, but this time I was especially taken.

The artist I beheld was Callum Innes, a Scottish painter specializing in watercolor. In the video, he begins work on a large sheet of immaculate white paper, with tape blocking off a square in the center. With a brush wide enough to paint walls, into the square he drags several solid strokes of ultramarine until the space is filled. After the blue dries, he removes and realigns the tape, covering the dimensional blue with a glowing orange. Then, Innes performs a mystery: in layers and layers of turpentine, he extracts the pigments he had just deposited, until a neutral haze appears, rimmed with vibrant edges where his solvent didn’t reach. He then brushes on a few, thin coats of the orange again and is finished. Centered on the white paper, a sharp square now glows with faintest light.

Without forms or figures, many abstract artists strive for the pure, immediate experience of color. Innes achieves not merely pure color but pure light. In Latin, abstractus means literally “drawn away.” In his floating quadrangles, Innes draws away not merely form, but even the last defining materials of his work, the pigment itself, leaving a pale emptiness. Only up close can you glimpse the luminous perimeter.

I present this form of abstract art to myself because of the paradoxical feelings it evokes in me, and in the rest of the public. Innes and artists like him have secured a place for themselves the art world today, so obviously someone likes them. And I must agree. Their chromatic planes stretch and spread until they envelope you and lift you from yourself. In the presence of this art, viewers frequently report transcendent, nearly mystical experiences. But in opposition, there is the predictable criticism: anyone could paint that. I agree here, too. How can I know I’m not being hoodwinked, not reading meaning from absurd simplicity, not the pawn of a global marketing ploy? Some abstract art, including Innes’ own, looks less like painting and more like the scraps painters use to clean their brushes. How does this stuff sell for thousands, if not millions, of dollars and reach the coveted spots on high-brown museum walls? Why would rich curators, obsessive PhD’s, and blog writers (me) waste time thinking about anything so simplistic?

According to his website, the “essence” of Innes’ work is “[t]he interplay between the additive and subtractive process, making and unmaking, presence and absence.” Elsewhere it is described more succinctly as “unpainting.” He wants to have it both ways, to do and undo, simultaneously. The painter’s method and the viewer’s mode merge here. Innes’ “unpainting” of already abstract work mirrors my un-perceiving, as I feel first drawn into the color, then drawn away by suspicion. The beauty and light of the painting attracts my eye and emotion, but my critical sensibility mistrusts the value and validity of giving attention to anything so easily made. I cannot appreciate except circumspectly, always with a glance over one shoulder.

If you want a parable of grace here, it’s not difficult to find. As I enjoy Innes’ subtle color, so I love Christ’s impossible message; but as I suspect the worth of abstract art, so I doubt the completeness of Christ’s atonement or the faithfulness of God. As Christian life and faith is often a matter of the now and the not yet, as I am simul iustus et peccator, perhaps suspicious doubt and joyful affirmation intertwine. Has God really not forsaken me now? Has he truly forgiven and freed me? Try as I may, this ambivalence and uncertainty remain with me.

And I have no conclusion to resolve this tension. No conclusion but that my conclusion is not me, and that on his own God accomplishes what I cannot.