The Arts & the Christian Imagination: a book review

Clyde Kilby(1902-1986)was renowned for popularizing the works of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and the Inklings among American evangelicals (and founding Wheaton’s Marion F Wade Center). However, he was also Wheaton’s professor of English and wrote prolifically and thoughtfully about the Arts and aesthetics.  Kilby attempted to allay evangelical suspicion of imagination and aesthetics and provide a positive vision for Christians in the Arts.Arts-and-the-Christian-Imagination

The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics(Mount Tabor Books, 2016) edited by William Dyrness and Keith Call bring together many of these essays, some previously published, and some published here for the first time. In many ways,  conversation evangelicals were having about arts in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties has moved some. There is less, general suspicion of the imagination. Today, Evangelical voices like W. David O. Taylor, Jeremy Begbie, Luci Shaw, Makoto Fujimura, Dyrness, and others, have all carried these conversations in new directions; nevertheless, Kilby provided an apology for imagination and helped set the trajectory for evangelical engagement in the arts.

The essays in this volume are divided into four sections, each with an editor’s introduction by Dyrness. Part 1—Christianity, The Arts, and Aesthetics—lays out in detail Kilby’s aesthetics. Dyrness and Call include Ninety-five pages from Kilby’s 450 page manuscript on Christianity and the arts, a previously published thirty-page booklet and a Christianity Today article, Kilby wrote that interacted with Selden Rodman’s The Eye of Man. In these pages, Kilby argues that the choice is never between aesthetics and no aesthetics, but between a good aesthetic and a bad aesthetic. Thus, he urges his fellow evangelicals toward the making of good art. He speaks glowingly about the role of imagination and lays out a Christianized-Platonic aesthetic of forms.

Part 2, The Vocation of the Artist, discusses Evangelicals in the Arts. Kilby argues in “Christianity and Culture” that Christian artists need to clarify and take a stance on their belief in culture (e.g. is Christianity coterminous with culture, or against culture, or somewhere in between). In the chapter entitled, “In Defense of Beauty,” he argues against P.T. Forsyth that the Hebrew Scripture was devoid of an aesthetic.  In “Vision, Belief, and Individuality” Kilby sets the ‘art experience’ along side the scientific ‘analytical experience,’ seeing value in both. In “Evangelicals and Human Freedom,” Kilby takes issue with the notion that the imagination is to be spurned wholesale (though he acknowledges it may get us into trouble. He closes this essay with 8 suggestions for evangelical writers and publishers:

  1. A Serious acceptance of poetry, the novel, biography, autobiography and the personal essay.
  2. More use of the parable, the parabolic, and allegory.
  3. A return to the use of symbol.
  4. Publishers demonstrating more care in accepting, editing, proofreading, illustrating and laying-out manuscripts.
  5. More willingness for publishers to ‘lift the evangelical taste.’
  6. The establishment of an evangelical writers’ colony.
  7. Week-long conferences with evangelical publishers, editors, writers, and critics that would face Christian publishing problems honestly.
  8. Engagement with classics like Aristotle’s Poetics or Plat’s Crito and Apology to find better models of ideas and style
  9.  And that as Evangelicals, we learn to poke some fun at ourselves (197-198).

Part 3, Faith and the Role of the Imagination’ has five essays which probe the value of the imagination in the Christian life (the first of which is in the form of an imagined dialogue on the nature of belief). In Part 4, Poetry, Literature and Imagination, Kilby offers his defense of Poetry and fiction (as an English professor at an Evangelical institution).

There is no question that Evangelical engagement with the Arts is more positive than the Evangelical world that Kilby addressed. However, this book has value beyond its critique of a bygone era. Kilby showed how the arts bring glory to God. His words spoke into a suspicious evangelical context and imparted a sense of wonder. Anyone who cares about the state of Christianity and the arts will find Kilby’s words instructive. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection, I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

Seeing the Bible Through the Eyes of the Artist: a book review

C.S. Lewis famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”By that, he meant that the contours of the Christian story shaped his perception of the broader world. It gave him eyes to see. And with imagination, he helped many of us to see the Christian story (and everything else) through evocative works like the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. What is true of Christianity is true of the Arts and the artist, no less the Christian artist, could also say “That through art and because of it, she sees everything else.”

9781498217330If the biblical story is the lens through which we as Christian see, the Arts have the ability to sharpen our focus.  In Imagining the Story (Cascade Books, 2017), Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini, engage the biblical story, bringing it into conversation with poetry, the visual arts, and creative enterprise. Intended as a coursebook for artists in community, they retell the bible story through a series of ‘C’ words, helping us to see implications for art and faith: Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conception, Coming, Cross & Comeback, Charisma, Community, Church, Consummation.

Case-Green and Sakakini bring pastoral, theological and aesthetic insight to the biblical story. Case-Green is a Baptist preacher and writer, who has lectured in English at the University of Surrey. Sakakini is an artist and teacher, a faculty member of the Grunewald Guild, and has taught at Carey Theological College. I met her when we were students together at Regent College. She is presently training as an Anglican priest. Her depiction of Christ’s incarnation provides the cover art for this book.  These two women meld their insights into the biblical narrative, with their appreciation and engagement of visual arts and literature.

Each chapter cycles through four components, we as readers are invited to engage. First, we read a passage of scripture (e.g., chapter 1, on Creation has us read Genesis 2:4-20, p 2-3). Second, we are invited to respond to the passage, through a series of questions on the text. Third, we reflect, bringing the passage, and the chapter of the story we are in, into conversation with works of art or poetry. Here also, Case-Green and Sakakini give their own reflections on the implication of the biblical story for them as artists and believers. Finally, we are invited to make—”a chance to playfully participate in the story by creating something—either visual or verbal—in response to the particular theme of the chapter” (xxii).  As this book is intended as a coursebook, the reflections, and creative projects work best in group discussions and contexts, though the book can be read, as I read it, on one’s own. However, in order to fully appreciate what Case-Green and Sakakini are doing, this book ought to be read slowly, and each of the four components engaged fully.

In the forward, W. David O. Taylor, recalls the words of Calvin Seerveld, “God’s Spirit calls an artistic practitioner to help their neighbours who are  imaginatively handicapped, who do not notice there are fifteen different greens outside their window, who have never sensed the bravery in bashfulness, or seen how lovely an ugly person can be” (xiv). Taylor writes:

For the Christian the twin gift of coherence and attentiveness afforded by good works of art comes as welcomed news. In fact, it’s nothing less than gospel stuff. It’s the sort of things, I’d hope, that we ought to be making and promoting and patronzing ourselves. And, in a sense that is exactly what Gill and Karen offer the reader in their book, Imaginging the Story (xiv).

This is the gift that this book offers. Case-Green and Sakakini invite us to contemplate the old, old Story and to reflect on evocative works of art. They have produced an accessible guidebook to a whole new way of seeing the Bible, the Faith, Creation and Creating—and everything else. The book is chock-full of images, though the printing of the book I read, is in black and white. However, a tech-savvy reader can find many of theses images online (including Gill Sakakini’s own gallery). Sometimes, they include web links to artist web pages in their footnotes. To me doing the extra step of looking for full-color and larger renderings, enhanced my appreciation of what Sakakini and Case-Green were doing through this book.

I recommend this for small groups, classes or anyone interested in seeing the Good, True, and Beautiful through the eyes of Scripture and the Arts. Four Stars ★★★★

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review.

From Culture Wars to Culture Care: a ★★★★★ book review

I grew up with a brand of Christianity which saw culture as a threat. We engaged in culture wars to combat secular humanism and political correct pluralism. We were suspicious of cultural decay—immorality, socialism, science,  heavy metal, the new-age, permissive poitical policies,  guys with baggy pants and other pernicious attacks on our Christian worldview. Artists, for their part, were engaged in a culture war of their own—  iconoclasts deconstructing institutions, tearing down conventions, destroying the status quo. When my tribe of Christians engaged in the arts, they either imitated secular artists with a thin Christian veneer or produced syrupy, saccharine Christian images (à la Thomas Kinkade).  Neither artists or the Christians I knew were doing much to ‘care for culture.’

9111Makoto Fujimura is a new breed of Christian artist. He is deeply steeped in Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting with specialized pigments and dyes). He is renowned for his artwork hanging in galleries around the world. He also founded the International Arts Movement and is currently the Director of Fuller’s  Seminary’s Brehm CenterFujimura’s art is more icon than iconoclast. In fact, one recent project of his is an edition of the King James Version, illuminated by Fujimura’s paintings. Fujimura’s newest book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty in Common Life, exemplifies his approach to Arts & Culture, one decidedly different than that of a culture war. Instead, Fujimura looks for ways to steward culture, nurture beauty and generative creativity.

This book consists of nineteen short chapters which give a framework for artists and creatives, advice and encouragement. The first chapter, On Becoming Generative ( previously released as an ebook), gives an overview of what he calls ‘generative thinking.’ He describes a scene from 1983. Fujimura was a near-starving artist struggling to make ends meet, his wife Judy was in grad school. One day when Fujimura was worried about where their next meal came from, his wife walked in with a bouquet of flowers. Fujimura was indignant, but his wife’s response was, “we need to feed our souls, too” (15).

His wife’s bouquet became a metaphor for the generative—a fruitful generating of new life and hope.  He describes how that experience was a genesis moment, a simple act which fed his soul and renewed his conviction as an artist (17), and generousity in valuing beauty over the worries of the day-to-day and scarcity (18). However, Fujimura also sees the need for generational thinking—”the inspiration to work within a vision for culture that is expressed in centuries and millennia rather than quarters, seasons or fashions” (19-20). In other words, our conception of arts and culture is shaped by the generations before us.

Fujimura goes on to describe what culture care is, “Culture care is to provide care for the culture’s ‘soul,’ to bring to our cultural home a bouquet of flowers so that reminders of beauty—both ephemeral and enduring—are present even in the harshest environments where survival is at stake” (22). Fujimura’s generative approach set him on a journey to ‘create and present beauty’ against the harsh, cynical backdrop of the New York city art world (26).

While Fujimura is not ‘cultural warrior’ he does stand in opposition to trends that are destructive to culture. He identifies two major pollutants in the river of culture as fragmentation and reductionism. “They are what I call overcommodification of art and utilitarian pragmatism” (34). They have the effect of causing artists in our ‘stressed ecosystem’ to sell short their artistic vision and output and become bottom feeders of culture for their own personal survival(36). Fujimura’s encouragement is to enlarge our vision for the arts.  The answer is not culture war but intentional stewardship of our cultural ecosystems. “Destruction and dissolution are far easier than creation and connection. We need vision, courage and perseverance” (43).

Fujimura discusses the need for personal soul care for artists, how beauty feeds our soul, working from the margins (‘border walkers,’ the meracstapa). calling and the ways business leaders, patrons, and investors make generative art and tending beauty possible. There are tons of practical advice, inspirational stories, and thoughts about culture, aesthetics, and theology.  Fujimura illustrates his approach through opening up parts of his own journey as an artist and curator for the arts, and the wisdom he learned from philosophers, pastors, theologians, and fellow creatives.

Fujimura is one of my favorite contemporary artists (my wife was lucky enough to take a class with him at Regent College one summer). I cherish his thoughts on the creative process and culture care. While his focus is on culture care for artists (broadly defined), his discussion of beauty needs to be recovered by the whole church (artists lead the way). I give this book five stars and recommend it for artists, poets, musicians, pastors, business leaders and anyone else that has a stake in shaping culture. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book from InterVarstiy Press in exchange for my honest review