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

Ecumenical Aesthetics: a ★★★★★book review

Over the last few years, there has been a flowering of Christians of all stripes engaged in the visual arts. This has been a vehicle for shared communion between Christians of different ecclesial traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. The Ecumenism of Beauty reflects the deepening and mutual dialogue across denominational lines. Each tradition brings their own peculiar emphasis and theological understanding to the arts.

ecumenism-of-beautyI’ll note my brief criticism from the outset: this book is missing a page with contributor bios. Maybe I am an odd duck, but when I pick up a multi-author volume, I always turn to the contributor page first. Often this only has where they were educated and their current position, but it helps me place their perspective, tradition and what each brings to a topic. Luckily a few of these names were familiar to me and a few paragraphs into each chapter, I knew, in general, what discipline and tradition each author were writing from. There was Timothy Verdon, the book’s editor and eminent historian of Christian, religious art, JérômeCottin and William Dyrness, both active in the theology of arts and culture, Vasileios Marinis, an expert in Byzantine iconography, artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi and Martin Shannon, an ordained Episcopal pastor and devotional author.

Verdon’s introduction sets the stage. He describes the difference between the classical Catholic and Protestant aesthetic, as depicted two 16th century paintings. Pieter Neefs the Elder painted Antwerp Cathedral full of ornate iconography, priests and parishioners and sacramental flourish.  Pieter Jansz’s painting of the interior of St. Odulphuskerk reveals an austere sanctuary where the pulpit alone looks grand. Verdon comments on how the interior of these two churches reflect the beliefs and practices of both Catholics and Protestants—Catholic belief in salvation through ecclesial signs and the solo Scriptura of Lutheranism (ix).

Protestant and especially Calvinists (enthusiastic iconoclasts that they were) are faulted for their lack of religious aesthetic. See, for example, Andrew Greeley’s Catholic Imagination (which in memory argued that everything beautiful created by Christians came from Catholics, whereas Protestants were just good at analyzing stuff). However the first two chapters of this volume expose how much this is a gross oversimplifiation. Cottin points out that Calvin had no problem with images, only images used as props for devotion (@) and he points to accomplished Western artists influenced by Calvinist culture (i.e Jacob van Ruysdael, Vermeer, Pieter de Hoock, Vincent Van Gogh) (9). Dyrness’s points out that Calvin’s concern about idolatry caused him to put a moratorium on religious imagery, but he asks “Why after 500 years, when Protestants are learning again from medieval practices—praying the labyrinth, practicing lectio divina, and embracing Igantian spiritual practices and retreats—are their worship spaces, and their corporate prayer, so often devoid of visual beauty?” (19) He argues that the time is ripe for an aesthetical recovery.

Kanaga, one of the artist contributors describes her life as part of the Community of Jesus, and her commission (along with sculpter Regis Damange) to design elements of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA and discuss her art and practice. Kanaga sees abstract sacred art as the perfect vehicle to communicate the indefinite and the ineffible (31-32). Marinis’s chapter opens up the spirituality of Byzantine iconography with insights from Fotis Kontoglou 1895-1965) Rossi describes how visual art is an act of contemplation, especially for the artist in the creative process. Shannon’s chapter describes the physical space of the Church of the Transfiguration and the way beauty draws the eccumenical, Benedictine community into worship. Verdon’s closing chapter reflects on the interplay between Art and liturgy.

As this book focuses on the relationship between beauty and ecclesiology as I read I kept thinking of what historical theologians call the Medieval transcendentals: the true, the beautiful and the good. In an earlier time, these were all held in tension, as each reflecting something important about God. Evangelicals of the protestant tradition, my tribe, were suspicious of beauty as ephemeral and idolatrous, but we emphasized truth and goodness (and two out of three ain’t bad).  However, we are in the midst of a recovery of Protestant theological aesthetics and religious art. This book extends the dialogue between Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, while honoring the differences and contributions of each tradition.

Appropriately this book is also beautiful, with full-color images on glossy pages. I think Rossi and Kanaga’s chapters were my favorite contributions, not only because they showcased their beautiful artwork, but because they reflected on their spiritual experience as artists. I give this five stars and recommend it to anyone concerned about art and the church—★★★★★

Iconoclasm, Icons and the Image of God: a book review

We are bombarded by images daily. They come to us through television, social media, and other online platforms (i.e. BuzzFeed slide shows about has-been celebrities—you’ll never believe what they look like now!). The current format of our image drivenness may be new, but images are not. Images shape our self understanding and our perceptions of the world. Each person is also an image. Enshrined in Christian theology is the idea of that humankind itself is made in the image of God.

9780830851201The Wheaton Theology Conference brings together, each year, an impressive array of scholars to probe a theological theme from different angles and academic disciplines.  The 2015 conference was entitled The Image of God in an Image Driven Age and explored the topic of theological anthropology through the lenses of Canon, Culture, Vision, and Witness. IVP Academic published essays delivered from the conference (March 2016), under the same title: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age with an introduction and epilogue from editors Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey Barbeau.

What I have appreciated about past publications from the conference is the breadth of scholarship represented. This is no exception. Featured in this volume are poets, theologians, an art historians, professors of English and literature, a historian, pastors and biblical scholars. It is also worth noting that while academic theology tends too often to be a white male discipline, seven of the sixteen contributors are female and three of the contributors to this volume are scholars of color, though the conference also had a presentation from theologian Willie James  Jennings not replicated here (I’m not sure why his talk was omitted).

After  an introduction from Felker Jones and Barbeau, two poems introduce this collection (one from Jill Peláez Baumgaertner, and one from Brett Foster). The essays are divided into four sections, each considering the implications of the image of God from different angles. In part one, Catherine McDowell, William Dyrness and Craig Blomberg consider what the biblical material tells us about what it means that humankind is created in God’s image.  McDowell surveys the way theologians past and present have understood image bearing—spiritually or mentally, corporeality, capacity for relationship or royal representative (30-34). She examines the concepts of image and likeness in the Bible (particularly the Genesis  passages) and the Ancient Near East arguing that the concept of sonship is inherit in the idea of image bearing. Dyrness discusses the nature of image-bearing in a fallen world, where the trajectory of life and the trajectory of death are both at work in humankind. Blomberg extends the canonical lens by examining what light the New Testament sheds   on the Image Dei. He argues that implicit in image bearing is showcasing God’s glory through holy living.

Timothy Gaines and Shawna Songer Gaines, Matthew Milliner and Christina Bieber Lake look the Image of God through the cultural lens. The Gaineses examine how sexual sin can distort our understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image, but conversely a biblical perspective of sexuality as ‘God’s good gift’ reveals God’s good intent for humanity and contributes to the construction of the self (16, 106). Milliner’s essay sings the praise of iconoclasm  throughout the Christian tradition (in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant guises). While humanity images its Creator, not all of human’s images are good or healthy, especially in our consumer, capitalist age. A healthy dose of Christian iconoclasm (in and through the Arts) showcases a way to resist the spirit of the age, “God’s people are called to resist our image-driven age because God loves the images—us—who are caught up within it. He calls us to break free of all our counterfeit images and be restored to his own true image” (135). Lake takes on ride down Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia, The Road, revealing how God’s image persists through darkness and despair. She encourages us to engage contemporary literature, not as God forsaken, but Christ haunted (152).

Part three explores vision, or “the Christian idea of Christ as the icon of God” and the implications for what that means for the church (17). Ian McFarland commends the Eastern Orthodox theology of the icon to Western Christians, encouraging us to see in human persons the possibility of an encounter with the Divine (172). Daniela C. Augustine continues to draw insight from the Christian East, exploring the concept of intercessory prayer as a way to make space and offering unconditional hospitality for the other (180). In this way the church itself becomes an icon of the Holy Trinity (186-188).  Janet Soskice examines the implications of Image bearing for ethics, positing that the Creative God who spoke worlds into being also invites us towards creative address (we image God as we learn to speak.

Part four explores the implications of the Imago Dei for our Christian Witness. Soong Chan Rah describes the way the image of God has been racialized in the West, as Christians of color have been encouraged to conform to a white, evangelical image of God. His essay suggests a more diverse and richer picture of the image of God which showcases our mutual image bearing across racial and cultural lines. Felker Jones discusses how our theology of the Image of God helps us resist the commodification of human persons. Historian Phillip Jenkins describes a ‘storm of images’ showing us how our understanding of being made in God’s image is enriched by historical and global understandings.

The essays in this volume are brief but suggestive, each could be unpacked in greater detail in monograph length treatments. However there is enough here to provoke serious reflection on what it means for us to be created in God’s image. I am glad that the organizers of this conference (and publication) made a serious effort to incorporate the arts into their presentation of the Imago Dei. This volume is all the richer for it. Milliners essay, in particular, discusses how Christians in the arts both image the world  and destroy false images.

I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone who interested in tracing out the implications of theological anthropology. Our humanity is stamped with the image of God which affects our self understanding, our hospitality of others, our ethics, our sexuality, our appreciation of the arts and our Christian witness.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.