Whenever I meet new people and they ask what I do, I always tell them I’m a writer on Christianity and the arts (even though my primary income source is freelance copyediting and proofreading). The follow-up question is often, “Oh, are you an artist?,” to which I respond with something like “No, but I love to study art, and I want to make Christians aware of the church’s rich artistic heritage.”
When I read the introduction to Terry Glaspey’s latest book—75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Baker Books, 2015)—I couldn’t believe how much like me it sounds! Not because Glaspey has lifted anything I’ve written or vice versa but because we share the same desire to see Christians more educated about art, especially art that’s rooted in the Christian tradition.
In this full-color survey, Glaspey—curator and tour guide—invites us to be “inspired, entertained, and challenged” as we encounter artists’ material witness to their faith through the ages. An Orthodox icon, a Renaissance altarpiece, a metaphysical poetry collection, a jazz suite, a rock album, children’s fantasy stories, an Italian neorealist film, a radio drama, and contemporary nihonga are just some of the many creative works featured. Organized chronologically from the Roman catacomb paintings to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the book encompasses almost all the major artistic disciplines (dance is conspicuously absent) and a variety of styles and eras, with a focus on Western art. (Sadao Watanabe’s Last Supper stencil print and Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura’s illuminated Gospels project are the only two Eastern/Eastern-influenced works.) I’m impressed by how fluent Glaspey is in each area. He can speak just as easily about silent film as he can about Gothic architecture and contemporary folk art!
The author says his selection process was guided by these criteria:
- works that are universally esteemed for their craftsmanship and creativity, not only admired by Christians but also by those outside the faith
- works that stand up well to repeated exposure, the kind of art that can be visited again and again, because there is always something new to discover
- works that speak to people across time, cultures, national boundaries, and denominational divides
Preempting readers’ tendencies to object to certain omissions, Glaspey adds,
This is most emphatically not a list of the absolute best or greatest works, nor does it imply any ranking system. Instead, it attempts to represent the breadth and depth of what Christians have accomplished in the arts, and is an intentionally quirky mix of the widely known and the mostly unknown.
Each of the seventy-five entries contains not only discussion of the content, formal qualities, and historical context of the highlighted work but also an overview of the artist’s oeuvre and a mini spiritual biography. These are not generic glosses or rote info dumps. On the contrary, Glaspey devotes individualized care to each one in the space of about four pages, giving us both concision and substance. He likens his offerings to movie trailers: they are meant to give you a sense of the artwork’s flavor and entice you to explore it more fully on your own.
I appreciate the approach Glaspey takes to crafting the artist portraits. Although he is openly enthusiastic about the artists’ engagement with Christianity, he doesn’t laud them as behavioral models or suggest that they all conformed to an orthodox model of faith. He treats them as individuals, giving us a nonjudgmental glimpse of their unique spiritual journeys, many of which included struggles with doubt and/or moral failings.
Some of the artists were outspoken about their faith, like Martin Luther, Dorothy Sayers, and Mahalia Jackson, whereas others, like Jane Austen, maintained it more quietly. (While most people know that Austen was a clergyman’s daughter, they’re probably unaware that she regularly wrote prayers for her family’s evening devotions, which Glaspey compiled last year into a book, The Prayers of Jane Austen.) In addition to being artists, several were also ordained monks, nuns, priests, ministers, or missionaries, and a few among them were fired from such posts (George MacDonald, for example, for his universalist theology and rejection of penal substitutionary atonement, and van Gogh for his lack of eloquence).
The artists chosen for 75 Masterpieces represent a variety of Christian denominations and faith commitments. Some subscribed to traditional Catholicism or Anglicanism, or what have you, whereas others lived on the fringes of tradition. William Blake, for example, developed his own arcane system of belief that fused Christianity with idiosyncratic mystical insights. Emily Dickinson was suspicious of religious institutions but wrestled with God and longed for intimacy with him until her death. Self-described “Christian atheist” Roberto Rossellini greatly admired Jesus but rejected Christian dogma. Regardless of how their personal devotion played out and whether they fit the traditional definition of “Christian,” all the artists here continually engaged narratives and questions of the faith.
One aspect of the book I really enjoyed was reading quotes from the artists themselves about art and faith, which are sourced in endnotes. Here is just a handful of examples:
- Johann Sebastian Bach: “The aim and final reason for all music should be none else but the glory of God and refreshing the soul.”
- George Frideric Handel, in response to an audience member’s complimenting the entertaining performance: “I should be sorry, my Lord, if I have only succeeded in entertaining them; I wished to make them better.”
- Henry Ossawa Tanner: “I have no doubt an inheritance of religious feeling, and for this I am glad, but I have also a decided and I hope an intelligent religious faith not due to inheritance but to my own convictions. I believe my religion. I have chosen the character of my art because it conveys my message and tells what I want to tell my own generation and leave to the future.”
- Georges Rouault: “All my work is religious for those who know how to look at it.”
- Dorothy L. Sayers: “If one writes with his eye on the spiritual box-office, he will at once cease to be a dramatist, and decline into a manufacturer of propagandistic tracts. . . . He will lose his professional integrity, and with it all his power, including the power to preach the Gospel.”
- Frank Capra (director of It’s a Wonderful Life) said he wanted his films to illustrate the truth of the Sermon on the Mount, and that filmmaking was for him “a golden opportunity to dramatize ‘Love thy neighbor.”
- J. R. R. Tolkien, on The Lord of the Rings: “I have not put in anything like religion . . . in the imaginary world. For religion is absorbed in the story and the symbolism.”
- Robert Bresson: “Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.”
- Flannery O’Connor: “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.” Also, “God must be in all my work.”
- Larry Norman: “If your music is boring, people will reject your message as well as your art.”
Because Christian themes in modern art are so rarely addressed in textbooks and university courses, the twentieth- and twenty-first-century selections will probably be more unfamiliar. I myself learned of several new works. Like Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, a dramatic film that explores the cruelty of man through the story of a donkey’s life and death in rural France. And the novel Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, set in post-Stalin Russia, which considers how hope might be found in a seemingly hopeless environment. And Quartet for the End of Time, composed in eight movements by Olivier Messiaen while in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, using the only instruments available: a cello with three strings, a clarinet, a violin, and a dilapidated piano; Messiaen’s inscription on the score reads, “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hands toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.’”
In addition to introducing me to new artists, 75 Masterpieces renewed my interest in a lot of the artists I’ve encountered before. I feel so full of gratitude for the vast beauty of God and his story, searched out and revealed time and again by painters, sculptors, printmakers, assemblage artists, architects, filmmakers, poets, fiction writers, iconographers, classical composers, folk musicians, and more. They are the dedicatees of the book, and rightly so. They give the church the gift of spiritual nourishment, of a vitalized imagination.
Most of what is written on “Christian art” is for academic audiences, but at last, here’s a super-accessible book I can recommend to Christians as an entrée into the artistic treasures of our faith, past and present.
Be sure to check out the author’s website, where you will find a list of upcoming topics he’ll be exploring on his blog as well as a list of talks he’s happy to give. You might also be interested in reading Glaspey’s responses to the following questions about the book from a January interview by Jeffrey Overstreet:
- Which entries gave you the greatest sense of discovery and enthusiasm?
- Did you feel that any of these works have gotten a bad rap with Christians, and needed something more than an introduction—maybe a defense?
- Why is it that so much faith-based art is critically maligned but your selections are not?
- What are the rewards of meditating on the work of artists whose ideas about faith may not align with our own?
- How can we discern the art that is worth meditating on from the art that might not be worth so much attention?
- If parents wanted to read through this with children, what selections would you highlight for their attention?
Update: Just hours after I published this review, Christianity Today announced that 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know is a recipient of its 2017 Book Award in the Culture & the Arts category! An achievement, indeed. (All picks for the 2017 awards were published between November 1, 2015, and October 31, 2016.)