“I write fully persuaded that art, in its most exalted form, can be used by God to transform women and men, to extend his common grace to the world and to lead the church to worship,” writes Cameron J. Anderson in the introduction to his book The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts, the second in IVP Academic’s Studies in Theology and the Arts series. Based on the title, I wasn’t sure whether the book was meant for me, a nonartist, but I found that it speaks to the evangelical church at large, whose ambivalent and sometimes hostile attitude toward art is kindheartedly challenged by this insider to both worlds. How Christian artists can faithfully pursue their vocational calling in contemporary culture is a major concern of the book, but so is how Christians of any professional background can pursue art as worship.
Since 2009 Anderson has served as executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), a North American organization founded in 1979 with the mission of weaving serious art and serious faith into whole cloth. (It was recently announced that at the end of the year he will be retiring from this position, while continuing to be active in the organization.) Born and raised in the postwar evangelical subculture, Anderson encountered tall barriers to his vocational pursuit of the visual arts. First was his church’s utter disregard for art—their ignorance of art history and palpable disdain for modern art—which left him without a mentor. But just as formidable was the art world’s hostility to sincere, conservative religious belief.
In chapter 1, “A Double-Consciousness,” Anderson describes his dual identity as both an evangelical and an artist and the alienation he felt from both communities while attending art school in the 1970s. He says it seemed his only two options at the time were to either privatize his religious identity in the art world or produce sentimentalized art for the church—neither of which were tenable to him. Why the impasse? Part of it is due to competing stances: while evangelicalism embraces absolutes and is determined to safeguard tradition, modern art aggressively dismisses absolutes and is given to renouncing tradition. But an even bigger factor is the stereotypes each world perpetuates about the other: artists are narcissistic, profane, rebellious, elitist, while evangelicals are unsophisticated, superstitious, naive, irrelevant. Rather than seeking to interact with or understand each other, the art world and the church simply characterize each other as ridiculous.
Combating the assumption that modern art is completely devoid of any signs of faith, Anderson discusses Wassily Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and other canonical artists who regularly probed spiritual reality (including, in some cases, the Christian story) in their work.
In chapter 2, “The Body They May Kill,” Anderson explores the theological significance of our embodiment, challenging the assumption held by some Christians that the spirit is good and the body is evil. “A biblical understanding of the self,” Anderson writes, “must regard physical being as an essential component of true spirituality. . . . Corporeality is not the enemy of one’s spirit but rather the stage on which moral goodness and evil are both acted out and acted on” (69, 77). He looks at how the clothed and unclothed body has been treated in the visual arts over time and in popular culture. He also reflects on the ongoing discord between faculty and administrators at Christian colleges and universities over whether art students should be allowed to draw unclothed models (figure drawing is a fundamental building block of art education), and whether such works should be displayed on campus.
Chapter 3, “Secular Sirens,” highlights how “the biblical narrative accredits substantial virtue to our sensate being” (88)—our ability to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. We know the world through our senses, and yet evangelicalism too often bypasses a role for them, save for music, in many cases fearing that the senses can enflame sexual desire. While acknowledging that an unrestrained indulgence of the senses can lead to vice, Anderson also warns that hard-and-fast resistance tempers our ability to enjoy God and his good creation. He insists on the need to hold ascetic discipline (the denial of one’s senses for some greater spiritual good) in concert with aesthetic delight (the stimulation of one’s senses through the arts).
In chapter 4, “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See,” Anderson discusses the place and meaning of religious images in biblical history onward into Protestant culture. He examines God’s commands to tear down idols against those to construct an image-filled tabernacle, a bronze serpent, and stone memorials, and Christ’s command to remember him through bread and wine.
Anderson also runs through the iconoclastic controversies: first in eighth-century Byzantium, then later during the Protestant Reformation. During the former, icons were banned from the church and destroyed—until the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 reversed this order, declaring iconoclasm a heresy and clarifying that icons were to be objects of veneration rather than adoration. During the latter, bands of activists under the influence of Zwingli destroyed sculptures and altarpieces and whitewashed sanctuary walls in major European cities such as Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel, and Calvin’s teachings against images would come to characterize the Protestant position.
Though I understand the aim of this book precludes an extensive discussion of iconoclasm, it would have been nice if this section had a bit more heft; it’s only four pages long, and key voices, like John of Damascus (whose seminal treatise is referenced only in a footnote) and Martin Luther, are not heard from, with Calvin getting only a two-sentence quote. I feel that Anderson doesn’t capture what was at stake in this debate in the East—which for the iconophiles was the doctrine of the Incarnation. He rather softly says the council declared that “icons could again be permitted,” whereas it was more a must, and icon veneration was reaffirmed as a central tenet of the Orthodox faith. Also, the second wave of Byzantine iconoclasm, in the ninth century, and the Synod of Constantinople that followed in 843 are omitted from his narrative.
Notwithstanding this cursory treatment, which is somewhat understandable given the space limitations, this chapter is top-notch. Anderson goes on to show how Catholics responded to the debate in their Counter-Reformation, declaring at the Council of Trent that images should still be venerated—
not as though they were believed that any divinity or power resided in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped, or that anything should be requested of them, or that trust should be placed in images, as was formerly done by the heathen, who placed their hope in idols, but because the honor which is shown them is bestowed on the prototypes they represent.
Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century, Anderson reveals how conservative Protestants often say one thing but practice another when it comes to images: in principle, they oppose visualizations of Christ, but functionally, they don’t. Cases in point: illustrated Bibles, Christmas cards, posters, the ubiquitous Warner Sallman, Cru’s Jesus film, and Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, all of which are extremely popular among Protestants.
From there Anderson launches into a consideration of the primacy of words, and especially God’s Word, within evangelicalism, questioning whether such a sharp distinction need be drawn between the verbal and the visual; this constitutes chapter 5, “A People of the Book and the Image.” For example, Protestants put a lot of stock on the preacher’s persuasive rhetoric, but his success is substantially dependent on his ability to “paint” a word picture in the mind’s eye of his listeners, thereby conjoining speech and imagination. Jesus certainly employed the language of images and metaphor in his teaching, as did Paul. If we accept images conjured by words, why not palpable images produced by artists?
Chapter 6, “A Semblance of a Whole,” examines the postmodern challenge of language, including the possibility that neither word nor image can guide us to genuine knowledge. Anderson rejects this thesis, believing that despite the shortcomings and liability of language, it is also durable and capacious.
In chapter 7, “The Music of the Spheres,” Anderson explores the topic of beauty. When it comes to the three transcendentals, he says, “evangelicals have mostly limited their understanding of goodness to the moral sphere, reduced their inquiries about truth to a set of propositions and gone on to wholly ignore beauty” (224). Beauty rarely appears in evangelical sermons or systematic theologies, though it was important (in limited ways) to Protestants like Calvin and Edwards.
Anderson loosely traces the development of beauty in Christian theology, touching on Augustine, Aquinas, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Pope John Paul II, and C. S. Lewis. He also addresses modernism’s three primary complaints against it.
In chapter 8, “An Aesthetic Pilgrimage,” to redress the seeming impasse between visual art and Christian faith, Anderson wonders: What if evangelicals consulted the marvelously rich yet largely forgotten history of Christian art, which for centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation existed as a vital witness to Christian piety, worship, and thought? Secondly, what if evangelicals were to explore the art world’s abiding intrigue with spirituality? (234)
He offers some final counsel for artists on culture, vocation, and praxis, and celebrates many recent advancements in the visual arts in the realms of theological education, Christian professional societies and publications, and congregational initiatives. Thankfully, the Christ-against-culture paradigm that once dominated American fundamentalism is now mostly seen as too severe or even bizarre, and this shift has opened up new possibilities for artists of faith as well as for the contemporary art world. Progress has been gradual, for sure, but the path forward is marked by hope.
The Faithful Artist is an excellent introduction to the divide that exists (but need not exist!) between evangelicalism and the visual arts—one that has been shrinking over the past few decades but that still requires healing. Image versus word, body versus spirit, sensory engagement versus rationality, secular versus sacred—these are some of the false dichotomies alive in many churches, which inhibit their appreciation of art.
Anderson orients the reader to key names, texts, artworks, and points of debates, weaving together a compelling, compassionately toned defense of Christian engagement with the arts. The scope is large, but everything is cohesive. At the same time, each chapter constitutes a strong, self-contained essay that could be taken on its own if desired. There’s so much meat! His tracing of the rise of evangelicalism alongside the rise of modern art (both movements came of age in the twentieth century) in chapter 1 was one of the many highlights for me.
The book is published under an academic imprint, so it is, expectedly, a bit higher brow than the two other books I recommend as introductions to art and the church from a Protestant perspective: For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, edited by W. David O. Taylor, and Sanctifying Art: Inviting Conversation between Artists, Theologians, and the Church by Deborah Sokolove. History, philosophy, and art criticism are all dealt with, but in a way that is, I think, largely accessible, and Anderson’s integration of personal narrative, as well as the inclusion of reproductions of most of the artworks discussed, adds interest. The book is for nonspecialists; anytime Anderson mentions a name or term or phrase in either art or theology that’s not widely known by those outside those disciplines, he contextualizes it. For example, it is not expected that everyone will be familiar with the reference “This is not a pipe,” or know what a Bibla pauperum is—so explanation follows.
I grew up in and still belong to an evangelical tradition, and this book hits on almost all the misgivings I’ve ever heard expressed about images: the Second Commandment/idolatry, nudity, subjectivity, imprecision, “too Catholic,” and so on. But more often what I encounter, as Anderson mentions, is just plain indifference: Christians who do not care about art, who do not see its relevance or importance. I sincerely hope that these Christians will give Anderson a hearing. He shows that evangelicals need not give up their religious heritage to pursue visual art, even in contexts of worship or devotion (broadly conceived). Sure, there’s some investigation and wrestling to be done (Anderson’s done it! he invites you to too) and some caveats to heed, but in the end there is a blessing to be had.
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