7 Hours of Interviews on Religion and the Arts

Created, written, and hosted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Closer To Truth is a public television series that explores fundamental questions relating to the cosmos, consciousness, religion, and the search for ultimate reality and purpose. The program boasts a robust website featuring over four thousand video interviews with scientists, philosophers, theologians, artists, and other scholars and practitioners.

I am particularly interested in the seven hours’ worth of interviews on art and religion/God that fall under the “Art Seeking Understanding” rubric. They are separated into three- to twelve-minute segments spread across these eight topical series:

  • Art and the Philosophy of Religion: “Can art inform topics in philosophy of religion? Can the existence and varieties of art address or affect theological questions about God, faith, belief, worship?”
  • Arguing God from the Arts?: “Is it possible to infer something of the nonphysical, divine existence of God from the physical, human existence of art? Can one argue for God from art?”
  • Can the Arts Reveal God’s Traits?: “If God is the Creator of human beings and art is a feature of human sentience, then can examining the arts help discern characteristics of God? Can one infer from various aspects of art various traits of God?”
  • Arts and Religious Experience: “What is the relationship between experiencing art and experiencing God? Can the arts generate or trigger religious experience? If so, can it be validated?”
  • Arts and Religious Belief: “Is there a relationship between diverse arts and belief in God? Can the arts express or encourage religious belief? If so, can it be validated?” (*This is my favorite.)
  • Arts and Religious Practice (Liturgy): “Why are the arts so deeply embedded in religious settings and services? How do the arts work in religious spaces and activities? What are differences among the arts, say music and painting, in the liturgy?” (*This is my second favorite!)
  • Arts and Religious Reality: “Art is deeply involved in the practice of religion, embedded in the rituals and liturgy of almost every religion. But how could the ubiquity of the arts in religion affect whether or not religion is real?”
  • Co-Evolution of Art and Religion: “Did art and religion co-evolve in parallel as archeology and anthropology suggest, and if so, what would be the significance? What do art and religion have in common that could enable their common, co-temporal development?”
Closer to Truth screen cap

Interviewees include Nicholas Wolterstorff, Matthew Milliner, Jonathan A. Anderson, Judith Wolfe, Aaron Rosen, Alfonse Borysewicz, John Witvliet, and others. I’m disappointed by the lack of diversity among interviewees—the program is very heavy on white male Christians—but I am nevertheless grateful for the wisdom these individuals share, and for the efforts of the Closer To Truth team to coax it out, capture it onscreen, and present it freely to the public.

Here are a few interviews I’ll call your attention to:

These videos and many more can also be found on Closer To Truth’s YouTube channel.

Roundup: Philippians set to music, poetry of joy, what Jesus looked like, and more

ALBUM REVIEW: “Let’s Go Down: Joy and Humility in Psallos’s Philippians Album” by Victoria Emily Jones: Psallos’s latest album, a musical adaptation of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, released on Thursday, and, as I’ve come to expect from the collective, it’s a brilliant work of art, with much to discover! In this review I wrote for the Gospel Coalition, I of course couldn’t address all the album’s intricacies, but I trace a few main themes and motifs. This is the New Testament epistle that gives us such memorable lines, phrases, and passages as “Rejoice in the Lord always!,” “Be anxious for nothing,” “the peace of God that passes all understanding,” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and the glorious Christ Hymn (“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God . . .”). It’s delightful to hear what Psallos does with these oft-quoted verses and, even more, to be guided in understanding the larger context in which they appear.

It’s near impossible to choose favorite tracks, as they gain impact from being heard all together and in order, but if I had to choose, I’d say “Complete My Joy,” “Hymnos Christou,” “I Am Better Than You” (feat. Shai Linne), and “Will You Go Down?” (feat. Taylor Leonhardt).

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POETS’ PANEL: “Surprised by Joy: Poetry about Happiness,” recorded at the Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2018: In Rewrite Radio Episode 29 (a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing), poets Anya Silver, Tania Runyan, Barbara Crooker, and Julie Moore “discuss the landscape of joy amidst suffering in their personal and public lives. Joy, distinct from happiness, can be a form of religious practice. They explore questions regarding what cheapens joy, how Christians view joy, and how to ‘balance the scale’ of joy and pain in writing.” Zora Neale Hurston, Ælfric of Eynsham, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Christian Wiman, Jane Kenyon, John Milton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thornton Wilder, and the apostle Paul are just some of the additional voices they draw into their conversation. They each read three to four of their own poems, and there is an audience Q&A starting at 57:54. A transcript is provided.

Silver and Runyan are two of my favorite poets, and this is such a rich hour spent with them and two of their colleagues.

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INTERVIEW: “It’s Not a Poem Until You Discover Something: An Interview with Scott Cairns” by Andy Patton: In this conversation, poet Scott Cairns talks about writing as a discipline, the writer as reader (“The writing life is primarily the reading life”), staying conversant with tradition, the fallacy of originality, the one quality shared most between prayer and poetry, and writing not as giving, serving, but as getting, receiving.

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LECTURE: “What Did Jesus Look Like?” by Joan E. Taylor, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, June 2, 2019: Historian Joan E. Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, discusses the influences on early depictions of Jesus in art and what they tell us about what he did, or definitely didn’t, look like. This talk is a great intro to her research on the topic, but if you want to learn more, I recommend her full-color book What Did Jesus Look Like? (T&T Clark, 2018), which goes into much more detail, examining artistic, literary, and archaeological evidence, including first- and second-century coins, textiles, skulls, and Egyptian mummy portraits. She also dedicates two chapters to the three most famous acheropitae (images “made without [human] hands”): the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, and the Shroud of Turin.

In her talk, Taylor shows how most of the visual representations of Jesus in the Early Christian era were based on Greco-Roman imagery of Zeus Olympus or Zeus Serapis (strong, powerful, seated on a throne; this image came after Constantine), Dionysus (young, curly-haired, beardless), or philosophers. These images aim to show us the meaning of Jesus but not necessarily his physical reality.

Interestingly, Taylor points out that while it’s common to picture Jesus in a long robe (stolē, plural stolai) with baggy sleeves, such clothing indicated social privilege in Jesus’s time, and in Mark 12:38, Jesus explicitly denounces those who parade around in such dress! Jesus would have worn a short, simple tunic, probably undyed—which is how he is depicted in the frescoes from the ancient Dura-Europos house church in present-day Syria.

She also identifies a common strain in early Christian and non-Christian writings that describe Jesus as “little and ugly and undistinguished” (Celsus), probably owing largely to the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53:2: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” However, there were some claims to the contrary—for example, from Origen—that stated that Jesus was the epitome of physical beauty; after all, divinity must be beautiful, right? We often find throughout art history an attempt to backfill the earthly life of Jesus with his resurrected, ascended, glorified form.

Taylor is not suggesting, as far as I can tell, that all artistic representations of Jesus must be historically authentic to have validity. Rather, she says that if we are going to imagine Jesus humanly doing things—healing the paralytic, for example, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount—we will inevitably have to picture him in our mind, and we might as well have as accurate a picture as possible. She reminds us that if we imagine Jesus as supremely beautiful and well kept and richly arrayed instead of as the poor, bedraggled itinerant that he was, there’s a dissonance with his message; he becomes no longer one of the people but apart from them.

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ARTICLE: “Are Images of Jesus a Violation of the Commandments?” by Chad Bird: “Different groups within Christianity disagree as to whether Jesus should be depicted in icons, crucifixes, paintings, or other visual media. In this article, Chad Bird [scholar in residence at 1517] approaches the question from the angle of both the commandments and the incarnation.”

The most pushback I receive on my blogging ministry comes from those who believe it is inherently wrong, even “idolatrous,” to represent Jesus visually. Bird addresses this concern in much the same way I do when asked, and in such a succinct way!

Nature as extravagant gift from God

The following four poets/pray-ers express awe and gratitude for God’s bountiful heart as conveyed through nature, a gift given freely to everyone—new every morning. Each attributes to God an exceeding liberality, even prodigality (wastefulness), in such daily bestowals, which, as the Brazilian Catholic archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara (1909–1999) suggests below, ought to inform our own giving.

Sluijters, Jan_October Sun, Laren
Jan Sluijters (Dutch, 1881–1957), October Sun, Laren, 1910. Oil on canvas, 48.3 × 52.7 cm. Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Untitled poem by Emily Dickinson

As if I asked a common Alms—
And in my wondering hand
A Stranger pressed a Kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand—
As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a Morn—
And it should lift its purple Dikes,
And shatter Me with Dawn!

Written in 1858; source: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955)

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Untitled poem by George MacDonald

Gloriously wasteful, O my Lord, art thou!
Sunset faints after sunset into the night,
Splendorously dying from thy window-sill—
For ever. Sad our poverty doth bow
Before the riches of thy making might:
Sweep from thy space thy systems at thy will—
In thee the sun sets every sunset still.

Source: A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul (self-pub., 1880)

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“The Excesses of God” by Robinson Jeffers

Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music:
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things,
The extravagant kindness, the fountain
Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise
If power and desire were perch-mates.

Source: Be Angry at the Sun and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1941)

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Untitled prayer by Hélder Pessoa Câmara, OFS

Lord,
isn’t your creation wasteful?
Fruits never equal
the seedlings’ abundance.
Springs scatter water.
The sun gives out
enormous light.
May your bounty teach me
greatness of heart.
May your magnificence
stop me being mean.
Seeing you a prodigal
and open-handed giver,
let me give unstintingly
like a king’s child,
like God’s own. 

Source: The Hodder Book of Christian Prayers, compiled by Tony Castle (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986)

Roundup: Online convos with artists Marc Padeu (from Cameroon) and Emmanuel Garibay (from the Philippines), and more

NEW PLAYLIST: October 2021 (Art & Theology): This month’s playlist includes a benediction from the book of Jude; a percussion-driven setting of Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun” by the Camaldolese monk Cyprian Consiglio; an Exodus-inspired song in Yorta Yorta, an indigenous Australian language, from the feature film The Sapphires; “Prodigal Son,” a little-known hymn by John Newton, from The Sacred Harp; a sixties gospel song by Shirley Ann Lee (famously covered by Liz Vice on her debut album); and closing out, in anticipation of All Saints’ Day on November 1, the jazz standard “When the Saints Go Marching In.” To save the playlist to your Spotify account, click the ellipsis and select “Add to Your Library.”

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IN-PERSON LECTURE: “The Works of Art in the Work of the Church” by John Skillen, October 16, 2021, Crownsville, MD: The Eliot Society, an organization I work for, is hosting our first event in over a year and a half! It’s an art talk by Dr. John Skillen [previously], director of the Studio for Art, Faith & History in Orvieto, Italy. It will be at the home of two of our board members, so if you’re in the Washington–Baltimore metropolitan area two weekends from now, consider coming by! The event starts with hors d’oeuvres at 6:30 p.m., and an RSVP is requested.

The Works of Art in the Work of the Church

In recent decades, a growing number of Christians—even those from church traditions formerly suspicious of the arts—are warming up to the idea that artworks can serve in the various practices of the life of faith, and not only in iconographic form as images of Jesus in worship. Scripturally sound and aesthetically sophisticated works of art can guide our prayer, help catechize our children, and shape the environments of our missional work. Many of us will welcome some pointers for putting art back in its place in the settings where we live and work.

To help us imagine possibilities, John Skillen will offer examples from a long period of Christian history when the arts were put to work in the collective life of the church in more places and in more ways than most of us nowadays can imagine. Not only churches but also hospitals, orphanages, the meeting rooms of parachurch organizations, baptisteries and bell towers, dining halls and cloisters in monasteries, town halls and civic fountains and public squares—all were places of serious decoration and design expected to be compatible with Christian faith.

No sphere of religious and civic life was off-limits for imagery able to instruct, to prompt memory, and to inspire emotion and action—the three functions of art most commonly cited during the Middle Ages to defend its value.

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UPCOMING ONLINE CONVERSATIONS:

Padeu, Marc_Le souper a Penja
Marc Padeu (Cameroonian, 1990–), Le souper a Penja, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 82 7/10 × 106 3/10 in. (210 × 270 cm).

>> “Caravaggio in Cameroon: Marc Padeu and Jennifer Sliwka in Conversation,” October 14, 2021, 11 a.m. EST (4 p.m. BST): I spoke about Padeu’s Le souper a Penja at a recent seminar on “Picturing Jesus,” so I’m looking forward to hearing the artist himself discuss it along with the larger body of work it’s a part of. Hosted by the National Gallery in London.

Artist Marc Padeu lives and works in Cameroon. Intriguingly, his monumental paintings – exploring tender and complex relationships between family, friends, lovers and working communities – often draw on Italian Baroque compositions and especially those of Caravaggio.

Marc Padeu joins Dr Jennifer Sliwka, specialist in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. Her research explores how 17th-century painters developed innovative approaches to religious painting, imbuing their works with an immediacy, power, and dynamism.

Together, the speakers will take Padeu’s Le Souper a Penja and its relationship to Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus as a jumping-off point for conversation, exploring Padeu’s wider interest and understanding of historical works, his adoption and adaptation of the visual language of the Baroque and how these inform his evocations of contemporary life in Cameroon.

>> “In the Studio with Emmanuel Garibay,” November 11, 2021, 8:30 a.m. EST: The Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary is hosting a conversation with Filipino artist Emmanuel “Manny” Garibay, a social realist painter who served as the 2010–2011 OMSC artist in residence. “It is the richness of the poor that I am drawn to and which I am a part of, that I want to impart,” he says. His paintings often portray Jesus among the marginalized and dispossessed and critique the church’s “compliance with greed, corruption, and social inequality.” Garibay’s children Alee, Nina, and Bam, who are also accomplished artists, will be present for the conversation as well. For more on Garibay, see this Q&A from the OMSC and the Image journal essay “Recognizing the Stranger: The Art of Emmanuel Garibay” by Rod Pattenden.

Garibay, Emmanuel_Kaganapan
Emmanuel Garibay (Filipino, 1962–), Kaganapan, 2006. Oil on canvas, 48 × 48 in. (122 × 122 cm).

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NEW SONGS:

>> “Keep Watch (Noelle’s Lullaby)” by Liturgical Folk, a setting of a Compline prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, on the new family album Matins & Vespers:

>> “Psalm 91” by Poor Bishop Hooper, released as part of the EveryPsalm project, through which the duo offers original weekly Psalm-based songs for free download:

“Saint Francis Endeth His Sermon” by Louise Imogen Guiney

Ribeiro, Osvaldo_St. Francis I
Osvaldo Ribeiro (Brazilian, 1950–), St. Francis I. Oil on canvas, 70 × 50 cm.

“And now, my clerks who go in fur or feather
Or brighter scales, I bless you all. Be true
To your true Lover and Avenger, whether
By land or sea ye die the death undue.
Then proffer man your pardon; and together
Track him to Heaven, and see his heart made new.

“From long ago one hope hath in me thriven,
Your hope, mysterious as the scented May:
Not to Himself your titles God hath given
In vain, nor only for our mortal day.
O doves! how from The Dove shall ye be driven?
O darling lambs! ye with The Lamb shall play.”

This poem appears in Happy Ending: The Collected Lyrics of Louise Imogen Guiney (Houghton Mifflin, 1909) and is now in the public domain.