Book Review: The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest by Mark Byford

The Annunciation—Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will bear the Son of God—is one of the most depicted biblical subjects of all time. This narrative episode from Luke’s Gospel has long enthralled me, and I’ve been collecting artistic responses to it over the past several years, cogitating on how I might develop the materials into a book. Turns out, author Mark Byford has beaten me to the punch!

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim's Quest (book cover)

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest (Winchester University Press, 2018) sets out to explore the history and spiritual meaning of the Annunciation through interviews with 150-plus clerics, theologians, church historians, artists, curators, art historians, and others, and through encounters with works of visual art, music, and poetry inspired by the story. It’s very cleverly structured as a pilgrimage, so the book’s organizing principle is roughly geographic, following Byford through England, France, the Low Countries, Spain, Italy, and the Holy Land as he encounters people, places, and artworks in those regions that shed light on the topic.

The scope and diversity of interviewees, from different denominations and even religions (Jews, Muslims, agnostics), is impressive, and the quotes he elicits and compiles here are a valuable trove. The roster includes big names like Rowan Williams and Archbishop Kallistos Ware, as well as others whose insights are just as rich. My fingers were very, very busy taking notes as I read!

Byford’s starting point is The Annunciation by François Lemoyne (pictured on the front cover), which he found himself unexpectedly captivated by upon seeing it at the National Gallery one day. It’s a relatively unknown work that pales in comparison to the other, world-renowned Annunciation paintings at the Gallery. When he saw that it was on loan from Winchester College, where it was installed in 1729, he grew all the more intrigued, as he is from Winchester. He wanted to find out why such a flamboyantly Catholic painting of Mary by a leading French artist came to reside in a public school in Protestant England in the eighteenth century, and why it has been removed from its original setting for display at the museum.

“I am not especially enchanted by its imagery or by its aesthetic value,” Byford admits (13)—but for whatever reason, it grasped him. I share Byford’s assessment of the painting as too cloying, florid, conventionally pious, and seeing it on the page does nothing for me. But I love how in this book, we get to see how differently different people see, because as Byford goes about his journey, he shows a reproduction of Lemoyne’s painting to each interviewee, recording their reactions. Whereas many people read the angel’s presence as domineering or oppressive, overpowering Mary’s will, and his finger as phallic, others read the encounter as a tender one, his finger illustrating his saying, “You will receive power from on high,” and indicating that it’s all about God, not her. Many expressed dislike toward the image because they say it shows Mary as weak and simpering instead of strong and courageous—“it’s disempowering” (82); “I want her to have the same force of character as the muscular angel” (85); she’s too insubstantial—“anemic,” even; “the blood and guts of the woman has been taken out of her” (173). Others were incredibly moved by the image, and commented on the “wonderful sense of movement” (100), the “spectacular light” (204), or Mary’s expression of joyful surrender. Theologian Ben Quash comments on the tattiness of the interior establishing a contrast between broken, worldly space and luminous, heavenly space—and the peeling plaster as a metaphor for revelation, a stripping back (208).

Besides bringing up the Lemoyne painting, Byford asked each interviewee some variation of the following:

  • Is the Annunciation literal (historical, factual) or metaphoric/symbolic?
  • How important is it for Christians to believe in the virgin conception?
  • Do you believe, as Bishop Philip Egan does, that the Annunciation is “the most important event in human history”?
  • Why is the feast of the Annunciation barely acknowledged today?
  • What is the spiritual meaning of the Annunciation?
  • Do you see a parallel between your story and Mary’s? (That is, have you ever felt a call from God that you would consider an “annunciation moment”?)
  • Is Mary a bridge or a barrier to interdenominational dialogue?
  • Do you venerate Mary?

One common point of discussion that results is the agency of Mary—or lack thereof—and on this point, the variant interpretations of feminists are interesting to note. Some feminists hate the story of the Annunciation because, in their reading, God forces Mary to bear a child against her will, enacting something akin to divine rape—and a few interviewees attempt to make this case. But other feminists find the story absolutely empowering for women, in that God comes into the world without the aid of a man, and with Mary’s full consent—a critical detail. Tina Beattie, for example, says, “It’s now a woman who has the voice of authority on behalf of creation” (157).

The word submission has negative connotations in today’s culture, and so can the idea of being an empty vessel, but this is so central to the Annunciation story, and I was glad to see the majority of Christians interviewed here uphold the virtuousness of submission and also recognize that it often connotes strength, and it is itself an act of the will. Like Mary, we can choose to say yes to what God calls us to. There are lots of ways of talking about submission to God, and I enjoyed hearing different wordings and perspectives on it.

Byford is the former deputy director general and head of BBC journalism, and his whole approach in this book is indeed journalistic. He marks his observances of the native environments, demeanors, and mannerisms of his interview subjects, and he presents their words unedited. He doesn’t editorialize, for the most part—that is, until the end, when, after interviewing his wife and (grown) children, he confronts his own views about the Annunciation, including how they have been influenced by the conversations he’s had over the course of the project.

[Below is a small sampling of the 205 images reproduced and discussed in the book.]

The majority of the book unfolds in England, but as previously mentioned, Byford also visits other countries, including places like Chartres Cathedral, which contains at least ten Annunciation scenes; Florence, with its many famous Annunciation paintings, including ones by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci; and the catacombs and churches of Rome. He even makes it as far as Nazareth, where there are two different churches—one Greek Orthodox, the other Catholic—that claim to be the original site of the Annunciation. He interacts with other pilgrims there, collecting their thoughts.

The artistic merit of the image selections is variable. Byford did not choose all the world’s best representations to highlight—though there are many of those; he’s most interested in images that have deep personal meaning for the people who created them or who have beheld them, which means, in the case of one of the women priests he interviewed, a painting gifted to her by an elderly church parishioner (138), or in the author’s own case, an illustration from a 1950s storybook (4). Not all the artworks are reverent, though. Some, such as the Annunciation sculpture by Chris Ofili, and a painting of the same name by Mati Klarwein, used for a Santana album cover, are controversial for their blatant sexuality. Others were made for devotional or liturgical contexts but are controversial for other reasons, like David Wynne’s The Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral in England, which many describe as hideous.

I appreciate the chapter on global (that is, non-European) depictions of the Annunciation, from the United States, Mexico, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia, Indonesia, and Japan. New to me are the paintings by Tom Thompson, who sets the scene in the bush area of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, on the veranda of a dilapidated Federation-style house (606–7). The wood carving the author purchased from a street vendor in Jakarta is also intriguing.

Besides speaking with professionals in the field of visual arts, Byford also interviews a filmmaker and, after sitting in on a performance of John Tavener’s Annunciation, a choral conductor and Tavener’s widow. Some of the conversations in this book resulted in the making of new art, such as fused glass (402), and a poem that beautifully imagines Mary’s internal process as she moves from fear to acceptance to delight (498). In addition, poems on the Annunciation, both traditional and contemporary, are scattered throughout, contributing to the drawing out of meaning of that long-ago encounter between Gabriel and Mary.

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest is chock-full of goodness, and it caused me to reflect back on my own views about the Annunciation while considering the views of others. Some, like John Shelby Spong’s (126–29), really grated me! Some made me raise an eyebrow or shake my head. But many opened me up to a deeper reading of Luke 1 and the wider narrative, and the inclusion of people from a wide range of theological persuasions and backgrounds was key in that. I join Byford in lamenting the loss of the status and significance of the Annunciation in the church’s celebration, and I hope this book can serve as a catalyst to reignite interest.

I do think its hefty page count, 674 pages, will deter a lot of would-be readers, unfortunately. It is amply illustrated—and in full color!—but most of the images are thumbnail-size, so the heft is mainly text. To trim it down, I think he could have done away with the Madonna and Child artworks, the standalone Gabriel statues, and St. Luke painting the Virgin, focusing more strictly on Annunciation artworks, of which there is an abundant supply. And occasionally I felt that too much context was given on the history of certain churches and the backgrounds of interviewees. But my interest was sustained. I found myself looking forward to each new chapter, to see what new artworks and facets of the Annunciation would be revealed. The integration of historical and practical theology, art commentary, and personal story (the author’s and that of all those who participated in his project) is a hallmark of the book.

From a functionality standpoint, I wish there was a list of figures, and an index—at the very least, of the names of interviewees. I also wish source citations were provided for the quotes not from interviews, as the author quotes church fathers, pastors, and others, giving only inexact references like “a professor quoted on a British Library blog” (317), or “Athanasius said . . .”; interviewees also make statements that I wish I could more easily follow up on, like “Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, said that if there was a virgin birth, it was a secondary miracle compared to the primary miracle of the birth of the Son of God” (484).

Biblical art curricula for small groups

As a dedicated church member and art enthusiast, I’m thrilled to see products popping up that are designed to lead church groups—Sunday school classes, outreach classes, midweek Bible-study classes—through masterworks of religious art, fostering visual literacy and an appreciation for the church’s rich cultural heritage. Last year, two of these were released: Imaging the Story: Rediscovering the Visual and Poetic Contours of Salvation by Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini and “Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story” from London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields. These come after the Through Artists’ Eyes series of Bible-study guides published in 2010 by Standard, which shares a similar intent.

While these are far from the only books/written materials available on the intersection of Christianity and the visual arts, they are among the very few that were created with group participation in mind, which means that discussion questions and/or activities are provided. (Of course, you can go through them as an individual, but a group approach would probably prove more fruitful.) Furthermore, they do not assume any previous knowledge of art history, making them suitable for your average churchgoer. All three reproduce the images in full color and, while not obviously sectarian, were written by Protestants.

Despite the common aim to use biblical art to inspire deeper engagement with scripture, each product takes a different approach. Here I’d like to offer some comparative reviews so that you can decide which curriculum, if any, is right for your small group. (Note: I read these on my own, not with a group, so I cannot offer feedback on the group experience.) I hope these inspire even more offerings in the same vein so that churches will have a wealth to draw from.

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Imaging the Story: Rediscovering the Visual and Poetic Contours of Salvation
Authors: Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini; foreword by W. David O. Taylor
Publisher: Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock (Eugene, Oregon)
Year: 2017
Product format: Paperback or Kindle
Number of sessions: 10

Imaging the Story

Each of the ten chapters of this book has four primary components: Read, Respond, Reflect, and Make. Like the other curricula, this one brings together scripture texts, visual art, and discussion questions—but unlike the others, it also integrates poetry, and, most notably, places emphasis on making. Projects include mosaic tiles, breviaries (using cards bound with ribbon), still lifes, and others that are even more open-ended, inviting the use of any media, including words. An appendix advises on how to mount an exhibition of the art produced during the course.

One of the authors, Gill, is herself a visual artist; the cover image is a painting of hers, titled Incarnation. Her coauthor, Karen, is a preacher, writer, and former lecturer in English literature. “Making something and then setting it free,” they write,

is to share in something of our Creator’s own respect for what he makes. If God allows his creation to be enjoyed—and interpreted—by others, then we too can set what we make free (be they poems, paintings, sculptures, children, sermons) for others to receive, or reject, as they will. This may seem a risk, but it is one our Creator took long ago! (12)

Because of this emphasis on making, and also because of the discussion of artistic vocation woven throughout, I would recommend this book to artists or “creative types.” The project instructions are clear enough that even those who aren’t accustomed to art making could complete them, and I appreciate the desire to get readers to exercise their own imaginations, but I think “noncreatives” would be resistant to this form of scripture exploration, and probably too self-conscious. It might work for those who already have the inclination to try, but I do not see it working for every small group.

I am not an artist, so I admit, I forwent the art projects, but even without that component, there is still a lot of rich substance in the book. I especially like how the authors guide the reader in looking at a variety of art images—a mixture of famous works throughout history, like Michelangelo’s Awakening Slave and Munch’s The Scream, and contemporary pieces from their circle of artist friends in the Grünewald Guild. Viewing art, they contend, can support the act of interpreting scripture:

One way to enliven biblical exegesis is to read a passage, take time to look at a painting or other artistic interpretation, then return to the text to see how the imaginative encounter has permitted fresh insights. This is a form of artistic midrash (mid, meaning to seek out, rash, meaning to inquire) that still has deep respect for the text. (126–27)

(Yes! This is precisely the approach I use in the Artful Devotion series.)

All the images in the book were chosen with intention and serve to bolster the story line of scripture. And to these are added insightful extracts from poems and theological prose, as well as questions to engage.

Also included throughout is a soft defense of the arts, including a corrective against the thinking that God calls only artists to care about art. Writing about the decoration of the Jewish tabernacle:

Note that everyone participates in the artistic venture—it is not for perceived creatives or for those who choose this activity over another. God invites all the Israelites, via Moses, to offer something in the way of materials in a very accessible manner. The list in Exodus 25:3–7 comprises precious as well as expensive items (“gold, silver, and bronze”) and also readily available ones (“goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood”). (134–35)

In other words, all of Israel was involved in supporting the arts, in ways both large and small.

Imaging the Story succeeds in stoking excitement for the gospel story through the arts, which the authors ably trace from Genesis to Revelation, pausing along the way with prompts for personal reflection and/or group discussion. For example, the questions in the chapter on Christ’s conception include:

  • What is Mary’s spiritual and mental state in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation?
  • What good news has God “announced” to you?
  • How easy do you find it to nurture a conception in the dark? How might you create a “photographic darkroom” or “nest” in which your own creativity can develop?
  • Why was it so important for Mary to find an Elizabeth?
  • Do you have an “Elizabeth” in your life? Would you like to pray for one?

My one grievance is that there are quite a few copyediting and proofreading mistakes, which became distracting, including typos, comma splices, and inconsistent heading and caption styles and name spellings.

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Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story
Authors: Richard Carter, Jonathan Evens, Katherine Hedderly, James Johnston, Alastair McKay, and Chloë Reddaway
Publisher: St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in association with the National Gallery (London)
Year: 2017
Product format: Digital downloads (PDFs and PowerPoints)
Number of sessions: 22, divided into three terms

This discipleship course was developed by St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a historic Anglican church in the heart of London, in association with the National Gallery, conveniently located just across the street. Divided into twenty-two hour-long sessions, it uses paintings from the Gallery’s collections as a springboard into discussion of key elements of the Christian story and their personal implications. Two of the driving questions are “What does it mean to follow Jesus today?” and “How can I deepen my faith in God?”   Continue reading “Biblical art curricula for small groups”

Book Review: The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson

The Faithful Artist
296 pp. | 5 color plates, 38 halftones | Trim: 6 × 9 | Published 11/10/2016 | InterVarsity Press

“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.

Stations of the Cross by Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970), Stations of the Cross panoramic view (stations 3–13), 1965. Acrylic on canvases. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: Hillary Kelly.

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.   Continue reading “Book Review: The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson”

Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill

Typically when scholars interpret African American art, they do so through the primary lens of racial identity, often glossing over overt Christian themes, expressions of religious identity. Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press, 2017), edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, seeks to redress that dearth by examining the Christian content, including theological significance, of works by fourteen African American artists who came to maturity between the Civil War and the civil rights era: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., William H. Johnson, James Richmond Barthé, Allan Rohan Crite, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, James VanDerZee, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Many of these artists were themselves devout Christians, working out of internalized religious convictions and not merely outward tradition or market expectations.

Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American ArtThe essayists certainly take race into account as a factor in the works discussed, but not the only factor; political, socioeconomic, and biographical circumstances are also considered. Christianity, however, as the title suggests, is given pride of place in the selection and examination of the fifty-five images reproduced in the book.

One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented. As the book shows, African American art is no monolith, and neither is African American Christianity. While there is so-called primitive art and visionary art created by self-taught individuals with crayons, cardboard, or salvaged limestone, there is also neo-classical sculpture, as well as other academically informed works that tend toward impressionism or expressionism. Among the pages are rough-hewn stone sculptures, abstract watercolors, naturalistic oil paintings, and portrait photographs. While there are many depictions of Christ as black, there are also, per tradition, white Christs, and even a Middle Eastern one. What was most surprising to me was to see examples of art by African Americans from high-church traditions, like Catholicism and Anglicanism, who distinguish themselves from low-church Baptists, Pentecostals, and Holiness Christians. The editors are to the applauded for resisting the urge to perpetuate a narrow vision of “Negro art” in line with what the artists’ contemporary critics and viewers principally sought.

Another hallmark of the book is the rigorous formal evaluation and content analysis of specific artworks that make up the bulk of almost every essay, encouraging readers to look deeply. Biographical information about the artists is well integrated and does not overwhelm the focus on the works themselves. Given this image-forward approach, I must say, I’m disappointed that a handful of works, for which color photographs should be available, are reproduced in black and white—for example, Motley’s Tongues (Holy Rollers), Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, and Lawrence’s Sermon II and Sermon VII. Luckily these can be found online, but seeing as the entire book is printed in full color with glossy pages, I wonder why color photographs of these were not sought or obtained.

Lastly, I really appreciate the connections between artists made possible by the bringing together of these essays—some made explicitly by the authors, others implied. Douglas and Lawrence both dignified the art of black preaching by visualizing sermons. Crite and Johnson visualized the spirituals, but using very different approaches. Edmondson and Morgan were both motivated by a belief that they were divinely ordained to create by supernatural visions. Episcopal Crite and Catholic Motley intertwined class and religion in their works.

This book is essential reading for anyone in the fields of Christianity and the arts or African American studies. As one belonging to the former category, I see these artworks as part of not only art history but Christian history, and as worthy of being studied by Christians as any theological treatise, written scripture commentary, saint’s biography, or church trend. These artworks teach theology; they encapsulate hopes and fears; they comment on public issues; they expose sin; they lead us in celebration and in lament; they help us to re-member the works of Christ, and invite us into communion with him; they tell us who we are and from whence we’ve come; they cast a biblically grounded vision for the future.

What follows is a brief summary of each chapter.

In chapter 1, Kirsten Pai Buick traces the network of patronage that supported Catholic sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, as well as the multiple geographic moves she made to further her career: from Boston to Rome (1865), Rome to Paris (1893), and Paris to London (1901). Because many of Lewis’s religious works have been lost, little attention is given in this chapter to the art itself; the only art illustration is her conventional-looking Bust of Christ (1870), mentioned cursorily in the text.

In chapter 2, James Romaine demonstrates the shift in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings from the visual clarity favored by nineteenth-century academic art to a mood of personalized spiritual mystery favored by the twentieth-century symbolists. He examines four paintings as representative of this move—The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), Nicodemus (1899), The Two Disciples at the Tomb (ca. 1906), and The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water (ca. 1907)—revealing how each explores the complex exchange between vision and belief.

Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), Nicodemus, 1899. Oil on canvas, 85.5 × 100.3 cm (33.7 × 39.5 in.). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

In chapter 3, Caroline Goeser examines the seven gouaches Aaron Douglas made in response to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. These images align biblical narrative with modern black experience to tell socially resonant stories. In its attention to the African Simon of Cyrene, for example, The Crucifixion (1927) promotes an “Ethiopianist” narrative, influenced by the late nineteenth-century biblical scholar Edward W. Blyden. Simon looms large as the most prominent figure, heaving Christ’s heavy cross over his shoulders, heroized by his vigorous stride and his active gaze toward God’s light above. Bearing similarities to that of the trudging African American migrant in Douglas’s On de No’thern Road (1926), this pose subtly associates the Great Migration north with the burdensome road to Calvary.

Crucifixion by Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), The Crucifixion, 1927. Oil on Masonite, 121.9 × 91.4 cm (48 × 36 in.) Private collection.

Up Golgotha’s rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,
And Simon bore the cross.

In chapter 4, Jacqueline Francis examines the dozen or so paintings Malvin Gray Johnson created between 1927 and 1934, the final years of his life, as visual interpretations of Negro spirituals. Modernist in style, these paintings, she says, united old and new and high and popular expressions, helping to revive and elevate this genre of black folk music that saw diminishing audiences during the Great Depression. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1928), a night scene painted in thick, dark hues and mounted in a gold lunette frame reminiscent of medieval icons, received the most critical attention in Johnson’s time, eliciting comparisons to Albert Pinkham Ryder. The artist said,

I have tried to show the escape of emotion which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound out. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness, they have gone from their cabin to the river’s edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom for which they long. (qtd. 56)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Malvin Gray Johnson
Malvin Gray Johnson (American, 1896–1934), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1928. Oil on canvas, 124.5 × 73.5 cm (49 × 29 in.). Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City.

Continue reading “Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill”

Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen

I love movies. My husband shares this love, and it’s one of our primary forms of bonding. I’m thankful that he bucks the stereotype of men who like only shoot-’em-up action flicks. We do have a few of those in our collection . . . but Eric is game for any genre. He can enjoy an Italian drama, a Wes Anderson comedy, a children’s adventure, a twisted crime thriller, and a Golden Age Hollywood musical just as much as the latest blockbuster, and “I don’t want to have to think” or “It has to have a happy ending” are never among his criteria.

Many Christians I know forgo TV and movie watching, and demand the same abstinence from their kids, so as to not “waste time” with “mindless entertainment” or foster a screen addiction. A more extreme, but no less common, motive I’ve encountered is to avoid subjecting oneself to immoral filth and supporting Hollywood’s “liberal agenda.” While I agree that indoor-outdoor balance and a variety of play is important, especially for developing young brains, and that you should never violate your conscience (e.g., if it forbids you from seeing or hearing certain things), I want to push against the notion that movies are of limited to no value unless they educate or support a Christian worldview.

Fortunately, film critic Josh Larsen, editor of Think Christian and cohost of Filmspotting, offers a redeeming perspective on film in his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (InterVarsity Press, 2017). Many movies are expressions of the burdens and desires of the soul, he says, that can take the shape of praise/wonder, petition, confession, lament—in a word, prayer. Prayers are “instinctive recognitions of good (of things worthy of praise) and evil (of things inexplicably bent and broken)” (6), and they need not be restricted to liturgical formats.

This human instinct to reach out in praise or lament or supplication or confession to the divine does not take place only in church, guided by liturgy and pastors. It isn’t limited to early morning devotions, in that serene space before silence gives way to the day. It isn’t strictly the domain of dinner tables, where families gather to recite familiar words (“God is great, God is good . . .”). and it isn’t an instinct shared only by Christians. Prayer can be expressed by anyone and can take place everywhere. Even in movie theaters. (7)

Movies Are Prayers

Through picture and sound, blocking and set, filmmakers offer up prayers and invite us not only to listen in, but to pray along—to respond in kind, with whatever words or medium or action we feel prompted to use. Therefore, rather than regarding movies as time spent apart from God or a distraction from more important things, we would do well, Larsen suggests, to let them enrich our awareness of the world’s beauty and suffering and, consequently, guide us into prayer.

Larsen covers diverse genres and styles spanning from the silent era through today, including a mix of popular classics and lesser known gems. Below are just three I’ve added to my watch list since reading Movies Are Prayers.

Freaks (1932) is a revenge drama set against a circus backdrop, starring professional sideshow performers. At a time when people paid money to see and gawk at those with biological anomalies, director Tod Browning intended to show their humanity, that they have the same emotional needs as everyone else. He never filmed his actors’ “acts” (so as not to exploit them) but instead depicts them backstage, living their everyday lives. Although the film features an able-bodied romantic pairing of trapeze artist and strongman, Browning isn’t that interested in it; it is the interior life of Hans, a little person who’s used by Cleopatra for his money, that constitutes the main focus.   Continue reading “Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen”

Book Review: Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago by Kymberly N. Pinder

Members of the majority white culture may not realize it, but white Jesus is a fraught symbol. According to black theologian Major J. Jones, when European colonialists came to Africa and began treating its people as less than human because of their color, it became “psychologically impossible” for Africans not to have problems with God’s color. How could they ever conceive of a God who looked just like their oppressor? This legacy of black oppression, of course, traveled to the Americas, where white Jesus is omnipresent in visual culture.

Painting the Gospel book coverIn her book Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago (University of Illinois Press, 2016), art historian Kymberly N. Pinder unpacks some of the ways that twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christians have countered the dominance of white Jesus with alternative sacred imagery that is black-affirming. Lavishly illustrated with sixty color photographs and eight black-and-whites, the book explores African American religious images—murals, mosaics, stained glass, sculptures, even T-shirt designs—from Chicago churches and their neighborhoods between 1904 and the present, focusing on their intersection with the social, political, and theological climates of the times. The image of a black Christ, Pinder argues, participated in some of the most significant movements in black history, including gospel music, sermon broadcasts/televangelism, the Chicago Black Renaissance, the civil rights movement, Black Liberation Theology, and the Mural Movement. The stream of influence flowed both ways, as each church’s preaching and outreach, musical, and visual cultures fed into one another.

A collection of case studies rather than a comprehensive guide, Painting the Gospel features churches whose pastors consciously nurtured a strong visual culture. “These sites,” Pinder writes, “enable me to chart how the arts interact with each other in the performance of black belief in each space, explain how empathetic realism structures these interactions for a variety of publics, and observe how this public art sits within a larger history of mural histories” (2). “Empathetic realism” is a term Pinder develops throughout the book as she considers how religious images have the power to assert political agendas of equality and humanity and thereby empower viewers, providing social and spiritual uplift. “Christ’s own difference, for which he was persecuted, becomes a source of empathy and identity for the African American,” she writes (8).

Christ as a dreadlocked black man on the cross, hip-hop youth kneeling at his feet, and Mary as an African woman in traditional Nigerian dress activate personal narratives for a black audience where private and public, the personal and the holy, the real and the represented, all meld, allowing for a spiritually transformative experience. (22–23)

The book covers works of art that have been largely excluded from art historical, theological, and sociological scholarship because of their racial or religious particularity. Working at the confluence of these disciplines, Pinder is concerned not with the artistic merit of the images but rather how they make meaning, how they “work” for an individual or a community—and especially how they interacted with and impacted certain milestones in black history. Her approach, her angle of inquiry, is much in the vein of David Morgan and Sally Promey.

Holy Angels mural by Engelbert Mveng
Mural by Engelbert Mveng, 1990, Holy Angels Catholic Church. The scenes depict moments when angels have intervened in the lives of Christ and the saints: (counterclockwise, from top center) The Star of Bethlehem; St. Michael Slaying the Dragon; The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace; The Liberation of St. Peter; The Annunciation; The Resurrection; The Agony in the Garden; Judgment Day; The Hospitality of Abraham; The Healing of Tobit; The Nativity. Photo courtesy of Holy Angels Catholic Church.

In many ways, Painting the Gospel is an extension of an article Pinder wrote in 1997, titled “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are we bastard kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” This article addresses black-Jesus images in the world of twentieth-century fine art, which were produced by such artists as Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley Jr., Frederick C. Flemister, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, David Hammons, and more. Pinder wondered whether black Christians consumed this imagery in the public sphere.   Continue reading “Book Review: Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago by Kymberly N. Pinder”

Book Review: 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey

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.

75-masterpieces-every-christian-should-know

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:

  1. works that are universally esteemed for their craftsmanship and creativity, not only admired by Christians but also by those outside the faith
  2. 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
  3. 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.

La Sagrada Familia ceiling
Ceiling detail of La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudí, begun 1882.

Continue reading “Book Review: 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey”

Book Review: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age, ed. Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau

The Image of God in an Image Driven AgeThe doctrine of the imago Dei—which states that human beings were uniquely created in the image of God and continue to bear that image—is central to Christian theology, for it tells us who (and Whose) we are. The book The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016), edited by Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau, delves into that doctrine, examining its implications for relationships, ethics, sexuality, consumer visual culture, art making, dissemination of the gospel, and more. Comprising twelve essays that resulted from the 2015 Wheaton Theology Conference, the book explores what it means to be made in God’s image and issues a challenge: that we resist all the false images that try to topple the one true image in our lives.

Two of the chapters revolve around visual images. In chapter 5, “Culture Breaking: In Praise of Iconoclasm,” Matthew J. Milliner starts out by stating that we live in an optocracy—that is, we are ruled by what our eyes see. Advertisements (billboards, commercials, magazines, web banners), celebrity coverage, and product packaging and store displays are high up on the throne, and we think and act according to their influence.

To illustrate the takeover of unedifying imagery, he cites Limelight Shops, a mini-mall in New York City that inhabits the deconsecrated Church of the Holy Communion. Where a Christian community once thrived, signage and shop displays now parody Christianity, beckoning shoppers to “be transformed,” to try on True Religion jeans in confession-booth dressing rooms, and to indulge in a “slice of heaven” at the pizzeria.

Milliner calls for opposition to the deleterious aspects of our optocracy, a reclamation of our iconoclastic heritage (which, he notes later with examples, belongs to all three branches of Christianity, not just Protestantism):

Evangelicals have spent the last half of the century embarrassed of their iconoclastic heritage and attempting to make themselves culturally serious. But the challenge that is so clear in the case of Limelight Shops might spur us to reactivate our iconoclastic heritage as well. Our charge may be not only to go about culture making but to do some culture breaking as well, for breaking is what the people of God do when they find themselves in Babylon. (112)

He endorses not a literal breaking but a mental and rhetorical breaking, much as the Israelites did when they were in Babylon (e.g., Jeremiah 10:5). We need to break the power certain images hold over us, say no to their attempts to shape and define us. God alone can tell us who we truly are, and we bear his imprint.

Many contemporary artists in the macro–art world would claim to share Milliner’s iconoclastic impulse, but in practice, most of them fail to effectively break anything, and Milliner gives a few examples of those failures. Then he recounts several successes from within his own immediate sphere: works by his art faculty colleagues at Wheaton College. Among the commendable works he discusses are Jeremy Botts’s Bee in Hand; Greg Halvorsen Schreck’s Lambertian photograph The Shroud and his American Trinity and the Cry of the Deer (I covered Botts’s and Schreck’s Via Dolorosa cycle in February); David J. P. Hooker’s Corpus (pictured on the book’s cover); and Joel Sheesley’s Camels and his Good Shepherd mural at the local All Souls Anglican Church—all of which are reproduced as halftones in the book. These artists demonstrate different ways to break by making and vice versa—to engage in “creative destruction,” as Philip Jenkins puts it in the final chapter (259).

Camels by Joel Sheesley
Joel Sheesley (American, 1950–), Camels, 1993. Oil on canvas, 58 × 53 in. In the narthex of All Souls Anglican Church, Wheaton, Illinois.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age, ed. Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau”