Calvin Seerveld in the Fields of the Lord

Hearts & Minds is very proud to announce that we have received a shipment of the long awaited European import of Calvin Seerveld's two new books. My hands literally trembled as we opened the parcel, knowing that we were amongst the very first to acquire these esteemed works. Dr. Seerveld is an author who is particularly important to us, a Christian scholar who we enjoy and admire and whose books are great gifts to us all. The new titles, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art and In the Fields of the Lord: A Calvin Seerveld Reader are truly extraordinary and we are eager to promote them far and wide, throughout the fields of the Lord. Both are printed in England and published in North America through Toronto Tuppence Press.

Calvin Seerveld is best known as a Christian aesthetician; he is practically the patron saint of contemporary Christians in the arts. He is known and respected among Christian artists literally all over the world. His classic, Rainbows for the Fallen World, remarkably unlike any book you've ever read, is a biblically-infused invitation to reverently nurture the aesthetic sides of life. From a chapter on how "imaginativity" can help us understand the Bible or deepen our educational practices, to how fashion, speech and homemaking can reflect a God-given need for creativity, Rainbows is not only for the artist, but also for those who are not vocationally working in the arts. He challenges us all to grow into a more mature aesthetic lifestyle, which is deep, joyful, fun and, sometimes, funny. One great chapter, "Modern Art and the Birth of a (Christian) Culture" (a play on Hans Rookmaaker's famous book title) was originally delivered at our own Jubilee conference and captures the vision of that event--God-centered scholarship for the sake of cultural reformation.

Seerveld is an old friend and kindred spirit of the Dutch neo-Calvinist philosopher and activist, Jubilee granddad Pete Steen (and, an older brother, by the way, of the original conference bookseller, Wes Seerveld). It should be known that Cal was influential in the earliest years of the CCO. That he helped mentor the hot CCO alum Bill Romanowski and was an early supporter of the artistic vocation of one James Ward makes him more important in our circles than most folks realize. (Romo has a fun story in his chapter in the collection written in honor of Seerveld--Pledges of Jubilee--where Bill tells about introducing Seerveld to his first night of MTV and how the two of them learned together how a reformational worldview might understand and interact with pop culture.) Seerveld's halting steps towards pop media are seen in the reproduction he has in Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves of a "˜70s era (and fairly tacky) William David Romanowski concert poster. Other, perhaps more significant reproductions, include ancient and contemporary art pieces, some of which he discusses with incredible insight and care. A few can literally take your breath away; some of the nudes, I'm afraid, may be considered inappropriate by some viewers. But I'm aside of myself...

In the Fields of the Lord shows Seerveld at his most diverse, collecting together in one volume a lifetime's anthology of speeches, sermons, lectures, book reviews (including his important review of Woltersdorf's Art In Action), articles on worship and liturgy, even some of his hymns and litanies. Seerveld is philosophically learned and theologically well-read (he studied with Barth for a while and learned his Hebrew and Greek via German!). He is very interested in theater and literature and he is very, very knowledgeable about visual art old and new. But it may be his biblical studies and Scriptural exegesis, though, that most obviously reflects his heart.

I do not say this lightly (and I am aware not everyone would agree), but in my estimation, Dr. Seerveld "rightly divides the Word" and seems to have the whole counsel of God in his very bones more than anyone I have met. His desire that God be honored in everything is palpable. I clearly recall being in his presence--I'm a little embarrassed here for his sake as book reviews perhaps ought not to be so telling--when I sensed God's Spirit as powerfully as I ever have in my life. Immersed in the Bible, utterly God-intoxicated, radically committed to Christ as Savior and King, and yet so culturally astute and academically rigorous, and still full of hope about our tragic world, he is the sort of Christian I long to have others know. A tad eccentric, he personifies all that is exciting and right about the reformational movement. I sat in a side ballroom at the conference and cried tears of joy for having met such a man.

The In the Fields of the Lord Reader includes short articles and larger ones; a few are whimsical and not terribly demanding while many are more beefy. The autobiographical introduction (given originally in 1996 as a speech after being named a "Calvin College Distinguished Alumni") is a wonderful, wonderful retelling of his faith journey--fishmonger's son from Long Island to a high-brow, classical education at Calvin, the University of Michigan and eventually the Free University in Holland. His self-effacing account of being tutored by Barth, doing doctoral research in Florence and Rome, and eventually coming back to teach in the States is great stuff. While perhaps not the most important part of the book, it sets the stage and gives an inspiring look at the man and his passion for Christ-honoring work. It is a chapter you won't want to skip.

In the Fields of the Lord is organized in six major sections: writing about hearing the Bible, philosophy, education, work and daily life, the arts and aesthetics, Bible songs and dances. Whether campaigning for the rights of beleaguered and persecuted members of the controversial Christian Labor Union in Canada, helping elementary school teachers understand their calling and task, or giving college Chapel talks at places like Wheaton, Seerveld's bold call to live thoughtfully and wisely coram deo shines, shines, shines through. One of his classic talks--delivered at the 20th annual AACS Niagara Conferences (in the presence of a few carloads of Pittsburgh CCO folk, I might add) begins, a bit plainly, like this:

I should like to tell you from the Bible why the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship was begun. Then I should like to describe the nature and task of the Christian scholarship supported at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and its necessity in the context of the pregnant present and the pull of the future. Finally, I want to present certain problems Christian leaders of our generation face so that everybody here will feel small enough to be thankful to God for giving us what brings us together on a Sunday summer afternoon in 1978 AD.

I should like to tell you from the Bible. It would be presumptious for most others to claim that their pet organization is mentioned in Holy Scipture; for Seerveld, it just makes sense--everything is from the Bible! The pregnant present and the pull of the future. The phrase lassoed around me and has helped be understand what more prosaic theologians call, regarding the Kingdom of God, "the already and the not yet." It will stay with me forever, from that Sunday summer afternoon when I first heard that life-changing talk. In another writer's hands, by the way, we might feel ashamed of the "AD," like the speaker was grasping at rhetorical flourish to manipulate the crowd or to just sound religiously clever. From Seerveld, it is natural; he is a man who lives deeply out of his heart-felt Christian worldview. For him, and I trust for those who are mentored and influenced by his good books, time really becomes, AD--in the year of our Lord. When he says it, you know he means it, and you do too!

Seerveld is thoroughly committed to an ecumenical spirit and seems often quite open-hearted, yet he clearly stands not only in the tradition of the Protestant reformation, but the Dutch neo-Calvinism of philosophers like Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven. For anyone wanting to understand this important philosophic framework, this book is a fabulous resource. (The introduction, in fact, explains the "reformational philosophy" as clearly as any one piece I've seen.) Christian scholars, teachers, campus ministers, anyone working in higher education, would do well to know this material, and Seerveld is a great one to introduce us to the tradition.

For those less interested in his philosophic work, though, there is still plenty here: a speech given to cosmetologists (that's beauty salon hair-dressers!) on the role of beauty, a careful piece on the need for silence in daily life and worship, a few incredibly insightful art reviews, essays on sexuality, Christian views of work, reflections on social justice and several good articles on the doctrine of creation make this useful for nearly any Christian seeking to develop their Christian discipleship. Even those written in the crucible of the late "˜60s stand up well in our increasingly secularized and postmodern world--it surprised me just how contemporary much of this feels. We are all deeply in the debt of British biblical scholar and former Seerveld student, Craig Bartholomew, who collected and edited these various pieces. The weight and wealth of them is astonishing. It is, in a very real sense, one of the most significant books I have had the privilege of selling in the nearly 20 years of doing this book biz. (And with the lush Van Gogh cover, it is certainly one of the nicest-looking.)

Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves is more specifically about art, but again, Seerveld's broad vision and hearts desire--Thy Kingdom Come! Maranatha!--gives rhetorical power to the work. Everything Seerveld writes is biblically laden, Scripturally shaped, spiritually rich, passionate, nearing what can only be called prophecy. As it is put by the scholarly Cambridge professor Jeremy Begbie (who has written extensively on Seerveld in his own Voicing Creations Praise): "Few have done as much in the last twenty years as Calvin Seerveld to put the arts firmly on the agenda of the Church. He has refused to let us off the intellectual hook, insisting that we press the implications of the Gospel into every corner of the arts world." For those of us trying to understand how our faith relates to the contemporary world, or trying to convince others to daringly engage culture from a boldly Christian perspective, this book is a great asset. For anyone actually working in artistic pursuits, this book is very, very important and will be considered a Godsend.

Bearing happily includes a host of pieces, done in a variety of contexts. I dare say his study of modern art, with special emphasis on Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso, is brillant with authentic insight. I just love the speech given at the famous Greenbelt Music Festival in England where he explains what Christian artists might learn from Marx's man, Trotsky. (Trotsky, you may remember, called for distincitively communist art, to serve the revolutionary cause.)

Again, another Pittsburgh Jubilee conference speech is included and those of us connected to the CCO should be grateful. This particular chapter ("Redemptive Art and the Problem of Propaganda") teaches us of the dangers of reducing art to its message, thereby missing the essense of being allusive or suggestive--artistic! The chapter's brilliance is rooted in Seerveld's well-thought-out philosophy: knowing what art is and is not in God's world, knowing how idols and ideologies deform various aspects of God's world and what to do about it. He shows how various ideologies have distorted art, turning it into a "weapon" or a "message"--communism's propagandistic murals are classic examples, but some so-called CCM might be another, as is much of the ironic postmodern art seen in today's trendy galleries. This should sadden us, especially when well-meaning Christians have been less reflective and thoughtful about their efforts. God is not pleased by Christian propagandists and he invites us to consider the need for deeply nuanced and suggestion-rich artists who serve as carriers of olive leaves--fresh hope--like the homing dove Noah sent out after the flood. Artists, like all of us, can bring back to our neighbors, as Seerveld says, "tokens of new life the Lord provides."

Another important chapter ("The Freedom and Responsibility of the Artists") ends nearly like a manifesto. After considerable biblical and theological explorations, he weighs in on "current priorities in Christian art." Seerveld asks, "Now, finally, the tough part. If the people of God really intend to pray that God will make Christian art a concerted blessing to our society, rather than a hobby of a few educated people here and there or a solo achievement by a few supremely gifted individuals who shoot by like occasional meteors across the media sky, are there particular considerations to which we should be giving priority?" Especially those of us in campus work should read the following pages carefully to learn how to encourage, direct, nurture and network art majors and professors whom we know.

Another point (although there could be a hundred other points, these books are so thought-provoking): Seerveld on several occasions mentions God's righteous concern for the poor and oppressed; at times he rails against the globalized world of multi-national sameness and crass economic profiteering. As a man of biblical wisdom and kind heart, he seems truly haunted by the needy. I will never forget him once reading a poem by Brazilian poet, Gabriella Mistrel, which he said he had on his desk--he does his work, in a way, in light of her witness to starvation. How to justify caring about art and literature and culture when so many of our brothers and sisters have no meals? It is instructive to hear him struggle with this as it illustrates a rare sensitivity to biblical themes and current realities some would prefer to ignore.

Further, it illustrates the need for a fully wholistic approach to the renewal God desires on planet Earth. Which is to say that we should never play one aspect of Godly work against another, accepting either/or assumptions or minimizing one ministry below another. All of us have our posts in God's Kingdom, and, in the world ordered the way God intends, both food and beauty (and lots of other things) are important. We might as well admit that we all do our work in light of a famine in the land--a terrible lack of biblical wisdom, healing relationships, meaningful art and, sometimes, literal food. All of our life is spent before the glory of a good God and the brokenness of a hurting world. We desperately need Godly insight leading to all sorts of helpful social reforms--renewed patterns of urban planning, art galleries, radio stations, Christian counseling clinics, alternative schools, organic grocery stores, redemptive civic organizations, renewed churches and justice-seeking international banking policies--all of which will help bring some of the shalom of God's rainbows to fruition. We bring fresh, wet olive leaves of hope, for those malnourished in all sorts of ways! Even in Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, one gets the distinct impression that Seerveld is not just about alternative steps in understanding art, but alternative steps for cultural and social transformation. Soli Deo Gloria!

These two magnificent new paperbacks are not cheap. (Each sells for $30.00.) With full-color plates and stunningly artistic covers, though, they are absolutely well worth it. And the Holy-Spirited faith and faithfulness, insight and initiative which a caring reading will engender will be worth it a hundred fold. It is a distinct privilege and pleasure to commend these books to you.

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Interested readers should know that we also stock Seerveld's two books of devotions. One is called Take Hold of God and Pull (Paternoster Press; $12.99) which were given as chapel talks at a renegade Dutch Reformed college in the late "˜60s. These striking sermons follow the church calendar and are biblically deep and stunningly written. Another, smaller book, On Being Human: Imaging God in the Modern World (Welch Publishing; $6.95) contains devotional explorations of certain art pieces, woodcuts and sculptures, ranging from a Rembrandt etching to Georges Rouault's Il serait si doux d'aimer to a haunting, modern piece done in a mixed media and gouache by a former CCO student, Holly Risch. These reflective pieces are helpful biblical studies, designed to be experienced through imaginative viewing. As Cal puts it, "This book is meant to be used humanly. It is meant to be enjoyed in the living presence of God, as a listening, sinful saint, sharing its truth with neighbors."

Lastly, later this year, look for a reissue of his great little Bible study on Numbers 22-24, (previously entitled Balaam's Apocalyptic Prophecies). In that brief study, he shows in a caricatured way how liberal higher critics might approach the passage, gives a staight-laced doctrinaire reading, and contrasts those with a pietistic-fundamentalist interpretation (complete with a moral). He admits to the strength of each respective tradition--the attention given historical and literary matters by the critical approach, the desire for orthodoxy from the theological approach, and the sense that this passage really has something to say to ordinary people, which comes through strongly when good fundamentalists preach or teach. But none of these schools of thought or customary readings are adequate, he says, and he then shows the fruit of an opened-up historic-redemptive approach. The new book will most likely be called How to Read the Bible to Hear God Speak: A Study of Numbers 22-24 and will, we hope, be available later this year.