Intruding Upon the Timeless

If you are a casual visitor to this book review column, I am sure some of you will find the books I am about to review of interest, and you may not be surprised by our enthusiasm. If you are a campus minister, laboring in the fields of higher education, or a church pastor, or any kind of congregational leader, I think this review is especially important for you. I will tell you about some books, hoping they help shape your vision, that you won't often see reviewed in religious magazines and, sadly, you won't find in most Christian bookstores. I believe firmly that they are titles you could use as resources and gifts for certain persons who may feel estranged from your fellowship. They just may need this sort of lifeline, these kinds of authors, this sort of encouragement. I am talking specifically about reaching out to artists, those with creative sentiments, or those with interests in the fields of literature, the humanities, serious film, and the arts.

First a story or two that still nearly make me shudder. Once we heard a customer quietly crying in the front room of our store. To make a fairly complex story brief, the first-time customer was crying because she saw we had an entire section of books about the arts, relating faith to artistic endeavors. She had been made to feel less than spiritual because of her interest in abstract art and was nearly ready to renounce Christian orthodoxy since it seemed unable to relate to the deepest urges and sensibilities within her. She had told a friend she was giving God "one more chance," and her friend insisted she visit our shop. She told us later that she couldn't believe her eyes: she was not alone! There was a broad body of work and a movement of like-minded folks carving out a uniquely Christian understanding of aesthetic life, literary criticism, art history, and faith-based approaches to creativity. She told us that just seeing these books in a Christian bookstore saved her faith!

Another story: we got one of the most amazing emails a few years back. A young Christian art student at a well-known university was trying hard to be a good student, expressing her faith and worldview in her creative projects and work. She was told in no uncertain terms not to allow these deepest convictions to impact her work. She was warned to keep her faith out of the classroom, out of her creative output. She intuitively knew to serve God in all she did and -- since it was a part of who she was, it was inevitable, after all -- but she had not done the theoretical work to back up the apologetic for a Christian view of the arts.

She bought from us Adrian Chaplin's Art and Soul and a few other helpful resources and eventually shared them with her professor. The professor relented; he apologized for his own secularized lack of vision. The student, by the way, went on to work out her faith by doing art in an inner-city outreach for at-risk kids. (Such efforts are now documented in the brand new book, Taking it To The Streets: Using the Arts to Transform Your Community by J. Nathan Corbitt & Vivian Nix-Early; Baker $19.99.)

A marginalized parish member; a student facing academic discrimination. Both were unaware of the sorts of books that could be a life-line for them, both flourished and grew in their own faith journeys as they read up and studied their field using these kinds of resources. Both expressed frustration that they had not known of these kinds of books. I am convinced they are not alone. (We hear these heartfelt and haunting stories every summer, too, when we sell books in the art gallery of the edgy Purple Door rockfest.)

You, dear friend, need to help us get the word out: God loves artists, the church needs artistic folks, Christ's Kingdom offers restoration in every zone of life, and promoting cultural renewal should be on the agenda of every congregation. It is tragic whenever anyone wrongly thinks that God doesn't care about their particular passion -- butcher, baker, candlestick maker; biologist, sports fan, tree-hugger -- but it seems especially common for artists to feel estranged from the church.

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We trust that you know that you can click on the section of our Web site that is marked "Books By Vocation" to find an annotated bibliography of titles on a wide variety of careers, academic fields and callings. There you will find brief descriptions of a good handful of books about the arts; another on literature. I would highly recommend pondering that list a bit, asking how these books might enhance your ministry, or be useful to those you may know. Now, though, let me introduce to you some books published by the small indie press, Square Halo Books. It is an recent publisher that you should know about.

Square Halo's main man, Ned Bustard (himself deserving of the coveted halo, a symbol in art history, he tells me, of a living saint), is an amazing young man, in many ways indicative of the new young generation of evangelicals described so well in books like Robert Webber's fascinating The Younger Evangelicals (Baker; $15.99) or The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations by Dan Kimball (Zondervan; $14.99). Another very important study that illustrates much, even in its title, about recent trends is The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture & Consciousness by Virginia Postrel (Harper; $24.95).

Yet, in ways, Bustard isn't all that: he is firmly rooted in the conservative theology and liturgical traditions of the Reformed Episcopal church of his youth; his interest in things cultural emerges from roots that are as much reformational as postmodern. Still, like many media-savvy Gen X-ers, he and his wife care deeply about God and ordinary graces, architectural quality, urban renewal, life lived with their children and neighbors in a manner that might be best called charming, given to allusive aesthetics, and the development of the Christian mind. Ned makes his living as a commercial graphic designer and then does this Square Halo thing. From copy-editing, layout, and design, to typography and assuring the quality of printed reproduction, he works on their small press with godly diligence and child-like joy. (He also wrote and designed a small book which helps pre-schoolers learn to read, using a simple primer on Saint Brendan, richly illustrated with celtic knots.) It is a shame that his work is not better known.

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Square Halo has just released a brand new title, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith and Mystery, which is a collection of essays by Gregory Wolfe (Square Halo Books; $9.99). To rave about this book is easy. To commend it to one and all -- secular seeker, liberal Protestant, devout Catholic, culturally-sensitive evangelical -- is a sure thing. It really is that appealing.

Greg Wolfe himself deserves a saintly square halo. He is a very, very important, if unsung, figure, an exceptional scholar, ecumenical gentleman and art critic. He is the editor of the premium faith-based journal of arts and letters, Image. Image has, over the years, published evangelical artists like Ed Knippers, Sandra Bowden, and Ted Prescott, and has interviewed top-drawer literary figures from across the interfaith spectrum, such as Andre Dubos, Wendell Berry, and Chaim Potok. They even ran a wonderfully written piece by Hearts & Minds friend, folkie singer-songwriter Brooks Williams. Material first published there has later been picked up by prestigious outlets such as Harper's, The Best American Essay, The O. Henry Prize Stories. In 2000, Image was nominated by the Utne Reader for an Alternative Press Award.

The essays in Intruding Upon the Timeless are, in chronological order, pieces from Wolfe's wonderful column in Image. A wondrous added feature is the stark engravings by world-renowned woodcut artist Barry Moser. (Moser's own acclaimed illustrated King James Bible, majestically produced and originally selling for $150 in clothbound, was just reissued as a large size paperback for $20.00!) Talk about a classy duo: Wolfe & Moser. Square Halo will find it hard to top that!

The messy minimalist art that adorns the cover (why not a Moser piece, I wondered -- until I saw the book) is a good touch. And then there is the spectacular blurb on the back from Image friend, Annie Dillard. Listen to this:

"Gregory Wolfe's vision is the animating force behind Image, one of the best journals on the planet. Intruding Upon the Timeless, a collection of his pieces from Image, takes its title from a phrase of Flannery O'Connor. That's apt, because not since O'Connor's Mystery and Manners has there been such bracing insight on the pile-up where art and faith collide. This book will rev your engines and propel you down the same road."

Annie Dillard! Says! This is the best! Thing! Since Flannery O'Connor! Whew! Way to go, Square Halo!

It is not my intent (or ability) to offer substantive critique of any of these provocative essays. Just read 'em and pass 'em on. You just have to see pieces with titles such as these few:

  • Why I Am A Conscientious Objector in the Culture Wars
  • And the Pixel Was Made Flesh
  • Liturgical Art and Its Discontents
  • The Stock of Available Reality
  • Imagination vs Fancy
  • Silence, Cunning and Exile
  • In Defense of Irony

I am sure that somebody with a deeply wise and biblically grounded perspective in art and literature might analyze Wolfe's oeuvre. (He also edited a very brilliant collection of essays by writers of public import like Frederica Mathewes-Green, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, Leon Kass, and Os Guinness, entitled The New Religious Humanists: A Reader (The Free Press; $25.00), which sadly is misunderstood by its title, I'm afraid, and several other books, including a delightful collection of solid prayers for family use.) Calvin Seerveld, who thinks through these things philosophically corem deo as well as anyone, or cool critic, Steve Turner, or Wheaton thinker Leland Ryken, or Sharon Gallagher, whose Literature Through the Eyes of Faith is a staple -- there are those who could evaluate the finer points of these arguments. But for most of us, they are good food to keep us strong, worth savoring and digesting. For now, my contribution is to do nothing but exclaim.

Take heart, this is good, good stuff. It is, I am sure, a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. Buy these books and give them out like medicinal tablets to those sick at heart of the emptiness of both the pornographic postmodern nihilism which surrounds much modern art and the sentimental shallowness of what passes for art in most Christian merchandising stores.

To emphasis this last phrase, I shall quote at length from his chapter "Painter of Lite" â„¢. It is not Wolfe's most important essay, but it illustrates his insight and his charitable spirit, his intellectual rigor and pleasant readability.

Last night after the kids' final day of school and a hard slog at work, our family sat down to watch Jurassic Park III, the kind of movie we call E.T. ("entertaining trash") "¦

Reflecting on the pleasure I took (from that scene) I decided that it was a salutary warning about the difficulty of writing about sentimentality and popular culture. The sheer fun of beating up on artistic kitsch is hard for some of us to resist, and in my title I have succumbed to temptation. The reference, for those who have been living in a different galaxy, is to the painter and marketing genius Thomas Kinkade, who styles himself The Painter of Light â„¢. Kinkade's saccharin, soft-focus paintings of Cotswoldy cottages, glowing gardens, misty lighthouses, and quaint villages have been reproduced over ten million times, and now adorn not only peoples walls but also La-Z-Boy recliners, screen savers, and coffee mugs all over the world. But Kinkade isn't satisfied with his role as artist: he has invested his work with the aura of patriotism and the international language of a Christian missionary"¦ When you buy one of his works"¦Kinkade wants you to believe that you are furthering the work of the Kingdom.

The critics, on the other hand, are not impressed. They have called Kinkade "a male Martha Stewart" and dubbed his work "art as a Happy Meal," "cultural Prozac" and the painterly equivalent to Beanie Babies.

The problem with comments like these is that they run the risk of backfiring, amounting to little more than a bloodsport of the cultural elite. After all, in America there is an ingrained populism which holds that ten million people can't be wrong. And it is hard to argue with a number that large; Kinkade has connected with some deep human need.

However, it would be a mistake to reduce the discussion of sentimentality to a conflict between earnest populists and alienated elites. There have been popular artists, like Shakespeare and Michelangelo, who never seemed to indulge in sentimentality, while some sophisticated artists, such as Raphael and Dickens, can't be thought of apart from it.

I'll let you read further and see where he goes with this helpful discussion; it is good intellectually and good-hearted. What thoughtful reader doesn't need some help sorting out the reasons for (and an appropriate response to) the likes of Kinkade.

Wolfe offers more heady observations, too. In a piece called "Shaggy Dog Stories," he reflects on the role of dogma. "In short," he writes, "dogmas are not dry bits of theological rationalism, but deeply metaphorical attempts to enshrine mystery. To vary the analogy, dogma are not so much efforts to give logical accounts of the mysteries of revelations as they are a process of creating a tabernacle for the shining mysteries within." Intruding on the Timeless is packed with gems like this.

Or consider this, from the essay "Going Underground." It is a paragraph worth reading carefully:

Beneath the clamor of a world that is increasingly giving way to triviality and despair, the religious underground artist pursues beauty for its own sake as an echo of the prodigal creative energy of the Creator. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins struggling with his own demons and pouring out words in sprung rhythms unheard in his own time, the religious underground artist thinks of God as the first member of his audience. To do this takes a particular kind of courage. Even though it is hidden from view, the work is there, below the surface, like a buried gem or an archaeological trove. It is up to us to find it.

Yes, yes, Wolfe is right. It is up to us all to find it. But it is especially important for those who follow Christ as leaders, as pastors, as Sunday school teachers, as youth workers or campus ministers, to help others discern the hand of God and the movement of the Spirit wherever they may. Even in contemporary art. This fine and important little book will help.

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You may notice that in the aforementioned bibliography, "By Vocation," the books on the arts do not list a very special Square Halo release, Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith. Edited by James Romaine (Square Halo; $19.99), it was not yet released when this biblio was compiled, but it surely should be on it. Objects of Grace is a gathering of interviews with several renowned Christian visual artists about their work. It includes, by the way, an interview with recent appointee to the National Endowment of the Arts, Makoto Fujimura [and Jubilee 2004 speaker in the arts track], and old Hearts & Minds bud, the extraordinary sculptor, Albert Pedulla. What a fabulous addition to the growing list of must-have titles in this field.

Full-color plates show samples of their art being discussed and the design itself is very special as befits a book of this kind. The good questions asked of the artists are provocative and thoughtful. It is evident that Romaine -- who is featured in And It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God which is edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books; $19.99) -- has an amazing depth of insight -- allowing each to reflect on their efforts. Not unlike And It Was Good, the first Square Halo book on the arts, Objects of Grace includes a variety of artists who work in a variety of mediums. Each has quite a lot to say about their motivation, stylings, creative approach, and the spiritual sensibilities of their work. Oh, if only each person could talk about their vocations and the works of their hands in such terms.

Both books are highly regarded in organizations such as CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) and we are delighted to offer them to our customers. If you buy them and share them with those who need encouragement in this field, who knows? Maybe you will someday share one of those well-deserved square halos.