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
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
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.
We trust that you know that you can click on the section of our
Web site that is marked “Books
By Vocation”Â 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.
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
To emphasis this last phrase, I shall quote at length from his chapter
“Painter of Lite” Ã¢â€žÂ¢. 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 Ã¢â€žÂ¢. 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”Â¦ When you buy one
of his works”Â¦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
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.
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
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