Rainbows for a Fallen World

Although I blogged a bit about it already, I need to tell you here that a twenty-five plus year old book which is a personal favorite has been re-issued. We are told that it is hard to find, so we are very, very pleased to announce that we have stacks of them. If you’re the silly type, get out the party hats; if you’re more debonair, raise a fine glass of chablis. Blue-collar guys can shout hee-haw. And all of us can whisper a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks to God for this good moment.

I don’t exactly know what makes a bona fide “underground classic” but Rainbows for a Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence Press; $30.00) must be one, though: a classic; highly, highly regarded over time, considered seminal by people in the know, and yet not widely distributed. An underground classic? Like when some few of us loved the first novel of David James Duncan (The River Why, of course) or the Dimension Press early era of Brennan Manning (ooh, remember that reference in the liner notes of Cockburn’s Nothin’ But a Burning Light that cited “Shipwrecked at the Stable Door”?) Knowing Calvin Seerveld’s work is like that, like knowing a secret handshake, or having the decoder ring, but one you want to share. The eyes widen, the pulse quickens–you know Seerveld, too?—we ask, expectantly. I remember what thrill it was when a significant recording artist that we enjoyed found out we had a few of the last remaining copies of Rainbows.. and called us long-distance to order them. This is, indeed, an underground classic.

Fans of the underground classic may browbeat the uninitiated sometimes. (Me? Do that?) “You must read Cal Seerveld!” I’ve heard scores of smart artists say to their colleagues or fans. “You have to get Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves,” they insist as they name the chapter about which they are most fond. (The speech he gave at the Greenbelt festival in England isn’t a bad choice for my money.) Singer-song-writers or literary types, too, have been scolded by Seerveldistas for admitting to not having A Christian Critique of Art & Literature. If they are truly in the know, they explain about his 60’s era college chapel talks, still in print from a press in England, called Take Hold of God and Pull. (Of course if they are really in the know, they know that Hearts & Minds carries them all, and that my webpage columns archived from years ago, have reviewed or commented upon them often. But now I am being self-indulgent, something I suppose Seerveld would not approve of.)

Now that Eerdmans has released Seerveld’s re-working of Psalms for liturgical singing, Voicing God’s Psalms (Eerdmans; $24.00 w/ CD) and it has been advertised in mainline denominational magazines (like The Lutheran and The Christian Century), folks outside of the Christian arts community or the Dutch CRC circles in Canada, those that scraped and saved to support the radical Christian grad school where Seerveld taught, the Institute for Christian Studies, will come to know him. It is a perfect time to re-issue Rainbows for the Fallen World.

Rainbows for a Fallen World by Calvin Seeveld is a truly extra-ordinary book for several reasons.

First, there is the topic. In a sentence, Rainbows is about being imaginative. (Seerveld doesn’t, for good philosophical reasons which he explains, appreciate the more commonly used word “creative” which, he says, carries certain baggage that is unbecoming of a Christian worldview. I am sure he is right, but it makes hard to describe, since that is such common parlance.) He makes a great point, that just like play and exercise, for instance, are not just for professional athletes, so living out a Christ-honoring joyfulness that opens up the aesthetic dimension of life is a call for us all, not just for artists. God wants us, and the creation is ordered, to have us be “imaginative” and playfully suggestive, allusive–“creative.” Again, living with an awareness of economics, for instance, isn’t just for professional bankers, so, Seerveld explains, a sense of beauty and the aesthetic dimension in all of life, should be nurtured and developed and attended to as part of our walk with God. All of us, not just athletes should care about bodily health; all of us, not just bankers should care about finances; all of us, not just artists, should care about the joy of a mature aesthetic life. Makes sense, no?

There has been an outpouring in recent years (indeed, in recent months, as we shall see) of books about significant and good Christian involvement in the visual arts. We will cheer and hubba- hubba that too (see below.) But it is rare—rare!—to find anyone seriously calling on us all to live more artistically, to be obedient to God’s invitation to live with aesthetic awareness, to open up that allusive side of life. This is not just art appreciation for non-artists (a worthy enough project itself, I suppose.) It is, rather, a call to be living in response to creational norms–God’s righteous precepts structured into the very fabric of reality, the way things really are—such as nuance, creativity, suggestion, allusiveness, surprise, aesthetic, sport, musicality, humor, inventiveness, discovery, wonder, texture. Yes, we should care about “the arts” proper. Equally, God invites us into a world where we are priests in a colorful creation, where we attend to the joy of beauty all around us.

Edith Schaeffer helped many see this quite practically in her wonderful book, The Hidden Art of Homemaking (Tyndale; $10.99.) That is still a classic text in the L’Abri circles and we enjoy its commonplace wisdom. Seerveld here takes that nice notion and runs with it a city-block and a country-mile. (The only other book that truly approximates this arena of concern in a sustained way is the wonderful, and beautifully packaged Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring by Andi Ashworth (Shaw Press; $10.99.)

Secondly, Rainbows for a Fallen World is a wonderful book because it shows us that Christian scholarship can be helpful to ordinary folks—and Seerveld is an impeccable scholar, reading regularly in numerous languages, digging deep into the history of philosophy, struggling very hard with and against scholarly principalities and powers, working to “take every thought/theory captive” as the New Testament demands. He shows us that Christian scholarship bears fruit not only by making reforming contributions in the academy but also by undergirding and nurturing the very real lives of fellow saints. Seerveld often exclaims that Christian scholars give their work away to one and all–fellow academics, seekers, skeptics and the befuddled person in the pew. I believe his arcane and detailed work in the philosophy of aesthetics and the history of attitudes about creation and bodilyness and the human ability to imagine, construct, create and construe all bears good fruit in his serious academic journal articles and professorial work as well as in his more popular level stuff offered in books like Rainbows and Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves. Thanks be to God for scholars like Seerveld who also make their life (academic) hard work available just like this, for all of us.

Too many books exist, I think–many pretty good and some quite fine– telling pastors how to “equip the saints” by which they mean discovering gifts and talents for service in the church. Fine. How many books tell you, though, how to think Christianly about the world of images around us? How to faithfully consider fabric or color or tone; why to tell a good joke or how to more thoughtfully set your table? That link the appreciation of poetry with the reading of the Bible, and our daily fidelity? That remind us that media literacy and the art of enjoying film is part of our privilege as adopted children of God? How to run with joy in a manner that gives creativity and beauty (properly understood) their generous due in a life of wholistic discipleship? How often are we really equipped to resist the commercialization of everything (and the subsequent WalMarting of America) and to rather support local Christian artisans as a matter of Christian principle and as part of our discipleship? What books have told you that the Holy One disapproves of kitsch “art” or warn that cheap sentimentality isn’t healthy in romance novels? How many books or sermons on “Christian living” tell you that God cares about color?

God cares. Seerveld helps us understand this. He has used his Biblically-trained heart/mind to do good and serious work, which he then offers as a gift for any takers. This give-the-full-gospel-away by living it out in concert with others whose lives are truly integrated from a Christian center is an important theme for Seerveld. He has worked hard over a lifetime as activist-scholar and has earned the right to be taken seriously. I hope that many will respect his efforts and seriously respond to his work.

Thirdly, Rainbows for a Fallen World is, in most places, jam packed with Bible. Bible, Bible, Bible. Of course in good Calvinist fashion, he turns the Bible as a miner’s light (Calvin’s 16th century image) which shines into the darkness, illuminating our jobs (we obviously ought not stare into the light, which is beyond dumb); he allows the Bible to illuminate–a light before our paths! For the Scriptural vision to illumine things, though, we do have to attend to the text–understand the world in light of Word, creation illuminated by Biblical truth. And so, Seerveld not only talks about creational norms and art and beauty and human responsibility to disclose the aesthetic dimension, he does this in light of Biblical texts. His opening mediation on Psalm 19 is worth the price of the book and I have read it dozens of times. Seerveld doesn’t just know a lot of Bible verses, he knows them deeply and how they fit together, forming a consistent and integrated whole.

Because Seerveld as a Christ-follower invites us to develop a Biblically-driven vision of song, dance, play, wonder, beauty, and the like, he necessarily goes to the creation itself. That is, after all, what the Bible says to do (see the aforementioned meditation on Psalm 19.) Seerveld beautifully and powerfully preaches what John 1 and Colossians 1 have so powerfully taught: that Christ’s Lordship plays out over all of creation, that Jesus is saving His fallen planet, that redemption is a restoration of creation and that therefore the rather ordinary stuff of Earth is the theatre of redemption. To appreciate any of God’s good world–in this case, the role of creativity and beauty, and the arts—we must study the Bible and be attentive to creational reality, distorted as it may be East of Eden. “This Is Our Father’s World” starts the old hymn and it is a core theme for Seerveld, a foundational conviction for work in the arts. I never understood the multi-varied dimensions of the doctrine of creation until I studied Rainbows. (An aside: I must mention again the new book I gave quick notice of a month or two ago: T.M. Moore’s very accessible study of Jonathan Edward’s view of creation, which allows Mr. Moore to call for a vigorous and Biblically orthodox responsibility for things such as stewardly, creation-care, daily work, politics, play, and, yes, the arts! See his Consider the Lilies: A Plea for Creational Theology published by Presbyterian & Reformed, $16.99.) Seerveld brings out this whole-life, creation-regained, reformational worldview stuff with as much pizzazz and energy as any writer of our time. He helps us understand the Bible and the Bible for life in God’s creation. Seerveld attention to the foundations of such a multi-faceted worldview, seeing faith as a way of life in the creation where the Kingdom is a-coming (as he sometimes puts it), is why there is also an anthology of diverse topics on which Seerveld has written; In The Fields of the Lord: A Calvin Seerveld Reader (Toronto Tuppence Press; $30.00) is a splendid introduction to his work on Biblical study, philosophy, education, labor, social action, worship renewal, liturgy and, of course, aesthetic theory and the arts. I reviewed that, too, several years ago; click HERE for that Hearts & Minds column from May of 2001

Lastly, I commend Rainbows because it is so unusually written. Nobody writes like Calvin Seerveld. For some, it will be an acquired taste. True to his vision, his words are often playful (other times deadly serious), his sentences are long, his grammar, at times, peculiar (at least for English speakers.) What fun! I love picking up a paragraph–sometimes just at random in the bathroom—and rolling it around on my brain. Or speaking it out loud, just to hear and feel the cadence. This is eccentric, passionate and mature writing. Book-lovers of all sorts will most likely concur: Seerveld’s got a way with words.

There is a fly in the ointment, though. A couple of the chapters are difficult. Alongside beautiful writing about how being more open to suggestion-rich, allusive creativity will help us, say, read the Bible better, or do education more wisely, is a chapter on–it had to happen, believe me—aesthetic theory. I recently told a young friend and Seerveld enthusiast that I tell people to skip that chapter and he looked at me as if I’d burped, or worse.

So, I won’t tell you to skip that chapter. (It’s chapter 4, if you must know.) The first two pages of that technical chapter tells you exactly what he’s doing, arguing philosophically for the fact that there is an aesthetic dimension to reality, something he shows, we know intuitively, regardless of what secular philosophers or neo-Gnostic Christians say. He humbly admits to being a bit of a trailblazer, trying to construe and think through and lay out the contours of a uniquely Christian reformed philosophy of aesthetics. There are only a small handful of other thinkers that are Biblically-driven and seriously philosophical these days who would be his equal, including his old friend Nicholas Wolterstorff (see Art in Action, another serious, scholarly work that is highly regarded) and one of Seerveld’s finest students, Lambert Zuidervaart, whose scholarly two-volume work on Cambridge University Press (Artistic Truth: Aesthetics, Discourse and Imaginative Disclosure) is being taken very seriously in the high-octane worlds of philosophical publishing, even at $75.00 (the second volume will come out in a year or so.) Jeremy Begbie’s very helpful book, Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (T & T Clark; $49.95) has a major section exploring Cal’s work. Seerveld is foundational for understanding these other writers and, even that hard chapter, is fun, if one wants to dig deep.

Let me be succinct. Rainbows for a Fallen World, happily now available again, is an underground classic. I want it to be less underground. I think it is important because (a) it is about a side of discipleship that we rarely hear about, the call to live an aesthetically-rich life, colorful and open to God’s beautiful world, and (b) it is rooted in solid, hard-earned scholarship, written by one of the great Christian thinkers in North America, and (c) it is thoroughly, seriously, and provocatively Biblical, and (d) it is well, well-written, delightfully pushing the very limits of prose, making it a joy and creative experience just to read.. Oh, and there is that challenging chapter 4. For some, that may be the most important, even if some of us just skim it. A text that does any one of these may be a book that is well-worth having and working with; that Rainbows is just such a rich text makes it one of the grandest titles of which we know. We are happy to celebrate its re-release.

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I have gone on at length about Seerveld, but what’s a guy to do when he loves a book like this? Underground classic that it is, I had to tell you a lot about it.

So, now, I feel like I ought not presume upon too much more of your time to explore in detail about the other marvelous new books on the arts that we now have it stock. So I will limit our telling to four. (If you need an annotated listing of several of our favorite most basic books which explore the arts from a Christian perspective, please see the section on our website marked “Books by Vocation” by clicking here.)

Please know of our amazement and full appreciation of these marvelous new titles:

The Next Generation: Contemporary Expressions of Faith Patrician Pongracz and Wayne Roosa (Eerdmans) $60.00 This is the stunning and very comprehensive book that coincided with the opening of the new MOBIA museum in New York city. The Museum of Biblical Art is a new, edgy museum in SoHo which is showcasing art about faith, Biblically-influenced art, and works that fit the general theme of modern art & the Bible. It is significantly supported by the American Bible Society and its directors include CIVA’s Sandra Bowden. It is arranged by artist, with art pieces wonderfully reproduced showing examples of the likes of diverse artists, diverse artists, but also evangelical artists such as well-known CIVA greats, Albert Pedulla, Makoto Fujimura, Edward Knippers, Kathy Hettinga, Tyrus Clutter, Bruce Herman, Christine and Donald Forsthe et al; happily it shows an array of other brilliant artists that are new to me. This goodly, hardback collection is thrilling, with two lengthy essays included.

A Broken Beauty edited by Theodore Prescott (Eerdmans; $35.00) This stellar coffee table book is compiled by Messiah College professor and excellent contemporary artist, Ted Prescott. Here, he has compiled serious academic essays about the arts and illustrated them with breathtaking ancient, classic and modern pieces, pieces that portray the human person. The theme, as the title suggests, is not just generally about the relationship of art and Christian faith, but how human embodiedness and deep brokenness exists amidst fragments of beauty. As William Dyrness says in a back jacket blurb, “A Broken Beauty represents a milestone in the discussion of Christian art”¦(it) may help us recover our own humanity.”

Mako Fujimura writes of it, “it is a dialogue of hope suffused with the knowledge and angst of the twentieth century that now affect the dialogue of visual arts in the twenty-fist century. Its ambition and scope, its theological depth and breadth of expression leave me with wonderment and delight.” We are proud to know Ted and to commend this well-produced oversized book.

Over at my blog last month, after spending en evening with friends Leslie and Ned Bustard, who help run Square Halo books, I wrote this about my first glance at two more great new art books which they are publishing. Listen in as a recall:

Last evening, we actually got to pick up and hold the brand new collection that they designed for CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) entitled Faith + Vision: Twenty-five Years of Christians in the Visual Arts Compiled by Sandra Bowden (Square Halo Books; $49.99) It is a spectacularly glorious example of contemporary artists and (taa-daaa) they were kind enough to use a blurb by me on the back (I had seen all the advance page proofs and text before.) The book deserves a more lengthy evaluation, but for now, here is what I wrote about it upon first seeing it:

Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects in his important introduction upon the double alienation felt by many of the artists whose work graces this gorgeous book and it is a tough testimony that should be read by church folk everywhere; what damage we have done to hinder the artists amongst us, what a mediocre ethos we have too often created which discourages those with gifts of brooding allusiveness, creative imaginativity or colorful joy. But his pondering is only part of the story: herein is documented in word and image, the pages of this book record the glorious work of an organization dedicated to supporting the Christian artist. CIVA is a wonderful association and this book shows off the God-blessed glory of their members’ work in extraordinary fashion. Thank God for the gentle steadfastness of CIVA, for those who compiled this excellent book, and for Square Halo who publishes manna like this.

Joyfully and significantly, Square Halo also produced a collected volume of the important work of Sandra Bowden (herself a notable leader in CIVA and a wonderful art collector and artists.) Not only does The Art of Sandra Bowden (Square Halo Books; $49.99) showcase beautiful reproductions of Sandra’s fine work, it has criticism and essays and tributes to her by some thoughtful essayists (like the very sharp NY critic, James Romaine.) This is a beautiful, beautiful book and to see it, too, while trying to sip white wine with Ned and Leslie and keep an eye on our passel of young daughters, was nearly overwhelming. Maybe like you, I will have to save my nickels and dimes and buy these as soon as I can. In the meantime, they will soon grace the shelves of Hearts & Minds. We want to support Square Halo and get their good books into stores, reviewed, and bought and given as gifts. Know anybody that cares about God’s glory being seen in a respectable renewal of faith-based modern art? Their earlier books, too, can be seen by visiting their website— www.squarehalobooks.com.

Well, my enthusiasm has not waned, and we trust that our customers and friends understand that our promotion of these books is done for the sake of God’s reputation in the world–may Christ receive glory!—and for the betterment of our broken and sad world—may these allusive bits of color and suggestion provide healing and hope for you and your neighbors. And, may it remind you, dear reader who has endured my sincerity long enough, that the arts matter, of Seerveld’s radical insight about all of life having an aesthetic dimension, and, in deed, that God so loved the world”