An artful conversation with Scripture through Image and Word: Dwelling with Philippians

I hope you saw our last review, a discussion about how author and cultural critic Nancy Pearcey traces significant ideas from philosophers and the ivory towers down to street level, often carried most effectively through the arts. From the romantic reaction to the literalist philosphy of Enlightenment rationalism, through a hugely influential dichotomy that separates facts and values, we can see—in the story of modern and contemporary art—how our cultural leaders are shaping a society that increasingly toys with meaninglessness.  As the hard-headed rationalists are unable to measure and quantify goodness or beauty and the passionate romantics can’t say much of anything that is true,  except to cry out in heart-felt protest, the swing and sway of the pendulum carries on.  The culture wars which are raging, the emergent conversation in our post-evangelical churches, and the ways in which hip, pop culture has influenced just about everything these days, are all aspects of this grand story that she narrates, the rise and fall of humane things, told in living color.  Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning (B+H Publishing) is related in many ways to her much-discussed previous best-seller,


Total Truth and her call to help Christians think faithfully about our world is sensible and informative.  Her passion to locate the loss of goodness (in all of life, but seen clearly in the arts) may be a bit strident at times and her critique may seem reductionistic to those who know the complex details of intellectual history.  Still, as I noted, she is amazingly well-read, has cared about and thought hard about this stuff for a life-time (she spent time with art historian Hans Rookmaaker, one of Francis Schaeffer’s good mentors, in her young adulthood.)  Reading this book is a glorious learning experience, a gift of thoughtful exploration of tons of cultural artifacts, from plays to novels, architecture to recent films.  Saving Leonardo is a book to enjoy, well-made with great color reproduction, showing hundreds of paintings, photographs, book covers, movie posters and the like.  We are glad to feature a book of uniquely Christian art criticism, and trust you will understand how special a work like this is.  Perhaps you know someone to whom you could forward our review?

As the outset of that BookNotes review I explained that two books arrived last week that were breath-taking in their use of and discussion of the arts. Pearcey, of course, is a study of the arts, especially from the Romantic period on into contemporary abstraction and pop art.  It is beautiful to behold as it should be because it is discussing the painting and pictures and the worldviews and assumptions they carry and promote.  It is artfully done but it is about the arts.


Another new book isn’t about the arts, but is itself a “use of” the arts.  I use the phrase with some reluctance since paintings are not created, usually, to be “used” and they are not firstly mere illustration. (Unless, of course, they are illustration, and that is another whole art form itself, illustration.) Still, we all know—from good PowerPoint to home decor to book or CD covers to the best websites—that paintings and pictures can be used, appropriated, from the gallery or studio and put into the service of the aesthetic dimension of everyday life.  A character in Chip Kidd’s novel The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters who is in an art class carelessly discards the wrapper of a stick of gum and the incredulous design prof sends him on a mission to learn who and under what circumstances the graphic design was created; soon, the student becomes enthralled with design, seeing useful art everywhere. (And this novel came out, I might add, before Mad Men! In the wild sequel, The Learners, by the way, the young student, his life transformed by graphics, sets out to land a job at the very agency where the said gum package and logo were designed.)

Indeed, attention to the artfulness of everyday life is something Calvin Seerveld commends in one of my all time top favorite books, Rainbows for the Fallen World. This help in seeing a Biblical charter for opening up the “suggestion-rich” allusive side of life, the aesthetic, makes this such a very rich book, especially for those of us not given the vocation of being actual artists.  There is, in his Biblically-saturated worldview, an aesthetic aspect or dimension to all of life.  Sometimes it is more hidden—the nuance of a joke, the shade of a scarf, the design in an ad—and sometimes it is more primary (as in a painting or sculpture.)

But what happens when one takes a painting or other intentionally designed piece of artwork and juxtapositions it alongside a Biblical text?  What happens when we use images to exegete words?  Well, hold your horses if you sense this to be a troubling line of thought.  The old monks did this centuries ago, and we today cherish their illuminated manuscripts.  You may have even heard that to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the KJV Bible, abstract painter Makoto Fujimura is releasing next season a ground-breaking bit of modern art illumination of the gospels in the ESV. (Here is Mako’s press release.) Congratulations to Crossway for releasing it early next year.  We will have it and will of course be discussing it here.  Also, for several years now, some world-class calligraphers have been slowly doing a vivid, hand-written, illuminated version of the entire Bible, known now as the St. John’s Bible.  Again, we have the over-sized, coffee-table sized books that have been released. Visit their fantastic website, here. So using the arts to magnify the Biblical text is nothing new or unusual.

But taking (known and not so well known) paintings, graphics and photographs and setting them alongside poems, praise choruses from the ages, ancient and modern Scripture commentary, well, this is more than a pastiche or hodgepodge or inspiration gift book.  This is a coherent, thoughtful, multi-sensory experience of the Bible.  Welcome to the one-of-a-kind brilliant and beautiful Dwelling with Philippians: A Conversation with Scripture through Image and Word (Eerdmans; $21.00.)  This is a Bible commentary project co-funded, in part, by Calvin College and Hope College (liberal arts schools in the Reformed tradition, sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America, respectively.)  It is edited by a great team of folks, Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Paul Detterman, Joyce Borger (no relation), and John D. Witvliet.  That is sells for just $21—and we are able to mark it down a bit (as you can see below)—makes it a generous gift to the book-buying world, a gift we are eager to share with many.  This, my friends, is one of the most exceptional books we’ve seen in our tenure as booksellers.  Praise the Lord and thanks to everybody involved.

The commentary (the written part, that is, since the visual art is it
self a participant in the exegetical and interpretive conversation) is fairly standard stuff.  Moderate, ecumenical, insightful, practical.  How can it not be—the joy of Philippians and the call to faith and obedience is pretty straightforward, and beloved. There are excerpts of old sermons, pull quotes from famous authors (from Polycarp to Richard Stibbes to Jane Parker Huber to Eugene Peterson and more), and some very solid inspiration to be found as they disclose the meaning of the passages, paragraph by paragraph by paragraph.  And sometimes line by line, word by word.  But the way this comes to use–enhanced by the artwork, paired with poems, linked to worship-related ideas—allows for, indeed, almost demands, a slower, meditative, attentive encounter.  This notion of slower “dwelling” with the text comes up in all back cover reviews. Consider carefully what these fine folks say about the idea for this, and the excellent way it has been done.

Dorothy C. Bass
this beautiful book, a vast communion of artists, theologians,
historians, poets, and worshipers surrounds one letter from the Apostle
Paul. Rich selections from the work of these witnesses provide varied
opportunities for both newcomers and lifelong Bible readers to envision
and encounter God’s Word in fresh ways. When received with attention and
pondered in prayer, the resources gathered here can expand imagination,
deepen discernment, and encourage faithful living.”

Eugene H. Peterson
Christians are in too much of a hurry. We miss out on most of what is
right in front of us. When this ‘most’ is in the Bible, our faith and
obedience and prayer are impoverished. This ‘conversation’ with
Philippians slows us down to a stroll so we can take it all in — God’s
word not as instruction but as companion. All of us need this.”

Richard Mouw
wonderful commentary makes Philippians come alive in new ways. The
combination of rich visual experience with creative written commentary
has made me a more engaged biblical ‘dweller’!”

Jeremy Begbie
beautifully produced book, through its skillful interweaving of images
and texts, allows the Apostle Paul to speak in fresh and unexpected
ways. A striking and original initiative.”

William Dyrness
much in our frazzled life encourages us to slow down and savor God’s
presence in Scripture. The images, prayers, and reflections in this
beautiful book work this miracle. Dwelling with Philippians is
slow food for the spirit! Keep it beside you, pray with it, give it to
your friends, your family — and especially to your pastor!”


From a Taize prayer to a Caravaggio painting, from John Wesley hymn lyrics to Van Gogh and Vermeer, from a full page reproduction of a Watanabe Sado (his popular Last Supper) to the text of Michael Kelly Blanchard’s folksong Be Ye Glad, this is an amazing, enriching, stupendous, collection of artistry, employed to deepen our dwelling in the Holy Word of God.   Some of this is classically Christian (Jan van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Lamb, a detail from his Ghent Altarpiece from 1432) while some is nearly pagan (Matisse’s 1909 Dance 1 was unusually striking next to one of the Olney Hymns of John Newton, and a great quote from Lesslie Newbigin.)  Not only is it ancient and contemporary, it is delightfully multi-ethnic.  There is work by He Qi (whose work you may have seen on book covers, actually) and quotes from Cyril of Jerusalem and reproductions of Russian iconography. The breadth of the contributors is just dazzling.

A few of these pieces, like the nude Matisse dancers, are very well known and easily recognized, but related to the Bible text so clearly—again, these aren’t just ornamentation, but truly part of, an integral part of, the commentary— they were stunning.  For instance, several famous pictures of the crucifixion help us meditate on Philippians 2:6-8 and I “saw” them more truly perhaps than I ever did before: Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Mathias Gruenwald, contemporary artists such as Sandra Bowden and Makoto Fujimuro, and Anneke Kaai.

I could go on, naming pairings of poems and paintings and Philippians passages.  There is some heavy stuff here, lots of other Bible texts,  a bit of artistic whimsy (a very playful Norman Rockwell “speaks a thousand words”) and a good blend of realistic and abstract styles.  There is an index of artwork, an index of themes, lists of quotations and useful reflection questions.  The questions could be used quite quietly in your own lectio divino or they could form the basis for wonderful conversation in a small group Bible study or formational Sunday school class.

Much of the impetus for this project came from the increasingly essential one-stop on-line


resource, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  (Two of the editors are afflliated with the Institute; Ms Halstead–herself an artist whose work in included—and John Witvliet, their director.) Joyce Borger also is in Grand Rapids, the worship and music editor for Faith Alive, a curriculum resource of the CRC.  She also edited Reformed Worship.  Paul Detterman is executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, a church musician, and an ordained PC(USA) clergyman. (Here is a list of books that also are published under the auspices of the Institue on the relationship of the arts, theology and worship. We stock them all.) I wonder if those that came up with this idea for a book were inspired by the old 3-volume Pilgrim Press Imaging The Word series, which collected visual art to coincide with the Revised Common Lectionary. Those that appreciated that set will love this!   

So, slow down, open your heart and mind to the peace of Christ (as our store’s namesake in Philippians 4:7 has it) and hear his Word afresh.  Understand it better, and allow it to shape you in deep, vital ways.  What a joy.  What an opportunity.  This would make a great resource for any faith community, for your personal Bible study or your congregation.  Join on on-going conversation about this at   

It may seem a bit anti-climatic since I am so very stirred to tell you about Dwelling with Philippians but there is yet another art related Biblical resource we should mention. I mentioned a week or so ago that evangelical publishers are doing some fresh new things, and it is a good time for religious publishing.  Well read on—this is certainly an example!

Standard Publishing has released three small group Bible studies that are reflections on artwork under the series title Through Artists’ Eyes.  Inspired perhaps by Henri Nouwen’s important Return of the Prodigal Son, a book-length study of the famous Rembrant painting and the Biblical parable, these three new studies look at six art works, invite conversations about them, and then refer the reader to appropriate Biblical passages that relate to the art productions. 


Each of the three studies focuses on a particular medium. One  reproduces exquisite stained glass and is called God’s Word Through Glass while another studies Bible-inspired sculptures, called God’s Word in Stone.  A third looks at six famous religious paintings and is called, of course, God’s Word on Canvas.

It is just fabulous the way these inductive studies invite observation and interaction with the art, allowing for good conversations— do you notice a certain tilt of the head, a particular slant of light, this tone or color or shape? What does it mean? Can it shed light on the Bible passage?  Why these enduring artworks were made, how they were giving expression to a Biblical character or text, and how we can use them in our own Bible study is something to discover as you use these Through Artists’ Eyes studies.  I don’t know if other stores are promoting these, but I have a hunch the publisher took a bit of a risk to produce these.  Let’s “vote” in the marketplace and get these resources known and used!  Thanks to Standard Publishing for doing art-enhanced Bible study—three cheers, for sure!

The art is reproduced on glossy paper in full color, by the way, and they are very reasonably priced at only $7.99 each, making them even less expensive than some other small group Bible study guides.  We think they are very nicely done.  And they just might accomplish something so very, very important: helping us see and hear God’s Word.  And, secondarily, it might help give us an opportunity to invite artists into Bible study that honors their interest in classic artistic work.  Highly recommended.  Do let us know if you have any interesting stories of their use, or what you think.  Thanks.



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