Art That Tells the Story Christopher R. Brewer (Gospel Through Shared Experience)

I took joy in writing, and hope you enjoyed reading, the past two posts, telling how a certain vision shaped our bookstore’s founding and still informs our work here at the bookstore.  In short, we believe that reading matters, because learning matters, because we are all called to serve God through vocations in the world—but somehow we must do this by living unlike the typical secularized way the world thinks and lives (Romans 12:1-2.) And that means we have to often think seriously about what we too often take for granted in our ordinary lives, about every sphere or institution we find ourselves in. What is good and what is not good? How should we think and live; what principles do we live by and what practices come from those principles? To be enfolded into a church community that invites us to whole life discipleship is no simple thing.

Hearts & Minds sells distinctive books across the whole spectrum of cultural life and we are sometimes surprised–still–when we are told that most Christian bookstores don’t have a film studies section, say, or a category dedicated to race and multi-ethnic concerns, or even a science or environmental studies section.  Of course we have tons of books of Biblical studies and a large and ecumenical spiritual formation section, and more resources for local congregations than anyone could use. We have a diverse collection of worship resources, liturgical training, and books about congregational music.  But we are also wanting to relate faith and daily life, faith and work, faith and public affairs, faith and politics.

As I explained, we were introduced to this wide-ranging, evangelical worldview by a generation of Christian thinkers and activists who stood in the tradition of the magisterial Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper.  I hinted that there is no more generous and able voice in the English speaking world to introduce us to the relevance of Kuyper’s culturally engaging vision to honor the Kingship of Jesus over all of life than Richard Mouw.  His introductory book on Kuyper, and Kuyperianism for the 21st century, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans; $16.00) was a pleasure to introduce to you.  We still have it on sale so do scroll back if you haven’t read those two posts.

One of the distinctives of the Kuyperian (or neo-Calvinist) movement is their insistence that the Bible, when properly read as an unfolding Story, shows us a coherent way to think about our life and times and that this is rooted in the very “chapters” of the Story itself.  As one lovely introductory book about the Bible puts it, swiping a line from Lesslie Newbigin, the Scriptural drama is “the true story of the whole world.”  (See The True Story of the Whole World by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, published by Faith Alive; $12.99.) The Bible tells us, if you catch it mostly between the lines of the whole story, where we are, who we are, what’s wrong and what solution there may be. Although it has become a short-hand phrase in some circles, the Biblical narrative can be most simply summarized as a story of a good (very good!) creation, a radically disruptive fall into sin which deforms everything (“Everything Is Broken” Bob Dylan sang), a gracious God who in covenant with the creation sends the Son to bring a multi-faceted redemption at His own great cost, and a final consummation or restoration of all things in the eschaton.  Not a few authors note that this is, significantly, the journey from a garden to a city.   Sometimes authors or speakers literally abbreviate this saying, c-f-r-r.

This four chapter story is, of course, a far cry from the approach that suggests that God is going to give up on the planet that is so loved and that Christ will take His followers to Some Other Place while those who are “left behind” get blown to smithereens.  Further, it is a more full telling of the story than the two chapter version (we are sinners and God loves us; in other words, only chapters 2 and 3, which, when torn from the whole plot, then float above history as abstract theological truths, unconnected to land and place and cities and society.) This fuller picture of the whole Bible–promise and deliverance in and for the real world—is not only true, but is laden with implications.  It is a narrative that many younger evangelicals are increasingly drawn to.  I hope you recall our promotion a few months ago of The Next Christians(Doubleday; $19.99), the splendid book about younger adults wanting to be agents of redemptive restoration, written by Gabe Lyon.   In it, he insists upon the full four chapter telling of the story, noting how the popular two chapter version—we are guilty but God forgives us—is increasingly seen as truncated and unable to do justice to the full flow of the Bible’s own narrative.  There is a keen connection, we believe, between Gabe’s call to multi-dimensional social and cultural reformation and this reformational reading of the four-chapter story.  

Well, one doesn’t have to be a next-gen Christian or a neo-Calvinist Kuyperian to understand all that and to know that the best Biblical scholarship and the best Biblical preaching and the best Christian books these days have been emphasizing the storied nature of Scripture, the wholistic scope of salvation and the implications of the hope that God is, indeed, bringing restoration and healing to all things.  No Bible teacher worth her salt these days would suggest that the Bible is only for your inner life or that one can dip in to it here or there without literary and theological context.  Few people preach “heaven” as only for the “sweet by and by” and almost everyone appreciates the recently popular way attending to the coherent flow of the Bible’s narrative by referring to it as a story.  (Thank goodness we don’t have to say “meta-narrative” over and over anymore.)   My neo-Calvinist friends were ‘early adopters’ of this “historical redemptive” way of seeing the “mighty deeds of God” in Scripture—and, again, Mouw gets it really right in his fabulous When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Eerdmans; $14.00.)  This is one sweet example of the relationship between the Older and Newer testaments and how new creation hopes among Isralites come to fruition in the healed cosmos of Revelation 21-22.  Mouw’s neo-Calvinist roots show a bit in that lovely little study, but, again, this is not uncommon and it a good ecumenical trend.

pub3T.jpgWhat is uncommon is what is found in this spectacular new book edited by graphic designer and art patron Chris Brewer of Grand Rapids MI. His Art That Tells the Story (published by the gospel through shared experience; $24.95) is a truly new approach to exploring these Biblical themes by way of contemporary art.  In fact, I’ve got a blurb on the back, offered when the book was still in manuscript form, in which I glow that there is just nothing like it; it is a fairly simple idea, but I don’t know anyone who has done this in this contemporary manner.  Which makes it a double joy to promote here: not only does it help us explore this full-orbed, coherent, worldview-shaping story of creation-fall-redemption-restoration, but it does so in ways that are wondrous and rare and refreshing.  An art book that tells the overview of the broadest contours of the Bible story; an art book that shares the gospel, with quality, nuance, and storied context!  A Biblically-oriented gift book that is worth owning and is worth giving!  

To better appreciate this, allow me to highlight a few things.  I will be brief, although I could wax eloque
nt–or at least I could enthuse—all day long.  This is awesome.

  • The author believes that we all, as humans, have certain shared experiences.  One doesn’t necessarily need a Bible to know we live in a world that overflows with goodness and beauty and that we are somehow really messed up.  And, frankly, it could be argued (although Chris doesn’t go into polemics about it) that we have a natural longing for hope, for meaning, for answers.  Our very restlessness is a signal of transcendence; we are looking for home. This was beautifully expressed half a century ago in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and powerfully explained in recent years in Simply Christian by N.T. Wright.  So we know this stuff, deep in our bones.                                                                              
  • The author also seems to know that  real artwork–that which suggests and doesn’t just say, using creative forms of nuance and allusion, perhaps symbol and metaphor–can speak in ways that plain words sometimes cannot.  Whether it is due to our “shared experiences” or some deeply human appreciation for the creative, artwork can touch us deeply, can allow us to ponder, can invite deeper reflection.  Art can help us see, or see again, but never by preaching at us.  And we can talk about these things together as we experience good art together. 
  • There are two wonderful, wonderful, forwards.  New York-based abstract artist Makoto Fujimura reminds us of the role of art—it is nonlinear, invites us to ask questions (and then more questions) and creates conversations.  The arts can help people be grasped by the truth of God.  Chris Brewer, the energetic patron and compiler of this work, himself, has a splendid introductory essay that, again, reminds us beautifully of the ways in which great literature, poetry and visual art can point us to new insight, to authentic transformation. He notes that Makoto himself came to Christian faith by studying art, a joy that he describes by way of a quote from Mako’s River Grace.  Both introductory pieces are very well done.  I suspect we will be hearing more from both of them as writers.                                              
  • Because Chris appreciates this “creation-fall-redemption-restoration” shorthand for telling the overview of the Biblical story, he has arranged dozens of paintings and plates (of sculptures, wood cuts, ceramic art, and more) in four respective sections.  That is, there are art works that illuminate the goodness of creation, the fact of human rebellion and cursed-ness, the Christ-centered climax of the story of redemption, and some very allusive works that suggests an “all things new” ending of healing, hope, final consummation.                                                                                                                                
  •  To help supplement the artwork, or perhaps to frame it–but not to explain it, though–there are four page-length meditations on creation, fall, redemption and restoration, written by author Michael Witmer.  I love Witmer’s book Heaven Is a Place On Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God (Zondervan; $16.99) on these very themes and often recommend it.  To have Witmer involved in this is a good, good move.  His essays are helpful, basic, and yet oddly visionary.  With the artwork next to it, with the contemporary graphics and the big picture of the book in mind, these essays take on a fuller meaning than if they were just blogged posts or homilies given at a retreat. (They would be good in those settings, for sure!) You get more out of the words knowing they are helping shape this overall project, to literally see what he means.  And, as Brewer surely hoped, the artwork itself is seen as even more meaningful alongside these influential short studies.  It is commonplace that in art gallery showings and thematic presentations “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and this is surely the case here.

spread-4-th.jpgThese are just quick bullet points, check-marks to help you understand the nature and point of this collection.  As the title suggests, this isn’t just a random collection of contemporary Christian art, although it stands as more than adequate as a lovely volume of some of the best artists working in this field today. (That would be, for instance, the likes of Mako Fujimura, Bruce Herman, Sandra Bowden, Chris Stoffel Overvoorde, Wayne Forte, Julia Quinn, Ed Knippers, Clay Enoch, and more. Some are leaders in CIVA or IAM and others are perhaps lesser known.  All are quite deserving to be included in a work of this quality.)  In an acknowledgments page each artist’s website is given, offering hours and hours more of browsing pleasure.  But Art That Tells… is more than just a great anthology or handsome coffee table book of religious art.

Everything about this large paperback was produced in order to accomplish the goal, to artfully tell the fuller Bible story, highlighting the four chapters. It makes a lot of sense and is a joy to consider.  What a great idea.

There are interesting Bible selections graphically reproduced on the left page of each broad spread.  On the facing page there is the full-color art piece.  On the left column there is sometimes a bit more helpful explanation, which are helpful and make the full spread very visually appealing, uniting text and image.  For instance, on the left you’ll see highlighted instructional quotes such as

“A portrait of Rick Beerhorst, and, in a very real sense, of you and I as well.  “My Way” is aMy Way 5 wide.jpg retelling of the narrative of Moses by the rock at Horeb”  which is superimposed over Deuteronomy 32:51 and Exodus 17:5-6.  You see it on the right—what a piece!

 “A reworking of Rubens’s “Cain Slaying Abel,” Forte’s “Cain and Abel IV” depicts what has been called the fallout from the fall.”  Next to that is a punchy line from John Steinbeck about the universality of this story.  This is a very moving page, believe me.

“Taking its title from the seco
nd stanza of Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” this print is a reminder that Jesus was born to die, an uncomfortable truth, especially in this vulnerable context.”  I wish I could find a copy of this on line to show you; it is a stylized a vivid portrait of a baby (Jesus) in the womb, head down, ready to drop (to use the midwife lingo.)  Around the womb are thorns.  It is a powerful, evocative piece and this line from Milton elevates it greatly.

spread-7.jpgThese short pull quotes are clean and crisp, in writing and visual presentation.  There are longer paragraphs, to be sure, and Brewer is quite the art critic.  (How do people come to know so much about all this? And how can we write with such economy to explain so much in such short renderings?)  You will appreciate the left-side pages, their Biblical narration and aesthetic insight, as much as the artwork pieces themselves.  I’m unable to get it placed quite right on this dumb blog platform, but you can get the idea of the nice graphics of the left-side pages from the above example.

But the artwork pieces are the point, of course.  And they are nearly all masterly and fall.jpgfabulous.  Their styles are diverse, and the subject of most are fairly evident–at least upon pondering. (Well, a few I’m still pondering.)  I’ve gazed and beheld them often and they yield more with each intentional approach.  They are expertly arranged and wonderfully printed.

Bit by bit, then, the Story unfolds.  Creation.  Fall.  Redemption.  Restoration. What a wonderful collection of so many moving art pieces.

One might offer some minor criticisms; I don’t want to discourage anyone from getting and confidently sharing this, so I am reluctant.  I’ll admit that a few of the pictures left me wishing for something else.  The size is a tad larger than I’d wish, but it does set it apart.  There should have been a few more truly horrific pieces to capture our shared experience of a fallen, death-shaped world.  And, I’m not a huge fan of the remarkable oil and wax on linen pieces of Orthodox painter Alfonse Borysewicz (one of which colorfully graces the cover.)  His “afterward” reflection is a moving testimony of God’s grace in the life of a thoughtful, contemporary painter, but I’d have wished for a bigger visual ending.  Nothing in this section captured my own longings for full-orbed healing of the cosmos.  How might one colorfully extrapolate on Isaiah 65 or Romans 8 or Revelation 22 without being reduced to cliches?  Borysewicz’ energetic, zigzagging portraits get at something, and they are stunning in their own right.  He describes them briefly.  If art is to tell the story, this is one part of the story that needs told and retold, and the artistic gifts of pointing to the ineffable–and the creaturely, if we really believe the Story—are needed here more than ever.  Maybe this part is brief because it falls on us to imagine creation restored.  The book is perhaps intentionally incomplete so we can talk about it…

I love the description that Brewer himself gives of this important project:

ChrisPortrait032511007.jpgFollowing the contours of the biblical narrative Art That Tells the Story is an invitation to experience the Story through commonly observable, shared experience—in this case, art.

But this is more than a book on art.  It’s a conversation about the Story God is telling.

With multiple contributors and almost fifty works of art, Art That Tells the Story offers an ongoing conversation between image, text, scriptures, reflection and cultural artifact.

And then, this earnest plea, a cry from his heart:  “Join the conversation. Experience the Story.”

Join the conversation.  Experience the Story.  You can do this if you reflect on the words and images.  Like any serious art book, it is designed to be reflected upon.  Behold it.  Meditate on it.  Allow it to grab you, shake you, stir you.  And talk back to it.  And talk to others about it.  I do hope this is used, passed around, discussed. Chris is right–you can join the conversation.

Here is a special Hearts & Minds BookNotes deal:

 2 free books. 

One of the books that has most thoroughly explored the implications of seeing the Bible as a worldview shaping book, one that is structured around creation-fall-redemption/restoration is 0853647542.01._SX53_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpgcalled Creation Regained: The Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Redeemer College Old Testament scholar, Albert Wolters.  Al has been a significant influence on Beth and I and his book is still one of our top few most often-suggested works.  Global leader John Stott, a few years back, began a project of getting a handful of key books published overseas for use in the developing countries.  They published them in smallish mass market paperbacks (unabridged) on fairly cheap paper.  We bought a ton of Creation Regained when it came out in its small-sized British edition.  It has since been expanded into a newer edition (by its US publisher, Eerdmans) and the Stott-produced overseas one is now out of print, but we have some.  And we’re going to give ’em away along with this art book.

We will give you two free paperbacks (one for you and one for a friend) for every Art That Tells a Story that you buy. 

So, 2 free copies of Creation Regained and Art That Tells a Story.  This is a0853647542.01._SX53_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg fabulous new book that will deepen your faith, enlarge your imaginative capacities, and maybe allow you to invite others to the shared experience of pondering a longing for hope.  The Bible story can provide the road-map for the journey toward that hope.  This artistic rumination on the key stages on the journey, the four main chapters of the story, are here presented in ways that are as fresh and interesting as anything we have seen.  It is highly, highly recommended.  And you get two of the influential Al Wolters book for free.

Art That Tells the Story
– and –
 two free Creation Regained (British edition) with every purchase
order here
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page

inquire here
if you have questions or need more information

Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717-246-3333