Luther, Evangelicals, and Modern Art

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Wittenberg Altarpiece, 1547, Wittenberg, Germany

Modern and contemporary painting is the heart of my theology of culture. It is not the kind of cultural practice, however, that receives any positive attention from evangelical cultural theologians and critics, for whom art is irrelevant at best and harmful at worst. But painting is much more than meets the eye, as both the tradition of icon painting within the church and the history of modern art outside the church testify. But a theology of culture that cannot offer a positive account of the arts in practice is ultimately deaf to the diverse and unexpected sounds of grace in the world.

While finishing my doctoral dissertation and teaching modern art at a state university in the mid-1990s, I read Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible and H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, and I was shocked. Their conclusions about modern art  bore no resemblance to the work I had devoted years of my life to understanding from within the history and development of modern art.

In response to Schaeffer and Rookmaaker, I began to develop a theological account for my interest in modern and contemporary art, which didn’t begin in the seminar room but where I live my professional a life as an art critic and curator: face to face with a work of art in an art museum, gallery, or studio. My goal was not to develop a “theology of the arts” that gets “applied” like a cookie-cutter to particular works of art or hovers abstractly in the ether, but to give a theological account for my interest in and love for particular artifacts of an especially despised and misunderstood cultural practice, which, as an evangelical, I had been called to serve. One of the results was God in the Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008), in which I moved outside the operative Reformed worldview framework, which I found too limiting, toward the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of the faith, to bring a more robust aesthetic, sacramental, and liturgical mindfulness to modern and contemporary art.

The outlier in my aesthetic evangelical resourcement was Luther, whom I had simply lumped into the Protestant tradition as a “pre-Calvinist” and a “post-Catholic,” shaped as I was by the biases of Catholic and Reformed interpreters, and art historians like Joseph Leo Koerner, who blamed the Reformer for a privatized, relativized, and disenchanted Protestant faith. But things changed when my family and I became members of a confessional Lutheran Church (LCMS) in 2004, and I discovered through the weekly practice of the preached Word and Sacrament, that Philip Cary is right: Luther is not quite Protestant. And for the sake of enriching evangelical cultural thought, that is a very good thing, as even Reformed historian Mark Noll observed in his classic essay, “The Lutheran Difference,” published in 1992 in First Things. But, unfortunately, as Kevin DeYoung admitted last summer, Luther and the Lutheran tradition remain virtually unknown to conference-circuit evangelicalism.

Although I practiced the Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition for almost eight years, it was not until I encountered Luther while a staff member of a Presbyterian church, and thus liberated from a confessional tradition that had domesticated his thought, and interpreted through sensitive readers like the Hamann scholar Oswald Bayer, Steve Paulson, Gerhard Ebeling, and Gerhard Forde, that he came alive for me, presenting to me a Luther I never knew. And a Luther evangelicalism desperately needs.

What I discovered is a Luther whose thought offers fertile ground for a desperately needed re-evaluation of evangelical approaches to art and culture, from his understanding of the distinctions between the letter and the spirit; law and gospel; theology of the cross and theology of glory; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world; the human being as simultaneously sinner and saint; God hidden and revealed; and nature and grace. In addition, in his revolutionary understanding of vocation, the radically unfree will, and emphasis on the sacramental nature of the preached Word, Luther opens up space to think freely and creatively about modern art, without expectations for what art should look like. For Luther, it is not what we see, but what we hear from paintings, as we live and feel the pressure of life and the strained relationships with our neighbor. That is how we are confronted by paintings, not in the seminar room but in the trenches.

And so I find Luther a welcome and helpful companion on visits to art museums and art galleries, when I am confronted by work that looks different, frustrating my expectations and distracting me by its strangeness. Luther is teaching me to wait in faith, and listen, with  love.




  • http://www.arte360.es Rachel Fontaine Morris

    Thank you for once again communicating these complex thoughts with insight and clarity. I always love reading your blogposts and articles…greatly appreciated “God in the Gallery.

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    I’d like to hear more. I suppose I should buy your book. If I remember correctly, Gauguin liked to think of his paintings as being more like music than pictures.

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  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Dr. Siedell, thank you for your blog post. I was introduced to your blog and this post by my good friend, Dr. Gene Edward Veith, who posted a portion of this note on his blog site. First, thank you for a very thoughtful reflection on art. I have always been a huge fan of the visual arts, all my life, and have often found myself reflecting on things in a way quite similar to what you expressed in the post.

    Now, as for favorite Cranachs, my favorite Cranach painting is actually the one done by Lucas Cranach, Jr. — the Weimar altar painting which is basically an epitome of the various themes and images you can find in many of Cranach, Sr.’s paintings, but in one huge panel.

    I have it on my blog site with a rather well done theological education of the whole thing, if you care to take a look.


    • Daniel A. Siedell

      Paul, Thanks for the kind words. In fact, I love that painting and after seeing it reproduced so beautifully on your website some months ago, I ordered a reproduction from Concordia Publishing House. I appreciate your readership. I’m using this blog to work through these ideas raised by Luther. Dan

  • http://jbockelman.com James Bockelman

    I once asked my Lutheran colleagues about the quip from Hegel, that Luther’ reformation had destroyed culture. Their response was astonishment. Very quickly they reminded me that Luther initiated and celebrated at least two great cultural achievements: choral hymn singing and a healthy consummation of the German brewed soft–drink.

    Thank you for the essay and for pointing to additional texts to look into. And I agree that Luther’s writing, say his commentary on Genesis, does reflect a very fertile outlook about God’s work; a view that reveals how God is present in the world that we steward, in our day-to-day actions with one another, and in the variety of stories found within that scripture. But in terms of art and its place within the church and the life of its people, my experience has been consistent — seeing is always secondary to hearing the Word of God.

    So, could the notion, “not what we see but what we hear” be further developed? I mean on the front end, it gives permission to look at anything with courage and confidence knowing that our faith rests securely in Christ (Christian liberty). Because ultimately, even an offensive piece, art that is difficult to look at, is a piece that we see through to hear a word of law or a word of gospel.

    But, in practical ways, that notion “not what we see but what we hear”, has created an easy, doctrinal line in the sand. That is, the Word of God stands alone at the expense of all other forms of human interaction. And, it is this iconoclasm that still bears itself out in arguments about art’s appropriateness, say between styles of representation or abstraction; or, when we try to determine art’s validity due to a religious stamp of approval or through the approval from an art institution.

  • http://ortsperformance.blogspot.com/ Neil Ellis Orts

    As a cradle Lutheran (now attending an Episcopal church) I have been frustrated that there is a reticence to engage modern and postmodern art in a theological way. It seems the artist’s intention gets in the way of what it might have to say independent of the artist. I admit I have the knee-jerk reaction of taking offense at some work, but if I take the time to “listen” to it, it will tell me something about myself.

    My personal interests lean more toward performance art, which is particularly difficult given the occasionally dualistic views Christians have of the human body. But I also think I hear something in the surface ugliness of some work, something that speaks of justice or lack thereof, or of some sort of prophetic proclamation.

    The courage to look and to hear is a virtue worth cultivating in these situations.

  • jerry lynch

    Sorry, but your background sounds like a whirlwind of contortions, offering neither solid ground, direction, or doctrine. But who the hell cares? Art is the deepest thought of God or his prelimanary thoughts. Is this art? Do you feel uplifted or different, genuinely curious or in awe? For me, the visiual media as art only engages the heart and is only natter-of-factly engaging the mind. The substance is not in the form, which means it can only be meant for the heart.

  • jerry lynch

    David get your pants on, Mona Lisa stop smirking.

    Sorry, the full implication of the Church’s attitude suddenly hit me. DDB: struck deaf, dumb, and blind to any excuse or reason to suppress or change our creative instinct.

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