A non-believer on Christian art

Aaron Rosen, in the atheist magazine New Humanist, acknowledges that much of Western art reflects Christianity.  The iconography, themes, and vocabulary of images derives not just from religion in general, but, very specifically, from the Christian faith.  Somehow, he says, the figure of Christ is just overwhelmingly powerful.

This is even true in modern art.  Even apparent attempts to subvert religion, such as the notorious “Piss Christ”–a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine–end up re-enforcing the power of the Christian message.

What better way to meditate on the torments and degradation of Christ than to see his form submerged in urine? Meanwhile, the beauty of the image, suffused in a hazy, golden light, invites us to consider a salvific message – the “good news” of Christ’s victory over death.

So this unbeliever urges his fellows to open themselves up to this uncanny quality of Christian art:

The supposed enmity between modern art and religion dissolves. The question of how to get the “godfearing” to appreciate modern art may still be a relevant one, but it isn’t necessarily the most interesting. In light of the religious roots and preoccupations of so much modern art, maybe we should start asking what the “god-less” can learn from modern art. Indeed, perhaps the gallery is uniquely poised to foster a productive encounter with religion for even the most avowed atheist. In the inoculating ambiance of the gallery, a modern Christ perched on a plinth, or framed along the wall, can commune with the same skeptic who would quickly scuttle by a church.

After looking at a crucifixion painting by the Jewish Marc Chagall–his response to the Holocaust–Rosen suggests that Christian art is intrinsically mind-blowing, which he tries to turn into an aesthetic quality.

This is not simply to say that all religious expressions are artistic. But what religious symbols can do, more powerfully than any other, is reveal a horizon of meaning towards which art aspires: the ability to make ontological claims about “the way things really are”. To come back to some philosophical language from Gadamer, religious symbols perfect the “intricate interplay of showing and concealing”. And among other things, it seems to be this tantalising capacity that has kept modern artists, even those with no doctrinal connection to Christianity, returning to fundamental religious images like the crucifixion.

For the non-believer, perhaps focusing on this “poetical teaching” can offer a way of engaging with religious art in a manner beyond merely cultural or aesthetic appreciation; one which begins to dance, albeit gingerly, along the perimeters of the theological. What we experience in religious art, ultimately, doesn’t have to lead us into heaven. In Botticini’s “Assumption”, the disciples gather around Mary’s tomb, only to discover an assortment of lilies has taken the place where her body should rest. Uncomprehending, they look around in bewilderment. If looking at religious art can leave us similarly stunned, perhaps for some that’s more than miracle enough.

via Aaron Rosen – Divine Image | New Humanist.

This supports what I have often said, that the way to reach today’s postmodern unbelievers is to emphasize the wild, ineffable, mind-blowing mysteries of Christianity (e.g., the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Sacraments).

HT:  Joe Carter

What a great painting! All of that spectacular spiritual reality going on above, and the people down below, while faced with an earthly manifestation, don’t see it, just looking around in incomprehension. That says it all about worldly unbelief.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Interesting that in the lower left and right corners of Botticini’s “Assumption,” a lone Brother and Sister kneel in prayer – as they gaze directly at the people gathered around Mary’s tomb. Behind the Brother and Sister, distant scenes of daily life show people going about their ordinary business. This arrangement seems to suggest that the Church is both the steward of the Mysteries in the world, and the intercessor for those who are confronted by the Mysteries – but are unsure what to make of them. Beautiful.

  • Tom Hering

    Interesting that in the lower left and right corners of Botticini’s “Assumption,” a lone Brother and Sister kneel in prayer – as they gaze directly at the people gathered around Mary’s tomb. Behind the Brother and Sister, distant scenes of daily life show people going about their ordinary business. This arrangement seems to suggest that the Church is both the steward of the Mysteries in the world, and the intercessor for those who are confronted by the Mysteries – but are unsure what to make of them. Beautiful.

  • bunnycatch3r

    What a great painting! All of that spectacular spiritual reality going on above, and the people down below, while faced with an earthly manifestation, don’t see it, just looking around in incomprehension. That says it all about worldly unbelief.

    Although, I agree that it is a “great painting” -timeless, insightful, and elegant~ would anyone object if it were displayed in the sanctuary of an LCMS church?

  • bunnycatch3r

    What a great painting! All of that spectacular spiritual reality going on above, and the people down below, while faced with an earthly manifestation, don’t see it, just looking around in incomprehension. That says it all about worldly unbelief.

    Although, I agree that it is a “great painting” -timeless, insightful, and elegant~ would anyone object if it were displayed in the sanctuary of an LCMS church?

  • Tom Hering

    In the sanctuary? No. We don’t believe in or teach the assumption of Mary. Some Anglicans would be comfortable with it, though.

  • Tom Hering

    In the sanctuary? No. We don’t believe in or teach the assumption of Mary. Some Anglicans would be comfortable with it, though.

  • Joe

    This painting is beautiful. But it is based on a Roman Catholic teaching that is without scriptural support, so no it should not be in any church. If you want to meditate on empty tombs, stick with Easter.

  • Joe

    This painting is beautiful. But it is based on a Roman Catholic teaching that is without scriptural support, so no it should not be in any church. If you want to meditate on empty tombs, stick with Easter.

  • bunnycatch3r

    What if we touched it up a little?

  • bunnycatch3r

    What if we touched it up a little?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Of course Lutherans don’t believe in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a doctrine that was not even made dogmatically binding on Catholics until the Pope ruled in the 19th century. It’s interesting that, as we see here, the belief that Mary was taken up in Heaven was a “pious speculation” that went back a long time but was not universal even in the Roman Catholic church when this painting was made.

    But here is the thing about art: It isn’t just the subject that gives a work its meaning or that exhausts its theme. You don’t have to accept the particular content being depicted for the symbols to work and for its theme (not its content) to be true. I sketched out a theme of the painting, that extraordinary spiritual realities are at work while most people don’t understand what is going on. This is true, even though the lilies in Mary’s tomb or her assumption into Heaven might not have been historically true. (This may bear, Bunnycatcher, on your earlier questions about the historicity of some of the things in the Bible, though there are also some big differences as some of the other commenters pointed out.)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Of course Lutherans don’t believe in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a doctrine that was not even made dogmatically binding on Catholics until the Pope ruled in the 19th century. It’s interesting that, as we see here, the belief that Mary was taken up in Heaven was a “pious speculation” that went back a long time but was not universal even in the Roman Catholic church when this painting was made.

    But here is the thing about art: It isn’t just the subject that gives a work its meaning or that exhausts its theme. You don’t have to accept the particular content being depicted for the symbols to work and for its theme (not its content) to be true. I sketched out a theme of the painting, that extraordinary spiritual realities are at work while most people don’t understand what is going on. This is true, even though the lilies in Mary’s tomb or her assumption into Heaven might not have been historically true. (This may bear, Bunnycatcher, on your earlier questions about the historicity of some of the things in the Bible, though there are also some big differences as some of the other commenters pointed out.)

  • Tom Hering

    Dr. Veith is is exactly right about this work of art (no surprise there!) – about the way its larger theme and use of symbols transcend its specific, Marian content. Great art is great because it manages to express something universal (sometimes in spite of itself). That’s how an atheist can be moved by a painting of the crucifixion, and remain an atheist … maybe. ;-)

  • Tom Hering

    Dr. Veith is is exactly right about this work of art (no surprise there!) – about the way its larger theme and use of symbols transcend its specific, Marian content. Great art is great because it manages to express something universal (sometimes in spite of itself). That’s how an atheist can be moved by a painting of the crucifixion, and remain an atheist … maybe. ;-)

  • Joe

    I agree that is what makes art great, but what about the question of the purpose of art. Is it to express large universal themes or is it to express specific truths or is it just to create something beautiful. In my opinion, with regard to Christian art it should be to express specific truths. I would evaluate Christian art the same way I evaluate a hymn. Aside from its general beauty, does it articulate sound doctrine?

  • Joe

    I agree that is what makes art great, but what about the question of the purpose of art. Is it to express large universal themes or is it to express specific truths or is it just to create something beautiful. In my opinion, with regard to Christian art it should be to express specific truths. I would evaluate Christian art the same way I evaluate a hymn. Aside from its general beauty, does it articulate sound doctrine?

  • Booklover

    “You don’t have to accept the particular content being depicted for the symbols to work and for its theme (not its content) to be true.”

    This is the reason that we Protestants can revel in the beauty of singing a gorgeous rendition of “Ave Maria.” (In a concert; I wouldn’t sing it in church.) But there is the argument of: If it’s not true, can it be truly beautiful?

    “the lilies in Mary’s tomb”

    Thank you for telling me they were lilies. They looked like skeleton heads to me, and I was very confused.

  • Booklover

    “You don’t have to accept the particular content being depicted for the symbols to work and for its theme (not its content) to be true.”

    This is the reason that we Protestants can revel in the beauty of singing a gorgeous rendition of “Ave Maria.” (In a concert; I wouldn’t sing it in church.) But there is the argument of: If it’s not true, can it be truly beautiful?

    “the lilies in Mary’s tomb”

    Thank you for telling me they were lilies. They looked like skeleton heads to me, and I was very confused.

  • Tom Hering

    “I would evaluate Christian art the same way I evaluate a hymn. Aside from its general beauty, does it articulate sound doctrine?” – Joe @ 7.

    “But there is the argument of: If it’s not true, can it be truly beautiful?” – Booklover @ 8.

    Art is a poor teacher of doctrine, so the concern is unnecessary. The fact that we need the painting explained to us, and having had it explained, don’t feel compelled to rush out and buy a rosary is proof of that. Christ has freed us to enjoy so much. For example, my current reading project is Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (Ciardi translation). Am I swimming the Tiber because of it? No. I’m just appreciating the greatest work of Christian imagination ever produced (still topping even Lewis and Tolkein).

  • Tom Hering

    “I would evaluate Christian art the same way I evaluate a hymn. Aside from its general beauty, does it articulate sound doctrine?” – Joe @ 7.

    “But there is the argument of: If it’s not true, can it be truly beautiful?” – Booklover @ 8.

    Art is a poor teacher of doctrine, so the concern is unnecessary. The fact that we need the painting explained to us, and having had it explained, don’t feel compelled to rush out and buy a rosary is proof of that. Christ has freed us to enjoy so much. For example, my current reading project is Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (Ciardi translation). Am I swimming the Tiber because of it? No. I’m just appreciating the greatest work of Christian imagination ever produced (still topping even Lewis and Tolkein).

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Bunnycatcher3R @ 5: Hilarious! Check out her link, everyone. (She turned it into the assumption of Luther!)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Bunnycatcher3R @ 5: Hilarious! Check out her link, everyone. (She turned it into the assumption of Luther!)

  • Tom Hering

    My comment references @ 10 are wrong because comment #5 appeared after I submitted #10. The assumption of Luther? Hilarious! If only it could be animated by Terry Gilliam! :-)

  • Tom Hering

    My comment references @ 10 are wrong because comment #5 appeared after I submitted #10. The assumption of Luther? Hilarious! If only it could be animated by Terry Gilliam! :-)

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erikson

    But it must be true that his body was assumed, how else do you explain that the papist forces taking Wittenberg shortly after his death were reluctant to disturb his grave and burn his bones. They knew they weren’t there. And they did not want that truth to get out.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erikson

    But it must be true that his body was assumed, how else do you explain that the papist forces taking Wittenberg shortly after his death were reluctant to disturb his grave and burn his bones. They knew they weren’t there. And they did not want that truth to get out.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Remember, Bror (@13), if Luther was assumed, that makes an a… no, wait, that doesn’t work.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Remember, Bror (@13), if Luther was assumed, that makes an a… no, wait, that doesn’t work.

  • Bob

    Lutheran teaching on Mary strikes me as a hodgepodge. Luther downplayed some of the Church’s beliefs, e.g., Mary’s assumption, as not grounded in the Bible, but he kept others, e.g., Mary’s perpetual virginity, her continual prayers for the church, etc. In my Lutheran experience (WELS), Mary is mentioned only at Christmas merely as Christ’s mother.

  • Bob

    Lutheran teaching on Mary strikes me as a hodgepodge. Luther downplayed some of the Church’s beliefs, e.g., Mary’s assumption, as not grounded in the Bible, but he kept others, e.g., Mary’s perpetual virginity, her continual prayers for the church, etc. In my Lutheran experience (WELS), Mary is mentioned only at Christmas merely as Christ’s mother.

  • Tom Hering

    tODD, it works if we believe in an assumption of Luther, but his co-conspirators in founding a new religion actually stole his bones and hid them.

  • Tom Hering

    tODD, it works if we believe in an assumption of Luther, but his co-conspirators in founding a new religion actually stole his bones and hid them.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, Tom (@16), I was just attempting a stupid joke that would have ended with “…out of you and med!”

    Actually, everyone knows Melanchthon stole Luther’s body and hid it. Melanchthon admitted as much in a letter to Zwingli, but Zwingli failed to alert the authorities because he assumed Melanchthon had merely been speaking metaphorically.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, Tom (@16), I was just attempting a stupid joke that would have ended with “…out of you and med!”

    Actually, everyone knows Melanchthon stole Luther’s body and hid it. Melanchthon admitted as much in a letter to Zwingli, but Zwingli failed to alert the authorities because he assumed Melanchthon had merely been speaking metaphorically.

  • Tom Hering

    And I was just attempting a stupid twist on The Passover Plot.

  • Tom Hering

    And I was just attempting a stupid twist on The Passover Plot.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Melanchthon stole the body?! That pansy!? Sure he did…

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Melanchthon stole the body?! That pansy!? Sure he did…

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Well, lesson learned. And that lesson is: Don’t attempt intricate, subtle humor on Fridays. It’s just lost on you heathens.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Well, lesson learned. And that lesson is: Don’t attempt intricate, subtle humor on Fridays. It’s just lost on you heathens.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Bunnycatch3r, how wonderful to have a print of the Luther version for my study!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Bunnycatch3r, how wonderful to have a print of the Luther version for my study!

  • Tom Hering

    “… the way to reach today’s postmodern unbelievers is to emphasize the wild, ineffable, mind-blowing mysteries of Christianity (e.g., the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Sacraments).” – Dr. Veith.

    This was true in my own case, though it wasn’t a mystery we Lutherans would accept. In 1985, after attending a Roman Catholic church for a year, I was invited to a Catholic Charismatic prayer group. As I listened to the group singing together in tongues (they really did sound like a choir of angels), something happened – as if a shell around me cracked, and light from heaven streamed in. I knew, for the first time in that moment, that the supernatural realm was real, and that God was real, and that He cared about me, personally.

    After the meeting, I borrowed a book from the group’s library. It was by an Episcopalian Charismatic, and I took it with me to my third-shift job that same evening. Around one o’clock in the morning, I read the first chapters, which were a basic Law and Gospel presentation. I was convinced by them that Christ died on the cross for me – that He was my Savior – and I repented of all my sins. The joy I felt was unlike anything else, and the Bible – which I simply could not understand before – opened right up for me. (I left the Catholic church and the Charismatic movement within a year, because so much about them just didn’t line up with what I was now reading in the Bible. Over the next decade, I also left a succession of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches for the same reason. Until I ended up back in the LC-MS church of my childhood, and of my infant baptism.)

    So, there you have it. Something Christian and mysterious reached me. But it was Law and Gospel that actually got hold of me. Isn’t this true for everyone?

  • Tom Hering

    “… the way to reach today’s postmodern unbelievers is to emphasize the wild, ineffable, mind-blowing mysteries of Christianity (e.g., the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Sacraments).” – Dr. Veith.

    This was true in my own case, though it wasn’t a mystery we Lutherans would accept. In 1985, after attending a Roman Catholic church for a year, I was invited to a Catholic Charismatic prayer group. As I listened to the group singing together in tongues (they really did sound like a choir of angels), something happened – as if a shell around me cracked, and light from heaven streamed in. I knew, for the first time in that moment, that the supernatural realm was real, and that God was real, and that He cared about me, personally.

    After the meeting, I borrowed a book from the group’s library. It was by an Episcopalian Charismatic, and I took it with me to my third-shift job that same evening. Around one o’clock in the morning, I read the first chapters, which were a basic Law and Gospel presentation. I was convinced by them that Christ died on the cross for me – that He was my Savior – and I repented of all my sins. The joy I felt was unlike anything else, and the Bible – which I simply could not understand before – opened right up for me. (I left the Catholic church and the Charismatic movement within a year, because so much about them just didn’t line up with what I was now reading in the Bible. Over the next decade, I also left a succession of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches for the same reason. Until I ended up back in the LC-MS church of my childhood, and of my infant baptism.)

    So, there you have it. Something Christian and mysterious reached me. But it was Law and Gospel that actually got hold of me. Isn’t this true for everyone?

  • Will Indermaur

    Actually, to those saying Lutherans do not believe in the Assumption, I think it veries on the church. While of course the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Evangelical Church in Germany, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America do not celebrate it on their calenders, I believe it is indeed celebrated in the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church (which classifies itslef as Evangelical Catholic Lutheran).

    The Assumption is believed by the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Churches , Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, the Traditional Anglican Communion, and some independent catholic, orthodox, and anglican churches.

    As for Lutheran belief besides that of the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church, Lutherans still believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, status as the ‘Mother of God’, and the belief that she constantly prays for the Church. Some even believe in her Immaculate Conception, but more so in the Orthodox belief than the Catholic.
    Many High-Church parishes even use a Lutheran Version of the Hail Mary (consisting of the Catholic church’s version but removing the last line).

  • Will Indermaur

    Actually, to those saying Lutherans do not believe in the Assumption, I think it veries on the church. While of course the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Evangelical Church in Germany, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America do not celebrate it on their calenders, I believe it is indeed celebrated in the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church (which classifies itslef as Evangelical Catholic Lutheran).

    The Assumption is believed by the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Churches , Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, the Traditional Anglican Communion, and some independent catholic, orthodox, and anglican churches.

    As for Lutheran belief besides that of the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church, Lutherans still believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, status as the ‘Mother of God’, and the belief that she constantly prays for the Church. Some even believe in her Immaculate Conception, but more so in the Orthodox belief than the Catholic.
    Many High-Church parishes even use a Lutheran Version of the Hail Mary (consisting of the Catholic church’s version but removing the last line).


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