An art critic discovers Luther

Daniel Siedell is a Christian art critic and curator, the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.  In a recent post on his Patheos blog Cultivare, he describes how frustrated he became with evangelical and Reformed scholarship on the arts, leading him to turn to Catholic and Orthodox theologians.  But then he discovered Luther and Lutheranism, who were not at all the way he had assumed:

 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), 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, liberated from a confessional tradition that had domesticated it and non-Lutheran thinkers who had distorted it, 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 and through his 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, when the bullets are flying, when push comes to shove, as we live and feel the pressure of life and the strained relationship between God and neighbor.

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

via Luther, Evangelicals, and Modern Art.

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

    Huh. The author tells us Luther makes a difference in the way he encounters modern and contemporary visual art. But that’s all he tells us. It’s like telling us his friend Bob went with him on vacation, and Bob made it the best vacation ever, but never telling us where he and Bob went, or what they did, or what they saw. We don’t know any more at the end of his post than we did at the beginning.

  • Tom Hering

    Huh. The author tells us Luther makes a difference in the way he encounters modern and contemporary visual art. But that’s all he tells us. It’s like telling us his friend Bob went with him on vacation, and Bob made it the best vacation ever, but never telling us where he and Bob went, or what they did, or what they saw. We don’t know any more at the end of his post than we did at the beginning.

  • Ryan

    I’m interested to know more about how confessional tradition domesticated Luther.

  • Ryan

    I’m interested to know more about how confessional tradition domesticated Luther.

  • Tom Hering

    Ryan, yes. I’m not sure if he means a living person – with all his passions and contradictions – was turned into a set of careful formulas. Or American Lutheranism presents us with an incomplete and idealized Luther.

  • Tom Hering

    Ryan, yes. I’m not sure if he means a living person – with all his passions and contradictions – was turned into a set of careful formulas. Or American Lutheranism presents us with an incomplete and idealized Luther.

  • SKPeterson

    I think he might be referring to “Lutheran tradition” that had been domesticated, since he refers to “it.” To that extent, yes, there is a difference between pure Luther and confessional Lutheranism, from the Venn standpoint of Luther = Lutheranism, but Lutheranism ≠ Luther. I would be interested, as Ryan and Tom ask, in how this informs the appreciation of art. How does the recognition of the distinction between Law and Gospel translate into a new way of looking at, discerning the merits of, and affecting the viewer’s response to, a particular piece of art? Perhaps I’m too domesticated, because I don’t quite fathom the applicability of the approach.

  • SKPeterson

    I think he might be referring to “Lutheran tradition” that had been domesticated, since he refers to “it.” To that extent, yes, there is a difference between pure Luther and confessional Lutheranism, from the Venn standpoint of Luther = Lutheranism, but Lutheranism ≠ Luther. I would be interested, as Ryan and Tom ask, in how this informs the appreciation of art. How does the recognition of the distinction between Law and Gospel translate into a new way of looking at, discerning the merits of, and affecting the viewer’s response to, a particular piece of art? Perhaps I’m too domesticated, because I don’t quite fathom the applicability of the approach.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Heh. Good one SKP. Where else you gonna go to get your Lutheranism described in set theory notation?

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Heh. Good one SKP. Where else you gonna go to get your Lutheranism described in set theory notation?

  • Tom Hering

    SK @ 4, maybe in freeing ourselves from our expectations – whatever “Law” of art we’ve been operating under – we become open to the “Grace” that can be found in encounters with art, i.e., to the impact of something radically different? I don’t know. It’s a stretch.

  • Tom Hering

    SK @ 4, maybe in freeing ourselves from our expectations – whatever “Law” of art we’ve been operating under – we become open to the “Grace” that can be found in encounters with art, i.e., to the impact of something radically different? I don’t know. It’s a stretch.

  • Norman Teigen

    This was a great post. I found many worthwhile readings here. This is much better reading than some of your political things.

  • Norman Teigen

    This was a great post. I found many worthwhile readings here. This is much better reading than some of your political things.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/author/danielsiedell/ Daniel A. Siedell

    Hey Tom, No, I didn’t give any specifics, but rather wrote the post as a reflection on what I’ve been doing since I started writing for CULTIVARE over at Patheos a few months ago. I’d read my posts on Thomas Kinkade and Edvard Munch, especially. Thanks. Dan

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/author/danielsiedell/ Daniel A. Siedell

    Hey Tom, No, I didn’t give any specifics, but rather wrote the post as a reflection on what I’ve been doing since I started writing for CULTIVARE over at Patheos a few months ago. I’d read my posts on Thomas Kinkade and Edvard Munch, especially. Thanks. Dan

  • Tom Hering

    Dan, ah! I wasn’t aware of the context. I’ll take a look at those other writings. Thanks.

  • Tom Hering

    Dan, ah! I wasn’t aware of the context. I’ll take a look at those other writings. Thanks.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/author/danielsiedell/ Daniel A. Siedell

    I should have made it clearer in the post, but my blog is really a way for me to think through the implications for Luther’s thought in this context. Primarily, what Luther does is allow for space. I’d also read a blog post I link to “Hope Amidst the Ruins.” It’s a preview for a lecture I’m giving on Friday in Charlottesville.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/author/danielsiedell/ Daniel A. Siedell

    I should have made it clearer in the post, but my blog is really a way for me to think through the implications for Luther’s thought in this context. Primarily, what Luther does is allow for space. I’d also read a blog post I link to “Hope Amidst the Ruins.” It’s a preview for a lecture I’m giving on Friday in Charlottesville.

  • Leif

    Dan,

    Dunno if you have this planned but I’m curious to see your application of Luther against Munch’s other works: the Alpha/Omega series, Metabolism–not to mention his dealings with a person’s awareness of state in Puberty, Woman, etc. Although the Self Portrait in Hell is always a good one.

    I also have tons of other questions concerning the application of Luther to him but…that’s not for here.

    Also, read through the Thomas Kinkade articles. Really liked it. Back in the ol’ art school a good way to pass a couple hours was to get some of the grad students ranting about the banality of Kinkade. But, again, I digress. Mostly I enjoy how those posts really brought the comments out while The Scream, Damien Hirst, etc. left the crickets chirping–which, I think, speaks to the necessity of your cause.

  • Leif

    Dan,

    Dunno if you have this planned but I’m curious to see your application of Luther against Munch’s other works: the Alpha/Omega series, Metabolism–not to mention his dealings with a person’s awareness of state in Puberty, Woman, etc. Although the Self Portrait in Hell is always a good one.

    I also have tons of other questions concerning the application of Luther to him but…that’s not for here.

    Also, read through the Thomas Kinkade articles. Really liked it. Back in the ol’ art school a good way to pass a couple hours was to get some of the grad students ranting about the banality of Kinkade. But, again, I digress. Mostly I enjoy how those posts really brought the comments out while The Scream, Damien Hirst, etc. left the crickets chirping–which, I think, speaks to the necessity of your cause.

  • Leif

    I realized that I should add: that wasn’t a quip against your critique of Kinkade. It was more a critique about the lack of critique by the “art world”.

    I’ve gone over a couple of other posts now too (currently reading “Art After Fifth Grade”). I really like that you’re bringing theology to art in a manner that’s not all fire and brimstone. It’s sorely lacking since the theology that does show up typically excludes more than it includes (see your comment about Luther providing space). It’s actually one of the reasons I’ve mostly turned my back on all discussions of art via religious means. It’s hard to talk theory when a work is labelled “sin” and put back in the closet…or the minute you mention contemporary art someone yells “Piss Christ” and then you’re branded as “one of them”. Of course, I’m not sure if that’s any harder than having a comment war about Thomas Kinkade…whoo!

  • Leif

    I realized that I should add: that wasn’t a quip against your critique of Kinkade. It was more a critique about the lack of critique by the “art world”.

    I’ve gone over a couple of other posts now too (currently reading “Art After Fifth Grade”). I really like that you’re bringing theology to art in a manner that’s not all fire and brimstone. It’s sorely lacking since the theology that does show up typically excludes more than it includes (see your comment about Luther providing space). It’s actually one of the reasons I’ve mostly turned my back on all discussions of art via religious means. It’s hard to talk theory when a work is labelled “sin” and put back in the closet…or the minute you mention contemporary art someone yells “Piss Christ” and then you’re branded as “one of them”. Of course, I’m not sure if that’s any harder than having a comment war about Thomas Kinkade…whoo!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/author/danielsiedell/ Daniel A. Siedell

    Leif, Thanks for your kinds words of encouragement. Most of Munch’s work deals with weakness, frailty, failure, and vulnerability, including Puberty, one of the most remarkable paintings in modernism, I think. Dan

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/author/danielsiedell/ Daniel A. Siedell

    Leif, Thanks for your kinds words of encouragement. Most of Munch’s work deals with weakness, frailty, failure, and vulnerability, including Puberty, one of the most remarkable paintings in modernism, I think. Dan

  • rebecca w

    Interesting that you posted this as I just read a post by Mr. Siedell at Mockingbird..another favorite blog. It was very helpful to me..an admitted “modern art dunderhead”. :)

    http://www.mbird.com/2012/09/hearing-grace-in-modern-art-a-conference-breakout-preview/

  • rebecca w

    Interesting that you posted this as I just read a post by Mr. Siedell at Mockingbird..another favorite blog. It was very helpful to me..an admitted “modern art dunderhead”. :)

    http://www.mbird.com/2012/09/hearing-grace-in-modern-art-a-conference-breakout-preview/