When Art Disrupts Religion: An Interview with Philip Salim Francis

Headshot of Philip Salim Francis. He is situated in the left hand quadrant of the frame, wearing a dark blazer and a white shirt with a black tie. He is in front of a door with white paneling. His hair is slightly curled on top and he has a bemused expression on his face. Just released by Oxford University Press, When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind has received praise from such leading scholars as David Morgan and Randall Balmer. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed the author, Philip Salim Francis.

Image: Your book has the provocative title When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. In a few words, what’s the thesis of the book?

Philip Salim Francis: I’m trying to make the case that the arts have the ability to unsettle and rework deeply ingrained religious beliefs and practices—perhaps like nothing else can. Modern aesthetic theory, as you know, is obsessed with the “disruptive capacities” of aesthetic experience. I wanted to test the limits of these claims through ethnographic study: could art disrupt and reconfigure the religious identity of even a people who had been steeped—for a lifetime—in the more conservative strains of twentieth century American evangelicalism? And if so, how would that all play out on the ground? [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 4

Painting of Socrates standing in the center of a nondescript area, with his arm raised. He is lecturing to a crowd of men who are gathered around him, some lounging, others standing, but all looking towards Socrates in the center of the circle. They are wearing togas. The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

I’m enjoying this conversation but at times I worry that you’re playing Glaucon to my Socrates. In other words, just egging the “master” on. I want to be sure you’re not just tossing up softballs for me to take a swing at. You’re a professionally trained philosopher; I’ve never taken a philosophy class in my life. So don’t hesitate to take a real swing…at me!

Now I don’t want to bog the conversation down in quibbles but I worry that semantic differences and definitions may be getting in the way. You’re getting at this when you accuse me of doing a “bait and switch” in defining beauty—messing with the “registers.”

My point about Donatello’s Mary Magdalene was that the work of art can take what is ugly—a ragged, gaunt, old woman—and transform that ugliness into a form of beauty—a simultaneous perception of spiritual beauty inhering in outward brokenness. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 3

Image of Donatello's Mary Magdalene sculpture. Mary is standing slightly to her left side, with her hands clasped together. She is looking off towards the right of the frame, slightly, and looks haggard, and is wearing a ragged dress.Today Morgan Meis continues his periodic exchanges with Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

Dear Greg,

Thanks for your response to my latest “challenge,” as you put it, on the question of beauty. I love all the things you have to say and find myself both moved and convinced by the nuanced, complicated version of beauty you’ve put forward.

Or I should say…almost convinced. Alas, there are still a couple of sticking points for me. But what did you expect?

I’m extremely glad you brought up the Donatello statue. I had the chance to see the Penitent Magdalene on a trip to Florence some years ago. Like many a great work of art, there’s nothing like being in its physical presence. Pictures don’t do it justice.

You describe Donatello’s Magdalene as “a hollow-eyed, ragged figure.” That she is. I would go even further and say that she is downright ugly. [Read more…]

My Bad Italy Novel

Caravaggio's painting of Saint Matthew's inspiration. Matthew stands partially kneeling on a tall stool, looking upwards to an angel who is giving him words. As Michelangelo looks up towards the young angel, he also writes.February is offseason in Rome, so today the city is a little gray, a little quiet, if ever it could be such a thing. I’m standing on the steps of San Luigi Dei Francesi church, buzzing a little from a sugary espresso.

I’m gearing up to enter the church and see, for the fourth time in my life, one of the most gorgeous triptychs ever painted: Caravaggio’s Life of St. Matthew, comprised of The Calling, The Inspiration, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.

I’ve thought about these paintings so many times since I first saw them as a doe-eyed twenty-one-year-old that I can conjure their presence as fast as I can start my car:

Matthew at a table strewn with coins in a dark tavern, a slice of light preceding a burly Peter and a chiseled Jesus, who lifts a languid finger towards him; gray and bearded Matthew hunched over a scroll with a quill, an angel hovering above his head; Matthew splayed over a pit, one hand up, waiting to be stabbed a second time.

The only problem, aside from a stabbing pain in my right foot, is that there are two Italian soldiers guarding the church doors. They have berets perched on their angular heads, looking both jovial and severe; one of them is smoking a cigarette, the other is making funny faces at a toddler. They wear bulletproofs vests over their thick chests and over those they hold matching M-16s.

I am wearing a silly brown hat with a wide, flat brim, which serves the triune purpose of keeping the Roman sun off out of my eyes, covering my bald spot, and declaring, if it wasn’t obvious enough already, that I am an American. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 2

Maddalena_di_Donatello_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n03The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

Thanks for throwing down this particular gauntlet. Yes, we adopted Dostoevsky’s phrase from The Idiot, where one of the characters attributes the saying “beauty will save the world” to the eponymous hero of the novel, Prince Myshkin.

I’m well aware that any slogan or mantra can quickly become a stand-in for real thought, for Jacob-and-the-angel wrestling with difficult, complex subjects. Neither I nor the extended Image community is immune from that sort of danger.

We acknowledged that a while back when we published an entire symposium on the topic of “The Word-Soaked World: Troubling the Lexicon of Faith” in issue #75. The purpose there was to interrogate and “trouble” frequently invoked terms (art, faith, mystery!) that had become anodyne through thoughtlessness and over-usage.

And just for the benefit of readers wanting to pursue these issues further, I would point out that I’ve dealt with some of your challenges in essays like “The Wound of Beauty” and “The Tragic Sense of Life.”

Given the large amount of historical baggage attached to the word beauty, it is never going to be a word that we can use without qualms and qualifications. That’s why T.S. Eliot once wrote:

We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory. [Read more…]