Artists Struggling with Evangelicalism 4

VanGogh.jpgOne of the more interesting artists in the history of the West is Vincent Van Gogh.  One of the more fascinating dimensions of Van Gogh’s art was his expression of hope in bright yellow colors, and the absence of such colors in his famous Starry Night was a reflection of his soul’s melancholic state. So, David Hempton examines the faith story of Van Gogh in his new book, Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt.


I apologize for the rest of this post disappearing … but I’ll try again.

Van Gogh grew up in a religious home with a religious (Dutch Calvinism) history. He made great strides in his faith as a young man as he internalized so much of it. With his depressive temperament, he leaned heavily in the direction of a more severe, hardships-shaped, and single-minded approach to his evangelical faith. In fact, he come to the view that only those who gave thmselves to the poor, as Jesus did, were living out genuine Christianity.

He moved to England as a young man and did some preaching, and his preaching emphasized life as a journey through hardships. “The water comes up to the lips,” he observed, “but higher it comes not.”

He returned to Holland, contemplated going through the seminary program at the university, didn’t seem to find a way to complete the entrance exams in languages, ended up at more of a Bible college type school, and became a missions pastor to a poor mining community … he didn’t do well … they moved him to another community … he didn’t do well … he eventually had to find other work and it was this experience, along with some broken loves, that cracked his evangelical faith.

Seeing the poor became his religion — God was with the poor and miserable and desolate and lonely and that’s where God can be seen.

StillLife.jpgHere he begins to articulate a new faith, a faith in the aesthetic and faith that went way beyond the system of thinking: “there is something which I cannot define in a system though it is very much alive and very real, and [I] see that as God, or just as good as God.” And, “I think that everything which is really good and beautiful — of inner moral, spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works — comes from God.” Love was for him the more excellent way; only love. In fact, he told his brother that those who fall in love over and over are more serious and holier than those who sacrifice their love and hearts to an idea.

Van Gogh’s faith shifted from an evangelical faith to a faith in the expressive beauty. In the picture we have here we see Van Gogh’s faith shifting from a Bible to Emile Zola’s famous novel about the joy of life, which was little more than a capacity to live above the unsolvable riddles and ironies of life.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tom

    Blue’s as true as yellow in my experience.

  • Diane

    Scot,
    Shouldn’t there be a “read more” with this post?

  • RJS

    Diane,
    I think you’re right – This certainly seems to be just the introduction. Perhaps more will come…

  • Scot McKnight

    I am sorry … somehow the rest of the post disappeared. The writing box for this program, Movable Type, is hypersensitive, and my only guess is that when I made some “highlight, delete” move in editing this post, I highlighted the rest of it and deleted it ..
    We are about to leave for the airport to go up to Edmonton Canada and I can’t recall the rest.
    I’ll redo this post when we get back.

  • Scot McKnight

    We had a few more minutes than I thought so I sat down and wrote up the second part again … it should appear in awhile. This system takes a while to clear and redo the cache.

  • Your Name

    This is off topic, but since we’re talking about the blog function, does it seem like there is less participation since we’ve moved to Beliefnet? On the old site it seemed that there were usually around 30 comments per post and sometimes many more than that. This is only intuitive, I have’t counted, but it seems like there are many fewer comments over here…

  • John Meadows

    Maybe it’s partly because this site is harder to use. I had my name on the previous post. Then I go to post and it needs to be refreshed before I type the scurity code. I that my name has disappeared before jumping through the hoops, and when my post comes up it says “Your Name”. Sorry, I didn’t intend for it to be anonymous.

  • John Meadows

    There you go. Perhaps there are fewer post because this infernal thiing is so difficult to use. I tried to put on another post to explain that I didn’t intend for my previous post to be anonymous, but when I went to post it asked to be refreshed and then my name disappeared and I didn’t notice. So I put up that post with apparently no problem… but it never showed up… maybe people just give up…

  • RJS

    This is an interesting sketch. The previous examples from Hempton’s book all seemed “typical” – that is similar elements to many of the other stories I’ve heard.
    Van Gogh is different – his story seems foreign to my experience. I wonder if this is really a different form – an artist struggling with evangelicalism rather than an intellectual struggling with evangelicalism. Does Van Gogh’s story resonate with many?

  • Diane

    Van Gogh’s journals resonate with me. I feel sad that his church couldn’t support his leading to live and serve among the poor. I do think he poured his religion into his art and that’s what we respond to when we see it.

  • Diane

    This site is more difficult to use, though, at least for me, it has gotten better recently. I e-mail Scot to complain; he does what he can!

  • http://waynepark.com Wayne Park

    Van Gogh’s tragic end always made me uncomfortable, from my days as a Fine Arts student in undergrad and now as a graduate Divinity student. He was brilliant, no doubt about it – but in a way that didn’t really fit into the context of his time. He was a misfit. And whether it is a religious institution or secular, he was just from a different mold – and the institution didn’t know what to do with him. Makes me wonder about the (young) pastor of today. Do we fit the mold of the institution today? Does that necessarily determine our value or dare I even say… “success” as a minister???

  • John Meadows

    Very wierd. Now I have three posts in a row above. My second post never showed, so I put up a third one which appeared in timely fashion. Now, hours later, I come back and the second one is there, and they are in the order I origionally wrote them. OK I’m feeling like a bother. I promise not to say anymore unless it’s on topic.
    Speaking of topic, I knew Van Gough had a Christian background, but did not know of his ministry aspirations early on. Interesting… he had to fail at what he wanted to do in order to find what God had enormously gifted him to do.

  • Michelle

    Sorry so long…
    I resonate very much with this. I am not overly famaliar with the ins and outs of Van Gogh’s story….but I often wonder, right or wrong…if too much credit is given to the intellect?
    Think of poetry, think of lines of poetry on a page, think of the same lines of poetry spoken, think of the same lines spoken with passion, think of the same lines spoken with passion on a mountain top in the middle of summer, as the sun begins to set…. Can reason explain how each can bring about a different emotion? Sure…one can talk chemical reactions, the amygdala, the limbic system, the sensory cortex, etc….but passion…nature…beauty…the intellect – cannot touch.
    But really…intellect?? Reason?? It has it’s place…but it’s not everything for me. I have found over time…There are very bright people, with little education. There are educated people, that are really not very bright. All education means is that one has learned a certain language: the language of economics, of theology, of math, etc…one has become an expert at a language through study. However, how does that equate to wisdom/love? I often am perplexed and haunted by the lack of concern for humanity…in my life and the lives of those around me. Love/beauty…I feel, is in everyone….no program, no amt of money, no service project, no small group, no economic system, no government program – can ever take the place of walking in another person’s humanity. I struggle…with evangelicalism…where is the love? The humanity? The spirit? The passion?
    Hmmm…I like this, “In fact, he told his brother that those who fall in love over and over are more serious and holier than those who sacrifice their love and hearts to an idea.”
    Why do I like this? …One can analyze, criticize, study, break, build, a government, a political system, a philosophy, an equation, a bill, an issue….but to turn this criticism, analysis, study on one owns heart, it’s deceptions, inconsistencies, fears, is rare. A heart is not tested by reason. To protect a heart is as C.S. Lewis says:
    ” There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. . ” CS Lewis
    I am not convinced by evangelicalism. I am convinced by those who’s hearts are vulnerable. That is real. To me. That is what I will follow. And…none is more vulnerable than the poor. I learn from the poor. I learn the state of my heart. I learn of my greed, my selfishness, my everything. Yes…I resonate with Much of this…I struggle with this idea of love, the poor, and evangelicalism….I struggle…

  • Dianne P

    Our home is filled with prints of Van Gogh (cheap copies, really, from museum shops). As a family we have been captivated by his art.
    On our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband and I spent hours in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. For those who have the opportunity, I highly recommend it. Be prepared to be overwhelmed. It is an experience.
    I greatly enjoy hearing these stories of his background. More, please.

  • Your Name

    I love Van Gogh. His work has always affected me viscerally. I remember seeing a very small self-portrait, maybe 11″ x 14″. In this huge room surrounded by canvases of varying sizes, some dwarfing the little portrait, this image overwhelmed everything else. I came into the room determined to visit each image, but try as I might my eyes kept being drawn back to the little Van Gogh. What was it I asked, that something so small cast such a glamour upon me. I finally gave up and went to gaze upon the image. What did I discover. I found that the image of the artist was a thin form, a surface, but beneath that surface in the swirls lurked the pure creative inspiration, the primal and eternal Presence. Somehow the artist was able to reveal his inspiration, that which continuously acted upon and through him. There was beauty, and awe, all wrapped up in an 11″ x 14″ painting. Now I understood Van Gogh.
    His practical philosophy is one I very much identify with. Let our spiritual walks be grounded in a poverty of “self” and a fullness of the Divine in any all its many guises. Let the singularity of God be our ever-present state and from that state reflect through us as summer sun reflecting through a million melting shards of ice. Let us like that ice not resist, but simply trans-form from cold hard form to the liquid essential of all life. This is the way, and even if our journey takes us through suffering, it will not imprison us within, but instead remove layers of illusion, revealing the light that is common to each and every form.


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