If God’s in It, Is It Art?

If God’s in It, Is It Art? July 12, 2016

Religious art. Crucifixion Daniel Faust (American, born 1956) Date: 1984 Medium: Silver dye bleach print
Edgy Christian art: “Crucifixion,” American photographer Daniel Faust’s gritty 1984 reinterpretation of an ancient theme. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Silver dye bleach print.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

It’s the twenty-first century. Skepticism and secularism abound in the modern/post-modern West — in popular culture, in academia, and in the world of literature and art. Which raises the question for those of us who are both spiritual seekers and wannabe

Religious art. Raphael's "The Agony in the Garden." Raphael's work, known for its sweetness, has fallen out of favor in modern times. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced by permission.
Raphael’s “The Agony in the Garden.” Would Raphael be edgier if he were at work today. His paintings, known for their sweetness, have fallen out of favor in modern times. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced by permission.

artists: can a religious person be a real artist these days? Or does one have to put on the armor of edgy cynicism to be taken seriously?

Michelangelo, perhaps the West’s most accomplished artist ever, was a devout Catholic. Bach, a Lutheran, wrote glorious church music. Dante boldly took as the subject of his poetry all of heaven, hell and purgatory .

Great artists all. But this is the modern era. Can art, if it is to be great, address matters spiritual?

In his introduction to Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image (Eerdmans, 2009), Gregory Wolfe quotes a 2008 New Republic literary critic who asserts that “the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with a shock how complete it is.”

But Wolfe goes on to argue that God’s absence from the modern art scene is far from complete. He points out that books by three “intensely Christian writers” have held top spots in the New York Times tally of Americans’ favorite twentieth century novels. The authors? Marilynne Robinson, John Updike and Cormac McCarthy.

Wolfe is the founder of Image, a journal based on the premise that art and faith are not mutually exclusive. Four times a year, Image offers fiction, non-fiction, poetry and criticism, along with several glossy pages devoted to the visual arts.

Religious art. Shabti of Isis, Singer of the Aten Date:ca. 1353–1336 B.C. Medium: Limestone Accession Number: 66.99.38 Location: The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 122
Shabti of Isis, ca. 1353–1336 B.C.E. Religious art goes way back. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Bearing the Mystery collection presents the work of nearly seventy writers and more than twenty visual artists, all gleaned from the pages of Image journal’s first twenty years. Some of the artists address Christian or Jewish themes directly. Others explore the spiritual questions less overtly. The writers include Ron Hansen, Denise Levertov, Marilyn Nelson, Ann Pachett, Kathleen Norris and Richard Rodriguez.

And so, if you are wondering whether it’s possible to grapple with issues of religion and spirituality and still maintain your artistic integrity — and twenty-first century sophistication — maybe this book is the place to get some answers.

Read my my post on why John Shelby Spong’s thinks some aspects of  Christianity are not relevant today. More about my own book at WrestlingWithGodBook.com.

"The Religions of Man / The World's Religions (I have both editions!) is essential reading. ..."

Huston Smith — A Spiritual Companion ..."
"I have the book "The World's Religions", which I read in tandem with Alan Watt's ..."

Huston Smith — A Spiritual Companion ..."
"I love the prayer you wrote and the story behind it. Most of the words ..."

Can A Christian Say Kaddish for ..."
"So true. I notice that when I'm in a mode where I am able to ..."

I’m Not a Sinner and Neither ..."

Browse Our Archives