Posts Tagged ‘art’

Book Review: The Christian, The Arts and Truth

Dear Reader,

Frank Gaebelein is one of my favorite writers on Christian education (see previous reviews of his work here and here) so I was eager to read this volume on the arts. The Christian, The Arts, and Truth [ed. D. Bruce Lockerbie (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985)] is a collection of essays which fit together fairly well. Gaebelein argues for a Christian understanding of and approach to the arts and the humanities in general.

A common theme of the book is that genius, including artistic genius, is a gift of God, falling under the heading of common grace, and that when we despise the work of non-Christians we reject what God has given (pp. 54, 64, 66, 76, 252). He urges us to judge art based on its quality and the truth it conveys, not based on the character of the artist (p. 67).

Christians should not abandon the field of art to secular society. They must engage in the arts (p. 71) and they must do so with discrimination. Gaebelein is quite critical of Christian art which finds its only justification in being Christian and ignores standards of beauty and taste. “[I]inferior art,” he tells us, “doesn’t become true and good art because it is baptized by religious usage” (p. 65).

What then are the standards by which art –both Christian and non-Christian — should be judged? Gaebelein holds up the Scriptures, themselves a piece of art, as the standard of excellence (p. 70) and looks to them for answers. It is important to note, however, that while truth is always truth, beauty is not inherently true but can be used to communicate lies (p. 47). Those fields which are most subjective, including the arts, are most prone to corruption (pp. 74-5, 127). What Gaebeleien most looks for in art, then, is truth. He goes on to delineate four marks of truth in art: durability (ability to speak to other eras), unity (of form and structure with meaning), integrity, and inevitability (pp. 86-93). Integrity demands that each part of the work contribute to the whole and inevitability is that quality that makes you hear or see a new piece of art and say, “ah, this is how it should be.”

Gaebelein goes on to discuss various specific topics related to his overall theme: education, music (with a chapter in Beethoven particularly), literature (with a chapter on Pilgrim’s Progress), and social justice. I cannot relate all of this (and you should read the book yourself), but here are some of the points which most struck me:

In the context of his discussion of the arts and education, Gaebelein makes a plea for high standards, the highest standards in fact. His call is for excellence, a standard which cannot be measured by human means:

“There is a kind of comparison of one person with another, a considering of student achievement through marks, rating scales, and objective test results, that is essential to education. But necessary as all of this is, it falls far short of the ultimate concept of excellence.” (p. 143)

Though Gaebelein here does not explicitly argue against classical models of education, he does point us again and again to God and His Word as the proper models of excellence. It is these he identifies with the “vision of greatness” which Alfred North Whitehead called for in his oft-repeated: “‘Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness'” (p. 189).

I have argued for a fairly non-standardized form of education and I was happy to see theological arguments for this. In addition to arguing for high standards by which to measure knowledge, Gaebelien, following Pascal, also argues that we must allow independent, unique thought:

“In other words, one of the great marks of man’s uniqueness is his God-given capacity to think. Consequently, anything that diminishes our thinking tends to dehumanize us through making us less than what God created us to be.” (p. 152)

In his section on literature, Gaebelein shows how even non-believing authors used to be quite immersed in biblical language which infiltrated their writing, both through direct references and in terms of style. This is actually quite a convicting section. Most of us today, I fear, just don’t have this deep familiarity with the Scriptures.

Of course, Christian writers (hopefully) have something more as well. Gaebelien uses a German word Weltanschauung which roughly translates to “worldview” to describe it.  It is “a God-centered view of life and the world” which “will color all of his work and all of his thinking”  (p. 186). Such a pervasive perspective is not limited to writers but should be held by all Christians no matter their field. This is an idea we have seen in a number of writers (and I have argued for something similar in education). Gaebelein here sums it up well. I have struggled to find just the right word to encapsulate the idea and I like the appeal to a German term as it takes it beyond our usual vocabulary (“worldview” etc.) which has a tendency to get quite trite and overused.

The Christian, The Arts, and Truth has a lot to recommend it. Gaebelein presents a vision that is quite compelling. It is hard not to be inspired and humbled by his devotion to the Word of God. The book itself comes in manageable chunks and is easy to read. Overall, this is a book well worth one’s time.







Bavinck on Art

Dear Reader,

As a part of my series in search of a reformed theology of education, I have been trying to read all I can on the topic by reformed writers. I recently picked up a selection of essays by Herman Bavinck entitled Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). I was a little intimidated to dive into Bavinck but am pleasantly surprised to find that, though I can’t understand everything he says (a lot of it has to do with not knowing the people he is talking about),  for the most part his writing is pretty accessible.

There are some great essays in this volume and I will certainly get to the ones that deal directly with education. Today I’d like to look at “Of Beauty and Aesthetics.” What follows is my narration of Bavinck’s article. As such it has fewer direct quotes and page numbers.

To understand art, we must understand beauty. Beauty precedes art. We know this because there is beauty in nature which predates art. But beyond this, beauty exists apart from Creation with God Himself. Bavinck equates Beauty (capital “B”) with God’s glory. We often think of beauty as a sensory thing, because we appreciate art or nature through our senses (sight, hearing, etc.). But animals have these senses and they have no appreciation for beauty. So we know that there is something more to it. There is a spiritual aspect to beauty.  

In this beauty is like truth and goodness, other things which animals, amoral creatures that they are, cannot grasp. In fact, these three, though distinct, are related in that they all proceed from and are defined by the Godhead. As God is Truth (John 14:6) and as His character defines what is Good (Mark 10:18), so His glory is the definition of Beauty. The beauty that we see in nature is a reflection of this Beauty. It is meant to point us beyond this world to its Creator. 

They say art imitates nature and to some extent this is true. But it is also more than a derivative of a derivative. The connection between art and the beauty of nature comes from their common source (again, in God’s Beauty).  

The ability to create art is a gift from God (Exod. 36:1-2) and while we all have it to some extent, it is different in each of us. Some are certainly more gifted than others. 

Art is different from science or craft in that its ultimate purpose is not utilitarian. It exists for its own sake. 

Modern approaches to art tend to focus on the material, on what we can experiment with. They talk about the artist — his social and historical situation, for example. And they talk about psychology — how we perceive art and how it affects us. We can analyze what elements of a painting affect us and make us call it beautiful. We can devise lists of criteria having to do with colors and lines and what makes one piece “beautiful” and another not. Bavinck acknowledges that there is some value in all this. It is worth doing, but it is not and should not be the whole of our study of art because it ignores the very real, spiritual element.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Bavinck on the value and purpose of beauty in our world:

“Beauty thus discloses us to ourselves and also grants us another, new glimpse into nature and humanity. It deepens, broadens, enriches our inner life, and it lifts us for a moment above the dreary, sinful, sad reality; beauty also brings cleansing, liberation, revival to our burdened and dejected hearts . . .

“Beauty is the harmony that still shines through the chaos in the world . . .it is prophecy and guarantee that this world is not destined for ruin but for glory — a glory for which there is a longing deep in every human heart.” (p. 259)



Book Review: A Meaningful World

Dear Reader,

I bought A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt looking for something for my artsy child to read. My son had read some of Wiker’s books when he studied political philosophy and we had found them very accessible and enjoyable, especially given the complexity of the subject. While Meaningful World is not quite what I was looking for when I purchased it, it still gets a definite “must read” recommendation from me.

This book is an amazing amalgamation of literature, philosophy, science, theology and art. Beginning with Shakespeare and moving through chemistry and biology, touching on astrophysics and subatomic physics, this book shows how materialistic reductionism has invaded scholarship across the board and, more importantly, why it ultimately fails. The book ends with what is essentially a plea for the scholarly community to abandon  this approach which the authors see as a once working theory which, though it has yielded some greater insights, has now been disproven.

What is materialistic reductionism? Simply put, it is the assumption that the material world is all there is. Beginning with this presupposition, the authors show, leads to a reductionism in that everything, from Shakespeare to  the cow, is seen as no more than its most basic elements. As Shakespeare is a combination of words which might equally as well have been typed by monkeys given enough time (the real world rebuttal of this oft-quoted theory alone makes this book worth reading), so the cow is nothing more than its DNA, a random sequence of proteins arising without meaning from a chemical soup.

The counterview which Wiker and Witt espouse is stated simply: “the universe is meaning-full” (p. 15). If it were not, there would be no point to science, and the more one delves into it, the more meaning one finds.

There is a lot here and this is a dense book. I am quite in awe of its authors’ breadth of knowledge. It was not what I was looking for simply because it is too dense and packed with scientific info for my artsy high-schooler. I am, however, going to have her and her more mathematically inclined brother read selections from it. A Meaningful World is an enjoyable and challenging read for advanced high shcoolers and up and I would definitely give a copy to any student heading off to college to study sciences (and possibly also literature and mathematics).



Book Review: The Liberated Imagination

Dear Reader,

I recently finished Leland Ryken’s The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts. This is my third (I think?) Ryken book and my overall impression of it is much the same as the others — a pretty good book that made me think but the author and I are not 100% on the same page when it comes to things Christian and theological.

I am not very informed when it comes to art, and especially to art criticism and the theory behind it, but I have one child who is  a born artist; my intention is to have her read this book next school year (she’ll be in 10th grade then; this is high school level or above). Though I’m sure I didn’t get all of what Ryken was saying since I am not familiar with other Christian works on art, this was not a very hard read. It was just newer material for me. There is a lot of what Ryken said, about education and literature particularly, that I liked and agreed with. I don’t know if he has ever heard of Charlotte Mason but I think he’d like her educational philosophy.

I’ll start with the negatives so as to not end on a down note. My sense from this and the other books I’ve read by Ryken is that his Christian slant is different than mine. In this context, discussing art and the Christian, it becomes clear that we have very different views of how worship should look. This is not a huge surprise since my view, and that of my denomination, the RPCNA, is pretty counter-cultural these days. I adhere to the regulative principle which says we should only worship God how He has told us to. What this means is no modern music (only psalms a capella), no statues, no pictires, etc. Obviously, this is going to lead to some difference when we start talking about using art to the glory of God. I believe art, of all kinds, can still be done to the glory of God, but most of it is going to happen outside of the corporate worship of the Church. Ryken doesn’t spend a lot of time on how art can and should figure into worship an dperhaps it is unfair to expect him to devote too much time to this topic but it is an issue Christians need to consider.

Beyond this, I think there is a deeper theological divide between us. Ryken, as he has in other books, seems at time to disparage the truth of the Bible. He speaks of “fantasy” in the Bible (p. 45). I will admit that many prophetic passages are fantastical, but when we label them “fantasy” with no caveat we imply that they are not true. I do believe such passages are true on at least the level that the prophet truly saw what he reports.

Near the end of the book Ryken speaks on people as being “capable of moral and spiritual choice” and even “capable of redemption” (p. 235). As a reformed Christian, I would not speak this way. His language goes even beyond the idea common in our day that people are free to choose the salvation provided by Christ. When he talks of being “capable of redemption” he implies that we have a hand, at least, in our own redemption, an idea which I utterly reject.

Despite these differences, Ryken does have  a lot to say that I like. His view of the role of art is good. When he mentions education, he is right on target, and his view of leisure time is quite interesting. I may come back to these ideas in future posts.

By far my favorite part of this book is how Ryken relates ideas and art. This is where he sounds particularly CM. “Art,” he says, “aims to convey not primarily the facts of life but the truth and meaning of those facts. Art is not about things as they are, but about things as they matter” (p. 26). He makes an intriguing and well-taken point that if we could boil down a work of art (I term I use broadly here to include music and literature as well) to just a list of ideas than we could just read those ideas, we would not need the art (p. 128). But this is not the case. We cannot remove the ideas from their casing, if you will. This is why, in a Charlotte Mason education, we give ideas in the form of living books (and art and music). It is not just a candy coating that makes the ideas palatable. The form, the environment the ideas come in, is just as important as the ideas themselves. You cannot take one without the other. The picture I get is not of ideas, like vitamins, in a sugary coating that is the art or living books, but of two vitamins which the body cannot absorb wthout each other. Both are vital but they must enter together.

But I am digressing but Ryken’s book. Here is how he puts it:

“Exactly what is it that enables the arts to express enduring truth? What do they add to the facts that the news does not? They give us the event plus the meaning. A science textbook gives us the physical facts about nature; a Constable landscape painting or a nature lyric by Wordsworth gives us a sense of the moral meaning of a landscape.” (p. 34)

Thus art (and again I speak of it here in all its forms) illuminates reality (p. 110); it opens is to new experiences (p. 36); it teaches us to cope with our problems (p. 27).

Ryken goes beyond this and, acknowledging that not all ideas are good and true (p. 126), gives us tools to analyze and consider art from a Christian perspective (see pp. 145, 152-53, 169-70, 172-73). Here I find his work very valuable on a practical level, especially as I have children who will be looking at and evaluating nay kinds of art.

Though Ryken and I might not see eye to eye on a number of very important issues, his book was quite helpful and I did enjoy reading it. More than that, I am quite happy to have found it for my daughter as it is a quite accessible, practical and helpful introduction to the topic of art and art criticism from a Christian perspective.


Intro to Art History

Dear Reader,

I have one child who has always had a passion for art. Though we have covered art history in various ways in the past, mostly through picture study, I wanted to give her something more organized this year that could count as a high school fine arts credit. Next year we are going to try AP Art History so I am calling this year’s work “Intro to Art History.” Keep reading to find out what we used and how we went about it.


Intro to Art History


Look! by Anne D’Avella – Someone had given me this thin book about looking at art. It is a nice introduction to how we analyze a work of art. I had my daughter read it first. We spent 2 weeks, or about 8 sittings, on it, which given the length of the book is not at all burdensome.

The Story of Painting from Cave Painting to Modern Times by Horst W. and Dora Jane Janson – There are a lot of “story of art” books out there. Of the ones I had easy access to, this seemed the most readable while still being fairly thorough. It is a fairly dense book so the readings I assigned were short. As is our custom, the assignment was “read and narrate, read and narrate.”

How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters by Patrick De Rynck – This book analyzes various works of art. I divided up the readings and interspersed them with those from The Story . . . so that she was looking at the works of art from the time she was reading about.


Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection Sister Wendy is a nun who did a series of videos on art history. I had my daughter watch a segment about every other week to get through them all in a school year. One warning though: Sister Wendy is not afraid of the raunchy. She doesn’t shy away from nudes and the like.

How we went about it:

For most of the school year, my daughter was doing readings 4 days a week. The first two weeks, as I said, she did Look! The next 18 or so weeks she did readings from the other two books. If you want to see how I divided up the readings, you can find them here (opens a Google doc). She also watched the video every other week.

After the reading portion was done, I had her do two kinds of assignments. First she analyzed a few paintings. I made up my own sheets for her to use for this to guide in her considering form, composition, etc. You can find that sheet here. It’s wonderful to be able to go to a museum to do this, but if you can’t do that, you can always look at paintings online.

The second assignment was a term paper on some topic in art history. While the topic was up to her, I provided some help by providing a list of sample topics that I thought would work well. Once she had a topic — she initially picked mythology in art and then we narrowed it down to paintings depicting Bacchus and Ariadne — I helped her find works that fit her topic. I gave a longer list and she narrowed it down to three. Then I had her analyze each of the three. The next step was to find something to say about the three and to write it up. She is still working on this so I will report back on how it all turns out.

Additional Resources:

These are resources we have used in the past or will in the future.

A Child’s History of Art by V.M. Hillyer — Hillyer’s works are aimed at a younger age but he has enough to say to make them useful to the older student as well, especially on with not much of a background in art. Sometimes his books are found as thinner volumes such as A History of Sculpture, A History of Architecture, etc. or you may find them combined in a one volume set.

Adventures in Art from Cornerstone Curriculum is a wonderful curriculum that we have used in the past. It comes with instructions that make it easy to adapt to a Charlotte Mason curriculum. I felt that it really helped us learn how to look at art.

How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer – Schaeffer looks at western civilization through Christian eyes and in the process discusses movements in art. I think it is a higher level book and we plan to read it next year. Schaeffer is quoted heavily by Adventures in Art. There is also a video series.

The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts by Leland Ryken – I am reading this book now (review to come soon, I am sure) and plan to have my daughter read it next. It is easier to digest than Schaeffer. It is not about the movements in art, however, but about how Christians should do and understand art.


Beauty, Truth, and Art

Dear Reader,

I have a few things percolating around in my brain these days. One is a quote I heard at the homeschool conference that amounts to: “There is a perfect standard for beauty just as there is for truth or goodness.” This makes sense to me, but I had never thought of it that way. I think I would have always said that while some things, because of their morality, or lack thereof, are definitively ugly, that there is a lot of variation in what can be called beautiful. That beauty is in the eye of the beholder so to speak. But, as was said at the conference, there is only one Beholder (notice the capital “B”) who matters.

The other piece which is floating around in my brain is really a large clump of ideas from Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live. This book is a Christian classic (in the sense at east that lots of people talk about it and name-drop it) and so I thought I should finally read it. I am enjoying it for the most part. It is basically a history of western culture and thought from the Middle Ages on. As such it moves pretty quickly and an expert in any of the areas it touches on might find it too brief I suspect. But for a relative neophyte like me, it is quite enough. At times I find myself a bit lost, particularly when Schaeffer discusses various more modern philosophies. It is not Schaeffer’s presentation which is at fault but my own ability to comprehend these philosophies. I would like to think that it is really an issue of the philosophies themselves being rather preposterous rather than my own lack of intellectual ability, but who knows. I also really don’t think that most of the people I know (since leaving grad school at least) ever think about these issues directly or subscribe knowingly to the philosophies, but it is good to know what may be behind the books we read, the movies we see, the music we listen to, etc., so as to be able to detect the subtle undercurrents which may be affecting us.

I haven’t finished Schaeffer’s book yet but the particular nugget that is ponging around in my brain right now (picture the old video game Pong; you know what I mean?) has to do with what he says about the Impressionists. They, according to Schaeffer, represent the stage at which philosophy, having done away with any sort of higher power, has led to a fragmentation. There is no over-arching structure to give it all meaning. The Impressionists show this in their work by the fuzziness of their pictures, the points, the lines, etc., which give the impression of a scene without actually showing it clearly. They haven’t quite got to the complete meaninglessness which will come later, but without a larger perspective to give life cohesion, it is all beginning to fall apart.

Now I have always liked Impressionistic paintings best so I am left wondering do they merit my praise? If they are depicting a philosophy which I don’t subscribe to, should I not like them? Even if I say that they are a representation of what the world without God becomes (falling apart, disjointed, not clear) — this is a kind of truth, but it also would tend to make them less estimable in my eyes.

No, what I see when I look at a Monet is, I think, the opposite. I see how the points of color, which seem so disjointed and almost random, come together to create an image which is lovely. Perhaps this is not what their creators intended, but it is what I see. How even when man can’t see, or doesn’t represent, the whole picture, the whole, like a hidden meaning, is still there behind it all and can’t help shining through. It is like how all the little creatures and blades of grass sin my lawn come together to make an ecosystem– a larger unit with meaning that works together, a greater whole.

So I am wrong? Is Schaeffer wrong? Is there a right way to understand these paintings? Are the beautiful in an absolute sense? Who decides? I don’t really know.