The Arts and Religion: Some links

500 years ago today, Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were displayed for the first time. Appreciations here and here. As one of the world’s greatest and most popular works of art, the Sistine Chapel is inundated by visitors and Vatican policy focuses more on crowd control than on appreciation. I wonder if it’s even possible, given the press of people and time limitations, to experience Michelangelo’s work spiritually rather than as a tourist checking off another item on the list.

In a very different vein, Jesus the Artist. Pete Enns writes about the artistry of the parables, and the artistry of God:

Like any work of art, stories “create” new ways of seeing the world—and it is, after all, a new world that Jesus means to create.

Let me put this another way: Jesus himself communicated the deep mysteries of a new way of being through the use of such things as vivid imagery, symbolism, metaphors, and other devices common to artistic expression. In fact, the incarnation, God in human flesh, is not a debate or argument about the nature of God that appeals primarily to the intellect. It is a vivid—and true—demonstration, a portrait, of a radically new and mysterious way of thinking about God, the world, and our place in it.

If this is how God chooses to communicate at the incarnation—the very climax and epicenter of his story—we should not be surprised to see God painting vivid portraits elsewhere in Scripture. This is especially true of Genesis and creation. Something so fundamental to God’s story may need to be told in a way that transcends the limitations of purely intellectual engagement. Genesis may be written more to show us—by grabbing us with its images than laying out a timeline of cause and effect events—that God is the central figure on the biblical drama.

And in a short, confused, and confusing essay, Camille Paglia decries the secularism of contemporary art. Identifying herself as an atheist, she begins with memories of the images at St. Anthony of Padua church in Endicott, NY, describes Andy Warhol’s famous images of Marilyn Monroe as an iconostasis, and complains that “the current malaise in the fine arts is partly due to the rote secularism of the Western professional class, who inhabit a sophisticated but increasingly soulless high-tech world.”

Camille, you can’t have it both ways.

Bad Religious Art–It’s not just to laugh at

The 11 most Unintentionally Hilarious Religious Paintings are here. One of the painters represented on the list is Jon McNaughton. Among his most famous paintings is this:

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke, comments on the significance McNaughton’s vision of America:

It is easy for art critics to scowl at McNaughton’s pictures as preachy, partisan, and cheesy. Their solemnity and their illustrational literalism tempt many observers to dismiss them as propaganda or kitsch. And Wake Up America! certainly seems more political cheerleading than artistic vision. But simply scorning the work misses the opportunity to understand something powerful moving through many religious sub-cultures in the United States today. These groups do not distinguish between religion and politics the way that many commentators and cultural analysts would prefer. For McNaughton and his admirers, as well as many more, there is nothing at all absurd about Jesus holding the Constitution as a sacred artifact, as evidence of his authorial intent.

Yet intent is complex. Nothing is as unambiguous as the artist would like. Reading images does not eliminate the problem of uncontrolled interpretation. Despite McNaughton’s meticulous symbolism and labeling, viewers have seen the seated Caucasian figure in The Forgotten Man as lamenting only the white unemployed. The looming absence of blacks in the picture—Obama stands alone in a crowd of white faces—is striking. Seen in the light of Skousen’s outré defense of slave owners in his revisions of American history, the contrast is more than striking. McNaughton objects that “there is no racial meaning or undertone” to the painting.

Art, neuroscience, and religion

Alva Noe has a thoughtful essay on “Art and the Limits of Neuroscience” on the Opinionator.

He criticizes the field of neuroaesthetics:

Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist at University College London, likes to say that art is governed by the laws of the brain. It is brains, he says, that see art and it is brains that make art. Champions of the new brain-based approach to art sometimes think of themselves as fighting a battle with scholars in the humanities who may lack the courage (in the words of the art historian John Onians) to acknowledge the ways in which biology constrains cultural activity. Strikingly, it hasn’t been much of a battle. Students of culture, like so many of us, seem all too glad to join in the general enthusiasm for neural approaches to just about everything.

There’s a deeper criticism here. Noe attacks the view, held from Descartes on, that there is in us something “that thinks and feels and that we are that thing.” For Descartes, it was the soul; for neuroscientists, it is the brain. Noe counters:

What we do know is that a healthy brain is necessary for normal mental life, and indeed, for any life at all. But of course much else is necessary for mental life. We need roughly normal bodies and a roughly normal environment. We also need the presence and availability of other people if we are to have anything like the sorts of lives that we know and value. So we really ought to say that it is the normally embodied, environmentally- and socially-situated human animal that thinks, feels, decides and is conscious. But once we say this, it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.


Far from its being the case that we can apply neuroscience as an intellectual ready-made to understand art, it may be that art, by disclosing the ways in which human experience in general is something we enact together, in exchange, may provide new resources for shaping a more plausible, more empirically rigorous, account of our human nature.

What Noe says about art, could be said, mutatis mutandi, about religion. While I am deeply interested in what researchers studying the brain can tell us about religious experience, I think that, as Noe says, we are people, embodied, engaged in a web of relationships, in a context larger than our brain. Our attempt to make sense of ourselves and our world is more than mental activity; it involves our entire being.

Rod Dreher, who is a bit over the top for me, says something along the same lines in a brief comment on Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

If you read Bellah’s book, “Religion in Human Evolution,” you understand why ritual is more important than theology. No doubt that ritual completely disconnected from theology is empty. But humans never outgrow the deep need for ritual. It’s built into the biological fabric of our being. You mess with that, you’re messing with things you ought not touch.

The Empty Cathedrals of Europe

The Empty Cathedrals of Europe.

Brian Jay Stanley visited Europe’s cathedrals and pondered the absence of God:

Europe’s cathedrals sublimely evoke the absence of God. They are temples that have decayed into museums. Tourists, not worshippers, fill their naves, driven by curiosity, not faith. One does not pay alms anymore but admission fees. The altar is roped off, not because it is sacred, but fragile. The silence of emptiness has replaced the silence of holiness.

Upon further reading, he learns that there was a great deal of human interest and motivation involved in their construction: competition between cities for prestige, desire for aristocrats to show off their wealth and “buy their salvation;” etc. He finds all this unsavory and unreligious:

“A secular and a religious society are equally profane, for a secular society banishes the sacred, while a religious society defiles it with the human.”

In fact, religious desires can only be expressed by human beings using our human energies, abilities, and, yes, weaknesses.

But this seemed to open up an interesting question, or relate to the ongoing debate in England about the riots last week. Mark Vernon points to an essay by Gordon Lynch on the development of values in individuals and communities which includes this:

If broader, sacred values can also bind us into a deeper sense of shared moral community across society, we might also ask how these can be nurtured. Our society has distinguished itself in creating built environments that show the least signs of any sense of sacred meaning of any period in history. Our high streets are dominated by chain stores and global corporations who promise convenience but little meaning. New-build properties offer modernist-lite conceptions of style, devoid of any sense of modernism’s original moral purpose. The explosion of public art has left our towns and cities with works that are all too often vacuous and un-compelling. Policy makers are clearly aware of this gap and have tried to address it, usually through repeated and unsuccessful attempts to re-launch a sense of ‘British-ness’. But convincing moral visions for society cannot be created in ersatz fashion through short-term policy ideas. They are already at hand, woven through the moral significance that is variously given to the nation, nature and humanity in the stories that our society tells about itself. Learning to see where these sacred meanings still move us, as well as the shadow-side of sacred commitments, is another long task for a remoralising society.

I think this is exactly right for the USA as well as for England. And it points to one of the key problems with Stanley’s post. Whatever motivations were involved in the construction of the cathedrals, at their heart was a vision of a space in which one might encounter God, indeed a vision, in some sense, of the heavenly city itself.

Christianity and the Arts, continued

I meant to include links to these two pieces in my earlier post but I forgot about them.

A new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explores Rembrandt’s “Faces of Jesus.”

“Rembrandt’s concept of Christ changed significantly as his art evolved from one decade to the next,” argues George S. Keyes in his catalog essay, with “Rembrandt’s earlier representations of Jesus [showing him] in dramatically charged events” and later depictions making “Christ… an object of profound meditation.” This evolution can clearly be seen in Rembrandt’s almost endless returning to his favorite story of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and the Supper at Emmaus. From small drawings focusing on the explosively radiant divinity of Christ at the moment of revelation at Emmaus to paintings such as the Louvre’s 1648 Supper at Emmaus focusing more on the reactions of the disciples than on the more-reserved, resurrected Jesus (whose appearance seems based on the “Philadelphia” head), Rembrandt shifted away from Jesus as the heroic superbeing of antiquity towards a more human, more accessible to believers, and, perhaps, truer face of Christ.

More here. The exhibition will also travel to Detroit. Well worth the trip, I should think. I’m interested in the article’s identification of the Supper at Emmaus as Rembrandt’s favorite subject, especially given the loaded theological significance of the story for seventeenth-century religious conflict. No doubt dissertations have been written on the topic (none of which I plan on reading).

From visual art to music. Peter Phillips’ review of Christopher Page’s The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years. Money quote:

Largely as a result of Guido’s invention, the Latin West had become a place of common worship by the twelfth century, and was given a name: Latinitas. By 1200, clerics envisaged the way they lived and worshipped as being of one tradition with one chant, despite the individual histories of sees such as Milan, with its Ambrosian rites, and the Mozarabic chant in Spain. The Cistercian order was founded by Bernard of Clairvaux to perpetuate the unity of the Roman way of doing things, and staff-notation was from the beginning crucial to their work. During the twelfth century they carried this notation to all corners of the Latin West, deliberately founding houses in remote places.

Of course, the Cistercian order wasn’t founded by Bernard of Clairvaux. Oh, well.


Christianity and the arts

Several recent essays remind us of the importance of the arts for religious faith and practice.

First, Richard Hays asks, “Why should we care about the arts?” He cites four reasons:

  1. “There is no escaping the arts. They create the imaginative symbolic world in which we live and move; we are constantly surrounded by images, music and stories.”
  2. Worship is nothing else than shaping beliefs and practices into artistic forms and more people (60% of the American population) hear live music in worship than in any other setting.
  3. Participation in artistic performances is useful instruction in faithful discipleship.
  4. Created in the image of a creative God, we are by nature fashioners of images and stories and it is through creativity that we make our selves more fully into God’s image.

I was reminded of the role of the arts in worship this past Sunday while attending services at the church in which I grew up. In many ways, the space is a generic Protestant church–there are no images in the stained glass or on the walls; the ceiling, pews, and front of the church are all plain. What differs from my youth is the presence of instruments in the church–a piano and drum set. But this past Sunday, the hymns were sung in four-part harmony as they were when I was a member. All of them were familiar to me and I was struck by the way in which this unaccompanied, four-part singing had been and perhaps continues to be, an important means for creating and shaping community. As one member shared a story that had to do with singing, I became aware of something else, too: through singing, members also take on particular roles in the community.

A conversation reflecting on the differences between Christian (in this case, specifically Thomas Kincaide) and Modern art poses similar questions. It seems that although most modern artists whose work hangs in great museums are not Christian, or even religious in any conventional sense, but nonetheless, many found that ideas or experiences of the transcendent were central to their work:

Artists who don’t have an orthodox Christian bone in their bodies are making paintings that they’re intending, even in subconscious ways, to function in this very specific, sacred, and you could say a secular-Christian, environment.

One of the conversation partners, Curtis Chang, observed that

When I visited the modern art wing recently, it struck me that there was far more silence and contemplation there than I’ve found at any church service …

Rob Goodman reflects on the differences between bad and good religious art in the course of a discussion of Terence Malick:

But I don’t want to be so hard on Malick’s failed comforter: there’s painfully little any of us can say to grief, or to any of the other human needs that inspire religious feeling. And I think it’s an inability or unwillingness to recognize that fact that is the deeper mistake of bad religious art: it wants to argue us into faith. It won’t rest without a moral, a message, a lesson to take home. But religious persuasion can’t work that way—because religious thought doesn’t work that way.

When we reach for our most fundamental beliefs—whether these are beliefs about a deity, or politics, or family—we aren’t likely to find words there. We’re much more likely to find images, metaphors, memories, half-felt impressions. We’re likely to find, that is, something far more slippery, more vague, more illogical than discursive argument. Words come afterwards—but the fact that they so often rest on a foundation of images goes a long way to explain why the most seemingly persuasive arguments fail so often: why we seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs; why we ignore evidence that does not; why being caught in contradictions often makes us hold on to them even tighter. Arguments rarely touch our central beliefs where they live, and the most perceptive religious thinkers understand this.

I think that’s one of the appeals of beautifully-executed Episcopal liturgy, words that are themselves beautiful, spoken or sung beautifully in a lovely space, all of which connects deeply to images and feelings within ourselves. Oh, it’s not for everyone, of course, but for those who seek beauty in life, may find beauty, and the sacred, in our worship.