Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Art and Theology

For centuries evangelical Christians have steered clear of art, and so lost their critical powers and any real understanding of the arts. It is only in this way that we can explain why Christians took this art to be Christian in spirit and so fit to illustrate our Bibles and teach our children. Christians saw the deficiencies of the liberal reconstructions of the life of Christ of Hall Caine and Renan, but failed to see that the same spirit was at work in these pictures.

Evangelicals have also underestimated the importance of art. They have thought of biblical pictures as being representations of biblical stories. But they did not see that the salt had become tasteless, that there was so much idealization, so much of a sort of pseudo-devotional sentimentality in these pictures that they are very far from the reality the Bible talks about. Could it be that the false ideas many people, non-Christians as well as Christians, have of Chist as a sentimental, rather effeminate man, soft and 'loving', never really of this worId, are the result of the preaching inherent in the pictures given to children or hanging on the wall? Their theology, their message, is not that of the Bible but of nineteenth-century liberalism.

Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, 46.


Chris Trampel said...

Okay, this is something I've wondered about for a while. Why does so much modern "realistic" Christian art seem so tame and sterilized? Why is Christ's humanity threatening to moderns? It certainly wasn't to Caravaggio. The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601) has raw power and real emotion. Where are the modern Caravaggio's?

Chris Trampel said...

I had one other thought about this post. The author suggests that our idealizations of Christ are a result of 19th century liberal theology. But didn't the liberals try to diminish Jesus' deity? In other words, shouldn't liberal art reduce Jesus to an ordinary man? I don't see why it should turn Him into an icon.

Matthew LaPine said...

Chris, to your first post, I think part of the answer is that evangelical Christianity tends to be sentimental; it glorifies false and shallow happiness because it thinks genuine faith is in great danger if it honestly grapples with evil and pain. It's my opinion that pain and suffering is a necessary antagonist to create genuine faith. What's ironic is that the systemic effort to eliminate all sorts of suffering through scientific endeavors has only produced more profound internal suffering. So Christian faith is actually hypocrisy because in the spirit of the age, it denies pain its proper place and pretends that the internal struggles do not exist.

Matthew LaPine said...

On the second, it's probably too difficult to explain the full context of this quote in this setting. But if you're interested in faith and the arts I would highly recommend this book by Rookmaaker.

I think the trouble is understanding what he means by idealization. I think its important to understand that liberal Christians still sought to be Christians. That is, they still wanted to promote Christ as someone to be listened to. So they tended to round off the hard corners.