Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue

Article excerpt

Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Engaging Culture series. By William A. Dyrness. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001, 188 pp., $21.99 paper.

We live in a visual age, so it is crucial that Christians find effective ways to communicate their faith through visual media. William A. Dyrness, Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, issues a clarion call for contemporary Christians to be engaged with the visual arts in this first volume in a series entitled Engaging Culture, edited by Dyrness and Robert K. Johnston.

In the first two chapters of Visual Faith and in a later chapter on modern art, Dyrness traces the history of the somewhat uneasy relationship between Christianity and the arts. He provides an excellent analysis of the religious significance of many works of art, and offers a helpful description of the relation of key Christian theologians to the arts. Dyrness is not attempting to write an art history, so his overview of ancient art is understandably not as rich as such works as Robin Margaret Jensen's Understanding Early Christian Art. However, Dyrness's chapter that surveys the contemporary art scene presents a particularly insightful and perceptive explanation of the meaning and significance of modern art. This discussion alone is worth the price of the book.

Dyrness does make two historical claims that appear to be overstated. First, he probably exaggerates the evangelical disaffection with the arts when he accuses Protestantism of "giving up on the visual arts" (p. 12). While the early Reformation leaders obviously reacted strongly against the misuse of art objects in the Roman Catholic Church and reasserted the priority of the written and spoken word of God, they did find other visual ways of expressing Christian truth. Dyrness himself later lists numerous examples of post-Reformation Protestants who have made valuable artistic contributions. Although Dyrness notes that secular visual arts have expanded beyond the formal boundaries of institutional "high" art, he does not take into account the widely disseminated "low" art of Christian artists such as Warner Sallman, thus making the purported gap between evangelicals and the arts seem further than may be the case. Second, Dyrness insists that nineteenth-century American art (as evidenced in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection) "contains little reference to the Christian faith" (p. 11), "does not even illustrate a particular Christian belief" (p. 11), and contains "little or no particular theological content" (p. 59). In fact, the Boston museum collection has numerous paintings with explicitly Christian theological themes, from Thomas Cole's classic painting Expulsion from the Garden of Eden to dozens of works by John La Farge in various media (paintings, stained glass, wood engraving, etc.) on a variety of biblical persons and themes. Other nineteenth and twentieth-century works in the museum feature biblical characters and events including Moses, Elijah, Belshazzar's feast, Jesus, Mary, Lazarus, and an angel releasing Simon Peter from prison, not to mention those depicting angels, churches, and scenes from Church history. Furthermore, Dyrness's claim does not adequately take into account the profoundly Christian symbolism in nineteenth-century American art, particularly through expressions of the Hudson River School (over one hundred of which are at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), in which religious symbolism played a significant role (especially through the use of light, the cross, and church scenes), or the trompe l'oeil school of Harnett and Peto (which raises questions about the nature of reality and the significance of life, not unlike those of Rene Magritte in contemporary art). …