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Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art

Timothy J. Gorringe
Published by Yale University Press in 2011

Reviewed by Katie Kresser, Department of Art, Seattle Pacific University

The title Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art is tantalizing. The subtitle, in particular, makes mental wheels turn. What does T. J. Gorringe mean by the “challenges of art”? Is he suggesting that “art” might be a worthy rival to theology – might in fact be a vehicle better suited than theological verbiage to the transmission of divine truths? (There is no shortage of artists today who would agree with that postulate.) Is he suggesting that “art” is a challenging terrain that theology is bound to colonize – but only with blood, sweat and tears? Is he suggesting that “art” is a challenging delinquent that must be disciplined? Or is he suggesting that “art” is theology’s little sister, humble but plucky, who will stand up for herself when she knows she has a good idea to share? Though this final option is perhaps the least dramatic, it is the most fitting. For Gorringe, “art” is indeed theology’s little sister, and as the book’s title indicates, she wishes to teach us about the “Earth” – an Earth (Gorringe seems to imply) that theology too often neglects.

But Gorringe does not only address heaven-minded theologians. Instead, his stance seems gently prophetic in the modern, social-activist sense. While speaking obliquely to-ward a theological audience (in a three-quarter view, as a student of portraiture might say), Gorringe also speaks obliquely toward “the people” – toward his people – disenchanted, secular Westerners (Europeans in particular), who do not see how to reconcile the pleasures of lived life with the aridity of traditional religion. In the sight of these people, in a manner that welcomes their appraisal and approval, Gorringe challenges theologians (specifically, Protestant theologians) to embrace the genuinely sensual character of Protestant visual history. And at the same time, in honor of those same theologians (who always mean better than they say), Gorringe challenges his public to lay aside its distrust and acknowledge the richness of Protestant visuality (and by implication, Protestant theology).

Sketched thus baldly, this book could cause the art savant to wrinkle her nose. “Not again,” she might say. (Or, if she is more polite, she might discreetly yawn.) It goes without saying that much recent discourse about “Christianity and the arts” is flat-footed and desperate, tainted either by a dogmatism that insists, consciously or unconsciously, that the best creed must de facto produce the best art, or by a wistfulness bespeaking cultural marginality. The remainder, meanwhile, is often breathlessly, illegitimately celebratory – on the grounds that “Christian art,” like the most delicate child-tyrant, should by all means be praised to the heavens lest it hide in its room and cry. Artworks have always been status symbols, and Protestantism of the fundamentalist/evangelical stripe, whose institutional vices have included tribalism, greed, and self-regard, has always looked sideways in jealously at its opponents’ cultural treasures.

At first glance, then, Gorringe’s project might not seem to be promising. But the text of Earthly Visions contains much to be admired. Indeed, this book could serve as a salutary entry-point to the visual arts for literate believers, whether theologians, nurses, secretaries, or science teachers. Gorringe’s sensitive appreciation for a range of Old Masterworks is evident, and his language is clear, concise, and often poetic.

Gorringe’s rehabilitation of Protestant art takes a clear and logical form: it is both chronological and thematic, beginning at the time of the Reformation and ending in the late twentieth century. Each period of art is discussed roughly in terms of its predominant artistic genre: these include the genre called “genre” (“everyday life” painting), portraiture, landscape, and still life. In a final section, Gorringe addresses the rise of artistic abstraction. Though chronological in its major outlines, Earthly Visions does not unfold in a strictly linear fashion. When treating portraiture, for example (a signature art form of the early Dutch Republic), Gorringe takes time to address the work of the great twentieth-century British portraitist Francis Bacon. And when discussing landscape painting (a signature art form of early industrial Britain), Gorringe makes room for a perceptive discussion of the pioneering French modernist Paul Cezanne.

Gorringe rhetorically spans these temporal and thematic units through invocation of the “secular parable,” an invention that occurs on the first page of the book and that rears its enlightened head throughout. In one sense, the phrase “secular parable” feels oddly redundant, for the parables par excellence to which any Christian writing must refer are the parables of Christ, and those were earthy in the extreme. For Gorringe, however, “secular parables” occupy a very specific category: they are instructional stories that speak of the dignity of the creaturely world. Painting (Gorringe’s favorite medium; he almost totally neglects sculpture and other art forms) is especially suited to emphasizing this dignity, for it can literally foreground, illuminate, and exalt creaturely things, whether onions, sausages, peasants, or haywains. Gorringe is at his best when he anatomizes, in clear and elegant terms worthy of a bona fide art history lecturer, the painstakingly calibrated pictorial archi-tecture of artists like Juan Sánchez Cotán (one of a few fervently Catholic artists celebrated in Earthly Visions), Pieter Brueghel, Jean-François Millet, Paul Cezanne, and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Readers unfamiliar with how to “read” paintings will learn a great deal from Gorringe’s patient descriptions and careful analyses.

For this reviewer, however, the most interesting aspect of Earthly Visions is its treatment of abstract art, largely encompassed by the chapter titled “Beyond the Appearances.” Here Gorringe unfurls his theological wings, and his interpretive flight is both thought-provoking and maddening.

Like many Christian art-interpreters before him, including the regrettably agendized thinkers Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer, Gorringe blames abstract art for rejecting the earthy, human-centered ethos of true Christianity. Unlike Rookmaaker and Schaeffer, however, Gorringe anchors his observations in intriguing theological concepts (for example, the “third age of the spirit” prophesied by Joachim of Fiore); yet his conclusions reveal a measure of art-blindness shared by the two earlier writers. What Gorringe does not realize (and what his predecessors have not realized) is that much abstract art is actually the result of an “incarnational” impulse. Even in the 1950s, when the movement called Abstract Expres-sionism was still in its formative phases, abstract art was publicly recognized as a means of reasserting the body as the natural habitation of the creative soul. Gorringe’s failure to understand Abstract Expressionism and other, similar movements may be the product of his (one might assume) conservative visual education. In his careful readings of visual narra-tive and his particular attraction to allegory, Gorringe seems “keyed” to a clearly symbolic, mimetic art of the kind naturally featured in the world’s most venerable museums. Many art enthusiasts of the last several decades, however, have structured their experiences with reference to a different, and yes, “earthier,” paradigm – one that calls upon space, gesture and scale before it calls upon traditional narrative, and one that blurs the distinction, or at least improvises upon the distinction, between art and audience, viewer and viewed.

To understand these different paradigms, it is worthwhile to consider the simple human image as it appears in early Protestant portraiture – face forward, softly haloed, captured from the elbows up. While Gorringe sees, here, shades of a redemptive, life-affirming physicality (and he is not wrong to do so), a twenty-first-century image-savant, born with a natural Pop sensibility and weaned on exhibitionist technologies like YouTube and Facebook, might see therein a first movement toward modern self-objectification – toward the desperation of the alienated city dweller or the anguished free-thinker, who, in order to gain purchase upon his rootless and fateless self, must look and look and look in the mirror, and then insist, assert, and declare.

Among other things, early abstract art closed the mind to the self-objectifying tendency of modernity and embraced art making as an outwardly-oriented emanation that, through the traces it leaves, always points back to the meaningful, physical being of the artist himself rather than to a socially-constructed image. Gorringe does his greatest disservice to Jackson Pollock, foremost of the so-called “action painters;” for Gorringe, the intuitive, passionate, yet highly disciplined Pollock, whose paintings are at once cataclysmic and sedimentary records of total-body movement, is “decorative.” Similarly, Gorringe betrays a misunderstanding of Minimalism, which of all art movements perhaps did the most, pro-grammatically, to return art audiences to the real, material world and away from refuge in media-driven fantasy. Minimalism, far from instantiating a vacuum, aims to create a kind of sensory backlash that brings the viewer to full awareness of the environment in which the minimalist work is placed.

Modern art teaches us that “salvation” is not easy. It is not enough to picture ourselves “redeemed” (in the manner of a stern, puritanical syndic); instead we must be “redeemed” through total, principled engagement with the living world. Much modern art prioritizes experiential knowledge over word knowledge – thus it cannot be “read” without existential empathy. Indeed, much modern art – both fortunately and unfortunately – speaks only to those who already understand. Gorringe is a theologian and, like all theologians, he traf-fics in word-knowledge. Thus he seeks words where there is only experience, and wishing only words, he finds a void.

Nevertheless, Earthly Visions is well worth reading, for both specialists and non-spe-cialists, and may constitute one of the better recent theological treatments of art. Gorringe should be commended for looking closely at real artworks instead of merely talking about art in the abstract. In addition to his sensitive analyses of Old Masterworks, Gorringe makes interesting points concerning the influence of occult and traditional spirituality on the de-velopment of modern art. And a final quality of EarthlyVisions is especially worth noting: its density of eloquent quotations from the writings of eminent art historians, philosophers, critics and other thinkers (including theologians), some of whom are seldom read today. Though this embarrassment of referential riches makes the text feel oddly derivative, it also creates a sense of inevitability, of deep cosmic harmony, as if everyone has been saying the same thing forever, just in different ways. The creaturely world has always been wonderful, they say; it has always been suffused with meaning; human beings have always recognized earthly beauty; and artists have always borne witness to it, in surprisingly similar ways. Timothy Gorringe, who has written books on crime, love, work, and food, knows this, feels this. If anything, Earthly Visions is utterly humanistic and humane.

Cite this article
Katie Kresser, “Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 421-424

Katie Kresser

Seattle Pacific University
Katie Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.