Category Archives: Books

The Return of Religion in Contemporary Art Criticism

My previous post featured Jonathan A. Anderson lecturing on the lack of theological considerations in contemporary art criticism. This lecture comes several years later and takes a look at how religion is reappearing in the writings about contemporary art over the past two decades.

 

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The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism

Many art critics have religious leanings. Many artists have religious leanings. Many works of art deal with religious themes. However, there would seem to be an unspoken pact among art critics (and art teachers) that religion and theological concerns will not be seriously considered as a topic or approach to thinking and writing about art. This is not a great situation for either artists or anyone who would appreciate art.

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, critic, and professor, and author of the book: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Studies in Theology and the Arts). In this lecture below he surveys and addresses this lack of theology in art criticism, and why it matters — not merely because he’s a Christian, but because theology can help all of us better understand works of art.

Anderson mention James Elkins and his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Here is a lecture Elkins gave on that topic a decade ago:

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The Worldview of the High Middle Ages

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Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Octobre, the Musée Condé, Chantilly, circa 1440

The following three videos are of an amazing lecture series by Dr. Andrew Jones on the worldview of the High Middle Ages. It is fairly technical, but this is important. We inhabit our modern worldview(s) like fish inhabit the sea. It takes a lot to grasp one’s own worldview, let alone understand another so foreign to our sensibilities as the Medieval one. The depth of Dr. Jones’ talks provide much of the necessary perspective to understand a traditional Christian perspective that is, I believe, essentially foreign to modern Christians.

I find the Middle Ages worldview particularly fascinating in light of Rod Dreher’s timely and provocative book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher poses the idea that, since we live in a post-Christian world, Christians should recognize that fact and focus on what can be done to shore up the faith, including communities and practices that support the faith as a kind of bulwark against the prevailing winds of our time. This does not mean forsaking the culture and leaving it entirely to its own devices, rather he argues we should find other means of engagement than what we might be familiar with, while also focusing less on secular battles and more on building healthy Christian communities. Still, his vision is a kind of retreat into faith and Christian culture, and out of the culture wars and the insinuous power of secular society. Drehere uses St. Benedict as an examples and talisman for his thought experiment — leaving us with more of a Medieval monastic approach than a modern socio-political stance. I find his argument generally convincing — at least I want it to be.

And yet, Dr. Jones’ approach is not about critiquing our modern world as Dreher does. He merely lays out the High Middles Ages worldview in such detail that one cannot help but compare it to our own. My reaction is basically this: Christians should jettison the modern worldview and embrace the medieval one. But this is no mere “Benedict option.” Rather, it is something even more profound. It would require a nearly total worldview, total cosmological reorientation of Christianity itself. In other words, what we call Christianity today is a far cry from what Christianity was in the Middle Ages, and we might want to grieve that loss.

Our modern worldview is the child of the Enlightenment. Modern Christianity, primarily Protestantism but also too much of modern Catholicism, is also a child of the Enlightenment, which was a child of Protestantism — a kind of serpent eating its own tail. In other words, once Western Civilisation gave up on the Medieval worldview it’s been a slow slog downhill in many respects. Does this mean we ought to go back to the Middle Ages? No. But we ought to look deeply into their worldview and critique our own.

For Protestants this will mean recognizing the more Biblical worldview is a traditional Catholic one. For Catholics this means the traditional Catholic worldview is one that far too many Catholics today (perhaps most) do not know or live. Perhaps what the Church needs is a new Renaissance — a rediscovery of what was lost, and then letting that discovery reanimate the Church and our lives. This could, then, become what brings Christians back to the same table, once again spiritually, liturgically, and visibly united in Christ.

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O’Connor, Dostoevsky, and Christ Pantocrator: A Lecture by Dr. Ralph Wood

I’m reposting this, because it is so good. But also because we live in a society that has become a slave to sentimentality. This is also true of Christianity — sentimentality affects so much and we are so blind. O’Connor hated sentimentality. Ralph Wood speaks to this in the midst of so much else he says. A rich talk indeed.

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A truly great lecture…

flannery

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be holy

We know the Israelites were called by God to be holy and set apart.

Leviticus 11:44: “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.”

The word holy in Hebrew is: קָד֖וֹשׁ or
According to Strong’s:
qadosh: sacred, holy
Part of Speech: Adjective
Transliteration: qadosh
Phonetic Spelling: (kaw-doshe’)
Short Definition: holy
In reference to a person: holy one, saint
from qadash; sacred (ceremonially or morally); (as noun) God (by eminence), an angel, a saint, a sanctuary — holy (One), saint.

We tend to see this being holy and set apart as part and parcel with the old covenant, with the laws and practices prescribed and proscribed for the Jews.

However, we find the same call to holiness in the New Testament.

“Because it is written, ‘Be ye holy; for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:16)

The word holy in Greek is: Ἅγιοι
According to Strong’s:
hagios: sacred, holy
Part of Speech: Adjective
Transliteration: hagios
Phonetic Spelling: (hag’-ee-os)
Short Definition: set apart, holy, sacred
Definition: set apart by (or for) God, holy, sacred.

In both instances we find that some group of people (the Israelites in the Old Testament, and the Christians in the New Testament) are called to be holy because God is holy.

Because of this we can see the life of the Christian as fundamentally a continuation of what began in the Old Testament. The Church has taken the place of Israel as the People of God, meaning that like the Israelites, Christians are called to be set apart, to be the holy ones.

Re-learning what it means to be holy, I would argue, just might be the key work of the Church today. And perhaps the popularity of such books at Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Archbishop Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, and Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture all stem from a deep resonance and growing sense that the Church has lost, and must recover, its commitment to holiness.

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Unlocking the Catholicism of “The Lord of the Rings”

I find this fascinating. We all know Tolkien was a Catholic, and we can all readily pick up on a few Catholic themes in LTR, but I love how deep one can go with that. I also enjoy how much fun Joseph Pearse is having with this talk.

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a whole new system of nerves

From Brideshead Revisited:

Since the days when, as a school-boy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I have nursed a love of architecture, but though in opinion I had made that easy leap, characteristic of my generation, from the puritanism of Ruskin to the puritanism of Roger Fry, my sentiments at heart were insular and mediaeval.

This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

I know these thoughts too. But they came late to me. The irony is that I was an Art History major for one of my BA’s and I studied the great art and architecture from down through the ages. Great Gothic cathedrals and Romanesque arches went right by me, early medieval statuary and late renaissance painting flashed before my eyes, and I knew nothing. Yes, I understood them as designs, as formal structure of line and color, but I had no knowledge of the world from which they inevitably emerged. And yet, these wonders nonetheless took root in my brain, percolated there, lay almost dormant, and then more recently emerged as I stumbled upon the historical and apostolic church.

I had read Ruskin and Fry, and others, and imbibed of their puritanism, a puritanism that ironically was even more romantic than my Baptist training would allow, and thus I chaffed at the small mindedness of my boyhood religion. But still, the soul longs for something transcendent, like the poet describes the deer panting for water. Puritanism is a spiritual desert. Thus I know something of that “whole new system of nerves” that woke up Charles Ryder.

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