The Writing Room: If It’s Religious, Can It Be Art?

religious art. Crucifixion Daniel Faust (American, born 1956) Date: 1984 Medium: Silver dye bleach print

Religious art: “Crucifixion,” American photographer Daniel Faust’s gritty 1984 reinterpretation of an ancient image. Silver dye bleach print. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Can a religious person be an real artist these days? Can “great” art be religious art? Can it address matters spiritual in the modern era? It’s the twenty-first century, for heaven’s sake. Skepticism and secularism abound in the modern/post-modern West — in popular culture, in academia, and in the world of literature and art.

Which raises the question for those of us who are both spiritual seekers and wannabe artists: can a writer reveal her spiritual yearnings on the page? Or

Raphael's "The Agony in the Garden." Raphael's work, known for its sweetness, has fallen out of favor in modern times. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced by permission.

Raphael’s paintings, known for their sweetness, have fallen out of favor in modern times. Here, “The Agony in the Garden.” Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced by permission.

does she have to put on the armor of edgy cynicism in order to be taken seriously?

Michelangelo, perhaps the West’s most accomplished artist of all time, was a devout Catholic. Bach, a Lutheran, wrote glorious church music. Poet Dante boldly took on all of heaven, hell and purgatory .

Great artists all. But this is the modern era. Can art, if it is to be great, address matters spiritual?

In his introduction to Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image (Eerdmans, 2009), Gregory Wolfe quotes a New Republic literary critic who asserts that “the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with a shock how complete it is.”

But Wolfe goes on to argue that God’s absence from the modern art scene is far from complete. He points out that books by three “intensely Christian writers” have held top spots in the New York Times tally of Americans’ favorite twentieth century novels. The authors? Marilynne Robinson, John Updike and Cormac McCarthy.

Religious art goes way back: Shabti of Isis, Singer of the Aten Date:ca. 1353–1336 B.C. Medium: Limestone Accession Number: 66.99.38 Location: The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 122

Religious art goes way back: Shabti of Isis, ca. 1353–1336 B.C.E. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wolfe is the founder of Image, a journal based on the premise that art and faith are not mutually exclusive. Four times a year, Image offers fiction, non-fiction, poetry and criticism, along with several glossy pages devoted to the visual arts.

The Bearing the Mystery collection presents the work of nearly seventy writers and more than twenty visual artists, all gleaned from the pages of Image journal’s first twenty years. Some of the artists address Christian or Jewish themes directly. Others explore the spiritual questions less overtly. The writers include Ron Hansen, Denise Levertov, Marilyn Nelson, Ann Pachett, Kathleen Norris and Richard Rodriguez.

And so, if you are wondering whether it’s possible to grapple with issues of religion and spirituality and still maintain your artistic integrity — and twenty-first century sophistication — this book is the place to get some answers.

Read my my post on why John Shelby Spong’s thinks some aspects of  Christianity are not relevant today.



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