Theologians Who Write about Art

Since Francis Schaeffer has taken a drubbing lately from both secular journalists and Christian secularists, I thought it might be good to remind the younger generation that there was a time when Schaeffer was the lone evangelical talking about art and philosophy, sort of the way that Woody Allen was the lone movie director talking about Russian literature on love and death.

In Art and the Bible (1973), Schaeffer wrote:

Modern art often flattens man out and speaks in great abstractions; sometimes we cannot tell whether the subject is a man or a woman. Our generation has left little place for the individual. Only the mass of men remains. But as Christians, we see things otherwise. Because God has created individual man in His own image and because God knows and is interested in the individuals, individual man is worthy of our painting and of our writing. . . .

. . . a Christian artist does not need to concentrate on religious subjects. After all, religious themes may be completely non-Christian. The counterculture art in the underground newspaper in which Christ and Krishna are blended – here is religious art par excellence. But it is comply anti-Christian. Religious subjects are no guarantee that a work of art is Christian. On the other hand, the art of an artist who never paints the head of Christ, never once paints an open tomb, may be magnificent Christian art. For some artists there is a place for religious themes, but an artist does not need to be conscience-stricken if he does not paint in this area. Some Christian artists will never use religious themes. This is a freedom the artist has in Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

A post over at No Left Turns reminded me of those heady days when the little man from Switzerland was inspiring young evangelicals to take philosophy classes and go to museums. The post quoted from the Pope Benedict on beauty. Here’s one:

Therefore, may our visits to places of art be not only an occasion for cultural enrichment — also this — but may they become, above all, a moment of grace that moves us to strengthen our bond and our conversation with the Lord, [that moves us] to stop and contemplate — in passing from the simple external reality to the deeper reality expressed — the ray of beauty that strikes us, that “wounds” us in the intimate recesses of our heart and invites us to ascend to God.

No offense to the Bishop of Rome or those in fellowship with him, but Benedict’s sweeping comments on art strike me as having the same sort of broad scope that Schaeffer’s young admirers found disappointing in their intellectual mentor when they began to read more deeply about art and beauty. For some Christians, a theologian writing about art is a novelty, something that makes the young and restless take the faith of the theologian more seriously. The problem for Schaeffer’s admirers, though, which may turn out to be a similar affliction for Roman Catholicism, is that the deeper you go into the faith of your inspiring theologian, the less your aesthetics resonate with the technical doctrine behind the beauty. In other words, the converts to Reformed Protestantism that Schaeffer encouraged turned out in many cases not to care for all of the Reformed rigor they found in Presbyterian churches and upon which the apologist with the funny pants represented implicitly.

But, as I say, there was a time when Schaeffer was the rare evangelical thinker who was writing about such matters. That gave him a large audience. And I do sense that the similar breadth of the recent papacy’s writings on philosophy and culture is also responsible for the appeal of Rome to Christians hoping to preserve western civilization. The question remains how solid a base such a cultural approach to the faith will be for the long, hard road of pilgrimage.