Luther, Evangelicals, and Modern Art

Luther and the Lutheran tradition remain virtually unknown to conference-circuit evangelicalism

What I discovered is a Luther whose thought offers fertile ground for a desperately needed re-evaluation of evangelical approaches to art and culture, from his understanding of the distinctions between the letter and the spirit; law and gospel; theology of the cross and theology of glory; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world; the human being as simultaneously sinner and saint; God hidden and revealed; and nature and grace.

 

Modern and contemporary painting is the heart of my theology of culture. It is not the kind of cultural practice, however, that receives any positive attention from evangelical cultural theologians and critics, for whom art is irrelevant at best and harmful at worst. But painting is much more than meets the eye, as both the tradition of icon painting within the church and the history of modern art outside the church testify. But a theology of culture that cannot offer a positive account of the arts in practice is ultimately deaf to the diverse and unexpected sounds of grace in the world.

While finishing my doctoral dissertation and teaching modern art at a state university in the mid-1990s, I read Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible and H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, and I was shocked. Their conclusions about modern art bore no resemblance to the work I had devoted years of my life to understanding from within the history and development of modern art.

In response to Schaeffer and Rookmaaker, I began to develop a theological account for my interest in modern and contemporary art, which didn’t begin in the seminar room but where I live my professional a life as an art critic and curator: face to face with a work of art in an art museum, gallery, or studio. My goal was not to develop a “theology of the arts” that gets “applied” like a cookie-cutter to particular works of art or hovers abstractly in the ether, but to give a theological account for my interest in and love for particular artifacts of an especially despised and misunderstood cultural practice, which, as an evangelical, I had been called to serve. One of the results was God in the Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008), in which I moved outside the operative Reformed worldview framework, which I found too limiting, toward the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of the faith, to bring a more robust aesthetic, sacramental, and liturgical mindfulness to modern and contemporary art.

 

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