Some books merit a second life. 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey is one of those books. The original edition was published by Baker Books in 2015. Moody Press recently reissued it with even more pictures than the original.
The concept of the book is simple. Glaspey picked 75 Great Works of Art and wrote up a description of the item and a biography of the artist. Four or five pages per masterpiece. The genres included are visual artwork, music, literature, and film.
The first thing you notice is, of course, the table of contents and which 75 works made the cut. The most noticeable thing is what is not in this list. There is no theology, biography, or devotional classics. Indeed, the most surprising thing is that if you made a list of the things you would expect to show up in a Reddit forum on things every Christian should read, it would look nothing like this list.
Instead Glaspey’s list is quite intriguing. While I could come up with a short list of works Glaspey doesn’t have which I would have put onto my own list of 75 masterpieces every Christian should know, I can’t point to anything on Glaspey’s list which is lacking enough merit to be in the conversation. (Wodehouse is the most painful omission; ever Christian should read Wodehouse to learn more about the joy of life. So should every non-Christian, for that matter.) This isn’t the definitive list of 75 masterpieces, but it would be fair to say that you won’t go wrong if you started with this 75.
The real danger in a book like this is that once you get past having fun looking at the table of contents, it is all downhill. The genuinely pleasant surprise in this book is that the book gets even better once you get to the Book Proper. You can read this book straight through or you can pick it up in an idle moment and read a few pages a random, or you could grab it when you want to think about a new topic or are looking for a book or movie recommendation. It doesn’t really matter how you read or use this book, you won’t be disappointed.
The intriguing thing about the items in this book is that they are not all narrowly Christian devotional works. These are not all things for sale at your local Christian Bookstore. The artists are not even all conventional devout Christians. There is a host of flawed individuals and people who struggled mightily with Faith. But, in every case the art itself has something transcendent about it, something that causes it to rise up to being something it which any Christian would benefit from spending time.
Glaspey hints at the general idea of his selections in many places. Here he is in the middle of discussing George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and other fairy tales:
They are meat to show us truths that do not easily reduce to rational explanations and provoke a more intuitive response from the reader. There are layers of meanings at work here, all of them valid: physical, spiritual, mythical, and psychological. Each of these layers interpenetrate and illuminate each other, which is why these stories are not so much meant to illustrate theological truths as to help us find our way into a different way of experiencing these truths.
Just so. That description would apply equally well to Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison or Frank Capra’s It’s Wonderful Life or Makoto Fujimura’s The Four Holy Gospels (all of which are included in this volume). These are not works akin to verse by verse commentaries or the stereotypical study guide to the Bible. These are not works akin to the self-help books The Christian Way to Deal with Problem X. These are all masterpieces, works designed for rumination. Glaspey points to the work, gives just enough background to make you want to take up the work, and then set you off to discover whatever you will discover.
For the works I know well, Glaspey is a sure guide. He is not afraid to include works that really push the margins of conventional Christian thought, and for that alone, I have enormous respect for what he has done. Taking just some literary works: Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, O’Connor’s Collected Stories,Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Dickinson’s Complete Poems—none of those are things which would be on a standard list of Christian Masterpieces, but Glaspey is right that they all belong on a list of Masterpieces a Christian should know.
It would be easy to just go on listing insights I picked up here and there, works with which I now want to spend some time and get to know or to know better, things that suddenly look different. But, I’ll close with the thing that I found most stunning.
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, the 1964 jazz album. I started listening to this album a decade or so ago. It is truly an amazing bit of music. Sets a wonderful mood; truly meditative and a bit hypnotic. I liked it. But, I was shocked to see it in a list of 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. The only vocals in it are a brief point where the musicians all start chanting “A Love Supreme” for a bit; it blends in nicely with the rest of the music, but it isn’t a really big part of the album. So, what is this album doing on this list? As Glaspey describes the album, he starts talking about a poem John Coltrane wrote and put in the liner notes on the album cover. Aha! I listened to the electronic version of the album; I had never seen the album cover. But, then came the real shock The Fourth Movement of A Love Supreme is filled with a haunting saxophone. The saxophone part maps perfectly onto the poem. Coltrane was literally playing the words of the poem on the saxophone. You can find the part on YouTube with words being shown as the saxophone plays. It is extraordinary. The album went from good to transcendent. How transcendent?…well, it became the music I put on while driving to church on Easter.
(Moody Press sent me a copy of the book in exchange for this review.)