Discovering God through the Arts Review

Book Review: 

Glory Be To God For Dappled Things
Do Christians need Austen, Dostoevsky, and John Updike; Bach, John Coltrane, and Bob Dylan; Caravaggio, Fujimura, and Picasso; The Passion of the Christ, Chariots of Fire, and The Godfather?

According to Terry Glaspey, the answer in every case is an emphatic “Yes!”

Discovering God Through the Arts: How We can Grow Closer to God by Appreciating Beauty & Creativity is an argument that Christians sell themselves short, they limit the possibilities of their faith, they cripple their relationship with God when they do not fully and frequently engage with the Great Works of Art. Far too many Christians, Glaspey argues, fail to see how much richer their relationship with God could be if only they would step outside their cloistered comfort zone and embrace Great Art. Limiting themselves to pabulum that is labeled Christian self-help books, Christian music, Christian novels, Christian movies, these Christians never see the fullness of God and his Creation.

This book is best read as a companion book to Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know, also recently reissued by Moody Press. While the earlier book provided arguments for why Christians would benefit from an encounter with the 75 works Glaspey describe in detail, this book reads like an introduction to that other book, stepping back from individual parts to think about the question as a whole.

“Each of the artistic disciplines we’ll be exploring in this book—visual art, music, literature, poetry, architecture, filmmaking, photography, and more—cannot only be a source of enjoyment but also a tool for spiritual growth and formation. The arts can change and transform us within, which is why they are indispensable for our lives.”

Glaspey is a lot like an excitable tour guide; he just can’t help himself as his joy just bubbles over the pages. At one point he describes a class he taught exploring the assorted ways the crucifixion of Christ was portrayed in paintings over the ages; you can just imagine him standing in a class with the painting displayed on a screen getting so excited to show how this painting draws our attention to the pain and that painting draws our attention to God holding Christ up, and this other painting examines the assorted responses of the spectators. It would have been a marvelous class. This book is like that class.

While the Table of Contents does not indicate this fact, the chapters are divided into three sections. Part One of the book is an argument about Modes of Thought, four different ways that art helps us experience God. First the arts show us how to pay attention. Think about how you normally go through your life, quickly going from one task to the next, from one place to the next, from one Facebook post to the next. Now take any one of the numerous paintings reproduced in this book and look at it for a while, just three minutes. Or go wild and spend five minutes. You will be amazed, truly amazed, at what you notice when you look at it for longer than the 5-10 seconds you would have normally allocated to seeing the picture and registering “Oh, picture of woman poring milk” or “Oh, orange paint on a white canvas.”

Now imagine a life like that, noticing the absolutely stunning variety of things in this world. One of the things you start noticing is how wonderful the world is. This is yet another benefit of Art; it teaches us to “stop and consider God’s wonders” as Elihu counsels Job. Ponder Starry Night or “Pied Beauty” and there is no way you don’t come away saying “Glory be to God for dappled things.”

As you are delving into Great Art, learning to pause and find wonder, another thing starts happening. You begin to find deeper meanings than you noticed at a first glance. You never really fully understand Eliot or Blake or Shakespeare or Dylan; you just keep getting deeper and deeper into the world, seeing new things at every turn. And when you realize this is true of poets and novelists and songwriters and painters, you discover it is also true of God and the Bible.

“If you want to settle for a simple faith, then it becomes dangerous to ask too many questions of life and faith. But if you want a rich, full, and authentic faith, then you are going to have to be willing to live with the mysteries and only partially answered questions that are embedded in Christian belief”

Then, after you have learned to pause, find wonder, and dig for deeper meanings in Great Art, you will also notice the final benefit of these travels. Great Art breathes new life into scriptures. It does not take long in the Christian walk for Scripture to become tame and a bit lifeless. “You must be born again” slowly slides into being “bornagin,” one word which just runs quickly of the tongue, and you start thinking being bornagin is just a code word for “conversion” and you miss the wild oddness of Christ’s Phrase, a strangeness that caused Nicodemus to asked in a startled voice, “Whatever do you mean?” As Glaspey notes, Great Art draws us into new ways to see the stories and sayings of the Bible in fresh ways, keeping the mysterious and marvelous message evergreen.

Having reached this point, Glaspey turns to the second part of his argument by looking at Topics of Thought. Beyond teaching us how to think, Great Art offers new thoughts, new ways to see and reflect upon Christian themes. Great Art helps us deal with our emotions, provides comfort and courage, helps us become more empathetic, and gives us a renewed passion for Justice. These four chapters all read like the syllabus for a course on the topic, providing a guided tour. For example, the chapter on Justice begins with Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets, and then moves on to Dante, Blake, Austen, Walker Percy, Spirituals, Blues, John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Grandmaster Funk, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill, Bob Dylan. Francisco Goya, Picasso, A Hidden Life, Just Mercy, Dark Waters, The Lord of the Rings, and To Kill a Mockingbird. That is all in one chapter, exploring one theme. Add three other chapters like that and you have this section of the book.

Glaspey’s argument closes with the punchline. After finding in Great Art new modes of thinking about God and new ways to express topics of thought, Glaspey notes that ultimately Great Art helps us learn to pray, to converse with God, to contemplate God. Great Art teaches us to get out of the mindset that our relationship with God is nothing more than going to him with our prayer list of requests and then trying to be a semi-decent person today. A relationship with God is always to learn more, to find new ways of expressing ourselves and new ways to listen. God uses Great Art to show us how to draw closer to him.

The breadth of the enterprise Glaspey is proposing is seen at the end of the book when he provides 15 pages of suggested artists and works of art. Like all such lists, it is a wonderfully idiosyncratic set of artists and works of art.

On the whole Glaspey has done a marvelous job here in making a case that desperately needs to be made again and again. Far too many Christians, like far too many scientists and economists, treat art like it is some sort of mushy swampland of imprecision. The message to anyone who does not grasp the value of poetry and novels and paintings and film is Hamlet’s exclamation, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If you have never read the book of Genesis or the Gospel of John, you have limited your ability to understand God and this world. If you have never read Dostoevsky or spent five minutes with a Caravaggio painting, then you are similarly living in a small world indeed.

(Moody Press sent me a copy of the book in exchange for this review.)