Art that Tells the Story: A Review

Book-CoverChristopher R. Brewer, ed., Art that Tells the Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Gospel through Shared Experience, 2011. 102 pp., $24.99 paper.

Don’t open the book right away. Put it in your hands, feel its heft, appreciate the cover. Are you ready? This is not an ordinary book to peruse; it is a book to ponder. So make sure you have some time. Pour yourself a glass of wine, or coffee if you prefer.

Now open the book. First you will find a foreword—even some foreart—by Makoto Fujimura, which pleads with you not to use this art, but to encounter it in all its ‘ephermeral, confounding, non-linear’ beauty. If we do that, the art might serve as ‘the cup that brings the Water of life to the thirsty.’ Are you thirsty? Take a sip of wine, and keep turning the pages.

Christopher Brewer explains in his introduction that stories are the stuff of desire. Allow me to paraphrase: stories are in your bones, and when a story connects with your imagination, those bones will want to dance.

Notice that you are about to encounter art that tells the story, not just any story. This is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation; the story that explains everything from bones to beauty—where they came from, why they are broken, and how they are being repaired. Do you want to see and experience this story? Keep turning the pages.

This is where I need to stop describing the book, because the art that follows cannot be described. Some of the art will make you gasp, some will leave you puzzled, and others will make you laugh, or maybe even cry. And in different ways, each work of art alludes to and exudes the story. So, you need to see it for yourself.

There are some other things to mention and questions to pose about Art that Tells the Story without attempting to describe the art. First, can art really tell the story? I guess it depends on what one means by tell. Art certainly does not tell by expressing in words, giving information, or relating in detail: all definitions provided by Merriam-Webster. But art does tell if one means ‘to make known, divulge, or reveal.’ Then again, is tell the best word for those actions? Perhaps shows is more accurate, but divulge and reveal are even better. A person can tell you that God is transforming the world through Christ, but art can divulge God transforming the world. Of course, words too are art, but visual art has a particular power to evoke reality and engage the imagination and emotions.

Art does not just tell or show the story; it invites us to participate. When I saw Opened Eyes by Jim DeVries, I had a sudden urge to fall down prostrate and to lay there long enough for snow to gather on my back. Encountering The Transfiguration by Cornelis Monsma, I took off my slippers–holy ground. Looking at Adventus (Arrival) by Michael Buesking, I felt my mouth going agape and my hand reaching for the flame. Art doesn’t just evoke the story; it is the story, enacting it right before my eyes.

Maybe it’s even more appropriate to speak of art as a drama, one in which the spectator becomes a participant. For me, the art in this book performed the drama of redemption by divulging the drama, inviting my response, and transforming my passive gaze into active participation. It’s amazing how paint can do this, chiseled wood and words as well. Even if I didn’t want to participate, I’m drawn into the scene. This is why art can be so unsettling, so freeing, and sometimes both at the same time. As Christopher Brewer remarks in quoting C. S. Lewis, art has the potential to “steal past those watchful dragons by way of the imagination,” drawing us into the drama.

In the preceding remarks, I am not critiquing the title as much as suggesting that it’s too modest. Michael Wittmer’s reflections masterfully tell the story, but the art in this book does more than tell the story. It shows the story, divulges the drama, and draws us in.

It’s hard to avert my gaze. Drawn onto the stage, I don’t want to exit. Then again, this art reveals the drama going on all around me, so in closing the book, a curtain opens to perform my part in this drama with renewed imagination. And fortunately, the book will be here on the table—as coffee table books should be—and I can come back to it again, and again, with a fresh cup of coffee.

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Follow Art that Tells the Story on tour.

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