Contemplative Vision: A Review

Juliet Benner, Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011).

In this delightful book, Juliet Benner brings together her training as a visual artist and her experience as a spiritual director in a way that will undoubtedly be a service to Christians for many years to come.  Unlike many of the books that we review on Transpositions, Contemplative Vision is intended for a wide audience with diverse backgrounds, and it is intended to be a practical guide for prayer and spiritual formation.  While this book departs from our interest in academic writing, it is no less important for the contemporary conversation between theology and the arts.  Before pointing out the book’s strengths and weaknesses as a companion for Christian discipleship, I would like to emphasize that it does practically and concretely what many academics say that Christians need to be doing: that is, it revitalizes the tradition of Christian visual art by bringing it to bear upon contemporary discipleship.  One of the greatest challenges for any Christian interested in the history of the visual arts is to know how to incorporate them (even, and often especially, older paintings) into a contemporary liturgical setting.  Now, this book does not address all of the difficult practical and theoretical questions involved in employing the arts within the church, but it does offer a helpful guide for using a set of paintings on one’s own, or in a small group study.

The book contains thirteen chapters, each one centered around a particular work of art.  Her chapters generally bring the reader through four different stages: reading, looking, responding and further reflection.  In the ‘reading’ portion, Benner draws our attention to a particular theme or practice in Christian discipleship, such as contemplative prayer or hospitality, and ties it to a biblical narrative.  In the ‘looking’ section, Benner draws our attention to a painting that illustrates the narrative and theme, and then, quite expertly, leads the viewer through the act of looking at the painting.  Benner looks at her paintings with the skill of someone who knows visual art well, and she often supplements each painting with a short historical description of the artist.  In the ‘responding’ section, Benner typically asks the reader to reflect on his or her own personal life in light of both the biblical narrative and the painting.  Finally, in the ‘further reflection’ section, she finishes up with more relevant questions that would be excellent for a group discussion.

One of the great strengths of Benner’s book is the way that she helps the reader to enter imaginatively into a biblical story through a particular painting.  Even though Benner’s book thoroughly grounds Christian discipleship in the biblical narrative, she does not shy away from questions that ask her readers to step ‘inside’ the painting, and so develop a personal response to both the painting and the story.  By using paintings, Benner not only enriches the biblical narrative, but she also aids the reader in finding ways to apply the story to his or her own life.

My greatest disappointment with this book is its lack of contemporary paintings.  As I suggested, Benner’s use of the Christian tradition is commendable, but using more contemporary examples would fit better with her overall program to help the reader respond to the biblical narrative in daily  life.  Her one example of a contemporary painting is Chinese artist’s He Qi’s The Visitation, which, in my opinion, is the least interesting painting in the book.  By making use of a few more contemporary paintings, Benner could have addressed some concerns that are unique to, or more pronounced in, contemporary society, just as Peter Paul Rubens or Johannes Vermeer may have done the same for their societies.

Overall, the book is a wonderful read that can help its readers to reflect on important questions within the context of Christian discipleship.  I regret reading it by myself, and I hope to go through the book in a small group.  So, if you live in St Andrews, and you are interested, let me know.

4 Comments

  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for the review, Jim, which definitely makes me want to pick up and read this book.

    As a whole, is Brenner suggesting that paintings are the most conducive for bolstering Christian discipleship, or did she pick paintings arbitrarily, or because they are the form of art most easily reproduced in a book?

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Hi Wes, Benner did not make an argument for the superiority of painting in any way, at least that I can remember. I imagine that if you asked where why she chose to use paintings in her book that she might answer that the visual arts is what she knows the best. Perhaps painting lends itself to a book like this, but I imagine something comparable could be done with poetry, and I know that there are small group study books organized around film discussions.

  • Anna Blanch says:

    I’ve taught a class on this topic employing poetry..it could be adapted for small group use!

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