Recently, I have been reading Steven Guthrie’s new book Creator Spirit (don’t worry folks, a review of this book for Transpositions is forthcoming), and I have been thinking about his suggestion that living in the Holy Spirit is, at least in part, about imaginatively discerning the extraordinary in the ordinary. This discernment is not, Guthrie is careful to point out, is not the same as seeing everything as ‘spiritual.’ According to Guthrie, discernment is not a matter of looking beyond physical appearances, but actually looking more deeply into them.
I was reminded that a great deal of Christian art does this sort of thing very well. But given our highly sensitive historical and scientific consciousness, it is easy for us to overlook this very valuable aspect of the Christian tradition. So often have I heard Christians lament the historical inaccuracies of a particular film or story, only to neglect that a very profound point is being made. Judging a work of religious art purely on historical grounds is simply wrong, and the art historian Hans Rookmaaker offers a compelling reason why:
If we paint events ‘as they would have been seen’, they may well be interesting as history, but lose their true content, for there is no sense of their being things of importance for all history and for all mankind. 
His point is that showing the significance of any historical event is not simply a matter of getting all the details right. Rather, to understand the significance of history it must be carefully, and imaginatively, discerned.
One way that Christian painters have sought to make the Gospel meaningful in their contemporary context is by allowing their contemporary setting to mix with the life of Jesus. For example, the Italian painter Botticelli in his Crucifixion of 1497 shows Jesus on the cross, accompanied by Mary Magdalene and an angel, in front of the city of Florence. This painting is a visual prayer as the cross and the angel in the foreground are present to save Florence from evil (symbolized by the red fox). The Northern European artists also did this sort of thing very well. Roger van der Weyden’s Annunciation (ca. 1440) clearly shows Mary in a European home and European dress. By imaginatively transporting Mary to his time, van der Weyden can portray her as an example of devotion for his contemporaries.
More recent examples of painters who stand within this tradition can also be found, such as the British painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). David Brown observes that the sense in Spencer’s paintings that the contemporary world is transformed by God’s presence corresponds to Spencer’s experience “from childhood onwards he had a very lively awareness of the presence of God in the everyday life of the village in which he was brought up, Cookham in Berkshire.” In his painting Christ Carrying the Cross (1920) , Spencer shows us a busy street corner and building. Jesus is actually difficult to find. The inability to find Jesus immediately in the painting may suggest the way in which modern society and work ethic distract us from the true meaning of life. On the other hand, the visual identification of the cross-shaped ladders on the left side with the cross of Christ can also suggest that we can have an encounter with Christ on the cross even in our daily and ordinary tasks.
 H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1970), 72.
 David Brown, “The Incarnation in Twentieth Century Art,” in Davis, Stephen T., Daniel Kendall SJ, and Gerald O’Collins SJ, eds., The Incarnation – An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).