Earthly Visions: A Review

Review of T.J. Gorringe, Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 254 pages. 

“How does art contribute to faith? There is widespread agreement that it does, but little agreement on how exactly” [14]. This is the question explored by Timothy Gorringe in the newest installment in a series of books he has written about the relationship between the arts and religious formation, or what in my own research I’m calling the relationship between aesthesis and ascesis, sense perception and spiritual formation. For Gorringe, the answer to this question lies in the notion of art as “secular parable.” Drawn from his reading of Karl Barth, Gorringe in a collection of essays explores various genres of painting and interrogates the ways they serve, like Jesus’ parables, as “visible words,” expressions and explorations of God’s purposes in creation and redemption that are neither transparently revelatory nor merely illustrative. “Thinking of painting as parable is helpful in marking it off from those accounts which believe that art gives us immediate access to the divine” [17]. At the same time, however, art for Gorringe provides real insight into the relationship of nature and supernature for those with eyes to see.

Gorringe suggests that art functions theologically in three ways: by projecting an alternative future for things, by contributing to the greater human good and adding to “the sum total of being and beauty in the world” [22], and by leading viewers to see things differently and more deeply. Here, Gorringe draws on Simone Weil and her concept of attentiveness and how “artists might be seen as tutors in seeing each other and ourselves” [22]. For Gorringe, these are dynamics of God’s Kingdom, and to the degree that art acts as signs of these things, art acts as parables.

As Gorringe highlights throughout the book, art is not only potentially parabolic, it is secular, and advances a thesis about secularism as a necessary and beneficent outflow of a Christian worldview. Traditional theologies of creation endow this world – the seculum – with its own value and integrity. Christians have wrestled with the full implications of this insight, but orthodox doctrine has always maintained, however attenuated the applications of it might be, that this world is a gift from God. Painting reminds us of this in many and various ways.

Gorringe pursues this secular parable proposal through a broad swath of traditions: the allegorical works of the Italian Renaissance (i.e. Botticelli) and the parallel tradition of the Dutch genre painting (i.e. Bruegel’s peasant scenes); portraiture, landscape, still life, and abstract. Each essay reflects a probing reading of a limited set of secondary sources as well as Gorringe’s own encounter with the examples of art under consideration. The book is replete with beautiful reproductions of the artworks and bound in a handbook size format that is easy on the eyes and backpack. The chapter on abstraction is one of the most interesting and will no doubt serve for some as an introductory immersion into a genre that too often remains untranslated and inaccessible. In light of the apophatic dimension of the works of Rothko, Newman and Still, Gorringe articulates the cumulative thrust of his series of theoaesthetic explorations:

To read secular art theologically is to insist on questioning, on the dimension of depth, to resist premature attempts at the closure of meaning. It is to situate art within such a tradition of questioning and reflection. Painting itself, obstinately non-verbal, already in its own way represents that resistance, inviting a continually refreshed questioning and celebration of the material world which, through canvas, board and paint, it represents. It invites us to consider both that which is beyond being and also, from the Christian perspective, the God who takes flesh in love and affirmation of the material. It invites us to reflect more deeply on the mystery of existence. It speaks obliquely, and through images, as do parables. One or two of its practitioners, and far more admirers, find it straightforwardly revelatory of the divine. For theologians, and for most artists, there is nothing straightforward about the divine and we are left to make do with an absence which is also a presence, or a presence which is an absence, within hints and allusions, with rumours of angels [192].

The book is written in this suggestive, inconclusive style that the convinced will find compelling but the skeptical might find annoying. Both should find, however, sound reasons and new resources for maintaining the conversation and a lot of beautiful artwork to consider and discover.

For someone who affirms a content-freighted and communicative account of art, I appreciate Gorringe’s use of the “secular parable” hermeneutic of art. I especially applaud his positive reading of the “negative theology” found in Rothko and Newman’s work. His exegesis of the still life tradition made me want to go back and reconsider a genre I often find boring. I do wonder, however, to what extent a parabolic template would work with distinctly non-Judeo/Christian, non-Western art forms (his reading of Francis Bacon’s work, for example, felt the most forced). Does it overly pre-determine an artist’s meaning and intent? And does it once again prioritize verbal over visual expression and meaning?

This book, I must say, would make a wonderful conversation partner with Nancy Pearcey’s recent Saving Leonardo as a theological and “worldview” reading of art. In contrast to Pearcey’s approach, Gorringe shows how Christian theologies can be different and still give rise to and reflect differing ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

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