Dr. E. John Walford is Professor of Art History at Wheaton College, Illinois, where he has taught since 1981. He is author of Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (Yale University Press, 1991), and Great Themes in Art (Prentice-Hall, 2002). In his most recent project, An Art Historian’s Sideways Glance (Piquant Editions, 2009), Walford explores the potential of bringing an art historian’s knowledge and eye to the practice of digital photography.
My father having died some months earlier, when the late Professor Hans Rookmaaker, Christian art historian, of the Free University, Amsterdam, died in the spring of 1977, I felt that I had lost the most significant man in my life – and I had. I had graduated from his tutelage only months earlier, and was fresh into a Ph.D. program at the University of Cambridge, where my distinguished, German-Jewish, humanist Ph.D. advisor, the late Professor Michael Jaffé kept asking me, “where did you get all that nonsense stuffed into your head?” That so-called nonsense was the profound Christian wisdom of Hans Rookmaaker, my mentor for seven years. Rookmaaker had taught me to see and respond to the world from a totally fresh perspective, one informed not so much by my British, secular, and upper-class education, but one informed by Scripture, as filtered through the Dutch Reformed tradition.
In attempting to be a little more specific about what it means, as a Christian, to see and respond to the world differently, I will thus draw from the writings of my former teacher, Hans Rookmaaker. His book, The Creative Gift: Essays on Art and the Christian Life, published posthumously in 1981, addresses the issue of being a Christian and an artist in a broken world. He sketches out two contrasting visions of life, one founded on rebellion and permissiveness, as seen in the culture of his day, and the other based on the freedom a Christian discovers in Christ. It is a remarkable set of contrasts, and worth pondering carefully.
Time does not allow me to do justice to the breadth of his vision of secular bondage and Christian freedom, and the implications of each for how a person sees and engages the world, but I will touch on a few core elements with respect to Christian freedom.
By way of framing his more specific comments, Rookmaaker first sketches out his understanding of the freedom gained in entrusting one’s life to Christ, the importance of exercising such freedom within God-given norms for life, and the implications of this for artistic creativity. He goes on to speak about four dimensions to this freedom that impact how we understand and engage the world. He then contrasts such understandings of freedom with then-current secular notions of freedom, as expressed in the art of his time.
Having drawn out these contrasts, and considered various threats to freedom—coming from both church, state, and society–he points to the enduring task of Christians—including of course Christian artists—to unmask pseudo-gods or false ideals and to reopen a vista toward the fullness of reality. There, in a nutshell—unmasking what is false, pointing toward wholeness of life and renewal–is the core to his vision for the calling of a Christian artist.
In Rookmaaker’s view, the freedom that is found in Christ provides the Christian who is an artist with a well of insight from which to draw a true vision of reality, one that emerges from carefully focusing the lens of biblical wisdom on the world around us. In Rookmaaker’s view, our task then, as Christians, is to work on the basis of the freedom we have gained in Christ’s redemption, looking for positive ways to express a true vision of reality–a reality greater than nature plus man. While Marcuse calls for art that projects a vision of human flourishing beyond the reality principle, Rookmaaker calls us to see reality through the eyes of faith.
What then is the nature of the freedom Rookmaaker is describing? Firstly, it is best grasped in his contrast of secular permissiveness and Christian freedom, as mentioned above, which through juxtaposition echoes the pattern of the consequences of God’s blessings and curses, as recited by Moses in Deuteronomy, chapters 4-8. But, more particularly, Rookmaaker focuses his argument on four critical freedoms: freedom before God, freedom toward ourselves, freedom toward others, and freedom and openness toward nature.
- Freedom before God: We have “confidence before God,” Rookmaaker asserts. “We regard him as a beloved Father, with reverence and awe, and we try not to grieve Him.”
- Freedom toward Ourselves: We need not be afraid to be ourselves, Rookmaaker proclaims, for Christ has accepted us as we are, with our own personalities. Frustration and self-mortification do not belong to the gospel (Col. 2:16-23). Yet self-realization is also not the aim of the person made new in Christ, since life is both a gift and a task addressed to us as individuals.
- Freedom toward the world (others): We may be made to suffer as did Christ, Rookmaaker cautions, but we should not be afraid of the world, which may kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Matt. 10:28). We have true freedom because we are in God’s hands. He has counted the hairs on our head. As his servants, we can perform our duty, but we need not worry as if the fate of the world depended on our actions. Trust in God liberates us from having to calculate and determine everything ourselves. Because God wants to work through our weaknesses (1 Cor. 2:1-5), and has pledged himself to answer our prayers liberally, as his children we are free to work without pressure, without fear, without superiority or inferiority complexes. We are not alone, and we do not depend on our good works to gain us a place in heaven. As stated in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Son of God gathers, protects, and preserves the church.
- Freedom and openness toward Nature: God’s creation lies open before us, Rookmaaker avers. Because Christ is Lord, we need not fear it as a malevolent force (even though since the Fall nature is not fully as God intended). Neither is the creation a system that runs by itself. Mechanistic laws of cause and effect may describe how the world functions, but they stop short of touching its deepest reality. God is active in it (Deut. 27-30), which is why it is meaningful to pray for blessings, and to give thanks before eating, or to have a national Thanksgiving Day. We cannot explain every plentiful harvest or natural disaster, but this does not mean everything happens by chance. Like Job (Job 40:6ff), we reach the limits of human understanding, and stand awe-stricken at God’s wisdom in nature, but we need not see nature as a prison that frustrates our plans. This happens only when we make demands upon it that go against its created order, its structural norms.
Critically, Rookmaaker argues that because of these four freedoms, we can recognize that God’s creation is the environment he gave us to inhabit. We are at home here. Alienation is unnecessary. Contact with reality at a deep level is part of the Christian’s life. We are to enter into reality, not try to escape it. The flight from reality is a mark of Eastern and classical mysticism, not of Christianity.
 H.R. Rookmaaker, The Creative Gift: Essays on Art and the Christian Life, Westchester, Illinois: Cornerstone Books, 1981, reprinted in The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, Ed. Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, Vol. 3, Carlisle: Piquant, 2002, pp. 135-244.
 Rookmaaker, The Creative Gift, pp. 57-68, 103ff.
 Rookmaaker, op. cit., pp. 77-108.
 Rookmaaker, op. cit., p. 107.
 Rookmaaker, op. cit., pp. 64-68.
Image Credit: Steven Jaehnert