A review of: Jensen, Robin M. And Kimberly J. Vrudny, ed. Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009. (245 pages; ISBN: 978-0-8146-5399-9)
Visual Theology is a collection of fifteen essays dedicated to the theologian Wilson Yates on various intersections of visual art and theology. The authors, which includes Yates himself, are mostly university professors and artists, though they reflect a variety of backgrounds. I admit, I was nervous to review this book because of that fact that it is filled with discussions on so many aspects of the arts and theology. It is divided into five sections: the Traditional, the Political, the Natural, the Liturgical and the Communal, each section containing three essays in the given area. Within these, the authors cover various types of visual art—painting, sculpture, pottery, architecture, installation and environmental art. They address both well-known and lesser-known artists, a strategy which works well to suggest an overall point: that all art can be theologically significant and reflect theological questions, not just the works of masters.
Yates’s work has obviously influenced all of the authors here, and the way they write about art and theology reflects Yates’s wider vision for the arts in theological education. Cindi Beth Johnson’s essay helpfully outlines the ten reasons that Yates gives for why theology and the arts should be studied together. These are:
- The arts can serve theology as a source for helping identify and understand the religious questions of human existence.
- The arts can serve theology as a source for helping to understand the spiritual character of a particular culture.
- The arts can serve theology as a source of prophetic judgment and social protest.
- The arts can serve as document and source for understanding the nature of historical and contemporary faith.
- The arts can serve as a model for the creation or construction of theology.
- The arts provide forms integral to liturgy and worship.
- The arts are essential means of communicating the meaning of the Christian faith to the church and world.
- The arts can play an essential role in the professional and spiritual growth of students by enabling them to develop their intuitive mode of knowing.
- The arts can serve as structures through which people encounter the presence of God. That is to say, the arts can serve as a means of grace.
- The arts pose to theology the need to explore certain fundamental questions that come out of theology’s encounter with the arts, including those regarding the relationships between aesthetics and theology, aesthetic experience and religious experience, and beauty and holiness.
These are helpful in understanding the wider scope of this book. All of the essays deal with these questions more or less and stand in agreement with Yates on the role of the arts in theology. Johnson’s own essay explicitly addresses two of these in the art of Melvin and Rose Smith of Minnesota (art as sacramental and the ways the arts raise religious questions). But the rest of the essays deal with these questions as well, often in a more implicit manner. For instance, Sarah Henrich addresses the first of these in her exploration of paintings of Judith, the apocryphal Jewish character known for cutting off the head of Nebuchadnezzer’s General Holofernes and causing the army to retreat. By looking at the way in which both Gustav Klimt and Tina Blondell have depicted the figure, she points out the way religious imagery that is revised and used in various ways can give us glimpses at the human condition. Charles Pickstone explores the way Malevich’s Black Square is a modern icon for the people of Russia and gives us insight into the spiritual, “apophatic” tradition of a particular culture. Rod Pattenden explores how art can serve as prophetic judgment and social protest by looking at hope, social renewal, and redemption in the art of George Gittoes, an artist who uses frequent war imagery, often referring to a grotesque aesthetic in order to say something about society and its hope for change. This theme of the grotesque is again picked up in Kimberly Vrudny’s essay on Ricardo Cinalli’s crucifixion, where she argues for the experience of grace in the image of Christ juxtaposed with images of torture. Yates’s fifth point is picked up in an implicit way in Don Salier’s essay on a “potter’s aesthetic,” suggesting that understanding the process of making pottery might help us construct a theology of Christian living, community, and hospitality. He argues for the “arts internal relationship to how we live graciously with one another.”  John Cook picks up Yates’s sixth point in his look at modern church architecture, determining various ways church buildings have a relationship to spirituality, worship, and ministry. Linnea Wren addresses how the arts can aid in inter-religious communication, both inside the church and to the wider world. And Deborah Haynes explores the presence of God in particular places in her stone sculptures that inhabit the space of her patch of land in Colorado and allow her to identify with God’s presence in the natural world.
These essays have much more to offer than what I have mentioned. Any reader interested in the intersection of art and theology will find this book a helpful and engaging read. And while the reader may be left at times asking for more, it does not disappoint in its ability to raise questions about how the arts are significant to theology, community, and spiritual life. Even if the reader does not agree with all the essays in the book, its cohesive, wider argument for the prominent place of art in theological discourse is sure to satisfy.