Hans Rookmaaker’s ‘Four Freedoms’ and Christian Art (Part II)

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.

In part I, I developed Rookmaaker’s understanding of the four freedoms of the Christian: freedom before God, freedom toward ourselves, freedom toward others, and freedom and openness toward nature.[1] These four freedoms were contrasted with the secular permissiveness and rebellion that Rookmaaker perceived in modern culture.  By stepping into these four freedoms, then, the Christian artist is provided with a well of insight from which to draw a true vision of reality, and with the capacity to live in creation as one who is at home.

At the same time, Rookmaaker of course recognizes that this freedom is limited by the curse (Romans 8.18f) and also by sin. Because of the Fall, nature is not fully as God intended. But the curse does not have the last word. There is promise of ultimate renewal.

Finally, and most significantly, over against this vision, Rookmaaker sees the modern unbeliever’s outlook: the pursuit of autonomous freedom–with its alienation, frustration, the sense of imprisonment in one’s own existence–from which we are delivered only by the blood of Christ.

Rookmaaker’s point is also that just as the unbeliever’s outlook is embodied in his or her art, so it should be for the Christian. A Christian’s freedom in Christ should simply permeate how they view all of reality, including the full spectrum of human experience.[2]

In following Rookmaaker, by focusing on the nourishment of the artist’s vision, I am passing over another critical matter, the relative giftedness of any given artist to effectively embody such vision within their artistry, in ways that have artistic integrity. I do not wish to suggest any sharp distinction between vision and artistry, knowing that in practice these are intimately interwoven. In engaging the one, we engage the other. I choose, rather, today, to focus attention on the nurture of Christian wisdom as it informs artistry.

Does then this awareness and pursuit of Christian freedom, as described by Rookmaaker, really make a difference for a Christian’s art? That depends on what one is expecting or hoping for. Working from this model, it is not my expectation that, to the viewer, such art will be readily identifiable as Christian, per se. In as much as art is grounded in and informed by a Christian vision of life, I imagine such art as contributing to and calling forth a wholesome vision of life, and one that challenges injustice, laments evil, and so forth.

Rookmaaker often said that Christ died to make us human, to make the crooked straight, to restore us toward reaching our God-given human potential. In this sense, he affirmed the good as inherently good, something that can be recognized as such by all people.  Thus a Christian vision of life will likely share much with others, of other persuasions. The differences will be greatest, the greater the differences in outlook on life, and will appear most acutely at the points of divergence.

I do not therefore believe that a Christian’s art has to declare itself as Christian, nor that it derives its merit from such an identification. Rather, its virtue lies in its integrity, as wise artistic vision, and in terms of its constructive contribution to human flourishing.  I do not think that it matters whether or not it is received as Christian, but rather that it is received on its inherent merits, bearing within itself the ‘ring of truth.’ Thus I might suggest that the art of a Christian may well be indistinctly distinct—faith acting as leaven to the bread of art.

So does this awareness and pursuit of Christian freedom, as described by Rookmaaker, really make a difference? Well, yes, in many subtle ways, I believe it does. I also believe that it is this difference–however subtle, and however hard to identify and isolate–that we might hope to find in the art of a Christian. That also is, I think, a suitable term, “the art of a Christian,” rather than “Christian art.”

One may well then ask: If this difference is so subtle, and imperceptible, is it worth striving for? I believe so, because just as one cannot see the yeast in the bread, yet the bread is the richer for the yeast, so the maturing vision of a Christian may leaven their artistic vision, affecting the thrust, tone, and feel of the whole. This, in my judgment, merits conscious nurturing, as a quality of one’s art towards which ever to strive. Thereby the art of a Christian may well function as itself a leavening yeast within the framework of the current discourses of art. I think that a Christian artist would do well to worry less about blatantly displaying a consciously Christian label in their art. Instead, Christian artists would do well to focus on nurturing their vision and artistry in the most effective ways they can find to engage the surrounding culture—or that segment of it to which they can most effectively relate.

If each is faithful in cultivating their unique set of gifts—great or small—seeking to nurture artistic intelligence and human flourishing, perhaps we will see a measure of Christian yeast leavening the bread of today’s secular art world.

[1] Rookmaaker, op. cit., pp. 64-68.

[2] H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970, reprinted in The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, Ed. by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, Vol. 5, Carlisle: Piquant, 2003, pp. 3-164.

Image Credit: Steven Jaehnert


  • 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.

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  1. says: kjbake01

    In viewing the comments for Part I, it sounds like there is a need for fresh word or insight from the godfathers of aesthetic theology. What do we say to our overly romantic and thoroughly encouraged young artists? Many churches have been quite admirable in giving a gigantic “green light” to their artists, praise God, but the work created seems to be overly extemporaneous and even self-indulgent. What’s the way forward?

    1. says: betty spackman

      My underpinning, undermining, message has been to contradict our earlier eager and at the time necessary, goal to become more visible as Christians in the arts – and suggest that indeed we become more invisible. This does not mean less effective. The sharper the knife the less it is noticed until the cut is through. This requires not only a honing of our gifts but of our living, our loving. The education system funnels art students into the shallow dream of ‘success’, of art star. It is a distant and unattainable goal for most and those that do ‘make it’ are often soon spent. Being a light in the world is a close up affair of the heart – giving warmth and stimulating growth – not only for ourselves but for those around us. Out of the fickle spotlight one has more chance to shine from within. This of course does not negate the importance and possibility of ‘fame and fortune’ – to have a recognized and listened to voice in the world – but as a by product not a focus.

    2. says: Peter S

      kjbake01 – these are good questions and maybe some of the answers are in your questions. Now I am not sure about any of this so, really welcome some of your thoughts but some things occurred to me.
      I smiled at the thought of ‘godfathers of aesthetic theology’ then thought well maybe the out of place word there is ‘theology’? What is wrong with ‘aesthetics’ by itself? But I guess ‘theology’ may just have been meant as an alternative word to ‘christian’.
      But maybe that is one of the difficulties we face. If Christians just hear the message that we are free to be ‘artists’ but don’t look also at HRR’s questioning of the actual frame work which posits ‘High/Fine’ and ‘Low/Applied’ Arts then it just seems like a freedom to continue an outworn traditional way of thinking. What I think Rookmaaker and Seerveld and Wolterstorff are encouraging us to do is re-imagine the whole set up. If we don’t then we will tend to think either in ecclesiastical ways and confine our work to expressions of Christian Faith in buildings called churches and their attendant activities, (and that church is happy to re-embrace the arts in that way) or we remain fixed in the ‘Fine Art ideas’ and simply work with that, with a keen eye Christian eye on our ‘world-view’ hoping to ‘communicate’ a challenge to the Fine Art world in their terms. But we stay trapped in their terms so challange nothing. All we focus on is ‘message’ when the rich area of the visual arts is all about visual metaphor. Those folk I think would not altogether be happy with Walfords more ‘implicit’ approaches. But by accepting the old terms we accept concepts of Fine Art which may structurally hurt us. This may explain much of what you describe as ‘overly extemporaneous and even self-indulgent’ work. HRR is aware of this when he suggests that we cannot turn the clock back to an imagined time when High Art concepts as such didn’t exist but he didn’t say accept it. Seerveld and Wolterstorff have so thoughtfully taken this further and help us, if we listen, to re-imagine these concepts. I think we need to go even further down that road. I have been very encouraged in the last couple of years while reading things like L Shiner’s ‘ The Invention of Art’; R Sennett’ ‘The Craftsman’; D Bretts “Re-thinking Decoration”; J Pallasmaa’s ‘The Thinking Hand’ and Y Saito’s ‘Everyday Aesthetics”. What is interesting about these books is that these writers are, with as far as I know no Christiain profession, taking up themes, all these years later, which can be found in HRR; Seerveld; Wolterstorff etc. They were really onto something and if HRR’s legacy means anything shouldn’t we be pressing on with these ideas within our Christian thinking? They seem to lead to a far more normative and neighbourly embracing of where HRR was heading. I remember at a meeting in London in 1976 some of us felt that, ten years on, there was something of a backlash against HRR amongst some Christian art students. His response was typical. ‘Well let’s wait for the backlash to the backlash.” Then he said what must be familiar to many who knew him, “I look forward to the day when new books are written which make my books completely out of date.” Anyway – this is too long and be encouraged: there are replacements to the ‘godfather’s’ ( or should I say ‘godpersons’) in the likes of Adrienne Chaplin – who is taking on the ideas of ‘everyday aesthetics’ etc and I guess many others who I would like to discover. Help me out here folks.

  2. says: E. John Walford

    In response to kjbake01, above, any Christian artist who takes Scripture seriously, who keeps his or her eyes fixed on Christ’s teaching, and that of his apostles, will surely soon discover that there is no place for self-indulgence But rather, we are called to fight the Narcissus within in. Furthermore, the Book of Hebrews exhorts us to consider the example of Christ, and of all the saints who went before us, to set our sights before us with great fortitude and endurance, for the sake of the long-term reward that lies far ahead, knowing that the path forward will never be easy, and inevitably will try us to the depth of our being and endurance, since the servant is not above the master, who endured unto death on a cross. Does not the writer of the book of Hebrews rightly chide us that most of us have barely endured at all, and few to the point of the shedding of their blood.

  3. says: Jim Watkins

    I came across this quote from Rookmaaker’s ‘The Creative Gift’ that I thought would be relevant to the comments made by Betty and Peter. He writes: “There should be no dichotomy between anonymous works and the creations of individuals, between ‘industrial design’ and what has become autonomous art. This dichotomy stems from the disharmony just mentioned [that is, creation not ordered as it should be] and is in many ways the consequence of a strongly humanistic view of life. Christians, having been renewed in Christ, can help to restore the unity of our civilization. They are called to be creative–in their daily lives, in Christian organizations, in their jobs and the fulfillment of their calling. Although some of their activities may look insignificant in the eyes of the world, the historian, or the snob, they may prove very important for human society as a whole and even for the kingdom of God.”(73)

    This quote seems to go some way towards answering kjbake01’s question: “What do we say to our overly romantic and thoroughly encouraged young artists?” I think John Walford is absolutely right that artists (like all other Christians) look to Christ’s example as the way to go about their work. Christ redefines the true nature of success (e.g. the beatitudes), and so we need not remain in a framework that equates artistic success with fame, or great art with museum walls. What really matters, says Rookmaaker, is the way that the artist helps to restore proper relationships with him (or her) self, others, nature and God. And Jesus’s life provides the means and example of how to do this. Ironically, the romantic artist who seeks to be God-like in their fame and freedom needs to be shown what it really means to be God-like for their creativity to truly flourish.

  4. says: David Hanson

    Many years ago (in the 70s) I was responsible for mounting an exhibition in a public gallery in Aix-en-Provence. The work was by two groups of artists, Dutch and English, who owed a lot to the influence of Hans Rookmaaker. Local dealers and curators were invited to an opening reception. “Can’t say how – but it’s different” was heard more than once they toured the show. I don’t think any of the artists who contributed work was searching for Christian “difference”. But all of them, I believe, registered response in the language of brush and pencil to a creation they knew to be from God’s hand, saw defaced by human rebellion and nevertheless bore the signs of being on its way to the complete restitution bought by the blood of Christ. Each saw those matters differently from the others, their media and styles were diverse, yet the whole was observed by secular spectators as exhibiting a difference. Isn’t that what we’re all called to?

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