Tuesday, February 15, 2011

“The Arts and the Reformed Tradition” by William Edgar (Ch. 3)

This review, written by Harold Sikkema, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

As do so many who discuss Calvin and the arts, William Edgar, Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, begins tentatively. “The Arts and the Reformed Tradition” is uniquely titled among the chapters in Calvin and Culture in that it lacks Calvin’s name, almost as if to distance him from the arts. Edgar reminds us of Calvin’s qualification of painting as “a tedium of idleness,” and speaks of Calvin’s reputation in the arts as one requiring “rehabilitation efforts.” As an artist, I am admittedly sceptical about these efforts, but as a Christian, I appreciate their redemptive spirit as well as Edgar’s work (his Honours B.A. in Music from Harvard serves him well here) in highlighting the Reformer’s more nuanced aesthetic moments.

We find in Edgar’s writing an effort to balance modern and postmodern historiographies. He appreciates the worldview framework used by Kuyper, Rookmaker, Schaeffer, and others: that culture emanates from worldview. He also suggests correctives to this framework in that “the search for an ethos…that characterizes a given era can lead to oversimplifications.” Two approaches in hand, Edgar proceeds practically, looking at Calvin’s views on both religious and secular arts, and at the concrete aesthetic implications of a Calvinist worldview.

Calvin’s violence against “superstitions of Popery” is spun neatly into context, such that iconoclastic precedents and Swiss politics — but especially a robust theological basis — serve, for Edgar, to defend his iconoclasm. It was never pure vandalism, he says, but intended as reform, publicly measuring local preparedness for Word-based worship. The “robust theology” is partly Augustinian, in that images supposedly “remove fear and add error,” but Calvin connects image-prohibition also to God’s glory, and to Christ, whose fulfillment of Old Testament figures instituted “simpler” worship, with only two representations: Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Calvin’s musical minimalism was also Word-based, with instruments belonging to the “spiritually immature” Old Testament, and the Psalms alone, as “prayers given by God himself,” maintaining the gravity and majesty of singing in worship.

Calvin’s opposition to images, Edgar rightly maintains, was not all-encompassing: he listed “the useful arts” among God’s gifts, seeking the “pure and legitimate use” of painting and sculpture. Together with Christopher Richard Joby, Edgar sees in Calvin’s restrictions a counterbalancing call for imagination, as in the metricized Psalmody. Illustrated Bibles, anti-Catholic cartoons, Protestant engravings, stained glass, and decorated communion cups all demonstrate for him “a deep respect for poetry and visual interpretation” among Calvinists. He also notes that Calvin’s theology resulted in more relational worship spaces: God meets us through his Word, as is symbolized by the centrality of the pulpit.

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son
In terms of Calvinist influences on the broader arts, Edgar compares several perspectives. Christian Tumpel sees Dutch painting as a fundamentally Protestant contribution, because of its “biblical histories rendered…in a psychological or applicatory way.” Hans Rookmaker highlights Rembrandt’s unique successes here. Dutch landscape art also connects to a Calvinist creation theology: for Maarten de Klijn as it flows from an understanding of nature as God’s “second book,” and for Boudewijn Bakker as a “song of praise to God the Creator.” For the sake of balance, Edgar reminds us that Reindert L. Falkenburg sees Dutch landscape art not as a product of Calvinism so much as of Enlightenment secularism.

Edgar finishes with a call to ongoing work: to further compare Protestant and Catholic sensibilities, and to study “cultural appropriations.” He joyfully notes that Calvinists are increasingly asking how to engage with the visual arts (rather than “whether” to engage them), and leaves artists with the challenge to articulate our misery but also our hope in the Lord.

Makoto Fujimura’s Charis Seat
from his Countenance collection.
I’m deeply grateful for the ground Edgar covers with such balance in this chapter. I found most enlightening what he gathered from Kuyper: that the Reformation, in spite of its iconoclasm, actually set art free to find its own way. I did find myself wondering why he so emphasised the Netherlands. Japan has at least as much to offer today in Makoto Fujimura, an artist (and elder in the PCA) who articulates precisely that sort of misery and hope for which Edgar asks. He does so through the visual languages of abstract expressionism, and Japanese Nihonga painting, two disciplines which do not neatly fit into Calvin’s scheme of images as either “historical” or “pictorial,” but through which he nevertheless seeks, in line with Calvin, to glorify God. His collaboration with Crossway to produce a set of Illuminated Gospels, while standing fully in the tradition of Protestant creativity, also brings to the table the lessons that art history would have us learn, through common grace.

Edgar’s final encouragement connects for me with what Andy Crouch reminds us of in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP Books, 2008): that it’s not enough to critique, to copy, or to consume culture; the Christian calling, “be fruitful and multiply,” has always included responsibility for cultural creativity. And although this aesthetic imperative has indeed found expression in Calvin, it must continue to flourish in new ways among those called to be his successors.

Harold Sikkema holds a B.A. in Art and Multimedia from McMaster University, and practises visual art in Hamilton, Ontario, where he attends Providence Canadian Reformed Church.


Makoto Fujimura said...

Thanks Harold

I am currently writing an essay (may turn into a book, it keeps growing on me!) on Emily Dickinson. One of the chapter is seeing her as a daughter of Calvinism. She struggled and wrestled (may be "bristled" is a better word) against the Calvinist tradition and faith, and yet, at the end of it all, her words are "inherited" from her Calvinist family and Amherst. While I adhere to the TULIP (Emily did not) I am enthralled by the gospel reality of going to the margins, and understanding our liminal spaces in culture as a key element in experiencing God's grace.

By the way Dr. Edgar is a good friend and mentor; I took a seminary class with him, and very much appreciate his theological grid.

Makoto Fujimura
Manhattan, NY

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Harold, for reviewing William Edgar’s fine essay on the place of the arts in the Reformed tradition. I first became acquainted with Dr. Edgar’s work when I read his 15-page foreword to Cornelius van Til’s Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (P&R, 1976, 2003), which he edited. While I have been much instructed by Van Til, I have always found his writing on apologetics rather forbidding – mainly because of his heavy emphasis on dogmatics and philosophy (especially Greek and Idealist philosophy) and his lengthy polemics with Roman Catholicism and Arminianism. What I appreciated in Edgar’s foreword was that, although a VanTillian himself, he did not hesitate to mention these and other weaknesses and to urge Van Til’s followers to work critically with his heritage. (Here is my review of the book; it is accessible on this blog under Helpful Links – International Apologetics Project: Annotated Bibliography, p. 28.) I was grateful for Edgar’s willingness to deal appreciatively but also critically with the heritage Van Til left us, and I note the same thoughtful, balanced approach in the essay which you reviewed.

In spite of space restrictions, you managed to give an excellent summary of the essay. Thanks also for showing us that the type of Protestant creativity which, as Edgar shows, we encounter in Calvin’s followers is found not only in the Netherlands but also elsewhere, and most strikingly so in the work of the Japanese-American Makoto Fujimura. It was good to be reintroduced to this world-renowned Christian artist and to be given an illustration of his work. (Perhaps some day you can, by way of sequel to the present review, tell us a bit more about Fujimura’s work in the context of the Reformed tradition.)

Back to Dr. Edgar. Rereading the essay, I noticed interesting similarities with a number of points raised in our discussion of Darryl G. Hart’s essay (reviewed on this blog by George Alkema). I am referring specifically to the question Edgar raises whether Christian artists should aim at portraying their subject matter in what may be called a “positivist” manner (much as in photographs), or attempt to give a theological interpretation, but without sacrificing exactitude. Edgar points out that Rembrandt was able to do the latter: he portrayed reality and at the same time rendered meaning by the way he used light and by compositional and psychological means (pp. 62f.). Edgar concludes,

…The subject matter will need to reflect the worldview that our Dutch forebears taught us. It is easy to say the words creation, fall, redemption, but if these are to be more than a mantra we will have to apply them diligently in our work…. The aesthetic world desperately needs artists who can reject both sentimentality and nihilism, and show a third way, one that articulates our misery but also our hope in the Lord (p. 68).

I believe that this goes not only for Christian art but also for Christian historiography, and for all Christian cultural endeavours. It is indeed not a matter of whether it should be done, but of how it is to be done.

F.G. Oosterhoff
Hamilton, ON