God in the Modern Wing: Viewing Art with Eyes of Faith, Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen, eds., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021, xvii + 193 pages, $30.00.

I was raised in the context of art, much of which was modern, the modern wing of the Currier Gallery of Art, now the Currier Museum of Art. I took lessons there in drawing, painting, pottery, and sculpture during my elementary and high school years before entering architectural school. When viewing certain pieces of modern art when I was very young, I remember repeating the cliché, “I could paint that.” Sir Roger Scruton makes a helpful distinction between kitsch art and anti-kitsch kitsch art. Kitsch refers to anything in popular culture that is tacky, like plastic flamingos on the lawn. The Modernist art movement began as a protest against what it believed art had become, inauthentic, kitsch. Scruton explains this shift:

In a celebrated article, ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch,’ published in Partisan Review 1939, Clement Greenberg presented educated Americans with a dilemma. Figurative painting, he argued, was dead—it had exhausted its expressive potential, and its representational aims had been bequeathed to photography and cinema. Any attempt to continue in the figurative tradition would inevitably lead to kitsch, in other words to art with no message of its own, in which all effects were copied and all the emotions faked. Genuine art must belong to the avant-garde, breaking with the figurative tradition in favor of ‘abstract expressionism,’ which uses form and color to liberate emotion from the prison of narrative. In this way Greenberg promoted the paintings of de Kooning, Pollock and Rothko, while condemning the great Edward Hopper as ‘shabby, second hand and impersonal.’[1]

These were mostly very serious artists, but there have also arisen artists who trade on shock value alone, producing anti-kitsch kitsch art. But this should not move us to conclude that all modern art is itself an inauthentic protest against the hollowness of kitsch art. Nor should we conclude, as does Greenberg, that figurative art is dead and hollow; Edward Hopper proves him wrong. Scruton properly discerns the difference:

Kitsch deprives feeling of its cost, and therefore of its reality; desecration augments the cost of feeling, and so frightens us away from it. The remedy for both states of mind is suggested by the thing that they each deny, which is sacrifice. . . . Sacrifice is the core of virtue, the origin of meaning and the true theme of high art.[2]

As a young Christian I wrestled with the place of modern art in the Christian life, since the only believing churches near me were fundamentalists who largely rejected all art as worldly. Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker were the only Christians I knew who respected and understood modern art. While they were largely critical of this era of art as a sign of the deterioration of Western culture, they appreciated artistic ability and encouraged Christians to be aware of this aspect of culture and participate in the arts according to their gifts. Schaeffer largely used his knowledge of art for cultural apologetic purposes. However, he deeply appreciated artistic ability and argued for the place of artistic creativity in the Christian life in Art and the Bible.[3] The book’s cover pictures Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculpture “Groupe 3 hommes II.” The dedication page has this inscription: “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.” This positive view of creativity and art was one of the great attractions to Schaeffer for those of us raised and trained with artistic interests and sensibilities.

Along lines with which Schaeffer would largely agree, Roger Scruton observes, “In an age of declining faith art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longing of our species.”[4] Schaeffer and Rookmaaker emphasized the relationship between a body of art and the worldview of the artist. This is a useful way to view art, as long as it does not lead to rejection of art that is inspired by non-Christian worldviews. God’s gift of creativity and the fact that all artists live in God’s world and are made in his image, should lead the Christian to appreciate art. That said, not all artistic creations are of equal value, because there are standards of aesthetic quality. That is a topic of another review.

Rookmaaker considered Francis Bacon, “whose images are horrible and haunt the imagination,” a great artist. The cover of Modern Art and the Death of a Culture[5] is Bacon’s “Head VI,” in which he reinterprets Velasquez’s portrait of a pope, distorting the once dignified head and face, which is depicted being sucked upward through the top of a translucent box in which the man is sitting—his humanity is disintegrating. As in most of his paintings, he depicts “great cries of despair for lost values and lost greatness, for humanity deprived of its freedom, love, rationality, everything that the great humanist painters had celebrated for centuries as they drew off their Christian and classical tradition.”[6]

In the spring of 1972, I had occasion to meet Francis Bacon in a pub in Soho on my trip home from L’Abri in Switzerland. The futility, horror, and despair portrayed in Head VI were verified in my conversation with Bacon. Hopelessness was written all over Bacon’s melancholy face. My explanation of the gospel elicited only scorn. But Schaeffer had prepared me for this encounter. Bacon said this about his art,

Also, man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. . . . Man now can only attempt to beguile himself for a time, by prolonging his life—by buying a kind of immortality through the doctors. You see, painting has become—all art has become—a game by which man distracts himself. ”[7]

I left that lunch deeply saddened.

Again, Scruton,

For us who live in the aftermath of the kitsch epidemic, therefore, art has acquired a new importance. It is the real presence of our spiritual ideals. That is why art matters. Without the conscious pursuit of beauty we risk falling into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which the worthwhileness of human life is no longer clearly perceivable.

The paradox, however, is that the relentless pursuit of artistic innovation leads to a cult of nihilism. The attempt to defend beauty from pre-modernist kitsch has exposed it to postmodernist desecration. We seem to be caught between two forms of sacrilege, the one dealing with sugary dreams, the other in savage fantasies.[8]

So why the modern wing? Why should Christians be interested in modern art? How can God be there in this art? God in the Modern Wing: Viewing Art with Eyes of Faith (GMW) seeks to answer these questions. The Modern Wing is the name of the galleries of The Art Institute of Chicago, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. One of the two editors of this anthology, G. Walter Hansen, is a theologian who attends Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, located a mile from The Modern Wing. The interplay between the two locations and their missions is fascinating and forms the raison d'être of the book. In his Preface he describes an encounter with a woman who had read Rookmaaker’s book. She said, “Modern art was done by artists who accepted Nietzsche’s assertion that God is dead” (xii). GMW demonstrates that God is not as far from the subject matter of modern art as a surface glance might lead us to believe—Nietzsche’s viewpoint is not the only one by far represented in the modern wing.

The variety of contributors are each involved in the art world, most are artists, and many are teachers of art or art history, and one is a curator. Since there is no logical progression in the content and arrangement of the essays, I will comment on salient elements to stimulate my readers’ interest. I am hoping to encourage and expand those interests in modern art or perhaps spark an interest that did not exist before reading this review and the book itself.

Co-editor Cameron J. Anderson’s introductory essay, “Being Modern,” is a fascinating exploration of a very complex subject covering a wide range of artists.  Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have not been eradicated from the modern wing.

Matthew Milliner, assistant professor of art history at Wheaton, in his essay “Chagall’s Cathedral,” lists ten artists in The Modern Wing in Chicago who pursue religious themes (32). The top three are Edouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Gaugin. Mark Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938) uses Christian images to depict Jewish suffering (36). Of The Modern Wing’s Kandinsky he says, “many continue to be shocked by the painter’s theological vocabulary” (33). Having seen a masterful exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City recently, I can attest to the veracity of Milliner’s statement. I was shocked to learn in his essay that Salvador Dali (1904–1989) returned to the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, after declaring, “I fear I will die without faith” (44). He reimagined some of his earlier work “in a series of prints illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy” (44). In his 1951 Mystical Manifesto he commented, “The decadence of modern painting was a consequence of skepticism and lack of faith, the result of mechanistic materialism” (44–5). Milliner observes, “It was a messy conversion” (45). I note this not to make Dali a model of faith or to say that his understanding of Christianity would be orthodox—only God knows this—but only to say that the modern wing can surprise us. Milliner has his own reservations (46–8). But as he also observes, “The fact that Dali’s life took such a turn enables us to look with hope on even the most hopeless pieces of art in the Modern Wing” (46).

Cameron Anderson’s second essay, “Transcendence and Immanence,” explores the presence of a longing for reality beyond the material world. Constantin Brancusi’s (1876–1957) Golden Bird is a graceful, polished, vertical sculpture that elicits this remark from Anderson, “In the Western mind and spirit this vertical line, the axis mundi in Brancusi . . . is consequential” (57). Alberto Giacometti was raised in a small Calvinist congregation in the Italian Swiss Alps (59). Although influenced by Sartre’s existentialism, he understands the frailty of humans, depicting them as wanderers and yet seeming to look heavenward for help (62–3).

One of the best chapters in GMW is painter and curator Bruce Herman’s “God in the Wasteland . . . and in the Seaside Paradise.” He explores the contrasting visions of two painters of whom I am not familiar: Phillip Guston (1913–80) and Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993).

Neither Guston nor Diebenkorn professed an articulate faith or settled belief in God. But Guston bore testimony to the perennial human dilemma, and Diebenkorn offered sensuous meditations on the complex and stunningly beautiful world of wonders we inhabit. (79)

In many ways this contrast sums up the thematic polarities of the modern wing. What makes this essay so insightful is that Herman is a practicing artist who studied under Guston. Herman explains, “I’d like to express my own faith in these painters and their love of light, color, and the human story; their love of making itself. . . . As a painter and a man of faith, these qualities always point me back to my Creator” (79).

By common grace we can appreciate the fact that art includes beauty and ugliness. Herman cites C. S. Lewis’s concept of the “miserific vision,” an inversion of the Thomistic beatific vision (80, fn). The very denial of beauty in a work of art “is a backdoor means to celebrate the good, the true, and the beautiful by showing that the absence of beauty or goodness is wrong, unjust, and cruel (80).

Herman’s teacher, Guston, while leading his students on a tour of Italy, once lamented, after weeping over seeing Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca’s fresco “Legend of the True Cross,” that “these Christians . . . they have a story. We don’t have a story” (81). Then he turned to his small gathering of students, including Herman, and said, “So, be like the early Christians. Paint whatever you consider important, no matter what it costs you. . . . Paint like your life depends upon it” (81). Guston himself had turned from a lyrical style to one depicting the problems of the human condition. His painting Bad Times, like Picasso’s Guernica, goes beyond a particular event to make a universal statement.

Linda Stratford stretches our imagination in her essay, “Theological Imagination,” on painters Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. More surprises: we learn that Pollock insisted on a church wedding and saw his drip paintings as “energy and motion made visible,” a new kind of realism (92). Stratford insists the creative spiritual energy of “Pollock’s instantiate the spiritual metaphor ‘world without end’” (96). Newman’s Stations of the Cross (1958) is my least favorite work of art. He claims that Christ’s lament on the cross, “Lema Sabachthani,” is “the unanswerable question of human suffering” (100). While there is truth to the general idea that suffering is often inexplicable, that is certainly not the case in Christ’s suffering on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for his peoples’ sins.

Makoto Fujimura’s essay, “The Impossibility of Mark Rothko,” presents an insight into Rothko’s work that does seem impossible. He is the only author in this collection whose painting and writing I am familiar with.[9] Fujimura and Bruce Herman are the only essayists who have examples of their paintings in the book. Fujimura recommends “language training” in order to understand Rothko; this requires what C. S. Lewis in his An Experiment in Criticism declares a work of art demands: “surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way” (106).[10] Fujimura believes “that Rothko was trying to grasp the indescribable, to ‘under-stand’ the mystery of God” (107). “Rothko’s paintings are non-representational fields of color floating on the surface of the canvas (he resisted the term ‘abstract’ to describe his works).” The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deeply affected him, and so his work may be seen as a “visual lament.” Fujimura describes his Rothko Chapel, a gallery in Houston, Texas, as “an unending black hole of emotion” (108–09). “Mark Rothko painted the abyss . . . [He] laid the ground to construct a language beyond despair” (112–13). Fujimura may be reading his own Christian aspirations into Rothko, but he certainly helps us look deeper into Rothko’s work through his own paintings, rooted in the traditional Japanese Nihonga techniques. His Mark—Water Flames (plate 17) is alluding to the Gospel of Mark and is dedicated to Mark Rothko (113). Fujimura’s layered pigments remind us of Rothko’s technique. Eighty layers of vermillion create depth and luminosity. The flames of Hiroshima, Ground Zero, as well as Moses’ burning bush, the flaming swords of the guardian cherubim, all are memorialized in Mark—Water Flames (114).

Art can be built on the assurance of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1) . . . My Water Flames seek to exegete Rothko and bring his paintings’ somber import into Christ’s dominion. May these works invite the viewer to understand, not just art, but the mystery of life and the mystery of the gospel. (116–17)

Rothko will prove challenging to those unfamiliar with modern art, and even for some of us who have been involved with it all our lives, but Fujimura is a reliable witness to help us understand what motivated Rothko and to guide us in how we can appreciate his work. Fujimura points us to the critical work of Thomas Crow, No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art.[11]

The impossibility of Rothko lies in the intuitive, improbable, and paradoxical journey into the mystery of reality that the modern postindustrial mindset rejects as an unreliable and insufficient form of knowledge. Crow brilliantly identifies that the core of such epistemology is our struggle to depict truth. Anything visible and representational can become an idol, whether it is an image of the Madonna with child or Moses’ bronze serpent. Rothko’s nonobjective work seems to avoid such issues. Rothko’s paintings are a form of Zen Kōan for the modern condition: the question is presented not to seek answers, but to question our rational patterns of inquiry. This impossibility of Rothko is what intrigues us. (119)

David W. McNutt adds an important ingredient to our understanding of Andy Warhol in “Hidden in Pop: Andy Warhol’s Art as Modern Religious Iconography.” A superficial look at Warhol’s work may leave one with the impression that he was an artistic opportunist. This essay disabuses us of this notion. He begins with Hans Rookmaaker’s praise for Warhol and other pop artists bringing the figure back into art (121). Most know Warhol for his Campbell Soup Cans. His funeral in 1987 was held at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. It turns out that there was a spiritual side to him of which few knew. After graduating from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949, he moved to New York City where he attended the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer several days each week. He helped serve meals at a homeless shelter and said daily prayers in Old Slavonic with his mother (127–8). His religious work has not received the attention that it deserves. The most “religiously potent works are found in Warhol’s Last Supper series” (129). “Warhol evokes the entire tradition of religious iconography.” He seems to be commenting on the commercialization of faith (130–1). This represents a challenge to what or who we venerate. In his later career Warhol uses the Old Masters in works such as The Last Supper or The Sistine Madonna to synthesize his faith and artist skill. Museums are hesitant to acknowledge this aspect of Warhol’s oeuvre.

McNutt ends his essay with praise for Rookmaaker’s positive attitude toward artistic endeavor, focusing on the centrality of the Christian witness of the gospel in a fallen world (136). He quotes Arthur Danto in closing, “In Warhol’s work we may be surprised to find Christ, seated at a table with friends, extending an invitation to us, yet this same Christ willingly assumed human flesh, thus taking an entirely vernacular object of everyday life” (136. ).[12] We may be surprised to find God in the modern wing, “even among soup cans and the Marilyns” (136).

The penultimate essay, “Who Is My Neighbor?” by Steve Prince celebrates the art of black artists Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, who “embodied the spirit of the parable of the Good Samaritan through their art” (138). “Catlett and White did not cloak themselves in hatred and disdain. Instead, they created art that spoke to the soul. They created works that championed the beauty of the self, affixed to a larger communal matrix” (148). Catlett especially provided a model for Prince, who, after graduation, dedicated his art and life to Christ (145).

If nothing else, developing a sensibility and understanding of modern art helps to put us in touch with the plight of modern people. We can also see how God has gifted people with artistic abilities that call us to ponder the meaning of life in a fallen world, to consider the good, the true, and the beautiful. The mystery of modern art calls us away from mundane activities and the electronic distractions that engulf us. A quiet hour in the modern wing of the local art museum can prove a real refreshment to our souls, as Christians whose hope in another world enables us to be useful in this present one. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).


[1] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 157.

[2] Scruton, Beauty, 160–61.

[3] Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible: Two Essays (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973).

[4] Scruton, Beauty, 156.

[5] Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970), 173.

[6] Rookmaaker, Modern Art, 174.

[7] Rookmaaker, Modern Art, 174.

[8] Scruton, Beauty, 160.

[9] Gregory E. Reynolds, review of River Grace and Refractions, by Makoto Fujimura. 20 (2011): 165–67.

[10] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 18–19.

[11] Thomas Crow, No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (Sydney: Power, 2017)

[12] Arthur C. Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992).

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, March, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: March 2023


Also in this issue


The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Communicating in the Electronic World with a Christian Voice, Chapter 2

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 4A

Ambiguities in Book of Discipline 9.1, Standing Revisited

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 3: The Importance of the Devotional Life

Jazz and the Gospel: A Review Article


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