Modern Art and the Sacramental Sensibility
Over the last five years or so, I’ve developed an abiding interest in that most mocked of things: modern art. (Last fall, my long-suffering wife spent about four hours longer in the MoMA than she would’ve liked.) The genesis of that interest was a book I read in law school (thanks to a Conciliar Post recommendation, as it were): Daniel A. Siedell’s God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.
A few weeks ago, I picked up Siedell’s subsequent volume, 2015’s Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?: Essays on Modern Art and Theology in Conversation, in the hope of encountering further elaboration on his prior book’s themes. While Siedell’s commentary on specific artworks is as profound as ever—an extended reflection on the controversial Andres Serrano is particularly memorable—I have to admit that a bit of a tragic shadow hangs over the entire book.
The shadow is cast by the book’s opening foreword, a transcript of an address delivered by Siedell in 2013. In that address, Siedell registers a distinct loss of confidence in the project that God in the Gallery so powerfully developed, lamenting his own felt need to defend his love of modern art to fellow Christians. When confronted with critique, “the burden to justify myself theologically was inevitable,” Siedell laments. The approaches of other prominent Christians to modern art—in particular the philosophies of Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker—Siedell characterizes as “distant, at arm’s length, and with their minds made up as to why it should be avoided or explained away.”
This is a posture Siedell—as an art lover—cannot accept. Accordingly, he writes, “I have learned to lean into my passion for modern art without the protection of a ‘Christian world view’ and free of the burden of justifying it theologically.” He goes on to note that “it’s liberating not to believe that God is looking over my shoulder as I scramble to offer an account of how what I do ‘transforms’ culture, or is ‘kingdom work’ or ‘redeems’ the world.”
I understand Siedell’s essential point—I’m sure it’s wearying to try to defend art to those Christians operating from a perpetual “hermeneutic of suspicion” that treats everything contemporary as somehow subversive—but something in his words leaves me uneasy. Specifically, his framing is eerily reminiscent of the language used by many “exvangelicals” to explain their departure from the church: when put to a choice between Christian faith and the requirements of what feels like individual authenticity, it’s awfully difficult to choose a seemingly inauthentic life.
Fortunately, the historic Christian faith has always contained the resources for the artistic engagement Siedell craves. Indeed, the concept of sacramentality—the conviction that God Himself is truly present in and beyond the created order, which itself reflects Him in diffuse and fragmented ways—was a main theme of God in the Gallery, which drew heavily on the Eastern Orthodox theology of the icon in its explanations of how to view modern art through the eyes of faith. Yet curiously, any trace of that sacramental worldview is absent from Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?. (For what it’s worth, I’m not the first to comment on this particular “sacramental hesitation” on Siedell’s part.)
Upon a bit of reflection, this omission becomes doubly surprising. To be sure, the traditional Christian conception of sacramental theology, while retained in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions, was largely abandoned by Zwingli, Calvin, and their intellectual heirs. But Siedell himself, as best as I can tell, is a Lutheran—and this means that Siedell’s original project logically pointed the way toward the reconciliation he longs for: in discussing the “analogical worldview” of classical Christian thought, with its all-pervading view of God’s sacramental presence, Siedell in God in the Gallery built out a genuinely compelling approach to modern art that is credibly rooted in his own tradition.
Yet it nevertheless seems to me that Siedell—a former Calvinist—remains trapped within a particular model of cultural engagement profoundly influenced by the neo-Reformed categories of Schaeffer and his successors: “worldview” and its analogues. One danger of an approach that stresses the category of “worldview” is that it can easily collapse into an overly reactive posture towards culture (the obvious example being “any talk of evolution necessarily entails secular humanism”). Worldviews aren’t hermetically sealed metanarratives, in which a detailed set of propositions or positions logically follows from a single core commitment. To put it in practical terms, just because someone paints in Cubist style doesn’t mean they’re trying to destabilize the entire Western tradition of art and theology; perhaps they’re an orthodox Christian lamenting the brokenness of the world. This is where the Schaeffers of the world perhaps went too far.
To be clear, I think “worldview” is still very useful shorthand as a reference to the set of presuppositions from which an individual proceeds, or to the tradition from within which they speak. But it has a certain set of connotations in Christian circles that, at least where cultural engagement is concerned, I think may do more harm than good. Specifically, “worldview” as a concept is frequently associated with Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Calvinist theologian who famously declared that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” True though that insight may be, there is a significant gulf—at least in practice—between the cultural engagement styles of those working in the Schaefferian/Kuyperian theological line and those speaking from a sacramental tradition.
In my experience, arguments in the Kuyperian line tend to frame the work of Christians in the world as a kind of subjugation or reclamation of a recalcitrant creation. This flows logically from two convictions that are central to Reformed theology: 1) a deep rupture between God and the created order, as epitomized by the rejection of the presence of Christ’s human nature in the Eucharist; and 2) a heavy emphasis on obedience to the specific commands of Scripture, as reflected in the “regulative principle of worship” that requires all worship practices to be justified by reference to specific biblical texts. These emphases tend, in turn, to result in a demand that cultural artifacts be justified propositionally. On this model, art, music, literature, and so forth are somewhat suspect, as products of totally depraved human beings—but they do have value to the extent they connect to specific messages expressed in Scripture. And so art can’t be appreciated for its own sake; rather, it has to say something specific in order to be defensible. Every good movie, in other words, must be a “message movie.”
By contrast, to view the world sacramentally is to acknowledge that the creation always and forever shows forth the glory of God, even in damaged form. Our encounter with God is not only active—a matter of going-forth, conquest, and construction of the Kingdom—but also contemplative, a beholding of the glory that is simultaneously transcendent of and immanent to all things. And that means that God is present in even the darkest and most tragic moments of human experience—and that even heretical art still expresses some facet of the world God created, and within which the touch of divine beauty still lingers. So too, in the same way that the beatific vision, the Christian’s ultimate encounter with God at the culmination of time, cannot be expressed in words, the Christian need not demand that beautiful art “connect” to a particular proposition or other. It is enough that in its beauty, art manifests God’s light.
(I don’t want to pigeonhole all thinkers within the Reformed tradition, and I’m certainly oversimplifying a lot of complex dynamics, but in my experience this dichotomy is quite real, and it helps explain the diversity of Christian approaches to culture.)
This matters because, in explaining his despair over the possibility of a Christian embrace of modern art, Siedell contrasts with his own approach a number of concepts—“Christian world view,” “transforming culture,” and “kingdom work”—that decidedly do not reflect the traditional framework of sacramental theology. They instead reflect an approach to cultural engagement heavily influenced by Reformed categories, an approach that prefers conquering the world to acknowledging the presence of God here with us in the world. But despite Siedell’s apparent rejection of the “Kuyperian” paradigm, he still struggles to articulate the possibility of a cohesive Christian alternative, and accordingly his 2015 book skews toward a kind of sad resignation at the impossibility of any reconciliation.
I tend to think that the ultimate resolution of the tension Siedell finds himself experiencing—between sincere faith and his love for startling art—lies not in a deeper move toward the assumptions of “Kuyperian” thought, but rather in the fuller embrace of a sacramental worldview that forces no false choice between love for God and love of created beauty. And as a Lutheran, Siedell has that worldview always already at hand. There are a number of possible explanations for why his 2015 book downplays that full sacramental sensibility—if I may speculate, Siedell has expressed online his affinity for contemporary thinkers within the movement of “Radical Lutheranism,” which posits such a sharp distinction between law/nature and gospel/grace that it undermines the metaphysical logic of traditional sacramental theology, and in so doing loops back around toward Reformed tendencies—but I’m not sure his broader project can come to a fully satisfying resolution without it.
As Siedell himself acknowledges, escaping the shadow of Reformed-style art criticism may be harder than it sounds. But Siedell’s prior work suggests that it is possible—and, I would submit, essential—to find a way beyond the impasses of existing paradigms for Christian engagement with modern art. And ironically, doing so may require going backward in theological time.