The Stories Behind the Beauty
I have the pleasure of being part of Seasons Weekend, a creative, intimate, and spritual retreat for men and women who desire a deeper walk with God. Recently our Seasons Weekend Emcee Melissa Maimone met with me to discuss my upcoming book, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. For more information about Seasons Weekends, click HERE.
MELISSA: What inspired you to write “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know”?
TERRY: This is a book that I wanted to write for years and years and years. One of the reasons I put together a book like this is that many Christians are unaware of the rich heritage we have as believers. There were people who came before us who saw things that we need to see, and they expressed themselves with such beauty and insight and power. But for many modern believers, Christianity might as well have been invented by Billy Graham in the 1950's. They have little sense of their history--a history of which we can be proud. And this history is part of our story as believers today. So, this book was my attempt to give the reader an idea of the depth and beauty and diversity of expression within our heritage. And as I have written in the introduction of the book, I’m not suggesting that these are the 75 "greatest masterpieces" that Christians have created; I'm saying that these are 75 that are representative. Each of them is truly a masterpiece. Each them is worth spending time with and each of them has made a mark. But you could easily put together an alternative list of 75 that would be just as valid. And in fact, that would actually be kind of fun!
M: Did every artist in the book identify themself as Christian?
T: Yes. That was one of my criteria for deciding what to include in the book. There are Protestants, there are Catholics, there are Eastern Orthodox, and then there are some people in the book who are rather unorthodox! For example, William Blake, whose theology was kind of cobbled together 'cafeteria style' from his own idiosyncratic version of Christianity but also influenced by various esoteric texts and other stuff that clearly just came out of his own imagination and experience. But, he would self-identify as a Christian, so I included him. His overarching message is that the world is more than just what we can see in the material realm--what we can see, taste, touch, feel, smell--that the spiritual realm is real and important. The power with which he expressed that emphasis makes him worth including.
M: Would you consider these artists heroes of the faith?
T: Only in a limited sense. Very few of them were great theological thinkers, nor did they all live saintly lives. Many of them were spiritual strugglers. Some of them were probably not the kind of people you would want to invite over for Sunday brunch. They were sometimes people who had trouble making good moral decisions, or who had impossible personalities. It doesn't take a saint to be a great artist. On the other hand, some of those that you will read about in the book were kind of saintly. But most of them were fellow strugglers like you and me. So we don't look to them for examples of how to live our lives, but we look to them for helping us to see the world in a deeper, more profound, and more moving way.
M: What is the difference between a “masterpiece” and just a really good piece of art?
T: Depending on who you ask, you would probably get different answer on that. But I will give you my best working definition. First, I like to think of a masterpiece as a work which has stood the test of time. For example, some music from the 1960's that was popular then, but seems irrelevant now; very much a product of its time. But some Bob Dylan songs from the 1960's, for example, still feel very relevant today. That is one of the things that I think makes something a masterpiece. It has stood the test of time. Second, a masterpiece is a work that you can visit time and time and time again and you can always get something new from it. I've probably looked at Van Gogh's painting 'Starry Night' thousands of times in my life. It still never wears out. With a masterpiece, you can keep coming back to it again and again and always find something fresh. And the third characteristic of a masterpiece is the a high level of creativity in it's expression. With the great artists, writers, and musicians there is always an attempt to find a new way to say it, show it, hear it. And that's what the really great artists do.
M: You mentioned that a lot of the artists were fellow strugglers just like us. Is there anyone in the book who stand out as having a bit of a saucier history to them?
T: One of the people who immediately comes to mind is Caravaggio. He painted powerful images of biblical scenes that are filled with emotion. And it's because he was an incredibly emotional man. Yet he didn't control his emotions that well. He was a gambler, he loved to provoke an argument, and never stood down from a fight. As a matter of fact, he was known for wearing a sword at his side as he strolled through town. At one point in his life, he had to flee Rome because he ended up killing someone in a duel. So, how do you put together such a man with such spiritually powerful work? That is the mystery of God choosing whom he chooses. Graham Greene, one of the finest novelists of the 20th Century was a man who throughout his life struggled with his doubts. And he didn't always do a good job of not giving into temptations--especially those involving excessive drinking and dalliance with women. And yet he produced, in his novel "The Power and the Glory", perhaps the most powerful picture of how grace works in spite of human limitations that any writer ever achieved. And that is probably because in his own life he knew he needed that grace.
M: It might be like asking you to pick your favorite child, but are there some works of art out of the 75 in the book that stand out as your personal favorites?
T: Wow, that's really hard. There are definitely some that have moved me more deeply or that have had a larger effect on the way I think or feel or experience my life than others. But to try to pick between them? At different times in our lives, different works speak to us in different ways and meet different needs.
M: Why study these masterpieces?
T: C.S. Lewis wrote that one of the ways we judge the quality of a work of art is by how we find ourselves interacting with it. Lesser art is something we use. In other words, it's art we put on our walls because it's creative and decorative or because it makes a statement that we agree with--like maybe a religious painting. And there's nothing wrong with that. I have very little patience for the art snobs who have no room for art that evokes joy. But, there is another kind of art that Lewis talks about. The Greater Art, he writes, is art that we don't use, but instead we receive. It's art that demands a vulnerability from us. We must be open to receive what it has to offer. If you stand in front of Rembrandt's “Return of the Prodigal Son", and you are ready to receive, that painting has all kinds of things to offer. And I think the same is true of a Chagall, or a Rothko, or a John Donne poem, or a concerto by Bach, or a jazz piece by Coltrane, or one of Bruce Cockburn’s songs. If we come to such works with humility and vulnerability and are ready to receive, they are going to speak to us.
M: Any last thoughts?
T: Sometimes we think of art as high and exalted and kind of mysterious and academic and largely irrelevant, but I believe that is a misconception. When you invest a little effort in exploring great works of art you’ll find them to be a wonderful addition to your life. Great art changes the way we think, the way we relate to God and others, and the way we see our world. Art has great practical value for everyone and it is a source of such joy. It has made a difference in my life. My hope is that this book will cause it to make a difference for others as well.
Pre-Order Terry's book, "75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know" HERE.