Review: God in the Modern Wing

God in the Modern Wing (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Ten Christian artists offer reflections on different pieces of modern art found in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, considering both the faith of the artists and what one might see in their art through the eyes of faith.

G. Walter Hansen, a retired theology professor and appreciator of modern art, describes the origins of this book in the preface to this book. He worships at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, located about a mile from the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. He contrasts the perceived distance between Christian faith and modern art, and his own growing appreciation for the works he finds in the Modern Wing. Out of this came the presentations that are basis of this book. Working with Cameron J. Anderson, former executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts and co-editor with him of this book, Hansen invited ten Christians in the arts to give presentations offering their own reflections on particular artists and works of art found in the Modern Wing. The contributors not only met this assignment but also offer insights into, using the expression coined by Flannery O’Connor, the “God-haunted” character of modern art, as well as the faith of many of the artists.

Cameron Anderson opens the collection with an introductory essay on “Being Modern” exploring the spirit, style, and self of modern art. He observes:

“Calling on their generative agency, artists sought means to foment aesthetic, social, and political revolution. If modern art labored to rid the picture plane of propaganda, then artists became the self-appointed guardians of this new visual horizon. This new generation flaunted its moral and creative freedom, but it also lived beneath the burden of its tragic flaws and lapses” (p. 11).

The following chapters focus on one to a few artists and works in the Modern Wing. The first takes us on a kind of tour through the eyes and ears and sketch pad of “Hadlock,” from Matisse’s Bathers by the River, through the Cubism of Picasso, the work of Diego Vazquez, works of Paul Klee, and others, interspersed with comments of gallery visitors, and the epiphanies of God’s presence in the works and even the inadvertent comments of visitors. Matthew Milliner considers the works of Chagall, Magritte, and Dali, particularly the last’s return to Catholic faith. Cameron Anderson discusses Constantin Brancusi’s soaring columns and his Bird series, and the expressions of joy they convey. Contrast this with the earth-bounded Walking Man of Alberto Giacometti and Anderson sees in these two both the aspirations and existential boundaries of what it means to be human. Joel Sheesley returns to Cubism, considering Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, probably unlike any portrait you’ve seen, not representation, but negation, a statement of what one is not, of what is missing, as apophatic theology has done with God.

Bruce Herman introduces us to the later art of Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn. Guston’s Bad Times focuses on “human beings behaving inhumanely.” Many of his paintings explore humanity at its worst, asking “what are we?” but one, Couple in Bed portrays the beauties of faithful love. We are invited to consider Diebenkorn’s Ochre in the Ocean Park series, an affirmation of joy in color and form. Linda Stratford writes of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The latter, with his Stations paintings, especially fascinated me, black vertical bars with differing widths and locations on a series of canvases, or “stations.”

I had the opportunity to see some of Mark Rothko’s works a few years ago. Makoto Fujimura helped me understand the layers of color floating on many of his canvases and why I must visit the Rothko Chapel if I visit Houston. David McNutt introduces us to the faith of Andy Warhol and the connections between the “Pop” and spiritual sides in his life. Steve Prince describes the prophetic art of two black artists, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, as well as some of his own prophetic work, and what it means to be a prophet in art. Finally, Leah Samuelson, who works in the community art movement, writes about her encounters with the walking sticks of Andre’ Cadere, who would walk through exhibits, leaving his color-banded walking sticks as impromptu installations. She uses this to explore the art of protest and restoration.

In what I thought an apt afterword, Cameron J. Anderson considers the significance of these presentations as an invitation to make space in our hurried lives to contemplate these works, how they reflect the human condition and the nature and meaning of our modern selves. He observes the “nature of craft” and “nature of being” that has been under consideration throughout. As we study these works, we both explore how the artists have accomplished their works, and what they “saw” as they worked. He considers Charles Ray’s Hinoki, pieces of a fallen tree that captured his attention that he turned into an installation. It, like all art, poses the question, “Has anyone else seen the thing that I have seen?” And to go with it is the question, are we seen, and loved, and what does this mean for our existence?

The text is accompanied with black and white figures in the text as well as twenty-two color images in an insert. These cannot substitute for seeing the works, but certainly help make sense of the artists readings of these works. Late, in life, without former training, I’ve picked up the paint brush and enjoyed painting with my wife and local artists, many with far more art training. I have only the vaguest understanding of the movements within modern art but this work whet my appetite to know more. It reminded me that Christ is at play (reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins) in the ten thousand places of the modern art world. As Anderson challenges us, will we make space to see, and to be seen?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


The ministry with which I work is hosting a conversation with Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen on November 16, 2021 at 5 pm ET. If you want to learn more about God in the Modern Wing you may sign up for a Zoom link for this conversation via There will be an opportunity to purchase the book at a discounted price. There is no charge for this event.

Review: The Faithful Artist

the faithful artist.jpg

The Faithful Artist, Cameron J. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Addresses the tensions between the world of modern art and evangelical faith, where opportunities for creative engagement might be found in tensions, and what values might shape the life of one sensing a call to be both faithful Christian and artist.

The world of modern art, and the world of faith, particularly evangelical Christian faith have often been at odds with, or not even in conversation with each other. This is the challenge the author has wrestled with since his teenage years as an aspiring artist who embraced the evangelical faith in which he was raised. In the introduction, he describes his own struggle with the absence of mentors, the disregard of his church for the visual arts, and the parallel hostility toward religious faith he encountered in the art world.

Much of this work explores these tensions between evangelical faith and modern art. He begins by tracing the post World War Two parallel rise of modern evangelicalism as an effort to “guard the gospel” and modern art, as an effort to throw off the shackles of tradition and the “double consciousness” artists struggled with, often by either muting faith, or lapsing into sentimentalized art appealing to their faith community. He uses My Name is Asher Lev to discuss one of the fundamental challenges facing the aspiring Christian artist in training: the practice of drawing the nude human figure, both central to the development of artistic skill and raising questions of whether this is proper, and deeper questions about the Christian understanding of the body, and our embodied existence. Building on this, he considers the senses, and how we think about this aspect of our embodied existence as we engage the arts.

He then turns to the conflicts between word and image that have been at the heart of some of the conflict between faith and art, whether it is the iconoclastic movements, ancient and modern, that favor word over image, and the inconsistency of a faith community that denounces icons while creating its own versions of these. He points toward a theology of word and image that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnate Word. He also explores the radical doubts about language in post-modern thought and its appropriation by artists, sometimes portraying the deconstruction of language. Anderson gestures toward a theology in which word and image cohere, and for the possibility of meaning.

He also gestures toward the transcendental of beauty in art, once again contended territory, both by artists who seek to lay bare the exploitive ways beauty has been used, and an evangelicalism focused on goodness and truth to the exclusion of beauty. Against the art world’s often legitimate protest about the manipulation of beauty for tawdry or oppressive purposes, Anderson holds out the possibility of being beholders of beauty, and for the artist of faith, the seeing in beauty, even co-mixed with pain, evil, and suffering, the hand of the Creator. He acknowledges that this may be a quixotic, yet for the faithful artist, necessary endeavor.

Anderson contends that these collisions of faith and art may “reveal a third way, a great vista where biblical and theological reflection–especially the doctrines of creation and incarnation–become the wellspring of inspiration.” Each of his chapters includes models of this kind of biblical and theological reflection that serve, not to give definitive answers, but to point other artists who wrestle with the same tensions toward this “third way” in the practice of their art. Indeed, his conclusion is an invitation to both the church and artists to embrace this work, and for artists to give themselves as called people to the work of culture-making and good studio practice. He writes,

“…the artists whom most of us deem to be successful share a common trait–they do the work. At some point they set romantic ideas about being an artist to the side and commenced doing the artist’s work. Arriving at this place requires one to accept delayed gratification, the awkwardness that is sure to come from making bad art and the reality of negative cash flow. Pushing beyond distraction and discouragement, they accomplished something Herculean–they pushed beyond musing and imagining to establish regular studio practices, to take on habits of making” (p. 252).

Cameron Anderson is executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and what he offers in this book is nothing less than an analysis of the recent history of the visual arts and the challenges and opportunities for Christians who are called to work in this field. It reflects his lifelong familiarity with the art world and his presence as an leader, teacher and thinker in the Christian community. I might add, both by way of disclosure and appreciation, that I worked closely with Cam in his previous role as national director of InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry, and owe twenty years in a job I love to his influence. I saw parts of an early version of this manuscript, kind of like the blocking in of shapes on a canvas that mark the beginning of a painting. It is a delight to see the finished work, which reflects the deep reflection on faith and art that I had come to appreciate in presentations by Cam, disciplined by extensive research and enriched by years of experience working with visual artists.

[This is the second work in the series Studies in Theology and the Arts. The first volume in the series, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture was reviewed earlier this year at Bob on Books.]


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.