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FIRST-PERSON: They once ‘loved to tell the story’

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–I remember the day I fell in love again with baseball, back in the 1970s. (I’d been in a 20-year funk since the Dodgers moved to L.A.) A Wheaton College colleague and his wife took Sharon and me to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field. We had front-row, upper-deck seats above first base. Wrigley was beautiful, but the infield warm up impressed me first and most. I couldn’t believe the ease with which the third baseman fired the ball “on a rope,” 30-40 yards, back to first. Such strength and skill. I still get chills when I see it.

I get a similar thrill when I visit art galleries. Artists can be amazing. If you gave me a year, an offer of $1 million and the best of tools, I still couldn’t match a square inch of DaVinci or Vermeer. When it comes to painting, I’m a hopeless clunker, so I’m drawn (no pun intended; well, maybe a little intended) to those who execute their paintings with consummate skill.

My work on a Christian website recently took me to London, where I raced to and through four museums in my free time — the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery one morning, the Wallace Collection and Tate Britain another afternoon.

The artistry was gratifying, but I was struck more than ever by the subject matter — or rather the change of subject matter through the centuries of Western art.

For roughly the first 1,600 years, A.D., Christianity was the focus. At the National Gallery, I passed through several halls seeing scarcely a secular work. There (and to a lesser extent at the Wallace and Tate), painters frequently turned to the Gospels (the Annunciation, the Nativity, the kings’ and shepherds’ adoration, Mary’s mothering, Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist’s beheading, Lazarus’ raising, the temple’s cleansing, the foot washing, children’s blessing, the high priest’s interrogation, Gethsemane, the crucifixion, Christ’s burial, Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb, Thomas’ incredulity, the supper at Emmaus, Pentecost) and the Roman Catholic saints (Jerome, Eustace, Sebastian, Catherine, Francis, George, Michael, Anthony). Others worked from Acts (Paul’s shaking off the viper) and the Old Testament (the flood, worship of the golden calf, Moses in the bulrushes, Egypt’s plagues, Belshazzar’s feast, Lot’s flight from Sodom).

As the Renaissance took hold in the 15th and 16th centuries, everyday people replaced the saints, contemporary settings and dress supplanted the biblical and ancient. New techniques (perspective, natural shading) and materials (tempura, fresco) emerged.

As a child of the Reformation, I have to say I welcome the collapse of the old sacred/secular distinction. I agree with Luther that God calls people to everything from preaching to homemaking to farming to smithing to marketing. The sacred is everywhere, as extensive as the Kingdom. But I do miss generous artistic coverage of biblical stories and personalities. Of course, there were exceptions. William Blake was a virtual industry in this connection in the 19th century, with paintings and illustrations of Satan’s smiting Job with boils, Abel the shepherd, heaven’s river of life, Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt, etc. But the generality stands.

Despite the changes, the church was once so much a part of the cultural fabric that artists naturally picked up on its leaders and activities. Seventeenth-century Dutch painters captured Protestant worship services in progress. Eighteenth- and 19th-century English portraiture celebrated such Christians as Robert Raikes (founder of Sunday School), William Wilberforce (who led the Parliamentary fight against slavery) and Hannah Whitehall Smith (who wrote “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life”).

The 20th century saw the death of cultural piety. Art both hastened and reflected its demise. No greater illustration of this can be found than in the National Portrait Gallery. A short walk from the 1828 Wilberforce by Sir Thomas Lawrence, you find the 1997 prurient self-portrait Gilbert and George – two homosexual artists standing side-by-side in full frontal nudity, with a crude expression at their feet. And the craft is not that impressive — arty paintwork around a sepia photo.

It would be fun to ask the chief curator, “Have you no shame?” just to see what he would say. Of course, he has none. Shame is a joke now, and likely one turned back on the person who uses the expression without irony. On this modern model, the critic should be ashamed of his “homophobia” or stuffiness — ashamed of his shame, embarrassed of embarrassment.

I’m not asking that we return to the stylistic days of Duccio and Titian. But just imagine if we had more artists who could work with this conviction:

I love to tell the story

Of unseen things above,

Of Jesus and His glory,

Of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story,

Because I know ’tis true;

It satisfies my longings

As nothing else can do.
Mark Coppenger, at [email protected], is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. His commentaries appear biweekly in the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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