Modern Art and the Life of a Culture

The Religious Impulses of Modernism

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Jonathan A. Anderson, William A. Dyrness
Studies in Theology and the Arts
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , June
     351 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The relationship between theology and art is ambivalent. On the one hand Christianity is seen as the bearer of culture in the tradition of Europe, yet in modern times a break between theology and art has occurred. As a result of cultural events (the French Revolution, the Enlightenment) art and artists postulate a radical abandonment of religious themes. The narrative of the secular does without religion (P. Berger among others). In (an apologetic) contrast, modern artistic creation is understood to be rubbish and decadence (e.g., H. Sedlmayr: Loss of the Center, 1948). This book follows a different path and shows influences of the Christian faith on modern art. The period between approximately 1800 and1970 is presented and reflected on. H. R. Rookmaaker’s theory of “Modern Art as the Death of a Culture” (1970) is critically discussed, and its ontological justification is viewed to be too narrow. The authors postulate a new approach to the question of the relationship between art and theology and advocate a theological reflection on modern art in the spirit of a “hermeneutic of charity.” They contemplate the period of artistic creation to be examined “with and without Rookmaaker.” The religious context and the theological implications of modern artworks should, according to the postulate of both authors, be reevaluated. At the same time, the authors develop a theology of art.

Like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the authors of these studies see the “secular age” as being interdependent with the Christian faith. Despite all the expressions of autonomy, modern art lives off Christian influences. This theory is described knowledgably and in detail from a geographical, cultural, and historical perspective. Artists, for instance in the 19th century, find themselves either unconsciously or knowingly at odds with the ideas of F. de Lamennais, Saint-Simon, and others. In France and Great Britain, the artefacts of modernity are to be understood, inter alia, from the perspective of the sacramental characteristic of the Christian faith. Art in Germany and Holland lives off influences of Lutheran and Calvinist anthropology. Dada and nihilism take up aspects of orthodox spirituality and the liturgical practice of the Catholic Church. The artistic region of North America reveals influences of the Christian doctrine of creation in its portraits and landscapes (such as the works of Th. Cole, F. E. Church) and the influence of the Christian revivalist movements of the 19th century, which shaped American society at that time. This is broken by the two World Wars in the 20th century and the numerous migration flows from Europe to the North American continent.

The cultural region of the US in the middle of the 20th century manifests itself as a cross between European influences and a reflection of the more recent technical and cultural determinants of (post)modern society (technology, mass media). Modernity understands its art to be autonomous; the separation from ecclesiastical guidelines which has occurred is a “point of no return.” However, Christian motifs live on in artefacts in a modified form, broken and critically reflected upon. At the same time a move towards non-Christian religions and cult practices manifests itself. The artistic development of artists like J. Cage and A. Warhol, among others, is traced, but so too are their religious biographies and spiritual development.

Modern art deals with questions of religion and transcendence and takes place between the Museum of Modern Art and Jerusalem. One profits from reading the analysis of the influences of Christianity on modern artistic styles. The authors distinguish themselves by showing respect for the artworks in their “hermeneutic of charity” and do not read theology into an artefact. Instead, the artwork itself is brought into the dialog on religion and theology. In the view of the authors, the narrative of modern art being exclusively secular needs to be revised. Unfortunately, in the analysis of artistic creation too little attention is paid to the element of music. In addition to the mentioned relationship between J. Cage and R. Rauschenberg, for instance, an examination of the connection between the painting “Christ on the Sea of Galilee” by Delacroix and the passage about the sea storm in the movement “The Miracle” in the oratorio “Christus” by Franz Liszt would be worthwhile. The book impressively demonstrates the potential for theology to occupy itself with the movements of modern art. Artefacts of modernity open up a play of imagination, which can only be beneficial for theological reflection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Wolfgang W. Müller is Professor of Dogmatics at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan A. Anderson is an artist, art critic, and Associate Professor of art at Biola University. He is the coauthor, along with Amos Yong, of Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity and a contributor to Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils.

William A. Dyrness is Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Modern Art and the Life of a Culture (with Jonathan Anderson), Senses of the Soul: Art and the Visual in Christian WorshipReformed Theology and Visual CultureChanging the Mind of Missions (with James Engel), Theology Without Borders (with Oscar Garcia-Johnson), and was a general editor of the Global Dictionary of Theology.


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