Top 35 books on theology and the arts

Michael Phelps: big winner, big eater

Over the years I've been asked to recommend books in the field of Christianity and the arts. What's embarrassing is that I often find myself stumbling for a good answer. Partly it's due, I think, to a hesitation to narrow down a "best of" list, when I'm still learning the field. Partly it's due to the fact that the field is relatively young and, unlike homiletics or mission, there isn't much to choose from and the field is as yet more eclectic than coherent. Perhaps fifty years down the line things will have changed. But to be asked to choose a top ten here is like being asked to choose your favorite "event" at Epcot Center or your favorite food at the Olympic Village. It depends. On a lot of factors.

Consider this, then, a starter's list. If you're interested in joining the conversation at a serious level, these books are non-negotiable. You need to know them. They reflect admittedly a Protestant (and perhaps European-American) bias, but whether you're a student, pastor, teacher, ministry leader, artist or self-proclaimed renaissance man, these books will introduce you to the basic grammar, vocabulary, framework and set of questions that mark the field (broadly speaking) of theology and the arts.

Happy readings (and, yes, please tell me which books I should have included in the list).

Top 35 Recommended Books on Theology and the Arts

1.     Begbie, Jeremy.  Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
2.     Begbie, Jeremy, ed. Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000. 
(I’d also suggest the third section of his book Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts.)
3.     Brand, Hilary and Adrienne Chaplin.  Art & Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts.  Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1999.
4.     Brown, Frank Burch.  Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
5.     Brown, Frank Burch. Inclusive, Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
6.     Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. New York: HarperOne, 1977.
7.     Bustard, Ned, ed. It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2006.
8.     Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 2008.
9.     De Gruchy, John W. Christianity, Art, and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice. 
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
10.  Dyrness, William A. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
11.  Guite, Malcolm. Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
12.  Guthrie, Steven R. Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.
13.  Jensen, Robin. The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
14.  Johnson, Robert K. Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).
15.  L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Shaw Books, 2001).
16.  Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism. London: Sheed and Ward, 1933.
17.  Matthewes-Green, Frederica. The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008.
18.  Noland, Rory. The Heart of the Artist. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
19.  O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961.
20.  Peterson, Eugene. Subversive Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
21.  Potok, Chaim. My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor, 2003.
22.  Rookmaaker, Hans.  Modern Art & the Death of Culture.  Leicester: IVP, 1970; reissued Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994.
23.  Ryken, Leland, ed. The Christian Imagination: The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Pres, 2002.
24.  Sayers, Dorothy L.  The Mind of the Maker.  San Francisco: Harper, 1987.
25.  Schaeffer, Francis. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2006.
26.  Seerveld, Calvin.  Rainbows for a Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task.  Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980.
27.  Seerveld, Calvin. Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art.  Toronto: Tuppence Press, 2000.
28.  Taylor, W. David O., ed. For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010.
29.  Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
30.  Treier, Daniel J. and Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin, eds. The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 2007.
31.  Turner, Steve. Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts, IVP, 2001
32.  Viladesau, Richard.  Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
33.  Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, “Introduction.” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982.
34.  Williams, Rowan. Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. London: Continuum, 2005.
35.  Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.


Jonathan Assink said…
I recently finished Seerveld's Rainbows for the Fallen World. Wow. Absolutely in love with it. Highly, highly second that recommendation!
dave said…
Hey David. Thanks for this. I think this is a very promising list in many regards. Lots of good and interesting stuff. My only quibble is that, as far as I can tell, it is comprised of 100% white theologians (even the one African is a white S. African) and represents very little engagement outside of a eurocentric, western tradition of doing theology (I realize this is a really broad stroke, but I think it holds for the most part). I think this is representative of something that the 'theology and the arts' folks (I'm thinking mostly of in the vein of Begbie and others doing similar things) really need to grapple with. I wonder if you have anything to say about this, or have any reflections on why the 'theology and arts' conversations tend to draw in mostly white folks, or at least tends to be dominated by white theologians. This was the thing that I most struggled with when I was more engaged in these conversations at Duke (I felt that even the Fujimura conversations last year tended to drift towards more conservative, eurocentric theological insights) and ultimately led me to step away from the 'theology and art' conversation and towards what I take to be more explicitly inclusive and diverse conversations and engagements with the arts (conversations I feel are mostly happening in other disciplines).

Anyways, thanks for the list. Please take this not as any kind of direct criticism of any of the authors on the list, but rather as a genuine curiosity to hear how you and other 'theologians of the arts' might respond to this broader observation. I hope you and your family are well in the Dirty D. .

Jim Janknegt said…
Here are some books I would add:

1.Painting and Reality by Etienne Gilson A look at art from the Thomist viewpoint. Excellent!

2. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm by Alain Besançon I don't think the protestant world has yet to come to grips with its history of iconoclasm and this book will help.

3. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art by Hans Belting We think art was always something like we experience it. It wasn't, particularly in the early church. This book explains all about it.

4. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response by David Freedberg Another book to help us deal with the root issues of iconoclasm.
Jonathan, glad to hear you loved Seerveld. He's not always the easiest to read but he's sure worth the effort.

David: great question, and my guess is that your hunches about an answer are the same as mine.

The simplest answer (and perhaps also the simplistic answer) to your question is this. The number of white folks in the professional field of theology is smaller than the number of non-white. And the number of theologians interested in the intersection of the arts is miniscule, relatively speaking. When you put those two facts together, you get your answer. Non-white, non-Europeans are engaged in this field, though perhaps not at the institutional level that a Begbie, Robin Jensen, David Brown or Rowan Williams have achieved.

I imagine that there are any number of cultural and social dynamics at work, in the same way that we see more Chinese badminton players than Latin American in the Olympics or more white American marathoners than black (viz the sprint competitions), and more African-American hip hop singers than Asian, and more white heavy metal musicians than Caribbean.

If we can say that there are distinct cultures surrounding the profession of theology, the world of the arts, and the academic institution itself, then we can also say that these cultures, when combined, for the time being are drawing more white folks with an interest in the European-American/western tradition than otherwise.

From my travels abroad, I don't think this will remain the case forever. At least I hope it doesn't, and I'm guessing that your research will un-earth some valuable insights about this. But someone whose opinion might be very interesting on this question is John de Gruchy.

In any case, I'm glad you raise the question and I'll probably pose it to Jeremy myself.

It's raining in ol' Durham with a temperature of 79, and the Olympics are about to come on. According to my weather app, it's 91 F in Houston and cloudy skies. I hope H-town is treating you right. Our humidity says hello to your humidity.

Jim: great suggestions for books. I have two out of the four you mention, and the reason I have them is because of your prior recommendations. :)
Jonathan Assink said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Assink said…
David and David:

I haven't had a chance to read anything of his beyond a few essays, but would Mako Fujimura be a name to put out there for non-white's working in the art and faith realm?
Ryan LaFerney said…
Hi David,

I agree with the book and loved that you featured both Flannery O'Connor and Frederica Matthews-Green but I think another great work on Icons is The Icon: Window on the Kingdom by Michel Quenot. Have you read it?
Jonathan, I think you're right in identifying Mako as a non-white perspective to the extent that he intentionally seeks to bring his Japanese heritage to bear on his thought and work in the arts. Well said.

Ryan, I'm not familiar with Quenot's book but thank you for bringing it to my attention. My intention with this list was not so much to be comprehensive as to be representative. I'm familiar with Frederica, both professionally as well as personally, and think she offers an easy access for non-EO to enter into the world of icons. That's why I chose to include her book. Evdokimov, Lossky, Ouspensky, even perhaps Nouwen, offer more hefty treatments of iconographic practice, but Frederica is as fine of a place to begin as any.

At one level, as I admit in my original note, my list retains a measure of subjectivity. I don't claim that Noland and Potok are theologically hefty books, but I do think they open up important discussion on the arts that involve theological implications. Perhaps I would feel the same about other books I've included here.

In any case, thanks for taking the time to write a comment and I look forward to tracking down your recommendation.
Micheal said…
A great list! What about Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus Through the Centuries? Though not about "the arts," per se, as a historical survey of how different ages have understood and portrayed Jesus, including in visual arts, it's a great resource for understanding the relationship between art and theology.
Michael, you're right, Pelikan's book is a great way to "see" theology in action. That's a good recommendation.
Not sure if you remember me, but heard you speak at the AMiA winter conference a few years ago when we chatted about Duke and St. Andrews. From my small amount of reading in the subject, a great beginning list and several to add to my own to-read list.

Another interesting comment is this: only 7 women (and then not sure if Hilary is a woman or man) out of more than 35 authors (since some books have more than one author). And then the 10 comments, not any of them are from women.

Perhaps this is another question to ask.

I appreciate Dave's comment regarding race/global location, but also wonder about representation of women doing arts and theology work. As someone who in a few years will, Lord willing, be pursuing some doctoral work in this vein, I have been a little disappointed researching programs with such a small number of female faculty.

Thanks for thoughts on this. Emily Zimbrick-Rogers
p.s. What about some Francesca Aran Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty? I just finished reading that and started her Divine Comedy. Profoundly brilliant and a Roman Catholic perspective.
Emily, I think you point out a discrepancy that motivates many of us to encourage and support the efforts of women to join the field of theology and the arts. I don't think it's a conspiracy on anybody's part, to put it exaggeratedly. My answer to "David" would be the same answer I'd give to you.

There aren't many women scholars in this field, but I can tell you that I'm surrounded by four sharp-as-a-whip women in the ThD and PhD programs at Duke who are engaged in research related to theology and the arts, and it's exciting to imagine where they'll end up.

So hang in there, please join the merry band of theology and the arts scholars, and make your own unique contribution to the field, for which we'll all be grateful.

I have not read Murphy's book, but I shall add it to my list of books to read in years to come.

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