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The Artist, The Consumer, The Witness, & The Divine
A Review of Rembrandt is in the Wind
I was so grateful to have listened to and absorbed this week’s book, a masterpiece by Russ Ramsey which I sincerely hope you’ll take the time to dig into. Once a month or so one of my book reviews is based on an Audiobook, which I find helps diversify my reading—I’m sure you don’t want to be reading reviews of essay collections every week. I would like to drop a note of thanks before I begin though to the narrator of this book, who took the time to pronounce foreign words with as much accuracy as possible. A few years ago I listened to a biography of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I couldn’t finish because the narration was awful whenever a German word would come up—which was often. I was, therefore, incredibly thankful to Zach Hoffman for doing such a faithful job of the narration on this project.
If you’d like to pick up the audiobook, you can do so here:
1 and 2 the two pendants of sunflowers
3 The ivy, upright
4 Orchard in blossom (the one Tanguy’s exhibiting at the moment, with poplars crossing the canvas)
5 The red vineyard
6 Wheatfield, rising sun, which I’m working on at the moment.
To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Tuesday, 19 November 1889
These six pieces were supposed to be sent to Theo van Gogh to be included as part of an exhibit as per Vincent van Gogh’s request. Each one complemented the other in colour, style, and in exhibiting a part of the artist himself. The same could be said of the following:
1. Beautifying Eden
Why Pursuing Goodness, Truth, and Beauty Matters
2. Pursuing Perfection
Michelangelo's David and Our Hunger for Glory
3. The Sacred and the Profane
Caravaggio and the Paradox of Corruption and Grace
4. Rembrandt Is in the Wind
The Tragedy of Desecration and the Hope of Redemption
5. Borrowed Light
Johannes Vermeer and the Mystery of Creation
6. Creating in Community
Jean Frédéric Bazille, the Impressionists, and the Importance of Belonging
7. The Striving Artist
Vincent van Gogh's The Red Vineyard and the Elusive Nature of Contentment
8. Beyond Imagination
Henry O. Tanner, Race, and the Humble Power of Curiosity
9. What Remains Unsaid
Edward Hopper, Loneliness, and Our Longing for Connection
10. Measuring a Life
Lilias Trotter and the Joys and Sorrows of Sacrificial Obedience
A World Short on Masters
These ten chapters were written for the Church. Each one complements the other, carefully crafted by Russ Ramsey not just to tell the stories of artists—or art—throughout the ages, but to reveal something greater. Ramsey has done this through colour, with style, and by exhibiting a part of himself. In short, Ramsey has done to a page with the pen what many artists have done with the brush, he has sought to glorify God and leave behind something which will help others to enjoy Him forever.
Though these stories are from various time periods, there are four “characters” to follow throughout the book. When we read non-fiction, especially when it spans such a lengthy period of time, we can easily get lost and though I don’t think that would be such an issue here—as Ramsey is an artist of the highest calibre and so has made each story interesting and intriguing in its own way—I think it would be helpful to point these characters out. I firmly believe that if you want to get the most out of a book you need to know what you’re looking for.
My recommendation for this book is to look out for:
The Obvious One
This is a book about art, so it’s probably unsurprising that one of the Characters you ought to be looking out for is an Artist. Let’s say though that I took you and Ramsey, the Author, into different rooms and asked each of you to describe an Artist in five minutes and I recorded each version, which one do you imagine would be the most accurate? In a world in which anyone can do anything, we’ve ended up with watered-down words which don’t hold anything close to their former potency. The words Awesome, Wicked, or even more recent words like Cool, don’t evoke what they once did, and the same is true of job descriptions.
When I lived in Germany I was given the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the beauty of language, which led to a revival of my former love of reading. Sadly, that love that had died in my late teens. As I picked up the works of Goethe, Schnitzler, and Zweig, I was enlightened to the magnificence of the German language and how it could be crafted in a way that I hadn’t in the world around me. When I moved back to the UK I then had to do the same with works in my mother-tongue; I had to reckon with the idea the English language had more to offer.
As you read this book, imagine you’re learning a new language for the first time, for one, it will help when you do come across new words or concepts, because you’ll be prepared to learn, but on another level, it might help you to second guess your own interpretation of what the word Artist means. Whatever you think this character is, drop that as you open the book, and be ready to learn what Ramsey is willing and able to teach.
Take, Take, Take
The second character is the consumer, the men and women who feature in this story because of their proclivity to steal, to jest at, and to unjustly critique the work of others. Whenever some beauty is being crafted, or wherever it exists in the world, there are bound to be beings clothed in darkness whose sole purpose is to either drown it in that same darkness or else convince everyone else to treat it as though it had no beauty in it at all. These are the consumers. Sometimes these consumers are characters we’d rather root for, people we have much in common with. Most notably, many consumers have been members of the body of Christ, which should humble us. Of all the characters in this story, this is the one each of us is most likely to be, in fact, I would argue that each one of us has most certainly played this role in someone’s life at some point. It may even be that we have played that role in our own lives, looking day after day at the work of art the Lord has created, who we see in the mirror each and every day, whose work we then choose to break down and besiege. As I listened, that story, my story, kept repeating over in my mind. As you listen to the story being told, whenever you hear about this character, don’t be quick to judge. They are wrong, thieves should not steal, murderers should not murder, vandals should not vandalise, that’s pretty simple, but what have you done in your own life which has had similar effects? How have you mistreated others upon whom has been bestowed the image of God? Whose art have you unfairly judged? I write eight book reviews a month, believe me, I agonise over how to “critique” well, but I’m still incredibly unpracticed compared to others and I am absolutely sure I have not always done it as well as I could.
With that said, it’s easy to judge a murderer, it’s easy to judge a thief, but if you’re a Christian you know that none of them is beyond the power of the cross. Those who repent, those who have repented, will be forgiven. When issues inevitably come up as you read this book, take each and every single one to the cross. You too are not beyond Christ’s saving grace.
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how He could love me,
A sinner condemned, unclean.
How marvellous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvellous! How wonderful!
Is my Savior’s love for me!
I Stand Amazed in the Presence - Charles Hutchinson Gabriel (1856-1932)
Last week we got to interview Karen Swallow Prior on our podcast and I’m not shy about how amazing that was, we were so thankful that she agreed to come and speak with us. I’ve long been a fan of her work and the work that she’d done on Tess of the D’urbervilles was no exception. That is an example of admiration, not of awe. I really admire Dr Prior’s work, but I wouldn’t sell my arm for it. Throughout history, there have been many who have been so awestruck by the art of a single person, or more widely of art in general, that it has led to them to give away copious amounts of money or time to collect it or just go and see it in person.
A story like this can be found in Matthew 13:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it.”
Matthew 13:44-46, Christian Standard Bible
The character of the Witness is far less common than the consumer, but they are a parable for us of the relationship we should have with the beauty of the Gospel. When you come to these passages in the book, think about this parable and ask yourself, “How can I learn to love the Lord more? What does this parable tell me about affection and awe?”
“I stand amazed in the presence, of Jesus the Nazarene, And wonder how He could love me, A sinner condemned, unclean.” These are words filled with awe, full of that same heart that sold everything to purchase the pearl. Will you stand amazed?
god & God
There’s an excellent scene in the show Friends in which Joey and Rachel go head to head in a battle of luck. If she wins, she moves to Paris, if he wins she doesn’t.
It all comes down to a coin toss.
“Heads I win, tails you lose.” Says Rachel.
Joey loses 57 times in a row…unsurprisingly.
With a g from the lower case on one side of the coin and a G from the upper case on the other, it might be easy to think that they’re of equal value, especially to outsiders. More frustrating for those of us who place our trust in God is those who have an idea of God which is really an idea of god, but nonetheless informed by their understanding of the Bible. It may be a bad understanding, it may be so far from what is actually written in scripture that it’s hard to believe, but we all know from experience just how often this happens.
Just like the other three characters in this story, the last has multiple faces, some are just counterfeits, but one is the real deal, the bonafide genuine article. There are many books about “seeing God through [insert literally anything here]” which are nothing more than one person showing you their version of God. What this book does differently is instead of trying to see God more clearly through Art, it helps us as Christians see Art more clearly through, as the subtitle puts it, the eyes of faith.
That’s not to say you won’t see God in this book, you absolutely will—and if you’re a pastor you’ll come away with about a thousand sermon illustrations—but that’s not the primary goal. When we instead look at Art through the eyes of faith we’re able to do so with God so to speak. We don’t leave our faith at the doors of the art gallery, or when we open social media, we should instead learn to bring our faith into every aspect of our lives. When I meet new people, one of the first things I’ll tell them about myself is that I’m married, that my wife’s name is Anna and that we’ve been married for roughly one winter and seventeen Covid lockdowns (we don’t use years anymore in England, this is more precise.) As a result of me doing this, wherever I go people ask me about Anna, she’s a fundamental part of the image people have of me. What’s also interesting is that I find myself looking out for information, stories, and people that Anna would love to hear or get to know, “I can’t wait to tell Anna,” is one of my most common thoughts. When we bring God into every situation, it allows for a similar effect, people will be more likely to ask us about our faith, and we will be more likely to be looking out for an opportunity to display God’s love in our day to day lives. There are artists who have done the same with their work, who have, like Ramsey, “sought to glorify God and leave behind something which will help others to enjoy Him forever”
If artists throughout church history have done this, why would we not endeavour to honour that. There will be occasions, many occasions, on which what we see in front of us is a work that has been inspired by a counterfeit god, an example of someone longing to find the truth, but it was just out of reach. On the other hand, when we find something which has been built on the Rock of Ages, how we should stand and marvel with them. Though years, decades, or covid lockdowns might separate us, we can stand together and wonder at our Lord, loving him and praising him as one.
I’m thankful for this book.
What I haven’t been able to illustrate in this article is how much listening to Ramsey’s words awakened my senses. I listened to the bulk of it during a business trip in London. I’d woken up early and so on the way back home I tried my best to stay out of the sun and avoid the headache its gaze would bring. It was just impossible, the windows and white walls of immense cathedrals of commerce, standing side by side with testaments to the ingenuity of man reflected the light of the sun no matter where I stood or looked. I walked from Westminister and Big Ben all the way to London Victoria without any reprieve, it was my lot to remain in the light of the Sun.
As I walked that road, I was an Artist, I began to form this review in my mind, I considered imagery, I came up with ideas for books and future articles, I was a Consumer, finding fault with some of the buildings, or what they stood for, I was a Witness, marvelling at Ramsey’s use of the English language, doing things I could never do, and marvelling with him at that final character, the Divine, the Lord of Lords. As the sun bounced off of the buildings around me, I wondered how much of my writing could reflect the light of the Son. I do my best, I rely on God for strength. I was asked recently something to the effect of, “what are you doing all of this writing for?”
"I can’t stop,” I said.
I’ve been writing long enough now to know that everything I write is intended to worship God, but that I’m going to do that imperfectly until the day I die. Hearing the stories of these artists helped me to wrestle with that.
I’m thankful for this book. I’m thankful for Russ Ramsey.
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