Ellen Davis suggests that an interpretation of Scripture should be judged by its beauty. She writes,
Interpretations of scripture are not just right or wrong, although at times such categories are useful and necessary. A more adequate way of judging our readings might be the way we judge works of art—according to the standards of beauty. To what extent do our readings reveal the intricacy, the wondrous quality of what the biblical writers call ma‘asei Adonai, “the works of the LORD”?Ellen Davis, Christian Century, “Beyond Criticism”
I think this is an important insight. “Right” and “wrong” are “useful and necessary” at times but they are insufficient for grappling with the biblical writings. This is something, I think, that great artists who’ve taken up the task of interpreting the Bible with brush or chisel have always intuited more ably than those of us who write our interpretations. Someone like me, who works mostly in prose, is tempted toward explanation, toward epistemic concerns. Artists working in images and other mediums are not so concerned with what way of understanding the story is right or wrong but how the story itself might lay hold of us. What detail, what peculiarity, what character might prove gripping when seen in a fresh light? The artist reads a story with a different guiding question than the common biblical interpreter, namely, “What about this story is so beautiful that it must be rendered?”
The beauty of artistic interpretations of Scripture is on full display in Heidi Hornik’s The Art of Christian Reflection (Baylor University Press, 2018). Hornik is an art historian at Baylor. For nearly two decades, she curated works of art for Christian Reflection, a quarterly that took up an ethical theme for each issue. Along with the images, Hornik offered insights about the life of the artist, the content of the painting, and possible connections to Christian living. In The Art of Christian Reflection, Hornik reworks these earlier contributions “for an academic audience.”
The result is a truly astonishing gift to the church! The revisions do not make Hornik’s commentaries so academic that they are out of reach for pastors or small group leaders. And the book is divided into three obviously relevant sections: Christian habits and virtues, moral issues facing contemporary Christians, and formative and liturgical practices. I started reading this book as a kind of nightcap reader, imbibing a section a night just before falling asleep. But now I keep it close at hand in my study. I’ve found many of Hornik’s commentaries useful for preaching and teaching in my church. Working with more than eighty pieces of art, Hornik invites readers into reflection with a wide range of artists across cultures and centuries. The images are high quality and cleanly organized. I could imagine such a book serving well as a guide for small groups but it is also a treasure trove for images that would provoke congregations into deeper reflection on biblical stories or ethical themes.
I’ll give one example of how Hornik helps us see the way artists beautifully interpret biblical texts. We will look with Hornik at Jacopo Bassano’s Good Samaritan, which serves also as the cover photo for the book. Hornik begins by offering a bit of biographical context about the artist. Bassano painted in sixteenth-century Catholic Venice. He worked to relieve the poor of their suffering, so the story of the Good Samaritan is an obvious choice for his reflection. As Hornik says, Bassano “chose this theme…in order to take the church of his day to task for failing in its obligations to care for the sick and needy in society.”
She then proceeds to help us see the painting well. After a rich description of the content foregrounded in the painting, Hornik turns our attention to the details in the background. She notes the man to the left, who appears to carry a scroll with him. The Levite, according to Bassano’s imagination, overlooks the needy because he is too engrossed in his reading. “This detail is not mentioned in the Gospel text, but presumably it was introduced into the iconography to accentuate the contrast between the Levite’s ostentatious, but actually superficial, religiosity on the one hand and the Samaritan’s exemplary brotherly love on the other…Lost in his book only a few steps from the spot where the helpless victim lies, the Levite walks to the right while the Samaritan, in the foreground, leans the opposite direction.”
Hornik notes that the Levite reading is an element of iconographic tradition which Bassano employs “more emphatically” than others. And it’s true that it’s not “in the Gospel text,” at least not in the story itself. But, putting a scroll in the Levite’s hands is not unwarranted by the context surrounding the story. To whom is Jesus telling the story? “An expert in the Law.” Someone whose business is reading Scripture well. When the expert asks Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus asks the expert a pointed question. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The man replies, suggesting the twofold command to love God and love neighbor. Jesus affirms the expert reader’s answer. But the expert asks one more question: “Who is my neighbor?” This is the question that leads Jesus to speak the parable of the Good Samaritan.
As I look at the image, I cannot help but see the figure who Hornik identifies as the Levite representing also the expert in the Law. Jesus’s story is, after all, a rebuke against the expert’s self-justification (10:29). Avidly reading Scripture is a good thing but not if that avid reading is self-justifying and world-ignoring. An otherwise blasphemous punk song puts the point poignantly: “You can’t hide behind the Bible.” What a startling reminder to all of us Christians who read the Bible often. A beautiful reading of Scripture, to return to Ellen Davis, is also gauged by a question, “To what extent do they draw us toward something, a way of being that is—to use Paul’s language—more “lovely,” more “gracious,” more “excellent,” “noble,” “worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8)?” Like Augustine’s suggestion that no interpretation is complete until the reader discovers how the passage leads to a greater love of God and neighbor.
Readers will find this book both useful and edifying. Whether the works of art being considered depict biblical scenes or not, Hornik’s faithful and learned guidance leads the reader again and again to contemplate the faithful–or, rather, the beautiful–life.
Thanks to Baylor University Press for sending a copy for review. Readers can purchase this volume by clicking here.