Comment remains one of my favourite journals, publishing thoughtful pieces on a wide variety of subjects, often asking how best to think as Christians and what practices emerge from our reflections about God’s redemptive work in the world. Readers care about a lot of stuff, and want to learn how to live in these times fruitfully and faithfully.
Of course, as a bookseller, it is a joy to talk about books that might be of interest to this exact sort of engaged, open-minded, and discerning reader. Here are a few choice titles that Comment readers might enjoy.
The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment by Eric O. Jacobsen (Baker Academic, 2012)
Since Jacobsen’s 2003 Brazos Press introductory book Sidewalks of the Kingdom, many were hoping that the Presbyterian pastor turned new urbanist would write a more substantial follow up, taking readers further into the fascinating study of our built environment. His nearly decade of further study, writing, speaking, and engaging this interdisciplinary field has paid off with extraordinary fruitfulness, and Jacobsen’s new book is, without a doubt, one of the most important books in the field, and should be considered to be one of the most important books of the year. It is winsome and well written, thorough and informed, inspiring and helpful. In many ways, it is just what a nonfiction Christian perspective book can be, weaving together solid theology, astute observations, profound analysis, helpful Biblical study, and tons of concrete illustrations. And illustrations! (The literal kind this time—drawings and photographs.)
Those who appreciate the reformational worldview that is a guiding perspective for Comment will find much to celebrate here. There are sections on the cultural mandate, the Biblical plot-line from a garden to a city, common grace, discussions of the Kingdom of God, ruminations on “the already and not yet.” He nicely cites authors such as Al Wolters, Lee Hardy, Craig Bartholomew, and Richard Mouw. His assessment of architecture and city spaces is multi-dimensional, insisting on the value of norms such as justice and aesthetic richness (drawing on the neo-Calvinist likes of Nicholas Wolterstorff, using both Until Justice and Peace Embrace and Art in Action). Jacobsen dives right in, noting his hope that reading the book will “change the way you look at everything” by offering a “theology of enacted space.” He explains why geography matters and reminds us that we should attend to such things to the glory of the God who desires human flourishing and shalom for His creation. Justice and peace will not embrace, it becomes quickly clear, at an abstract level. We must care about stuff, place, our built environment.
Jacobsen invites readers to consider basic things about God’s real world, and the first hundred pages or so are a brilliant explanation, not only of the field of study of the built environment (which he explains is not primarily architecture and not city planning), but also asking us to consider fundamental questions about our being-in-the-world. The first four chapters are “Who Are You?” “Where Are You?” “What Are You?” and “When Are You?” My, my, these are delicious chapters, explaining different schools of thought about the fields of urban studies, citing important writers and large theological insights, to ask about the importance of our identity, our idols, our places.
It is a delight reading a book that so deftly moves from broad social thinking to Scripture studies to the details of curb radii or studies about distance and intimacy. (Ahh, yes, how we literally “see” and experience lines of vision, does, indeed, shape us!) He wonderfully explains the best chapters of Jane Jacobs, and brings us into the conversations of new urbanists, such as Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and James Howard Kunstler. He looks back a bit to the history of urban planning and the folly of much modernist architecture, helping us see why a shift is afoot and how people of faith can and should contribute to this rising conversation. There is a section specifically for and about church spaces, making this a very useful resource for congregational study. Although there is plenty here for professionals in the fields of urbanism, it seems to me that any educated “culture maker” who wants to be faithful in efforts of social reformation should pick up this book.
As Philip Bess of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture (and author of the hard-hitting Till We Have Built Jerusalem) noted, The Space Between is an account of the reciprocal relationship between urban form and communal life. Jacobsen, working from a Christ-centred perspective and emphasizing both justice and generosity, articulates what religious communities have to gain from traditional towns and neighbourhoods, and what they have to give.
Or, as Murray Rae of the University of Otago writes,
Jesus urges us to love our neighbor, but in many modern cities we have destroyed our neighborhoods, making it much more difficult to know who our neighbors are, let alone love them. In this compelling and beautifully written book Jacobsen tells us how that has happened, why it matters, and what we should be doing about it. This books calls us to think again, and more theologically, about the way our built environment shapes our life together.
There is so much here it is hard to describe in a short space—from grand themes of sustainability to specific suggestions for bike lanes, from profound teaching on the theology of beauty to invitations to consider rest and a Sabbath way of life—this book is an excellent call to envision our lives as they might be, and to think about, and work for, renewal in towns, cities, and suburbs. With God’s help, we can reconsider the local nature of our congregations, and help others re-imagine how to live in the spaces between our buildings. The Space Between is a gift, a challenge, and a promise.
Art As Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford edited by James Romaine (Crossway, 2012)
This is a Festschrift, a collection of essays offered in honour of a retiring scholar. In this case, it is a brilliant anthology, one that obviously pays due tribute to a remarkable Wheaton art professor, but also one that also carries on his work. It is a generous volume, beautifully produced, and will be an essential resource for those wanting to do serious study in the field of art history or who want to nurture their ability to do faithful historical-cultural discernment.
Dr. E. John Walford was born in London and—in a story told nicely in the book—came to study under the late Professor Hans Rookmaaker at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where he graduated with honours. Walford earned a PhD in art history at Cambridge University, writing his dissertation on the seventeenth-century landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael.
Although this marvelous book, enhanced with full-color reproductions of the artworks under consideration, deserves a careful, extended review, allow me to highlight three wonderful features.
First, each chapter stands on its own as a study of the religious thought, worldview, or ideology of the artist or artists in question. As such, it is a buffet for life-long learning, good for anyone who wants to learn something new. Here we learn much about fifteen artists, and often quite a lot about a specific work of the artist, ranging from Bruegel the Elder to Jackson Pollock. We learn about the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassis, the Chartres Cathedral, Piet Mondrian, and Vincent van Gogh. What a fine book for anyone who wants to learn, from a wise expert, about artists or works they perhaps have not considered.
Second, as would be appropriate for one in the line of Rookmaaker, Walford excelled, as William Dyrness put it, at “expanding the human issues reflected in art history to include spirituality—an emphasis that, incredibly, has often been missing from many art history texts. Of the themes that Walford addresses in his popular art history text Great Themes in Art, he places spirituality first before the self, nature, and the city.” Indeed, most of these contributors are themselves adept at doing this sort of deep reading, this detective work, understanding well the artists’ faith perspectives. Indeed, a number of the scholars (including the remarkable editor, James Romaine) studied under Dr. Walford, learning well from him. This is a fabulous example of discerning Christian criticism.
Finally—and I risk slighting the many wonderful writers and good chapters here by leaving them out of this brief review—I highlight one chapter that, for those in the field, is worth the price of the entire volume, pricey though it may be. I refer to Calvin Seerveld’s “Categories for Art Historical Methodology.” He explains Walford’s expertise and spiritual sensitivities, and preaches a bit as only Seerveld can, reminding readers of the Biblical urgency of this work. And then he offers, in a succinct handful of pages, a high-octane, extraordinary summary of various schools of thought, how to be discerning about them, and how to avoid being remiss in glossing over significant perspectival differences even within a singular era or period. Seerveld shines as he names painter after painter, work after work, placing them as perhaps only a prophet of his calibre can. He offers here a major suggestion to the field, helping to “clarify art historical judgments,” and uses specific examples to illustrate the fruit of his proposed method. As if this were not enough, Seerveld turns to his beloved Jean-Antoine Watteau, offering insight to his oeuvre, somewhat as a case study. He insists that “Watteau’s chagrined critique of his current culture was missed by his fetes galantes imitators, by his collectors, and by most subsequent art critics and art historians.”
There is a lovely foreword to the book by Professor Rookmaaker’s daughter, Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, who tells us a bit about the relationship of Walford and her famous father, and how Romaine and many of the others in this sumptuous volume have stood upon his shoulders. Not all Festschrifts achieve such a blessed goal, showing the wonderful worth of the honoured scholar, nodding to his teacher, and celebrating the work of his own students and colleagues. Art as Spiritual Perception does all of this beautifully. Thanks be to God.
The books listed above are all available from Byron Borger’s bookstore—Hearts & Minds Books.