Subscribe to Christianity Today
Daniel A. Siedell
Protestants and Pictures
Protestants and Pictures. The very title of David Morgan's book is bound to raise the eyebrows of the readership of Books & Culture. Surely pictures and Protestants have as much in common as do Athens and Jerusalem—or so we have assumed, given Calvinist iconoclasm and evangelical-fundamentalist iconophobia. American Protestants, so we are told, have not appreciated the theological and cultural value of the visual arts. And reflecting on why this is the case has set the agenda for a good deal of evangelical Christian scholarship on the visual arts.
But in Protestants and Pictures, Morgan turns this conventional wisdom upside down, showing that historians—evangelical or otherwise—have simply not looked in the right places. Protestants and Pictures shows us where to look. For those of us who are interested in—or perhaps even concerned to produce—Christian scholarship in the visual arts, Morgan's groundbreaking book has tremendous ramifications.
The study of visual culture, which lies at the heart of Morgan's study, suggests that far from simply illustrating ideas, philosophies, or "world-views," visual imagery participates in a unique and vital way in constructing and maintaining meaning. The student of visual culture denies that one can simply choose whether or not to engage visual culture. It envelops us. It pervades us. It is as inescapable as the very air we breathe. Moreover, because visual culture includes not only fine art but also popular, mass-produced images and objects, aesthetic experience is a much broader and more complex category than conceived of as "disinterested contemplation" of museum objects.
Morgan's first book, the edited volume Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman (Yale Univ. Press, 1996), focused on the artist responsible for the illustrations of Jesus that became an ubiquitous presence in the households of Protestant Christians throughout the United States in the middle decades of the twentieth ...