Terry Glaspey is a graduate of New Hope College (back when it was called Eugene Bible College), and holds a postgraduate degree from the University of Oregon. He is the author of over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (a winner of the 2017 Christianity Today Book Awards), Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis (an ECPA Gold Medallion finalist), The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and The Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading. Terry speaks regularly at conferences in the US and Canada, and has recently taught a course on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at New Hope Christian College. Terry’s website can be found at http://www.terryglaspey.com.
Q: What made you decide to write this book?
A: I have long been fascinated by the variety of ways that creative people have found for expressing their faith. The work of a number of great writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, and filmmakers has so enriched my life that I wanted to point others toward them. As Christians we have an amazingly rich heritage in the arts—a legacy that we can be proud of and that modern creatives can draw upon. So I wanted to explore the faith behind some of the greatest art, and look at the lives of the people behind these masterpieces. So, this is the story of the faith and creativity of people like those who painted on the walls of the Roman catacombs and built the great cathedrals, as well as fascinating people like Bach, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Handel, Emily Dickinson, John Newton, John Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, U2, and many, many more.
Q: Who do you see as the audience for this book?
A: I really hope that this is a book for everyone. It isn’t an academic book, though it is the fruit of years of research—reading, looking, and listening. The arts are not for an elite few. Not for art snobs. They are for us all. All of us can find both enjoyment and spiritual nourishment from some of the great art created by believers.
Q: How did you decide who should be included?
A: Well, it was never a problem of finding enough masterpieces to include. The hard thing was to decide what had (sadly) to be left out. My general ground rules for inclusion in this particular project were that:
1) the creator self-identified as a Christian. Some of them are Protestant, some Catholic, some Orthodox, and some rather unorthodox. Some, like Emily Dickinson, struggled between faith and doubt, but all were people for whom faith made a difference.
2) I only included one piece by any one artist. It was very difficult in some cases to make that choice. You could have chosen other representative masterpieces for Rembrandt, Chesterton, El Greco, and others which would be just as good a choice. But I had to pick one, and my reasons sometimes had to do with the wonderful stories behind particular works.
3) The work needed to be a work that has been acclaimed outside of the Christian world. I was looking for works whose greatness was not due just to a message, but to the quality of their craft and the creativity of their vision.
And, let me add, I was looking for those pieces which had fascinating and instructive stories behind them. Because of that many readers have told me that they have used the book almost like a daily devotional. That pleases me to no end!
Q: What do you think about the way that Christians tend to interact with the arts today?
A: The problem with a lot of “Christian art” in our time is that it veers too close to being merely propaganda. Preaching has its place. But that place is in the pulpit, and not so much in creative expression. The best art is not primarily about delivering a message but in evoking the right kinds of questions from those who view or read it or listen to it. Also, I think a lot of faith-based art is so concerned with driving home its message that it neglects to be realistic about the human condition and human motivations. It is either an imagining of what we might wish the world was like (the saccharine little villages of Thomas Kinkade, which are pretty as decorations but tell you almost nothing interesting about the real world) or the triumphal art that aims to show the superiority of Christianity over every other way of viewing the world (such as the bombastic preachments and uncharitable dismissal of all competing worldviews you’ll find in many Christian movies). I’m not saying that someone might not get a bit of comfort from a Kinkade landscape or a bit of confidence from a Christian movie. And that is just fine. But it isn’t going to offer the depth of insight that a great painting or a great film might.
We are too easily satisfied with fast food entertainment and diversion when there are gourmet meals of creativity available from the master chefs of the imagination. Nothing wrong with a little fast food, but I think our palates are enriched by better fare and our souls are more nourished by more complex fare. And much of the great art is a little more demanding—it demands closer attention, more thought, and even a little patient contemplation. The question is, are we willing to expend such effort?
My take is that if a creative person has labored long over their masterpiece, we should at least be willing to expend a little effort in trying to open ourselves up to it. Sometimes we’ll still walk away shaking our head. But sometimes, with just a little effort and patience, a work of art will open itself up to us and maybe make a lasting change in us.
One of my deepest hopes for this book is that it will inspire today’s creatives. We have not only an amazing heritage, but also a tradition. Today’s artists, writers, musicians, and film makers can nourish themselves with the work of those who have gone before them and then bring forth their own unique take on that tradition. The tradition should inspire, not inhibit. I remember hearing a live concert recording from Neil Young in which a frustrated audience member, who had evidently heard one too many long guitar solos for his taste, shouted out: “It all sounds the same.” Without missing a beat, Young responded, “It’s all the same song.” In a certain sense, all Christian artists are playing variations on the message and the human experience that is part of that grand tradition. And that tradition points towards toward the good news of redemption.