I happened to be near New York city in North Jersey yesterday with several unscripted hours and no books to lug. Ever since my oldest daughter, Stephanie, read Girl Meets God and Lauren Winner’s description there of The Cloisters, she has gone several times. As you may know, this spectacular spot is a site of the Metropolitan Museum, off on Manhattan’s largest hill, in a lovely Olmsted-designed park, and is one of the world’s finest installations of medieval religious stuff. Set in an old castle-like mansion, much of the inner structure of the building is, in fact, imported from ancient cloisters, monasteries, and churches from Middle Ages Europe. The setting—from the garden’s planted in authentic ways to the breathtaking vaulted ceilings, stained glass and dark hallways–is perfect to display 12th century doorways, 13th century columns and windowsills, 14th century chancels or furniture from the 1400s. The liturgical art, frescoes and icons were stunning and the whole place offered a spirit of awe and, for me, deep, emotional worship. Seeing a detailed carving from the time of Charlemagne or a crucifix from a 12th century Cistercien worship space or an entire Chapter House from a 1500-era Benedictine monastery took my breath away. That they knew who made many of these items, or who the craftsman studied under, is astonishing and set me thinking about the legacy of our work and our lives. Beholding old illuminated prayerbooks, portions of handwritten and delicately illustrated pages of Bibles, and a few rare books from the early Middle Ages—created my nameless scribes—actually got me choked up.
In my last post I commended Andy Crouch’s fabulous new book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP; $20.00, but offered for $15.) Seeing close up the artistic glory of the architecture, dinnerware, liturgical art, albs and tunics and staffs and chalices and jewelry from the high Middle Ages surely reminds us that God’s people have a grand history of sharing God’s call to creativity and beauty. What amazing work is shown! What diligence and giftedness it took to create these items! I kept thinking of Andy’s new book, and a phrase which is the title from one of my all time favorite books, Calvin Seerveld’s book about aesthetic richness as God’s gift and our responsibility to offer “rainbows for a fallen world.”
And—and this is something I need to recall since, as a theological advocate of the role of the laity in their daily tasks in the world, I am often critical of the “sacred/secular” dualism and churchy piety that gives rise to neo-Gnostic monastic spirituality and an overstatement of the role of worship, the role of the clergy and church life generally, as if church life on Sunday matters more to God than work or political life on Monday, as if religious art was somehow more important or valid than ordinary stuff—it was a sheer delight for me to see the beauty not only in the liturgical art that has been traced to various monastic and sanctuary settings, but also in their items displayed from more ordinary, family settings. From intricately carved wooden stairwells to enamel dishes to stone carvings from outbuildings or garden walls, from “secular” statuary and portraits to the famed (erotic?) Unicorn tapestries, it seems clear that (for at least the upper classes) there was a wholesome desire to make material culture that was beautiful and excellent and uplifting. I despise the superstition, the Christendom violence, the gilded art in honor of a homeless Savior, and other problems with that complex era, of course. But still, the aesthetics of these devotional objects (and the way they must have been integrated into people’s lives) was a good testimony.
All of this brought to mind my urgency for selling Andy’s Culture Making book, and also reminded me of a book we have stocked for years entitled Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth by Douglas Jones & Doug Wilson (Canon Press; $15.) Their positive take on the earthy goodness of daily life, understood as Christian service in a good creation, was provocative and helpful, and I shall pull it off the shelf again, I’m sure. The Cloister’s beauty, besides making me thankful for inspired curators and wealthy donars, raised questions of class and injustice, of course. Thank God for the Franciscan renewal of the early 1200s. But obviously there is more to study about the Medieval world than our proper critique of the Crusades, the bloated Catholic aesthetic, or my concern about St. Thomas Aquinas’ accomadation to pagan Aristotle.
I saw the best and worst of culture in my quick day trip to New York. I was lost due to some very (very!) bad advise from a very (very!) bad employee of the state of New Jersey. I ended up in Harlem for a few hours, but didn’t explore the Renaissance there, interesting as that would have been. No, I was stuck in traffic of the worst sort. For hours, in crisscrossing roads of dubious integrity, serious congestion and significant urban ugliness.
Our other daughter Marissa saw Radiohead and Girltalk and some other hipster groups at a fabulous outdoor festival overlooking Manhattan. Back at the store, faithful employees dusted shelves and talked about books. Beth was enthralled with the opening exercises of the Olympics. Daughter Steph drove to an out of town funeral of a young friend tragically killed, and Micah worked at the climbing gym and drove home measuring his gas mileage. And I got lost again coming home, in the industrial zone outside of Newark.
Yes, we are all cultural beings; we don’t speak of it much, taking it just for granted, living for better or worse with rock stars, rituals and roads. Of course, we are embodied people—-some religious folks who talk endlessly about our souls seem to forget this essential truth of Genesis 1—and our lives unfold embedded in the culture(s) we have, and, if we are followers of our Creator, perhaps they point to His good intentions for this planet.
I’d like to think that our book selling can help serve that large hope, to encourage a thoughtfulness about our world and God’s vision for life in it. BookNotes readers hopefully want to be exposed to books like Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling which will help us get beyond the mere consuming of culture, to an insightful bit of reflection and criticism, and then to renewed commitments to making modest and hopeful contributions. Even though Andy explains that his book is not about a renewal of high culture or museum-going, my visit to The Cloisters, and the step back in time it allowed, reminded me of
much, and inspired me to again promote his great new book. And to spend a bit more time with those perplexing cultural artifacts known as maps.