Redeeming Vision: A Christian Guide to Looking at and Learning from Art

Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, Redeeming Vision: A Christian Guide to Looking at and Learning from Art. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2023. 266 pages, $29.99, paperback.

We are formed by the images we consume but our formation largely hinges upon the posture we’ve adopted when encountering those images. Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt argues in Redeeming Vision: A Christian Guide to Looking at and Learning from Art that when we approach art with the hope of better loving God and our neighbor – we no longer just see art. Rather, we experience it with an “embodied vision” (13) – one that leads us to a posture of contemplating the artist behind the work, the environment in which it was created, and the framework for which it was designed.  It is this decision to contemplate art, versus merely consume it, that ultimately aids in our transformation.  Her message is timely in our media obsessed, “cancel” culture where images are viewed at warp speed, and everyone is a quick critic.  Her message also challenges the prior notion set forth by the likes of Crouch and Fujimura that we become culture makers mainly by our creative contributions. Rather, Weichbrodt asserts that Christians can make meaningful contributions to the culture by simply viewing artwork with intentionality. A redeemed approach to viewing will result in a change in our hearts, toward both the artists and the messages they put forth, so we might ultimately see each through the lens of Christ. It requires some tools, as well as sufficient curiosity, but the result is a deeper awareness and love for both God and neighbor.

Aptly pointing out that great art is rarely obvious, Weichbrodt introduces the fundamentals for analyzing art with some intelligence in the opening chapters of the book. She outlines key compositional elements that artists use to provoke emotion and capture focus – and also gives color as to why an artist may have chosen a given medium to convey a certain subject (ie, abstract art vs photography). As the book progresses, Weichbrodt discusses various works of art enabling a reader without formal art training to appreciate the complex, yet subtle, underpinnings of a composition. Also included is a chapter devoted to contemplating how the placement of the art – albeit in a museum, a church or an Instagram reel – has historically, and often intentionally, shaped the culture’s perception and value of a given work of art. The brief history she provides on the formal establishment of museums was particularly insightful here. Most interesting, however, is the space dedicated to helping readers take inventory of the preconceived notions they might bring to the table when encountering various works. This chapter alone is worth the read as the author forces you to slow down and take stock of the unexpected ways that prior exposure to various subjects and settings, and the assumptions made about them, can unconsciously influence our interpretations and reactions.

Within each chapter, Weichbrodt provides side by side visual analysis of colorful, often familiar, illustrated works.  These analyses contain rich commentary on the artists themselves, the era in which they worked, and what is known about the forces driving them to create. In some cases, she also provides background on the public’s initial response to the work.  Through this method, the reader is left with the distinct impression of how much is missed, as well as how much is at stake within a culture, when its people view art without an embodied vision.  What’s more, the reader is forced to chew on the following challenge: view art with a redeemed perspective and watch how it can draw you into unexpected moments of adoration, confession, and lamentation. Doing so may just slow down the inner critic within all of us that is quick to comment.

Weichbrodt does this to prick the same nerve that Crouch does in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, calling out the Christians who set thick guardrails around any subject appearing to stray too far from comfortable, conservative norms. She seems to be speaking directly to the many well-intended Christians who avoid lingering over arts, of all disciplines, if their subjects appear to border on the lines of what is unfitting, unholy, or even just too liberal. She writes in response,

“But as Christians, it is our love for God and neighbor-not a love for art and culture on their own-that should push us into these visual encounters…We can move toward artworks from unfamiliar cultures or toward images that initially make us uncomfortable precisely because we are seeking to love God and our neighbor more fully.  In practical terms, this means that we refuse to make ourselves the center of an artwork. This approach is different than personal judgment. When we judge artworks or images, we make our own feelings, experiences, or stylistic taste the highest rule… If, however, we are looking in order to love God, then we find opportunities to wonder at his power, to delight in his presence, and to confront our idolatry… Likewise, our love for neighbor, past and present, means that we consider the artist’ embodiment, their location in time and place. We take their context seriously. But a loving orientation toward the makers of art and visual culture does not mean a wholesale embrace of their actions and beliefs…Yet when we are oriented in love toward God and our neighbor, those same images can become liturgies of generous curiosity, lament, or repentance.  Our loving commitments help tell a better, more truthful story of the world.” (15-17)

Her challenge is appropriate.  Weichbrodt opens the book referencing the misuse of Philippians 4:8 as a catchall phrase for guiding our visual habits, warning that establishing it as an ultimate rubric would prevent all of us from ever engaging with our complex world in any meaningful way.  This is true, but the reader is left still hoping the author will define what art actually is.  Are all expressive works, fashioned by the hands of men, art?  And do all of them really warrant our lingering and meditative gaze, or should our eyes ever bounce?  The author touches on this somewhat in her chapter on framework, but a longer, final discourse somewhere in the book would be helpful for guiding the reader in thinking through how they (and their children) might navigate through today’s steady stream of graphic images.  Yes, good artwork forces us to look for the Imago Dei where it has been denied (253), but this leads again to these unanswered questions: when is something art and when is it not even art at all?  Rookmaker’s definition of art in his 1973 article “Art, Aesthetics, and Beauty” could be a useful inclusion as he provides a helpful distinction of what elevates any man-made work into a work of art to be appreciated.

In summary, Weichbrodt offers helpful commentary for pressing into the culture with godly intent and courage. The book is well-organized, peppered with whimsy, and packed with substantive insights.  She provides a solid toolbox for the Christian reader hoping to engage with art with some savvy – whether in a museum, on a screen, or in a glossy magazine. Most importantly, she equips the reader to engage with art for the sake of loving God and man more wholeheartedly.

Karen Thigpen
Arts Fellowship Orlando