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EPISODE 49: The Power of Art

Russ Ramsey loves art and he wants more and more Christians to love art. Not just for art’s sake; but for the sake of loving our God who made our world with so much beauty.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I am delighted today that my conversation partner is Russ Ramsey, the author of a recent book, Rembrandt is in the Wind. Russ, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you. It's good to be here.

Appreciating Art

The subtitle of your book is “Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith.” And you obviously love art, but you wrote this book because you wanted that to become contagious. You want God's people to really appreciate art and grow in it. And tell us more about what motivated you to write this book.

Well, I grew up in the farmland of Indiana at a small public school, and I had art teachers. In fact, I dedicated the book to these art teachers, who really instilled in us a love for art and gave us some tools for how to appreciate it and would take us to art museums and things of that nature. As I was writing this book, one of the things that I've discovered and just kind of experienced, is that people, a lot of folks, feel intimidated by art, like there's some sort of access code that you need to have in order to take it seriously or to feel like you're worthy of appreciating it or any of that. And that was just not the approach that my art teachers had. I kind of grew up in an environment where it was a very valid form of art criticism to say, “I like this one,” and that'd be enough. And to say, “I don't get this one.”

So what I wanted to do is I wanted to write a book that would maybe remove some of that intimidation that people feel, like they need to have some sort of background in art history or art appreciation in order to enjoy art, and so I just wanted to tell the stories of some works of art and some artists, some of whom are very well known, like van Gogh and Rembrandt, and others of whom maybe people have never heard of but have fascinating stories. And so that was it for me. I wanted people who had studied art to really enjoy and get something out of the book, but I also wanted some of those farmers that I grew up around, who were not people who spent a lot of time at art museums but cared a lot about beauty and story, something that they would say, “This I connect with,” and so that was part of the impetus behind the book, was to try to write something that would appeal to both camps, by way of storytelling.

Yes. And I think you succeeded both of those really well, because the book is for people who are really into art, who go to museums and really like it, but it's also for people who, like you say, may feel intimidated or alienated by it. I want to tell our listeners. So you have ten chapters, and they all center around a particular artist or a particular piece of work, a particular piece of art. So, like you said, you have a chapter on van Gogh and Rembrandt. You also have one on Michelangelo, about Michelangelo's statue of David, Caravaggio and his life and his work. And then you also draw some really great discipleship spiritual principles of not just appreciating the art, but what are some lessons about being a person created in the image of God and planted in a world filled with beauty? Let's talk a little bit about beauty. How does beauty shape us? How does it contribute toward our growing to be more and more like the God who made the world so beautiful?

Well, I think, as people who are made in the image of God, if we believe that, then that should raise some questions for us. And some of the questions should be: What does it mean to be made in the image of God in particular? What qualities then would be part of me that are also part of God? And one of the things that is clear about the nature of God Himself is that He is glorious and that glory, which is another way of talking about beauty, is a part of the nature of who He is. And so if we're made in His image, we’re designed to resonate with glory and beauty, to be drawn to it. And so to take a purely pragmatic approach to life, where we don't really engage with beauty for beauty's sake but all we're really looking for is the moral to the story or a life lesson or some sort of life hack that we can take from some experience, we’re not really being fully human.

And we behave in such an unusual way as creatures on this earth. Human beings are the only beings that go to engage with beauty just for the sake of engaging with beauty. We plan trips to the Grand Canyon to stand and look at it. We're the only creatures in the world who do that, and that's part of how we were made. And so I think engaging with beauty and forming a lifelong habit of engaging with beauty is something that helps us be more fully human, as people who are made in the image of God.

And beauty also kind of confronts cynicism. When we engage with beauty, it humbles us. It often silences us. We live, I think, in a culture and a time when that is increasingly… it's less a value than it's maybe ever been, to be silent and to be humbled. But it's good for us to do that. And beauty has a way of engaging us with things that are grandiose and big, while also helping us feel a little bit smaller than we might normally feel.

So it's something that's a habit that I want personally for my own life, is to just engage with beauty, to slow down and appreciate things that are showing me some glory, because those things that show us glory and beauty are, in a way, showing us some of the nature and the character of God himself.

Yes, yes.

Christianity and Science

Is it possible to be a scientist and a person of faith at the same time? Are Christianity and science at odds with one another? I think there are a whole lot of people in our world who think that. Well, these apologetic questions and others are going to be explored in a prerecorded interview that we did with scientist and philosopher and mathematician and brilliant mind. Dr. Lennox examines some of the latest scientific research and theories surrounding questions of the origins of life and concepts of the mind. He will demonstrate why a Christian approach to an understanding of the universe makes the most sense. So if you're a believer who's looking for a way to explain the validity of the Christian worldview to some of your friends who are more scientifically minded or scientifically oriented, this is a really, really important event, and it's free of charge, but you do need to register for it because we'd like to be able to have all those kind of connections in place. So to register for this, please click Here.

You write, early on in your book, “So many things in our world are beautiful, but didn't need to be. God chose to make them that way, so He might arrest his people by their senses to awaken us from the slumbering economy of pragmatism.” Man, there is a lot of wisdom packed in that little bit, and I loved it. I do want to grow in wonder of why there's so much beauty in the world and how diverse it is and to slow down and pause and look at something or listen to something. So your book helps us with that.

Now, I'm sorry, I jumped right in and I didn't tell our listeners who you are. You're a pastor of a church, and so you're not just trying to promote, “Hey, everybody, go to art museums,” although you do have a whole section about how to go to an art museum and how to get the most out of that experience and how to look at a painting. So it's very practical in those kinds of ways. But you also draw spiritual lessons from the stories that you tell. Why don't you pick one and tell us sort of a pastoral insight you had.

Well, I would pick Caravaggio, the chapter that I wrote about Caravaggio. So Caravaggio has painted some paintings that I've been looking at since I was a kid, and I've been mesmerized by. He has one in particular called The Incredulity of St. Thomas. And it's Jesus putting Thomas’s finger into the wound in His side. And there's four men in the picture, two other disciples, Thomas, and Jesus. And from the time I was a child, when I would see that painting, I would feel like I was getting away with something a little bit, because it's grotesque. It’s violent. It's not violent, but it's a man putting a finger in an open wound. And so, as a child seeing that, I kind of felt a little clandestine, like, “What am I seeing?”

Yes. The curtain had been pulled away.

Yeah, yeah. But part of the power of that painting was what a poignant moment that Caravaggio was capturing. In fact, in the church that I pastor, I've decorated our sanctuary and lobby with reproductions of classic works of art from Rembrandt, Monet, van Gogh. And we have that painting, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, in the back of the room. In fact, when we do communion, it's where we invite people to go if they'd like to receive prayer. I tell them to go back by The Incredulity of St. Thomas in the back of the room. And so they do that.

Perfect, perfect.

Anyway, all of that is preamble to say, because I was drawn to that Caravaggio painting, I wanted to write a chapter about Caravaggio, but I didn't really know anything about his life. And so as I began to research him and learn more and more, one of the things that just startled me was he was a monster of a person. He murdered people. He was a guy who would take commissions, and he would paint these transcendent, beautiful, poignant paintings of the ministry and the life of Christ, and then he would get his commission, and he would go spend it all on prostitutes and alcohol, and he'd get in street fights and all of these things. One of his early biographers said Caravaggio only knew carnival and Lent and nothing in between.

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

And one of the things that so drew me into his story and one of the reasons I'm glad that I was able to write about him in this book is that here's a guy who gives us a very defined picture of this contradiction that is in all of us, that we're all walking contradictions of the sacred and the profane sort of coexisting inside of us. And it's the old Reformation term I think Luther used, “simul justus et peccator,” we're at the same time sinner and saint. Caravaggio is such a rich example of some kind of clarity and understanding of the Gospel that is represented in the poignancy of his work. And it's there, and it's kind of undeniable, and yet at the same time, his life was one of just ruin and wreckage, and he died alone. And so that story is strangely comforting to me, because it's sort of an exaggerated version of what happens in my own heart every day. And the Lord uses the testimony of his art to show something of Himself to people, even though that art was produced by somebody who, to look at him, you would think, “Did he even know the mercy and grace of God?” And yet you have this testimony. So that's one of the stories that was really enriching for me to dig into.

You know, that chapter was particularly helpful for me because I can dismiss entire works of art or books or pieces of music if I find out that the composer or the artist or the writer was a scoundrel or he left his wife or whatever, and you didn't say, “Hey, we’re all messed up. We all need to be kind and gracious and loving, and let's not pretend….” You didn't go that route. You went to the route of, “No. This is the sinfulness of people and the grace of a God who chooses to use us in spite of our horrible rebellion.” And that was convicting for me, but also very helpful, because I really do think I can just be dismissive. And Caravaggio's work is mesmerizing. Oh, my goodness! It's arresting. It grabs a hold of you and pulls you into the painting. And you're right. He chose to zoom in on facial expressions or aspects about life that you'd rather look away from, but you can't when you're looking at his painting, because he draws your eye with the light and the focus to there. You can't stay away from it.

So that was also helpful for me because I really love Vincent van Gogh's work, but he was kind of a mess, to say the least.

Yeah. Yeah. I had this policy when I was writing this, that there would be no hagiography. Hagiography is a biography of a saint written in order to verify why the person deserves to be a saint. So it's all the good news, right? That's what a hagiography is. And I was like, “I'm not going to do that. I want to tell as honest and unvarnished a story as I can.” And I resonate with you in wanting to be dismissive of artists that we find to be scoundrels, but in the world of art, you can't do that too carefully or you won't have any art left.


Because artists kind of by nature—I know this is a generalization, but artists by nature are complicated, tortured souls a lot of times, and part of the poignancy of their art is born out of the struggle that they feel and that they live with, and is also born out of the confidence and the pride that they have that they might be the best artist that's ever lived. There's some combination of that usually going on in the lives of these painters or sculptors. And whether you're looking at Rembrandt or van Gogh or Vermeer or Michelangelo or Caravaggio or Picasso or Edward Hopper or—pick a painter—they're going to let you down.

They're going to let you down morally. They’re going to let you down personally. They’re going to be insufferable. And van Gogh is my favorite. He was my gateway. He was the artist that I saw as a kid and loved. And so I hold him in high regard, high esteem, and yet he's also an artist who gave us thousands of letters that he wrote to his brother, and so we have a really good firsthand account of his life and his art. And he strikes me as the kind of guy who would be really hard to have as a roommate.

Well, Gauguin probably would certainly say that.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, Gauguin gave it a shot, and it didn't last long. It didn't last long. But, yeah, I think part of the beauty of art is that it is born out of struggle and it's born out of suffering, and it's trying to capture something beautiful and meaningful in a world that is broken and falling apart.

Yeah. We can't totally divorce the artist from the art, but there is something to be said for allowing a piece of art to stand on its own, so to speak. And allow it to affect you. Tell a little bit about—early on in the book, you talk about van Gogh's Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. And you say that you have a print of that in your office. So tell us a little about that, because again, I felt like—well, let me just say when I read the paragraph… Well, let me read the paragraph, and then I'll let you talk.

There you go.

I'm probably going to get in trouble for this, but I read this paragraph to my wife because it hit me so strongly. And then about a week later, I started reading it to her again. I said, “You’ve got to hear this.” She said, “You read this to me. It is good.” But you talk about van Gogh's Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, so it was after he did this horrible thing to himself. You wrote, “How willing are we to acknowledge the fact that we have a lot of things in us that aren't right? A print of Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear hangs in my office to remind me that if I'm drawing the self-portrait dishonestly, pretending I'm okay when I actually need help, I'm concealing from others the fact that I am broken, but my wounds need binding. I need asylum. And if I can't show that honestly, how will anyone ever see Christ in me? Or worse, what sort of Christ will they see?” I'm telling you, that's an important, crucial truth that we, as believers, need to internalize and live out.

Yeah, I'm touching the painting right now. I'm sitting at my desk, and it is right here. I'm looking at it, not the original.

How disappointing!

Yes, I know. But that's one of the things that I love about this painting, actually. He painted two versions of himself with his ear bandaged. And what strikes me about it is this was the lowest moment in his life. This was one of the most humiliating moments, painful moments, publicly known. And he ended up in an asylum where he was recovering, and he chose to pick up his brushes and paint himself. And when you're painting yourself, you can paint whatever you want. He could have painted his ear whole, or he could have shown the other side of his head, but instead he painted with the wound showing and the evidence of his mania and the evidence of his struggle on display, which I admire the courage of that, particularly because he wasn't selling his work at the time, like people weren't buying van Gogh paintings then. But the irony and the beauty of it is the story of the gospel is that we're all like that. We all have wounds and brokenness and deficiencies and limits and embarrassments in our lives, and yet that painting is worth more than any of us could afford to just buy, because of the subject matter. It's a van Gogh painting of the artist capturing that moment that is almost ubiquitous with knowing his story.

And that’s a good picture of the gospel to me, that at the same time we have these wounds and this brokenness, but we are of incredible, immeasurable value to the Lord, just as that painting is. And so I keep it there in my office, because as a pastor, that's the kind of pastor that I want to be. I don't want to be a pastor who just tries to tell people how to live a life where those things are not in play. But instead, I want to be a pastor who's honest enough with the people that the Lord brings into the local church that I serve, that they know that I'm one of them, and that the willingness to let the wounded side show is part of the way we bear witness to the mercy and the grace and the redemption of Jesus Christ. And so that's why I keep that painting here, as a way of reminding me who to be when I walk out of this office into the sanctuary and minister to people.

Spiritual Warfare

What is spiritual warfare? And does it really matter or does it really affect my everyday life? C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to The Screwtape Letters, said this: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” Isn't that brilliant? Well, we're doing an event about spiritual warfare with our good friend and C.S. Lewis scholar Jerry Root. Dr. Jerry Root was professor for many years at Wheaton. Now he's Professor Emeritus at Wheaton College. And if you were fortunate enough to be at Wheaton and study under Jerry Root, you know that he is brilliant and a delight to listen to, one story after another and brilliant insight. And he's doing a special event for us about spiritual warfare. This one is an in-person event. So if you're in the Washington, DC, area and you're interested in learning more about spiritual warfare, please visit Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Annandale. There is a cost for this event, it's $10 per person, and there will be a question and answer period following Dr. Root's presentation. Please register for the event, Spiritual Warfare.

It's so good, and that last line that I read, “What kind of Christ would I be pointing them to?” It's a distortion or it's a denial of the gospel to claim that we've got it all together. And I do think, in my early years as a young Christian, I did hear a lot of teaching from people who I think were claiming a higher level of sanctification than they really had. I'm sorry, I shouldn't sound so harsh, but it gave me the picture that what the Christian life was was cleaning things up and getting it all together, and, “Here’s how a Christian lives and performs. So, therefore, go do these ten things.”


And your statement, and what the gospel says is, “No, we don't have it all together.” Now, it doesn't go the other extreme of, “Well, we're just all a mess, and that's just the way we are.” So your looking at art in those ways was really a reflection of that aspect of the gospel. We're more sinful than we could have really even imagined. And God's grace and His forgiveness and His salvation is even better than we could have hoped.


I love that. I was intrigued, also—your chapter about Vermeer and the interaction between Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek. I hope I'm saying his name right, the inventor of the microscope. And you talked about how, in those two men and in their relationship, there was an inseparability between science and art. And in our day, those seem like absolute watertight separated compartments. Can you say more about that? That connection, inseparable connection, between science and art?

Yeah. Let me give a pro tip here for people who are listening. If you want to engage with art on a regular basis, one of the best things that you can do is go to a used bookstore and go into the art section and buy coffee table books. You can buy a coffee table book of van Gogh or Rembrandt or pick an artist and you'll probably get them for under $10. And you'll have this collection. I mention that now because part of what you're doing when you buy a coffee table book of reproductions from an artist is you are relying on technology in order to engage with art. You're relying on the printing press. You're relying on photography. You're relying on people who have figured out how to take four basic colors of ink and apply them to paper in a way that creates a million different color options.

For Vermeer, I didn't know much of anything about Vermeer, and so I went to a used bookstore and found a volume called The Complete Works of Vermeer. And it is a very thin book. There are only about 35 Vermeers in existence. And I started looking through it, and I was mesmerized by the detail in these paintings. But also, as I was looking at them, there was some kind of… Like my Spidey sense was tingling that something was amiss, and I couldn't figure out what it was, as I turned page after page after page.

And later I realized that strange sense that I had as I was looking at his work was the fact that almost every one of his paintings is of the same exact room, from the same exact vantage point, with this window in the same place. And I was like, “What is this about?” Because the furniture is the same, the subject matter is very similar. And as I got to dig into his life and his approach to art, one of the things that historians believe about Vermeer is that he used an optical device, that basically he had set up a workstation in his studio, where he sat in one place and looked at one room and staged it and arranged it and had his models done in certain ways and different things on the walls. But he was always painting from the same vantage point in the same room, for 90% of his work. But some of that work, there will be like a map on the wall where the detail in the map, which is just in the background, is crazy, like the precision and the detail. And it made me wonder, “How’d he do that? How can a person pick up a brush and apply paint to the end of it and achieve that kind of detail and precision?” And what historians believe is that he used a device similar to what's called a camera obscura, where he was using lenses and mirrors to basically paint by number exactly what he was seeing, that it was being reflected onto his canvas.

And so that raises the question, well, how did he get these devices? Well, he lived at the same time in the same town down the street from Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, I think is how his name is pronounced. I have a friend who's Dutch, and he said it's Leeuwenhoek.

So Leeuwenhoek was the father of microbiology, and he made microscopes, and he made lenses, and the two men knew each other. In fact, Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer's estate when Vermeer died, and so they had a relationship with each other. And so here is a painter who very likely fashioned his optical device for painting by using technology that was being developed by this microbiologist who lived down the street from him. And I think about that because I think, okay, like when you listen to music, most of the time now we're listening to music digitally, on our computers. We're not putting in cassettes or—vinyl's making a comeback, which is nice. But we're relying on technology to engage with art in every fashion now that we engage with it. Even when we go to museums, we're relying on technology to engage with the architecture of the building, the lighting in the room, the security systems that keep those pieces of art on the wall. There’s always a blend, that art is always joined in some way to technology.

And it's not a cheat. It's not cheating to use an optical device. Instead, what you're doing is you're implementing technology into the creation of art that now has stood for over 500 years as something that is revered and marveled at by people, how he achieved this when other people weren't figuring this out at the time. And so it's a fascinating thing to think about. And whether it's music or art or television or film, there's so much tech that's involved in delivering to us the final experience of engaging with the piece itself.

I'm really spoiled. I live right outside Washington, DC, and the National Gallery is down the street, so to speak, and it's free. I don't have to pay for an admission fee. And there's one wall with four Vermeers right next to each other. They moved them around and put them together recently. And I just love that spot in that museum. And I can't wait to go back now that I've read your chapter, to look at it again with this new information there.

Well, I want to keep talking for hours, but I also want to draw this to a close because I need to. But you make an appeal at the end of the book, really, for every Christian. So what's your appeal to people who are not necessarily drawn to art or don't have much experience? Now, you've already said about we want to expand people's palate, so to speak.


But you make a general appeal there at the end, that all of us have a craft or a calling, and we have gifts. Wrap that up for us, please.

Yeah, yeah. The idea is basically that everybody has some sort of creative work that they're a part of, usually multiple kinds. Whether you're cooking food or you're raising a child or you're managing data in spreadsheets or you're writing poetry or music or—everything we do, there's a creative element to it. And so the appeal is to develop in the craft of whatever our creative endeavors are, to say, “I want to develop in this,” because mastery begets joy. The better you become at something, the more joy you get from it. So the person who swings a golf club for the first time or tries to play an A-minor chord on a guitar, it's a frustrating experience because they don't really know what they're doing. But as you develop in the skill, as you practice that craft, you not only get better at it, but you enjoy it more. And it becomes a source of joy and expression and creativity, which then is something that really contributes a lot of help to the world. And so, whatever our crafts are that we're in, as many as they may be, seeking to develop in those is going to not only help serve the world but bring joy into our lives, because mastery begets joy.

And so that's really the appeal. Give your life to the steady, ongoing work of mastering something, not to be the best in the world at it, not to be better than your neighbor, but to learn what must have been the experience for so many of these artists, was that their ability to create the work that we now house in museums like the National Gallery had to have been a joy to them to be able to do it. But that took the refining and the practice and the discipline and the humility of being willing to say, “Okay, this is something I'm not very good at right now. I don't really understand. I need to grow in that.” And so that's the appeal, is to give our lives to the refining and the honing of the creative skills that we're a part of, for the sake of the good of the world and for the sake of our own joy before the Lord.

I love it. You end your book with an appeal to not quit, to keep pursuing, to be as good as you possibly can be with what God has called you to. You end by saying, “This world is short on masters, and consequently it is a world short on joy, too.” And that's such an important appeal and one that I hope our listeners take to heart. Russ, thanks so much for this time. You've given us a great work of art in and of itself that points us to God's greatness and God's beauty. So to all of our listeners, I recommend the book highly, Rembrandt is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art through the Eyes of Faith by Russ Ramsey. We'll have some show notes of some other links of articles and things about art, and please check out our website,, for all of our resources that we hope help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

COPYRIGHT: This publication is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.

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