Art Speaks to Faith

Book cover
Jesus and the Emergence of a Catholic Imaginationby By John PfordresherPaulist Press. 333p $27.95 (paperback)

Catholic studies programs are growing in popularity on Catholic campuses across the country, especially as a minor or part of a double major. They offer students the opportunity to round out and deepen their education through an understanding of Catholicism’s interaction with the cultural roots of Western civilization. For Catholic students, it is another means of intellectual growth in their faith. This field is also one of the areas of expertise of John Pfordresher, a professor of English at Georgetown University.

While Pfordresher’s book is ideal for classroom use (reasonably priced, attractive format, excellent organizational aids: summaries, index, study questions, illustrations and references to materials on the Web), it is also an engaging source for anyone who is curious about how “a Catholic way of imagining the world emerged in the arts of the West.”


The title expresses the contents of the book’s two unequal parts. Part I: Jesus and Imagination devotes five chapters to exploring how and why Jesus, who showed little or no interest in the arts but displayed a lively imagination in teaching, left a church credited through the ages with the creation and preservation of Western art. After explaining his use of the term Catholic (“an historically continuous community of Christian believers...located in many places but...[sharing]...specific beliefs...ethical values...[and] liturgical practices”), the author cites four fundamentals that have profoundly influenced the Catholic imagination. These are the Incarnation, Redemption, Sacramentality and Community. He probes each of these for its implications for the Catholic imagination. Next, in the Gospels we hear Jesus, speaking in his Jewish voice, as “the poet of everyday life,” offering parables, analogies and paradoxes that would feed the imaginations of his followers through the ages.

Part II: The Emergence of Catholic Art consists of seven chapters that cover artistic works from the first through the eighth centuries. The specific genres explored are: autobiography (from St. Paul’s epistles); architecture and fresco painting (found in the house-church at Dura-Europus and the catacombs); poetry (the lyric poems of Prudentius and The Utrecht Psalter); illuminations (The Book of Kells); and epic narrative (The Heliand). Through these artistic creations, the church proclaimed and embodied its belief in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, its hope and trust in the redemption won through his death and resurrection and its Christian life formed and nurtured by sacramentality and lived in community.

Pfordresher writes in a style that is both clear and pleasing. His descriptions of the catacombs, poetry, paintings and illuminations demonstrate his own imaginative gifts. No-where is his creativity more evident than in his chapter on St. Paul, where he traces in Paul’s epistles the theological basis for Paul’s autobiographical narrative. Under Pfordresher’s careful tutoring, we see that Paul’s boldness in urging others to imitate him (Phil 3:17) is an example of the Catholic understanding of the Incarnation (“It is Christ who lives in me”). By diligently probing the epistles, Pfordresher offers us a picture of Paul that points up both his importance to the early church and his later influence:

In the centuries ahead, Christianity, following Paul’s lead, would initiate and foster the act and art of autobiography—the effort to discern and to find words to describe the evolution of the spiritual self—in classic works by people like Saint Augustine, Saint Teresa of ávila, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. These writers, steeped as they were in the Christian scriptures, thought, felt, and wrote within the Pauline way of imagining.

At the other end of the timeline covered in this book stands The Heliand, an epic poem that recounts the life of Jesus as a Saxon warrior-leader. (There are two complete copies of the original text of The Heliand on the Internet.) It is as if the poet took seriously Jesus’ request that his hearers “suppose” their way into his parables. Throughout nearly 6,000 lines of alliterative verse, the poet speaks to his people—defeated by the Franks yet indebted to their conquerors for their Christian faith—the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of this chieftain, whose humiliation brought their salvation. The poem is masterful in preserving orthodoxy while rooting the Scriptures firmly in the Germanic culture. Consider this excerpt from the Beatitudes, which are translated as the “Eight Good Fortunes”:

Then the Land’s Herdsman, God’s own Son, sat down in front of the men. He wanted with His talk to teach the people many wise sayings, how they could perform the praise of God in this world-kingdom. The holy Chieftain sat there in silence and looked at them for a long time with tender feelings for them in His mind and generosity toward them in His heart.

No doubt discerning the signs of his times, the poet calls those fortunate “who live peacefully among the people and do not want to start any fights or court cases by their own actions, they will be called the Chieftain’s sons for He will be gracious to them.” Still, he recognizes that fighting men who want justice are fortunate too. These men “suffer more powerful men’s hatred and verbal abuse. To them is granted afterwards God’s meadow and spiritual life for eternal days—thus the end will never come to their beatific happiness.”

Pfordresher has shown us how the Catholic imagination first emerged. Now, like any good teacher, he pushes us to let our Catholic imaginations forge an orthodoxy both true and creative.








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