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Imagining Tradition: Evangelicals and Book Cover Art

December 3, 2010

James McCullough is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.  His research explores the relationship between works of visual art and spiritual formation.   Jim lives on a farm near St Andrews with his wife and four children.

As I recall, it began about fifteen years ago. I was then (and still am) on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the USA, and of course a recipient of books and catalogs from InterVarsity Press. What one couldn’t miss was the increasing  frequency of book covers and annual catalogs adorned with traditional religious art. Images from the great European tradition and especially from Orthodox iconography appeared on countless covers. Frequently these covers were given to texts on theology. And it wasn’t just IVP. Eerdmans, Baker, and Zondervan all featured covers on which appeared works of high religious art. More popular books were usually accompanied by popular images and photographs. But the trend was unmistakable: iconography was in for evangelicals, at least on their book and catalog covers.

There seems to be no let-up in this pattern. Even now, set among colleagues in a study complex for PhD candidates in various theological studies, I’m surrounded by books and catalogues, authored by evangelical writers or advertising their latest offerings, featuring art work and images I  would have associated with Roman Catholicism in my younger, more iconoclastic days.

Is this but a marketing ploy, a strategy for associating the work of new theologians with the great theologians of the past? Yes, of course. But it still begs the question of why such artwork is now thought of as somehow commensurate with the writings of contemporary evangelical (broadly conceived) theology.

As a student of theology, art and culture, I’m interested in the complex relationship between texts, marketing, and the associations and resonances generated by this pervasive use of such artwork. I’m quite certain that only thirty years ago such association, dare I say guilt by association, would have been seen as impermissible – at least by marketing departments.

One probably does well to walk warily in the drawing of strong conclusions from what undoubtedly is in part a matter of style and salesmanship. But it has been going on for quite a while, and I believe a kind of training, at least a vast process of introduction and familiarization, is taking place that will – perhaps already has – gone beyond mere branding.

Surely one of the causes of this book cover effect is the trend within evangelical thought and theology to appropriate and more closely identify with the great tradition of Christian doctrine and theology. This is particularly the case in those texts related to the recent revival of Trinitarian thought among conservative Protestants. When Protestants start thinking about something like the doctrine of the Trinity or ecclesiology or spirituality, they inevitably begin reaching back to the great tradition, invoking the names of Anselm and Athanasius and Augustine and Aquinas and others whose names don’t necessarily begin with A. And when they do that, it’s just natural that one associates them with the art of that world. And when evangelicals not only read these classic texts but look at and consider the art that reflects it, then more than style begins to change.

At least two things begin to happen when the conservative Protestant community begins to immerse itself in the theology communicated both in the classic texts and the classic iconography. One, an appreciation of and a greater desire for a more historically-informed understanding of the Church begins to take place (and spelling “Church” with the capital C). We’ve already seen how this leads many an evangelical to cross the Tiber or the Bosporus. This is potent stuff.

Secondly, an appreciation of, even a desire for, a more contemplative spirituality takes place where, among other things, the category of beauty begins to assume theological significance.

Still, for many, art remains simply illustrative or decorative in function. But increasingly, and with the assistance of these beautiful book and catalog covers, many are beginning to understand Christian art in a more substantive light: art as theology, art as exegesis.

We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But we sure can be influenced by it.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Drew permalink
    December 3, 2010 1:49 pm

    I was thinking about this last week while roaming the bookstalls at SBL in Atlanta. Later in the week I went to the Salvador Dali exhibit at the museum and saw Christ of St. John of the Cross in all of its glory. Books on Christ often use the Dali painting, books on the Trinity often use Rublev’s icon, books on creation often use a detail of the Sistine Chapel. At least that’s my impression. I wonder if in some way, these are not making a statement so much as attempting to avoid making a statement. These images are used to help you associate the book inside with something already well-established. Perhaps it’s similar to movie trailers using the soundtrack to other movies in order to help the viewer associate the movie with another successful movie. Just thoughts.

  2. December 4, 2010 8:42 am

    Perhaps I am just cynical, but I’ve always assumed the marketing angel had more to do with the simple fact that books with pictures on the cover catch the eye better–regardless of what the picture is.

    You may well be right, though, that the trend also reflects the way evangelicalism is moving away from its earlier discomfort with the arts, and I hope you are right that this leads to a broader willingness to engage with the classic Christian tradition–text and image.

  3. Steve permalink
    December 5, 2010 12:20 am

    I suppose I had noticed this trend before, but I really appreciate your helping me pay more attention to it. It’s valuable to get this from the point of view of someone who has worked in publishing, too.

    Sure, it’s easy to be cynical about the trend. Any time marketers want to give a “serious” air to a book, they fish for images that look “classic,” such as icons or paintings by the old masters. Classical sculptures have been used on the covers of “classic” or “serious” books for quite a while.

    Still, I think that this cover art does reflect a real shift in the content of serious Christian books. If Evangelical Christians want to be a stronger presence in the public square (politics, academia, the arts), then they need to strengthen their theological resources, and the renewed interest in Patristic theology does just that. The Church Fathers are deep a reservoir of theological insight drawn on by the early Reformers, but almost entirely abandoned by later Protestants, and now just rediscovered by Evangelicals. The problem for Evangelicals, though, is that many of their young, intelligent people who discover Patristic thought end up abandoning Evangelicalism for a tradition with more history, not to mention more formal liturgy.

    It may not be fair to judge a book by the cover, but sometimes the cover can tell us something of the people who buy the book.

  4. December 7, 2010 10:21 pm

    Thanks Jim for this intriguing foray into contemporary Christian visual culture. The new Christianity Today came in the mail, and the cover makes the same move.

  5. James McCullough permalink
    December 8, 2010 1:21 pm

    I’ve really appreciated all the comemnt this piece has generated.

    I thought Drew raised an intersting question, whether the use of religious art isn’t a way of avoiding some otherwise “coded” message or imposing a lable onto a particular text. Perhaps, although one would think how such a move can be done in other ways. His comemnt did raise for me the question of to the extent that religious are and iconography has become a kind of Chritian wallpaper, an ambient background noise that doesn’t really mean anything. Again, perhaps, but it all still revolves around the dynamic of associating contemporary Evangelical thought with the (what I refer to in the article as) “Great Tradition.”

    Steve’s point is well taken, and concurs with my own thinking, that it is good that the Evangelical community tap into the resevoir of the Tradition to the betterment of its own perspective and maturation. And again, I think this trend in cover art both reflects and advances this development in Evangelical theology.

    I certainly appreciate Ken’s cynicism. But I suspect that somethig more is going on than just savvy marketing. The book design departments work in some way with authors and editors, and they all desire to match substance with presentation. One perhaps thinks in particular of IVP’s Patristic Bible Comemtnary Series (seeling like hotcakes by the way).

    Thanks to Matthew for his heads-up about this month’s issue of Christianity Today, which I don’t get to see much of over here in the UK. I appreciate his affirmation, and also just knowing that someone out there is reading this stuff!

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