Hans Rookmaaker’s ‘Four Freedoms’ and Christian Art (Part II)
Dr. E. John Walford is Professor of Art History at Wheaton College, Illinois, where he has taught since 1981. He is author of Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (Yale University Press, 1991), and Great Themes in Art (Prentice-Hall, 2002). In his most recent project, An Art Historian’s Sideways Glance (Piquant Editions, 2009), Walford explores the potential of bringing an art historian’s knowledge and eye to the practice of digital photography.
In part I, I developed Rookmaaker’s understanding of the four freedoms of the Christian: freedom before God, freedom toward ourselves, freedom toward others, and freedom and openness toward nature. These four freedoms were contrasted with the secular permissiveness and rebellion that Rookmaaker perceived in modern culture. By stepping into these four freedoms, then, the Christian artist is provided with a well of insight from which to draw a true vision of reality, and with the capacity to live in creation as one who is at home.
At the same time, Rookmaaker of course recognizes that this freedom is limited by the curse (Romans 8.18f) and also by sin. Because of the Fall, nature is not fully as God intended. But the curse does not have the last word. There is promise of ultimate renewal.
Finally, and most significantly, over against this vision, Rookmaaker sees the modern unbeliever’s outlook: the pursuit of autonomous freedom–with its alienation, frustration, the sense of imprisonment in one’s own existence–from which we are delivered only by the blood of Christ.
Rookmaaker’s point is also that just as the unbeliever’s outlook is embodied in his or her art, so it should be for the Christian. A Christian’s freedom in Christ should simply permeate how they view all of reality, including the full spectrum of human experience.
In following Rookmaaker, by focusing on the nourishment of the artist’s vision, I am passing over another critical matter, the relative giftedness of any given artist to effectively embody such vision within their artistry, in ways that have artistic integrity. I do not wish to suggest any sharp distinction between vision and artistry, knowing that in practice these are intimately interwoven. In engaging the one, we engage the other. I choose, rather, today, to focus attention on the nurture of Christian wisdom as it informs artistry.
Does then this awareness and pursuit of Christian freedom, as described by Rookmaaker, really make a difference for a Christian’s art? That depends on what one is expecting or hoping for. Working from this model, it is not my expectation that, to the viewer, such art will be readily identifiable as Christian, per se. In as much as art is grounded in and informed by a Christian vision of life, I imagine such art as contributing to and calling forth a wholesome vision of life, and one that challenges injustice, laments evil, and so forth.
Rookmaaker often said that Christ died to make us human, to make the crooked straight, to restore us toward reaching our God-given human potential. In this sense, he affirmed the good as inherently good, something that can be recognized as such by all people. Thus a Christian vision of life will likely share much with others, of other persuasions. The differences will be greatest, the greater the differences in outlook on life, and will appear most acutely at the points of divergence.
I do not therefore believe that a Christian’s art has to declare itself as Christian, nor that it derives its merit from such an identification. Rather, its virtue lies in its integrity, as wise artistic vision, and in terms of its constructive contribution to human flourishing. I do not think that it matters whether or not it is received as Christian, but rather that it is received on its inherent merits, bearing within itself the ‘ring of truth.’ Thus I might suggest that the art of a Christian may well be indistinctly distinct—faith acting as leaven to the bread of art.
So does this awareness and pursuit of Christian freedom, as described by Rookmaaker, really make a difference? Well, yes, in many subtle ways, I believe it does. I also believe that it is this difference–however subtle, and however hard to identify and isolate–that we might hope to find in the art of a Christian. That also is, I think, a suitable term, “the art of a Christian,” rather than “Christian art.”
One may well then ask: If this difference is so subtle, and imperceptible, is it worth striving for? I believe so, because just as one cannot see the yeast in the bread, yet the bread is the richer for the yeast, so the maturing vision of a Christian may leaven their artistic vision, affecting the thrust, tone, and feel of the whole. This, in my judgment, merits conscious nurturing, as a quality of one’s art towards which ever to strive. Thereby the art of a Christian may well function as itself a leavening yeast within the framework of the current discourses of art. I think that a Christian artist would do well to worry less about blatantly displaying a consciously Christian label in their art. Instead, Christian artists would do well to focus on nurturing their vision and artistry in the most effective ways they can find to engage the surrounding culture—or that segment of it to which they can most effectively relate.
If each is faithful in cultivating their unique set of gifts—great or small—seeking to nurture artistic intelligence and human flourishing, perhaps we will see a measure of Christian yeast leavening the bread of today’s secular art world.
 Rookmaaker, op. cit., pp. 64-68.
 H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970, reprinted in The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, Ed. by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, Vol. 5, Carlisle: Piquant, 2003, pp. 3-164.
Image Credit: Steven Jaehnert