Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 09/11/2007 by Tim Challies.
Recommended. A great place to begin when considering a Christian view of art.
Evangelist Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) did much in the previous generation to educate Christians about the worldviews that shape modern art. He recognized and taught that a culture’s health can be determined by evaluating the types of art it produces. For instance, an age of existentialism produces nihilistic art that distorts its human subjects rendering them meaningless and absurd. Pablo Picasso is a case in point.
Alongside Schaeffer, there was another who offered an even more detailed and penetrating critique of art and culture. Henderik (Hans) Roelof Rookmaaker (1922-1977), a close friend of Schaeffer’s, was an art historian and critic who taught at the Free University of Amsterdam. In his extensive writings, especially Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (1970), Rookmaaker “resolutely faced the problematic and polemical character of modern art that denounced the nature and dignity of humanity” (21).
In Art and the Christian Mind, cultural historian Laurel Gasque, wife of biblical scholar Ward Gasque, has offered readers an engaging glimpse into the life and thought of Hans R. Rookmaaker. Writing both as an historian and friend of her subject, Gasque’s short book is a great place to begin not only a study of Rookmaaker, but of the much-needed practice of art criticism. One learns from reading her biography that Christians can and should appreciate artistic beauty in a profound way because it is a reflection of the character of God. Art, when it is beautiful, should direct our thinking to the Great Artist who is himself beauty. “Harmonious beauty stands for him [Rookmaaker] at the center of the aesthetical sphere and is woven into the fabric of all creation” (128). Yet, Rookmaaker and Gasque also remind us that our understanding of art should not stop with an appreciation of beauty. When we observe art that is ugly, that pays no attention to what is beautiful, we are also reminded of the sin that is pervasive throughout creation. Bad art communicates just as much biblical truth as good art, in this respect the need for redemption.
Hans Rookmaaker was a Dutch Calvinist who was greatly influenced by the worldview thinking of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876). He also drew philosophical insight from Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), whose writings Rookmaaker came into contact with around the time of his conversion. Although he was strongly Reformed, Rookmaaker did not grow up in the church. In fact, he was not baptized until after his adult conversion. Nominally Christian, Rookmaaker’s family was preoccupied with life in the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia), where Hans was born and where his father was a government administrator. Gasque well traces Rookmaaker’s early life in the colony and his various trips back to the Netherlands while his father was on study leave. She tells of his upbringing, being raised primarily by his sisters, as well as the events that shaped his youth. Attending a Christian school, Rookmaaker claimed that he only once had the gospel proclaimed to him; a sad reflection of many Dutch Reformed churches even in our day.
When Rookmaaker was finally converted, it was while he was a prisoner of war held in a German camp during the Second World War. Through the influence of a Christian friend, Rookmaaker came to faith and soon began to read of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea taught by Dooyeweerd at the Free University. The so-called Amsterdam philosophy “made Hans aware of how easily almost any area of human endeavor can become a substitute for religion” (71). With plenty of time to read while in prison, Rookmaaker educated himself in Calvinistic philosophy, as well as in various other fields, including art history. While in prison, Rookmaaker also endured many trials, the most profound being the death of his Jewish fiancée who lost her life at Auschwitz.
After the end of the war, Rookmaaker was allowed to return to Holland where he continued his education and began teaching both at Leiden and later at the Free University. He and his wife Anky became significantly involved with the Schaeffer’s in their ministry in Switzerland that became the L’Abri Fellowship. Their involvement was such that the Rookmaakers were instrumental in starting a L’Abri in the Netherlands. Hans was a frequent guest of the Schaeffer’s and often spoke on art and culture at numerous L’Abri conferences.
Gasque’s biography is an honest look at Rookmaaker as a man, and does not shy away from some of the more unpleasant aspects of his character. She acknowledges his sometimes-boorish personality and the occasional neglect his family felt while he was studying, writing and teaching. Although he was a good father, Gasque observes that he was “not adept as relating to small children” (77). Art was such a passion for him that one of Rookmaaker’s children could even remember “a period of time when she refused to go into art museums” (77).
Though flawed, as all of us are, Rookmaaker was quite a profound thinker. A tireless academic, he spent just as much time studying as he did touring his students around to different museums to discuss a wide variety of artistic pieces. His ability to penetrate into the philosophy that lay behind modern art set a standard of art criticism that has had an enduring influence, both on the church and in general art studies. Gasque spends a whole chapter explaining Rookmaaker’s legacy, including the impact he had on art historians and critics such as Graham Birtwistle and Calvin Seerveld among others. Rookmaaker also began various organizations and institutes including the first art history department at the Free University, the Christian Cultural Study Centre and the Christian Academy for Visual Arts. Developing his influence in the second appendix Gasque provides a very detailed list of organizations, theologians, artists, philosophers and websites dedicated to Christianity and the arts.
For Christians who love the arts and want to learn how their faith in Christ can inform artistic expression, Hans Rookmaaker should be one of the first to consult. Laurel Gasque’s work is a great place to begin to learn about Rookmaaker and about a Christian view of art. It is this reviewers hope to see Rookmaaker’s name become as well known to Christians as Francis Schaeffer’s. Through both of their writings, may Christians learn to communicate the glory of God faithfully in our day, even through various artistic expressions.