The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community
by Robin M. Jensen.
Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

This book is part of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series published by Eerdmans. The series is designed to promote reflection on the history, theology, and practice of Christian worship and to stimulate worship renewal in Christian congregations.

Any church group or arts committee discussing visual arts and their role in the faith life of the church would benefit from this practical and insightful book. The chapters consist of six essays that can be discussed individually and that invite further exploration (for suggestions, see parentheses below):

  • Visual Art and Spiritual Formation in Christian Tradition. Jensen introduces the importance of seeing and encountering the beauty that surrounds us. Beauty that is beyond what is “pretty,” he suggests, demands our attention and engages us. (Search for ways your church can renew the gift of seeing with discernment.)
  • Visual Exegesis: Sacred Text and Narrative Art in Early Christianity. Using examples from the catacombs, Jensen explores how visual art is an interpretation, an illumination, of the biblical texts and stories. (Delve into how the images speak to a theme and why the early church’s selectivity gives deeper meaning to the context in which it is found.)
  • Idol or Icon? The Invisible and the Incarnate God. This chapter investigates the importance of understanding the role of art in the church. (Search together the church’s history of misunderstanding art’s true function.)
  • Beyond the Decorative and Didactic: The Uses of Art in the Church. (Explore in more detail the variety of roles art should play, including adorning, teaching, aiding us in our devotional life, and challenging us prophetically.)
  • Holy Places and Sacred Spaces. We shape spaces, but spaces shape us too. (Walk around and consider the theological symbolism of your church building.)
  • The Beautiful and the Disturbing: Art, Taste, and Religious Value. Finally, Jensen deals with judgment. (Struggle—in a good way—with how we can come to appreciate a variety of tastes, the challenge of difference, and how we can learn from one another.)

“My intention,” says Jensen, “was not to make a final judgment about most of these matters but merely to open the conversation.” Form your own group and join the conversation!

—Reviewed by Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Resource Development Specialist for Visual Arts at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


The Psalms: An Artist’s Impression
by Anneke Kaai and Eugene H. Peterson. InterVarsity Press, 2000.

When people hear the words abstract expressionism many think “Not my style,” “I don’t get it,” or “Certainly not for incorporation into worship.” The Psalms: An Artist’s Impression by contemporary Dutch artist Anneke Kaai may change your mind.

Through a strong biblical understanding and Reformed inclination, Kaai visually explores the psalms and introduces us to the symbolism, metaphors, and images they so richly express. Her short descriptions of each piece help us enter into the artwork to see in a bold new way the gift the message has to offer. In a truly devotional sense, Kaai helps us to dwell with and ponder Scripture’s message.

Kaai boldly paints in the message of the text through elements of design such as the multiplicity of texture, the fullness of the color spectrum, the infinite pattern of line, and the full depths and heights of darkness and light. She paints with oils, acrylics, and other mediums on Plexiglas. Unlike canvas, which has a woven texture, Plexiglas is completely smooth. Kaai chooses this non-textured “canvas” so that each texture is able to have symbolic value. Layer upon layer of paint is applied, and sometimes taken away, to unfold a revealing story.

Highlighted in these works is the emotion expressed in the psalms. The psalms have played a special role in Kaai’s faith journey: “They have challenged me, comforted me, and strengthened me in my faith.” Her hope is that her experience with the psalms can be meaningful to others, renewing their wonderment of God. She has indeed succeeded.

Anneke Kaai and Eugene Peterson join again in blending word and image with In a Word: See What You Believe (Paraclete 2004). Twenty-three words such as peace, grace, death, and love are explored in this same symbolic, abstract way.

Series such as these are not new to Kaai. Her other published works have explored creation, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the book of Revelation. These works have just been published in a combined edition: From Beginning to End: Painting Creation, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and Apocalypse (Piquant, 2006).

Anneke Kaai continues to paint. She is exploring aspects of humanity’s relationship to God and is pursuing a series of portraits of women in the Bible.

Begin with exploring The Psalms and see what is expressed there. Your heart, soul, and mind will be renewed.

—Reviewed by Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Resource Development Specialist for Visual Arts at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church
by Gordon T. Smith.
Baker Books, 2005.

There is no doubt that the Lord’s Supper suffers from serious neglect in many churches. And when it is celebrated (if the somber tone it often takes may be considered a celebration at all!), it is all too often stuck at the end of the service and rushed through because little time has been left for it.

Yet for most the church’s history a worship service would have been unthinkable without the Lord’s Supper playing a prominent part. As Darrell Johnson points out in one of the endorsements on the back cover of this book: “Indeed, eat and drink are the only verbs of worship explicitly commanded by Jesus.” For this reason and many others, we need to give serious attention to the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper.

In this brief volume Gordon T. Smith explores the richness, depth, and beauty of this “holy meal.” Smith structures his book around seven biblical themes tied to seven key New Testament passages relating to the Supper:

  1. Remembrance: The Lord’s Supper as a Memorial (1 Cor. 11:24-26)
  2. Communion: The Lord’s Supper as Fellowship with Christ and with One Another (1 Cor. 10:14-17; 11:27-34)
  3. Forgiveness: The Lord’s Supper as a Table of Mercy (Matt. 26:26-28)
  4. Covenant: The Lord’s Supper as a Renewal of Baptismal Vows (Mark 14:22-25)
  5. Nourishment: The Lord’s Supper as Bread from Heaven (John 6:35-58)
  6. Anticipation: The Lord’s Supper as a Declaration of Hope (Luke 22:14-27)
  7. Eucharist: The Lord’s Supper as a Joyous Thanksgiving Celebration (Acts 2:46-47)

Smith’s approach is irenic and utterly trans-denominational, encouraging us to look at our own traditions discriminatingly and at others’ traditions appreciatively. Readers will learn much, both from the content of the book and from Smith’s warm pastoral approach to issues that have for so long divided God’s people.

—Reviewed by Ron Man, Director of Worship Resources, Greater Europe Mission (,and editor of Worship Notes, a free online monthly worship newsletter.


Excerpt from Chapter 1 of A Holy Meal

“We can so easily come to feel that we need no one. Our social context encourages us to make our own choices, live our own lives, and engage with others only when we think they have something to offer us. This is not a Christian spirituality. Further, it is an approach to life that does not foster true engagement with God or truly enable us to experience the full grace of being a Christian. The words of 1 John 1:3-4 remind us that joy is made complete when we are in fellowship with God and one another. Nothing so effectively mitigates against the propensity toward individual autonomy within our culture and within Western Christianity as the Lord’s Supper. This meal is a means by which we see, feel, and taste that we are in this together. We need one another. We depend on one another. Together we will know God and grow in faith, hope, and love.”

Reformed Worship 82 © December 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.