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75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (An interview with Terry Glaspey)

Terry Glaspey is our resident chaperone into the world of the arts at Seasons. With his typical winsome humor, insightful contemplations, and educated eye, Terry introduces us to great works of art throughout the weekend. Terry is the author of numerous books that range from topics like C.S. Lewis and the Bible to golf and art. Arriving in bookstores (and at this November will be Terry’s latest offering, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know”. Much like he does at Seasons, Terry invites us on a journey of truth and beauty through masterpieces of sculpture, music, books, buildings, and paintings. Recently our Seasons Emcee Melissa Maimone met with Terry to ask him about his new book.

MELISSA: What inspired you to write “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know”?

TERRY: This is a book that I wanted to write for years and years and years. One of the reasons I put together a book like this is that many Christians are unaware of the rich heritage we have as believers. There were people who came before us who saw things that we need to see, and they expressed themselves with such beauty and insight and power. For a lot of Christians, Christianity might as well have been invented by Billy Graham in the 1950's. They have little sense of the history of which we can be proud. And this history is part of our story as believers today. So, this book was my attempt to give the reader an idea of the depth and beauty and diversity of expression within our heritage. And as I have written in the introduction of the book, I’m not suggesting that these are the 75 "greatest masterpieces" that Christians have been involved in; I'm saying that these are 75 that are representative. Each of them is truly a masterpiece. Each them is worth spending time with and each of them has made a mark. But you could easily put together an alternative list of 75 that would be just as valid. And in fact, that would actually be kind of fun!

M: Did every artist in the book identify themself as Christian?

T: Yes. That was one of my criteria for deciding what to include in the book. There are Protestants, there are Catholics, there are Eastern Orthodox, and then there are some people in there who are rather unorthodox! For example, William Blake, whose theology was kind of cobbled together 'cafeteria style' from his own idiosyncratic version of Christianity but also influenced by various esoteric texts and other stuff that clearly just came out of his own imagination and experience. But, he would self-identify as a Christian, so I included him. His overarching message is that the world is more than just what we can see in the material realm--what we can see, taste, touch, feel, smell--that the spiritual realm is real and important.

M: Would you consider these artists heroes of the faith?

T: Only in a sense. Very few of them were great theological thinkers, nor did they live saintly lives Many of them were strugglers. Some of them were not the kind of people you would want to invite over for Sunday brunch. They could be people who had trouble making good moral decisions, or who had impossible personalities. It doesn't take a saint to be a great artist. Some of those that you will read about in the book kind of were saints. But more often, they were fellow strugglers like you and me. So we don't look to them for examples of how to live our lives, but we look to them for helping us to see the world in a deeper, more profound, and more moving way.

M: What is the difference between a “masterpiece” and just a really good piece of art?

T: Depending on who you ask, you would probably get different answer on that. But I will give you my best working definition. I like to think of a masterpiece as a work which has stood the test of time. For example, some music from the 1960's that was popular then seems irrelevant now. Very much a product of its time. But some Bob Dylan songs from the 1960's still feel very relevant today. That is one of the things something a masterpiece. It has stood the test of time. Second, a masterpiece is a work that you can visit time and time and time again and you can always get something new from it. I've probably looked at Van Gogh's painting 'Starry Night' thousands of times in my life. It still never wears out. With a masterpiece, you can keep coming back to it again and again and always find something fresh. And the third characteristic of a masterpiece is the a high level of creativity in it's expression. With the great artists, writers, and musicians there is always an attempt to find a new way to say it, show it, hear it. And that's what the really great artists do.

M: You mentioned that a lot of the artists were fellow strugglers just like us. Is there anyone in the book who stand out as having a bit of a saucier history to them?

T: One of the people who immediately comes to mind is Caravaggio. He painted these powerful images of biblical scenes that are so filled with emotion. And it's because he was an incredibly emotional man. Yet he didn't control his emotions that well. He was a gambler, he loved to provoke an argument, and never stood down from a fight. As a matter of fact, he was known for wearing a sword at his side as he strolled through town. At one point in his life, he had to flee Rome because he ended up killing someone in a duel. So, how do you put together such a man with such spiritually powerful work? That is the mystery of God choosing whom he chooses. Graham Greene, one of the finest novelists of the 20th Century was a man who throughout his life struggled with his doubts. He didn't always do a good job of not giving into temptations--especially those involving excessive drinking and dalliance with women. And yet, he produced, as in his novel "The Power and the Glory", perhaps the most powerful picture of how grace works in spite of human limitations that any writer ever achieved. And that is probably because in his own life he knew he needed that grace.

M: It might be like asking you to pick your favorite child, but are there some works of art out of the 75 in the book that stand out as your personal favorites?

T: Wow, that's really hard. There are definitely some that have moved me more deeply or that have had a larger effect on the way I think or feel or experience my life than others. But to try to pick between them? At different times in our lives, different works speak to us in different ways and meet different needs.

M: Why study these masterpieces?

T: CS Lewis says that one of the ways we judge the quality of a work of art is how we find ourselves interacting with it. Lesser art is something we use. In other words, it's art we put on our walls because it's creative and decorative or because it makes a statement that we agree with--like maybe a religious painting. And there's nothing wrong with that. I have very little patience for the art snobs who have no room for art that evokes joy. But, there is another kind of art that Lewis talks about. The Greater Art, he says, is art that we don't use, but instead we receive. It's art that demands a vulnerability from us. We must be open to receive what it has to offer. If you stand in front of Rembrandt's “Return of the Prodigal Son", and you are ready to receive, that painting has all kinds of things to offer. And I think the same is true of a Chagall, or a Rothko, or a John Donne poem, or a concerto by Bach, or a jazz piece by Coltrane, or Bruce Cockburn’s folk rock songs. If we come to such works with humility and vulnerability and are ready to receive, they are going to speak to us.

M: Any last thoughts?

T: Sometimes we think of art as high and exalted and kind of mysterious and academic and largely irrelevant, but I believe that is a misconception. When you invest a little effort in exploring great works of art you’ll find them to be a wonderful addition to your life. Great art changes the way we think, the way we relate to God and others, and the way we see our world. Art has great practical value for everyone and it is a source of such joy. It has made a difference in my life. My hope is that this book will cause it to make a difference for others as well.

Click HERE.Pre-Order Terry's book, "75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know" and receive his book "The Book Lover's Guide to Great Reading" FREE!

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