The Cloud of Unknowing

There is a different kind of prayer without ceasing; it is longing. Whatever you may be doing, if you long for the day of everlasting rest do not cease praying. If you do not wish to cease praying, then do not cease your longing. Your persistent longing is your persistent voice. But when love grows cold, the heart grows silent. Burning love is the outcry of the heart! If you are filled with longing all the time, you will keep crying out, and if your love perseveres, your cry will be heard without fail.

~St Augustine of Hippo, from Expositions of the Psalms

Matthew 6:6

But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

What exactly is prayer?  The fast answer is that it is talking to God, but what does that entail?  Must it be spoken words, or can it be thought words – or no words at all?  The disciples clearly recognized the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life because they asked Him to teach them to pray.  What we call the Lord’s Prayer was His template or model.

We all know what it means to feel a longing for God that defies our vocabulary.  Over seven hundred years ago an unknown monk wrote an essay to his student who had asked for help with prayer.  That document, now known as The Cloud of Unknowing is among the oldest English language works, and it has been in continuous print ever since.  Listen to its rich prose:

You only need a naked intent for God.
When you long for him, that’s enough.
We can’t think our way to God.
That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know,
to love the one thing I cannot think.
God can be loved, but not thought.

The book speaks of seeking God through contemplation, by emptying your mind rather than filling it with thoughts.  In this sense, prayer picks up where our earthly abilities fail.  It is the great equalizer – leveling the simple and the genius, the child and the adult.  We unite with God as Romans 8:26 says “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

T. S. Eliot is one of many literary figures influenced by The Cloud of Unknowing and its opaque, but luminescent spirituality. Eliot’s Cloud-inspired words, from East Coker say

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.

Prayer emphasizes God’s mystery, inscrutability, and immanence—God is closer than our very breath. We get to know God not by the route of information, but by holding in abeyance what we think we know about God, or even ourselves, in order to let His love and fellowship flood our beings in a way that lies beyond our senses.

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton said:

We thank Him less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.

As Acts 17:28 says “for in Him we live and move and have our being.

D I G  D E E P E R

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud is an anonymous book on contemplative prayer, written c. 1390–95, most probably by a Carthusian of Beauvale Priory (Notts.). While the Cloud is not primarily controversial, there are marks of the same concern which is found in *Walter Hilton (c. 1343–96) to present traditional spiritual methods and aims in the face of Lollardy, as well as warning against attachment to the ‘heat, sweetness and song’ associated with Richard Rolle (d. 1349). There is evidence of some interaction with Hilton, but whereas Hilton addresses overall a wide circle of readers, the Cloud (and its corpus) are directed particularly to contemplatives.

The book’s title is drawn from the writings of *Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), where the author affirms that all the teaching of the Cloud may be found in (Pseudo-) Dionysius. The core of Pseudo-Dionysius’s apophatic Mystical Theology is the search for union at a supra-intellectual level with God, who in his transcendence exceeds both all that may be affirmed and all that may be denied of him. This union occurs in the ‘luminous darkness’ (exemplified by Moses’ ascent of Sinai), or the excess of God’s light experienced as darkness, as all that can appeal to sense or intellect is left behind. The Cloud speaks of leaving created things under a ‘cloud of forgetting’, in order to penetrate with a ‘sharp dart of longing love’ the cloud of unknowing that veils God’s presence. The author of the Cloud knew Pseudo-Dionysius through such Latin mediators as John Sarrazin (1140–67) and Thomas of Vercelli (d. 1246), who in various respects modified Pseudo-Dionysius. Latin theology makes more explicit that the soul’s ascent towards union with God is an act of love, a gift of God’s grace. Among other Latin writers in the Dionysian tradition, the Cloud’s author certainly knew something also of the De Mystica Theologia of the Carthusian Hugh of Balma (1289–1304), echoing (inter alia) his account of imageless prayer without premeditation, a movement of love and not of intellect.

In fact the Cloud is firmly rooted in the monastic tradition of spiritual guidance, and in Latin theology. There are echoes of *Augustine (354–430), Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), *Bernard (1090–1153) and *Richard of St Victor (d. 1173). Augustine’s teaching on the ordo caritatis, the rightly-ordered love of God and of neighbour, is fundamental. Humility and charity are the two interdependent virtues in which the whole Christian moral life is implied. The author is also in accord with *St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74) at various points: on the name ‘Is’ as the most appropriate to God (in contrast to Pseudo-Dionysius, who prefers ‘Good’); on the capacity of charity to unite us directly to God while we are unable in this life to know him as he is; and on the theology of ‘operant grace’. In the latter mode, as distinct from that of ‘co-operant grace’, where there is deliberate conjunction of the human will with grace, God moves the will directly and without impediment, yet with the will’s consent, ensuring the soul’s spontaneous conformity to his will. The Cloud sees this as concomitant with ‘perfect humility’, which has regard only to the greatness of God in his love and worthiness, and so is self-forgetful. In contrast, ‘imperfect humility’ has regard to one’s own qualities, especially to one’s own sinfulness, and thus is necessary but is still self-regarding. Entry into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ opens the way to ‘perfect humility’.

The Cloud thrice refers in passing to ‘another man’, who may well be Walter Hilton. The third reference is mildly critical, as if the (Augustinian and Gregorian) approach to God by introversion—the search for the ‘image of God’ within and yet beyond the soul—favoured by Hilton and by many others might seem to ‘localize’ God. The Book of Privy Counselling, intended to elucidate difficult points in the Cloud, answers just such criticisms of the Cloud’s presentation as the profoundly incarnational Hilton might have made. Comparison of Cloud and Privy Counselling shows no doctrinal difference between the two books. But what is stated in passing in the Cloud is, where necessary, restated more clearly and emphatically in Privy Counselling. The latter explicitly identifies the rejection of distinct images of God and the entry into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ with response to Christ’s call to deny oneself and take up the cross (Mt. 16:24), a text used by Hilton in Scale, 1. Privy Counselling also seems to echo Hilton in its use of John 10:9; 10:1; to insist that conformity to the virtues of Christ in his incarnate life is the only true way to contemplation. Again, Privy Counselling has a forceful passage on the sanctifying value of spiritual aridity which goes far beyond anything in the Cloud but accords with Hilton. The use of John 16:7 in this context (echoing Augustine) stands close to the use made by Hilton of more particularly Bernard’s teaching on the transition from the carnal to the spiritual love of God in Christ. Privy Counselling also marches with Hilton’s Scale, 2 on a fluctuation between aridity and awareness of God’s presence within contemplation. Conversely, Hilton’s Scale, 2 seems to draw on the Cloud for its teaching on imperfect and perfect humility, and ‘operant grace’ as ensuring (for the duration of the experience) conformity to God’s will.

There is no evidence that the Cloud was known outside England until the late sixteenth century, through an English Carthusian copy used by Benet Canfield (1562–1611) and later by Augustine Baker (1575–1641). Parallels have been drawn between *St John of the Cross (1542–91) on the ‘dark night’ and the Cloud (and Hilton), but St John cannot have known the English writers. However, the Cloud’s apophatic and affective theology, in conjunction with Harphius (Henry Herp, d. 1477), Blosius (Louis of Blois, 1506–66), Canfield and Constantin Barbanson (1582–1631), became an important constituent in Augustine Baker’s teaching.

Art as Negative Theology

“Consider, for example, the twentieth-century abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt, who was deeply influenced by Theosophy. He “developed a religious perspective that blends Eastern and Western mysticism to form what is, in effect, an artistic via negativa,” says postmodern theologian Mark Taylor. Reinhardt is best known for a series of black paintings that represent, in his own words, a “mystical ascent.” The mind leaves behind “the world of appearances” composed of separate images until it reaches an “undifferentiated unity.” In this state, there is “no consciousness of anything” and “all distinctions disappear in darkness.” The mind attains “the divine dark.” It has immersed itself in the cloud of unknowing.

“We might borrow a label from Francis Schaeffer and call this a form of “mysticism with nobody there.” An experience like this may lift us out of the mundane world, but to connect with what? Not with a transcendent person who loves us, but with sheer silence and emptiness. Novelist Susan Sontag calls it a mysticism that ends “in a via negativa, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” In the same way, Sontag says, abstract art tends toward “the elimination of the ‘subject’ (the ‘object,’ the ‘image’), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.”

Sources & Resources

Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (Nashville: B&H, 2010).

Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Aspen nos. 5 & 6 (a multimedia magazine of the arts published from 1965 to 1971).

John P.H. Clark, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 129–131.

Texts (critical editions): The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; London, rev. edn, 1958);

Deonise Hid Diuinite and other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; London, 1958);

The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Treatises (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; Salzburg, 1982).

Texts (modernized versions): The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Treatises (ed. J. McCann; London, 6th rev. edn, 1952), includes Augustine’s commentary on the Cloud;

The Cloud of Unknowing (ed. James Walsh; Mahwah, NJ, 1981);

The Cloud of Unknowing and other Works (ed. C. Wolters; Harmondsworth, 1961).

Studies: D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (London, 1961);

W. Johnston, The Mysticism of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ (New York, 1967);

J.P.H. Clark, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’: An Introduction (3 vols.; Salzburg, 1995–6); R. Tixier, ‘Mystique et Pédagogie dans “The Cloud of Unknowing” ’ (PhD thesis; University of Nancy, 1988).

Image by Tom Darin Liskey

God Gifted

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci around 1490

1 Corinthians 12:12–31

12 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many.
15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? 18 But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. 19 And if they were all one member, where would the body be?
20 But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. 23 And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, 24 but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, 25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 28 And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.

The wellness movement emphasizes a holistic understanding of man.  It reaches beyond physical health and aspires to that which is nebulously called mindfulness, thus attempting to bridge the body to the soul.  This is not new, of course; its roots are at least Platonic, and even Plato was predated by eastern thinkers who saw man as more garden than machine.

The irony runs deep here because man is contextualized correctly as a functioning member of the body of Christ.  He is singularly essential, yet unfulfilled unless joined to his complementary fellows.

In his book Out of the Depths, Ken Kovacs wrote:

Many years ago I came across profound wisdom in a statement by Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855)—that blessed Dane. Kierkegaard has been one of my theological heroes for a long time, a faithful and trusted companion on my journey. (His surname translated into English means, literally, “cemetery”—kierke, meaning “church” and gaard, meaning “garden” or “yard;” hence, “church yard” or “cemetery.” With a name like that you can only imagine what his childhood was like.) With searing psychological and spiritual insight, this is what he said: “Comparison kills.” When I first heard those words, many years ago, it was as if the hammer of Thor had struck me, and cracked me open, and released my soul. Kierkegaard said, “. . . the more comparison, the more indolent and paltry a person’s life becomes . . . comparison kills,” he said, “with its insidious chill.”*

He’s right. There are healthy forms of comparison, of course. But when we’re always comparing ourselves to others—what others have, what others are doing, what others are achieving—if we’re always looking outward, valuing what’s “out there,” more than what’s “in here,” within us, that which has already been entrusted to us by the Spirit, we are doing ourselves a great disservice and effectively rejecting God’s gifts in us. This is not the way toward life, this is not what the Spirit intends for our lives, this is not the way of Christ. Pathological comparison kills; with its insidious chill it slowly, ever so slowly over time kills our souls.


Where does humanism fit into a proper understanding of the Church ?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.




Ken Kovacs
Ken Kovacs

Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.

Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at


D I G  D E E P E R

Soren Kierkegaard

*Sören Kierkegaard, “Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (1847). The full quote: “. . . the more comparison, the more indolent and paltry a person’s life becomes. This consciousness is the straight gate and the narrow way. It is not the way as such that is narrow, although quite a few people walk along it single-file; no, the narrowness is that each one separately must become the single individual who must press through this narrow pass along the narrow way where no comparison cools, but also where no comparison kills with its insidious chill.”

Kierkegaard’s Writings, XV (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 152.

Soren Kierkegaard

b. in Copenhagen, May 5, 1813

A melancholy boy of deep religious inclination, who, attracted and repelled by Christianity, gave himself up to pessimism, from which the death of his father delivered him, leading him as a man to the study of theology (1840). But he conceived of it as pure subjectivity, and rejected existing Christianity as wrong, attacked Martensen, when the latter praised Mynster (1854), and was led into the bitterest attitude ag. Church and Christianity; d. Nov. 11, 1855. The subjective truth of the personality was the centre of K.’s system. The personality is the ethically existing, not the knowing, which must be capable of infinite suffering, though it is finite. To suffer is to be religious, which includes the paradox. The paradox or absurd is the contradiction between man, a sinner by his very existence, and man determining himself for faith, i.e. not likeness, but contemporaneousness with Christ, as shown, not merely in humility and inner suffering, but in actual experience of the hate of the world, which flies from truth.

(LIT.: Petersen, Sören Kierkegaards Kristendums forkyadelse; Martensen, Aus meinen Leben; Kierkegaard, in the various Cyclop.; espec. Nordisk Konversationslexikon.

Henry Eyster Jacobs and John A. W. Haas, eds., The Lutheran Cyclopedia (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), 262.

Renaissance Man

This explains the ideal of the Renaissance Man, the individual who masters a wide range of fields in both the arts and sciences. And the supreme instance was Leonardo da Vinci—scientist, inventor, mathematician, engineer, and above all, artist. For Leonardo, the painter was a “god” capable of creating images at will. His Vitruvian Man (named after a Roman architect who calculated the body’s ideal proportions) expresses the neo-Platonic idea that the human being is a microcosm uniting the two realms of spirit and matter. “In the iconography of the day,” explains a historian, “the square was generally taken as symbolic of the earth while the circle was representative of the eternity of heaven.” In Leonardo’s image, then, the ideal human is “both of this earth and heaven . . . the unifier of the universe.”

Did this polymath fulfill the Renaissance goal then of overcoming “man’s dualistic nature”? Sadly no, says philosopher Giovanni Gentile. As an engineer and mathematician, Leonardo anticipated the mechanistic worldview that arose soon afterward in the scientific revolution—a vision of nature “ordered in a closed and fixed system, necessary and mechanically invariable.” Yet as an artist, Leonardo never stopped seeking to capture the ideal or the universal. In a poignant passage, Gentile speaks of “the anguish and the innermost tragedy of this universal man, divided between his irreconcilable worlds.” Standing at the threshold of modernity, Leonardo is a symbol of the modern mind and its tragic inability to find a unified truth.

Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (Nashville: B&H, 2010).


Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

When I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion, then I go out and paint the stars.

RickIn many ways, it was just business.  Van Gogh made his living by painting so he was sensitive to the market.  He painted at least twenty-one versions of Starry Night because they seemed to sell well.  That is not to say he was uninspired by his subject.  A deeply spiritual man, he found in the stars a great expression of the eternity in his heart, and it just happened to help him to earn a living.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Starry Night is one of those paintings so iconic—we’ve all seen it reproduced so many times—that it is difficult to really see. We have to step back and take a careful second look for it to begin to divulge all its wonder. This image of a small town seen from a vantage point on a hill is not so much concerned with the town as it is with the night sky overhead—a night sky that swirls and swells and spins above us. The painting itself feels strangely alive, as though it were itself an object in motion. The moon and the stars shine and shimmer in the midst of this pulsating vision of the sky, and one cannot help but wonder if, as he contemplated this scene, Vincent van Gogh experienced some sort of mystical vision of the eternal realities behind the earthly beauty. For van Gogh, a believing man deeply frustrated with religious institutions, it was in such visions that he discovered his connection with God. As he once wrote, “When I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion, then I go out and paint the stars.”1 And that is precisely what he has done in this modern masterpiece.

The viewpoint in the painting from which the landscape is seen was the view from van Gogh’s bedroom window. He painted no less than twenty-one canvases of this particular landscape, though Starry Night is the most evocative of them all. The village seen in the painting is his invention, not something he could actually see from his window but rather added to the composition. When van Gogh sent several paintings to his brother so that he could try to sell them, he initially didn’t send Starry Night, evidently considering it less marketable than his others. In fact, he considered it a failure. Time, of course, has proven him wrong, as it has become one of his most popular works.

Is it prostituting art to earn a living from it?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

D I G  D E E P E R

Vincent Van Gogh



Vincent van Gogh

(1853–90). One of the four great Postimpressionists (along with Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne), Vincent van Gogh is generally considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. His reputation is based largely on the works of the last three years of his short ten-year painting career, and he had a powerful influence on expressionism in modern art. He produced more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings, but he sold only one during his lifetime. His striking colors, coarse brushwork, and contoured forms display the anguish of the mental illness that drove him to suicide.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert in the Brabant region of The Netherlands. He was the eldest son of a Protestant clergyman. At the age of 16 Van Gogh was apprenticed to art dealers in The Hague, and he worked for them there and in London and Paris until 1876.

Van Gogh disliked art dealing, and, rejected in love, he became increasingly solitary. He began to prepare for the ministry, but he failed the entrance examinations for seminary and became a lay preacher. In 1878 he went to the impoverished Borinage district in southwestern Belgium to do missionary work. He was dismissed in 1880 over a disagreement with his superiors. Penniless and with his faith broken, he sank into despair and began to draw. He soon realized the limitations of being self-taught and went to Brussels to study drawing. In 1881 he moved to The Hague to work with the Dutch landscape painter Anton Mauve, and the next summer Van Gogh began to experiment with oil paints. His urge to be “alone with nature” took him to Dutch villages, and his subjects—still life, landscape, and figure—all related to the peasants’ daily hardships and surroundings. In 1885 he produced his first masterpiece, ‘The Potato Eaters’.

Feeling too isolated, he left for Antwerp, Belgium, and enrolled in the academy there. He did not respond well to the school’s rigid discipline, but while in Antwerp he was inspired by the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and discovered Japanese prints. He was soon off to Paris, where he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and discovered the impressionists Camille Pissarro, Seurat, and others. Van Gogh’s two years in Paris shaped his personal style of painting—more colorful, less traditional, with lighter tonalities and distinctive brushwork.

Tired of city life, Van Gogh left Paris in 1888 for Arles in the south of France. He rented and decorated a yellow house in which he hoped to found a community of “impressionists of the South.” Gauguin joined him in October, but their relations deteriorated, and in a quarrel on Christmas Eve Van Gogh cut off part of his own left ear. Gauguin left, and Van Gogh was hospitalized. Exhibiting repeated signs of mental disturbance, Van Gogh asked to be sent to an asylum at St-Rémy-de-Province. After a year of confinement he moved to the home of a physician-artist in Auvers-sur-Oise for two months. On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh shot himself; he died two days later.

Despite his deteriorating mental condition, Van Gogh’s time at Arles, in the asylum, and at Auvers proved to be his greatest productive periods. At Arles he painted with great energy the sun-drenched fields and flowers; at St-Rémy the colors of his paintings were more muted, but the lines were bolder and the whole more visionary; in the northern light of Auvers he adopted pale, fresh tonalities, a broader and more expressive brushwork, and a lyrical vision of nature. The sale of Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ in 1987 brought the highest price ever paid for a work of art up to that time—53.9 million dollars.

Van Gogh’s Starry Religion

Given this brief background, we can understand why the Romantics still considered neo-Platonism a live option for buttressing a spiritualized view of nature. They were especially enamored by the concept of creation as emanation, with its metaphor of a radiating sun or an overflowing fountain. They even applied the same metaphors to the artist’s creativity. Art was a lamp radiating its own inner light onto the world, a fountain of overflowing emotions. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The next major movement after symbolism came to be called expressionism.
The expressionists rejected the Impressionist dictum that the artist should paint only what the eye sees. The expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky said, “The artist expresses only what he has within himself, not what he sees with his eyes.” Music historian Donald Grout summarizes the difference: Whereas impressionism “aimed to represent objects of the external world as perceived at a given moment,” expressionism “sought to represent inner experience.”

Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon, featured below, is not intended to show a realistic scene—note the flat perspective, the red background, the lack of any visible light source. Instead it depicts the idea in the women’s minds as they pray. (They have just heard a sermon about Jacob wrestling with the angel.) As Rookmaaker explains, Gauguin wanted “to overcome the extreme naturalism of the impressionists,” finding ways “to include more than the eye can see.”

In Starry Night Van Gogh’s whirling stars and flame-like trees are likewise expressionistic. As a young man, Van Gogh wanted to become a preacher, but he was turned down by the theology school where he tried to enroll. Undaunted, he trained as a missionary and worked as an evangelist in a poor coal-mining district in southern Belgium. Determined to share the miners’ poverty, he gave away his belongings and slept on the floor. Unfortunately, the missionary school did not appreciate his passion, and he was dismissed. Finally Van Gogh realized that art too can be a means of serving God. His swirling stars and writhing landscape express “a vision that ultimately belongs more to the realm of religious revelation than to astronomical observations.”

At times, Van Gogh said, he would try to paint in a more realistic style. But soon he would feel “a terrible need of—shall I say the word?—religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.”

Sources and Resources

“Van Gogh, Vincent,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (Nashville: B&H, 2010).

Bernard, Bruce, ed. Vincent by Himself: A Selection of His Paintings and Drawings Together with Extracts from His Letters. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.
Bonafoux, Pascal. Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye. New York: Abrams, 1992.
Edwards, Cliff. Van Gogh and God. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1989.
Erickson, Kathleen Powers. At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White Smith. Van Gogh: The Life. New York: Random House, 2011.
Thomson, Richard. Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008.
Walther, Ingo F. Van Gogh. Köln: Taschen, 2000.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).


Terry Glaspey


Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!


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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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