Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Great Masterpieces: A Review of Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know

75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should KnowThe task of narrowing down centuries’ worth of “masterpieces” in a “best of” list is not one I would like to undertake. Deciding what is a masterpiece is a struggle in and of it itself, let alone having to provide a definitive list. Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (Baker, 2015; source: publisher) is a balanced choice of art, literature, music, and film.

Following a chronological ordering, Glaspey begins with the Christian catacombs of Rome (75 Masterpieces, chapter 1). From the second century to the fifth, the underground maze served as a communal burial ground for Christians in times of peace and persecution. Images such as the good shepherd decorated these grounds as a sign of life after death.

Illuminated manuscripts are addressed in a chapter on the Book of Kells (550). Though associated with Kells, the work was produced off the coast of Scotland and only arrived at Kells in the hands of persecuted monks. Illuminated manuscripts were painstaking works usually conducted by the hands of multiple craftsmen and artists. The work began with the production of the paper from calfskin. The ink for the script and artwork also needed to be prepared. The text, the Gospels in the case of the Book of Kells, was not necessarily written by the same person as the artwork, or even the task of just one person. Artists illuminated the pages with colorful artwork accompanying the text.

The awe of the great Gothic cathedrals is perhaps best captured in the Chartres Cathedral (75 Masterpieceschapter 5). Abbot Suger, credited as the father of Gothic architecture, based his style on a theology of light. Contrary to the Romanesque style with its think walls and small windows, Suger constructed the cathedral with a pointed arch. This seemingly insignificant architectural feature allowed for a greater distribution of weight, improving on the Roman arch. In conjecture with flying buttresses, the cathedral was able to be constructed with thin and high walls with large portions dedicated to stain glass windows.

No list would be complete without great literature such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1320) (75 Masterpieceschapter 7). Originally titled simply The Comedy, the attribute of Divine was added due to its fame. The comedy is not of hilarity but of tragedy and struggle, which only ends with joy and the triumph of good (thus the element of comedy).

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) (75 Masterpieceschapter 23), Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey The Wonderous Cross (1707) (75 Masterpieceschapter 24), Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” (1727) (75 Masterpieceschapter 25), Georg Frederic Handel’s “Messiah (1741) (75 Masterpieces, chapter 26), and John Newton “Amazing Grace (1779) (75 Masterpieceschapter 27) take us through the end of the eighteenth century.

It is in the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century where I begin questioning the inclusion of certain works. In general, Glaspey’s selection of literature, George MacDonald’s Fairy Tales (75 Masterpieceschapter 36),  Emily Dickinson’s poems (75 Masterpieces, chapter 42), G. K. Chesterton’s Innocence Of Father Brown (75 Masterpieceschapter 43), T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (75 Masterpieceschapter 52), C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (75 Masterpieceschapter 57), J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (75 Masterpieceschapter 58), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1967) (75 Masterpieceschapter 62), is not the problem. However, some of the films and modern music are questionable. For instance, though I grew up listening to U2’s “Joshua Tree” (75 Masterpieces, chapter 72), is the album really worthy of the title “top 75 masterpieces”? Without taking away from the group’s impressive career, I just do not see the need to include a musical group whose current relevancy is limited to angering iTunes users with their compulsory downloaded album.

More significantly, Glaspey intentionally decided against works that are not cross-confession or tradition. Though I understand the reasoning behind this decision, I just do not agree with it. As a result, 75 Masterpieces is void of the great theological “masterpieces.”

For example, the great reformer, Martin Luther, only makes the list with his contribution of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (75 Masterpieceschapter 14). There is no mention of John Calvin’s Institutes or Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections.

The difficulty of narrowing down 75 masterpieces should not be overlooked. Though I may not always agree with Terry Glaspey’s choices (next week I will post some suggestions that I would have included ), 75 Masterpieces is still a commendable work that covers a wealth of great masterpieces. I am pleased to see a personal favorite, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (75 Masterpieceschapter 37) make the list. Also, I appreciate the inclusion of the  under-appreciated Henry Ossawa Tanner (75 Masterpieceschapter 41). Critiquing a “best of” list is always easier than making one, but 75 Masterpieces is done well enough that anyone would have much to agree with and benefit from the introductions to these masterpieces.

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  1. Hoon:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting review of my book. I appreciate your insights. I would like to clarify, however, that the purpose of this book is only to focus on the artistic/creative heritage of believers, so that of course left out important works by the likes of Augustine, Calvin, Pascal, etc. that are masterpieces of theological and philosophical reflection. I would have loved to engage with their “creations” but they didn’t really fit in the category for this project. Also, as I say in the introduction, this is by no means a list of “top 75.” Instead, it is an attempt to reflect the depth and diversity of our heritage in the arts: literature, visual art, music, architecture, and film. And of course it opens the door to what should and shouldn’t be included. That is, hopefully, part of the fun. I could easily have suggested an alternative 75 (and have even created that list for my own amusement!) Is U2 of the stature of Bach? I certainly wouldn’t argue that. But it is a fascinating exercise to see how faith has influenced so many artists of all kinds of genres and forms. Throughout history Christians have made an indelible impact upon our culture through the fruits of their creativity. If this gets that discussion going…or an argument about it…I have accomplished part of my task. Thanks again for your insights, and for sharing your love of Dostoevsky, who is one of my favorites as well. I’m excited to read about your suggestions!

    • Terry:
      Thanks for your comments! They are helpful in understanding how the work is structured. I look forward to hearing what you think about my suggests. I will be posting them next week.

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