So argues Ned Bustard in Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups. Assembling both ancient and modern art—from medieval woodcuts to contemporary linocuts—Bustard wants to remove our rose-colored glasses and, instead of “cute cartoons of sweet stories,” offer gripping artwork “depicting well-known passages along with those shocking stories that are often hidden from view.”
Bustard, who is an illustrator and graphic designer, includes work by a wide range of artists—Tanja Butler, Albrecht Dürer, Eric Gill, Craig Hawkins, Edward Knippers, Chris Koelle, Kevin Lindholm, Chris Stoffel Overvoorde, Steve Prince, Mark Smith, Rembrandt van Rijn, and more. The art accompanies well over 100 passages from the Bible and each pairing is accompanied by a short commentary intended to help the reader better understand the art and the passage of Scripture.
In this interview we learn how art helps us read God’s Word better, the role of children’s storybook Bibles, what to do with R-rated parts of Scripture, and more.
How does depicting in art the unsavory and shocking stories of the Bible help us read the Bible better?
I think most of us are comfortable with the Bible. So comfortable, in fact, that we’ve stopped reading expecting to see the surprising parts. We get so used to the parts of the Bible we’ve read before that we dismiss it in its entirety as tired and irrelevant to our lives.
Making art that shows the shocking bits helps remind us that God’s Word is wild and alive. Scripture isn’t safe. The Holy Spirit intends to use his Word to awaken us and help us reckon with ultimate reality.
Art which recognizes that reality and refuses to sugarcoat or ignore the truth is a friend to the honest student of Scripture.
Do you think storybook Bibles help or hinder parents’ ability to raise children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4)?
Storybook Bibles can be wonderful both visually and as tools for training our kids. The Jesus Storybook Bible, the Read Aloud Bible Stories, The Action Bible, and the Read with Me Bible were all favorites in our home while our kids were young, and each were good at different things. I’m also a big fan of training wheels. But we’re eager to take them off our kids’ bikes as soon as possible so they can enjoy the full riches of cycling.
I’m afraid many never get beyond a storybook Bible-level of engagement with Scripture. By all means find good storybook Bibles for children, but help them grow up to enjoy the full width and depth of God’s Word.
You write, “Art bears witness to the faith, and makes it more accessible.” How so?
By expanding our imagination. No one has visited Eden. There’s a full-scale replica of the Tabernacle near where I live, but no one knows what the actual one it looked like.
We can dig up Philistine artifacts, but what’s it like for a fully armored giant to come at you and only have a sling in your hand? Imagination helps us enter the story. And good art about the biblical narrative helps us notice what we hadn’t seen before. It can also challenge our preconceptions about particular passages, driving us back to the text to uncover the truth.
A fun example of this in Revealed is Ryan Stander’s visual interpretation of Judges 3:15–25. In that lithograph there’s a representation of Jabba the Hutt (from Star Wars) and James Bond. If that conflation doesn’t pique your interest to re-read the passage, I don’t know what will.
Are Christians ever in danger of breaking the Second Commandment when depicting God in art?
Absolutely. Artists always will and do break the Second Commandment: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). And of course, I’m an elder in a Reformed church so I’m aware of what John Calvin wrote:
We think it unlawful to give a visible shape to God, because God himself has forbidden it, and because it cannot be done without, in some degree, tarnishing his glory. (Institutes, 1.11.12)
But I think the Second Commandment is clearly about making art to use in worship as the object of worship. The description of the art for use in the Tabernacle makes that clear. Certainly enlarging Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ into a five-by-seven-foot poster and bowing down to it is wrong. But the Spirit is described as taking the form of a dove, the Son took human form, and the Father is often described in anthropomorphic ways. I think the key is to recognize the limits of art, not inflate the dangers of the abuse of art.
If you look into your patient’s mind when he is praying . . . you will find . . . images derived from pictures of . . . the Incarnation [and] there will be vaguer—perhaps quite savage and puerile—images associated with the other two Persons. . . . I have known cases where what the patient called his “God” was actually located—up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall.
He goes on to say Christians should understand the nature of our own imaginations and pray, “Not to what I think Thou art but to what Thou knowest thyself to be.” That is, we recognize our mental constructs as two-dimensional things that we pray through rather than at. In a similar way, I know the picture of my wife on my desk isn’t my wife, but merely serves as a tool to help direct my mind and affections.
By portraying the “more R-rated parts of the Bible,” is there a risk of violating the principle of Philippians 4:8, of meditating on honorable, pure, and lovely things?
We’re all sinners who fall short of God’s glory. Even our worship falls short, which means, as Denis Haack has said:
Nothing anyone does or makes in this fallen world (except for Christ, of course) measures up fully to the list Paul gives in Philippians 4:8. . . . We rule out the things we tend to be uncomfortable with, and then conveniently we tend to ignore that what we’ve ruled “in” doesn’t meet the standard, either.
I contend not only are Christians allowed to focus on Scripture’s “unmentionables,” but to be truly faithful to Scripture, the violence and sex must not be glossed over. The Bible doesn’t flinch when confronted with evil or beauty. Every sphere of life is addressed, including the unrepresentable parts. God is God over mountains and valleys, joys and sorrows, beautiful births and violent deaths, the marriage bed and the dark alley.
Should we emulate Thomas Jefferson and cut out the parts of the Bible we feel are objectionable? Would it be better for our sanctification to cut out the Song of Solomon and the crucifixion of Christ? Obviously, I don’t think so. If we don’t include the “R-rated” parts, then the great story of the Bible becomes bland and weak. It loses not only its power but also its veracity, forced to abide in a half life of half truths.
What one piece of art from history do you think best exemplifies what you’re after in this volume?
Christ Driving the Moneylenders from the Temple by Albrecht Dürer is one of my favorite pieces in Revealed. In that woodcut, Dürer created an intense, militant, and manly Christ. A modern Jesus would politely ask the moneychangers to leave. A “storybook” Jesus might smile and pet a lamb.
But that’s not the Jesus of Scripture. He forcefully drives the moneychangers out, overturning tables and throwing seats. Jesus is violent, defiant, and takes into his own hands the removal of those who desecrate the temple.
A work like that reminds the viewer that the Bible isn’t saccharine or safe. It drives the viewer back to the Bible to ask, “Did Jesus really do that?” Early in the development someone accused me of being a voyeur and not taking Scripture seriously. On the contrary, I’m completely committed to taking the Bible seriously—so seriously, in fact, that I made this book to help people honestly and deeply experience God’s Word.
Ivan Mesa (ThM, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor for The Gospel Coalition (since 2014), where he acquires books and oversees reviews, longform, and the Read the Bible initiative. He’s editor of Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (April 2021). He and his wife, Sarah, have three children, and they live in eastern Georgia.