Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Art and Faith:
A Theology of Making

by makoto fujimura
yale, 184 pages, $26

Fujimura’s Art and Faith meditates on the necessity of art for spiritual flourishing. Pulling from a myriad of resources, Fujimura illustrates how artistic ­creation allows us to model ourselves after God, the first and greatest creator and artist, who­ created the world ex nihilo. He sees this act of creation as a patient labor of love and rejects any form of Christian utilitarianism. 

Fujimura spends one chapter on the traditional Japanese art of kintsugi, the repairing of broken pottery with gold. Rather than throwing away broken pottery and buying new pieces, the kintsugi master painstakingly repairs the piece, making it even more beautiful and valuable than it was before. Fujimura likens this to God’s patient repair and renewal of our broken spirits, echoing Matthew 21:42: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” There is no utility or function to it; God, out of an artistic love for ­creation, “‘wastes’ time with us to listen to our hearts and to be fully present in our suffering.”

True love is delineated by extravagant acts of devotion, Fujimura writes. As we are Christians, our expressions of love and thanksgiving to God should be not only sufficient, but ­extravagant, like Mary pouring ­expensive, sweet-smelling nard on the feet of Jesus. Through the example of art, ­Fujimura outlines a Christian life that is en­thusiastically self-giving. He does not stop at the precept that all Christians lead a good life, but insists that they actively create beauty as well.

—Mary Spencer

The Making of Handel’s Messiah
by andrew gant
bodleian library, 144 pages, $25

Nowadays, everyone and his mother sings in a local “Messiah Choral Society” or can join in on the alto or tenor line of the “Hallelujah” chorus every Christmas or Easter. For these aficionados, Andrew Gant’s The ­Making of Handel’s Messiah is a canny purchase. It is an entertaining and ­visually beautiful volume, the subject of which is ably summarized in its title. At $25 and 144 pages, it is not a bad deal, whether you are a Messiah maniac or have even a moderate interest in its history. On the other hand, if you are a Handel skeptic, the book will probably not do much to change your mind.

Gant’s treatment of Messiah is solid and abreast of the current research. He focuses, for instance, on Handel’s extensive “borrowing.” (Something close to 40 percent of Handel’s Israel in Egypt was lifted from other composers.) Gant follows another recent trend in Handel scholarship, focusing on Charles Jennens, Handel’s go-to ­librettist, who was a staunch Anglican, non-juror, and Jacobite-sympathizer.

But Gant’s work cannot seem to decide what sort of book it is: Is it scholarly, or popular? It is hardly a dry academic tome, thanks to pictures on nearly every other page and quite a few amusing anecdotes. Neither does it have a distinctive thesis, nor any particularly new insight building upon the existing research. Other parts will be off-putting to a nonspecialist reader: several pages full of scores, quotations from French that Gant leaves untranslated, and some intramural musicology debates.

For all its unevenness, Gant’s sporadic granularity may be grist for the mill to the Messiah enthusiastand Messiah continues to create no shortage of enthusiasts.

—John R. Ahern

The Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty
edited by michael d. breidenbach and owen anderson
cambridge, 474 pages, $39.99

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States refers to “the free exercise” and “an establishment” of something, that is, “religion.” And yet, academic and legal conversations and controversies are increasingly characterized by skepticism about the possibility of identifying this something and by doubts that there is ­anything about it that calls for or justifies distinctive treatment or ­protection through law. As some prominent scholars have put it, “­religion” is not “special,” and “­religious freedom” is “impossible.”

This engaging and enlightening collection of papers by some of the field’s best thinkers describes and defends the longstanding practice in American law and life of distinguishing appropriately between religious and political authority while, at the same time, respecting religious conscience, recognizing religion as not only a private pursuit but also as a distinct public good, and encouraging cooperation between religious enterprises and secular governments in the service of shared human flourishing.

This volume’s chapters remind readers that religion is not reducible to subjective experiences but has public implications and involves proposals and claims that can be true; that religious claims invoke reason, and religious freedom is justifiable by reason; and that American traditions and policies, at their best, acknowledge these facts. Particularly welcome are contributions that distinguish between an understanding of the Constitution’s no-­establishment rule that imposes the privatization of religion and, in Pope ­Emeritus ­Benedict’s words, a “healthy” and “positive” secularity that welcomes the rule and safeguards the rights of religious communities, associations, and institutions. A powerful concluding ­chapter assesses the “project to restore reason to religion and to ­reconnect it to truth,” while ­correcting along the way several errors in the Supreme Court’s First ­Amendment doctrine.

Richard W. Garnett