Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh by Carol A. Berry–Book Review

In 1972 Carol Berry attended a class given by Henri Nowen at Yale Divinity School.  It was called, “The Compassion of Vincent van Gogh.”  He began his first lecture with these words:

“Here we are — people who want to prepare for the ministry.  What do we want to do as ministers?  Well, one thing is sure:  we want to give strength to people in their daily life struggles.  Many people have done this, and we often reflect on their lives for inspiration.  I should like to introduce to you a man you may have often heard of, but not as a giver of strength, not as a minister … it is the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.”

Carol audited this class, not because she was training to be a pastor, but as an artist.  She and her husband became friends with Henri, and after his death, she was approached to write a book using the notes from the class.  She has studied van Gogh’s life for years, traveling throughout Europe to retrace his steps.  She has also given presentations and led retreats focused on his works.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • Solidarity
  • Consolation
  • Comfort

Each section is further subdivided into three parts:

  • Henri (giving some details about Nouwen and the course)
  • Vincent (centering on a segment of van Gogh’s life)
  • My story (the author relates some of her experiences with her husband in ministry)

There are pictures of van Gogh’s work throughout.  The narrative of his life dwells on his compassion and desire to live following the example of Jesus.  Nouwen described him as “one who saw and wanted us to see with him.”  He saw beauty in the ordinary life, often used biblical parables as themes, and used the symbolism of light to remind us of God’s presence in nature.

VERDICT:  4 STARS.  Short, but meaty.  You’ll get an education in understanding and “seeing” art if you read it.

For more on Henri Nouwen see:

Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen & Rebecca J. Laird–Book Review

Henri Nouwen on Traveling

Henri Nouwen on the Blessing of Poverty

For more on Vincent van Gogh see:

At Eternity’s Gate –Movie Review

At Eternity’s Gate by Kathleen Powers Erickson — Book Review

Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review


At Eternity’s Gate –Movie Review

I checked this film out of the library after reading a Christian novel that spoke about the art of Vincent Van Gogh (Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review).  It chronicles the last years of van Gogh, especially his time in the south of France. He experienced great productivity there, but also suffered a mental breakdown.  This probably can’t really be considered a Christian movie, although Vincent does say that he believed his painting was a gift and a call from God, and that if others did not appreciate it, his work might be meant for a future generation.  I liked that insight — if we’re called by God to do something, it has worth, whether or not we see any results.

Probably because Van Gogh was an artist, this film tries to be artistic, and is probably successful.  Some of the cinematography is beautiful.  However, in my mind, this also rendered it slow and choppy.  If you don’t know the broad outlines of Vincent’s life, you’ll become confused about what is going on, and who some of the people are.  It also proposes the questionable idea that he did not commit suicide, but was killed by a group of marauding boys.  I don’t know enough to comment of how valid this theory is, but I hadn’t heard it before.

VERDICT:  2 STARS.  My daughter and I watched this together, and neither of us liked it very much.

For another post on Vincent Van Gogh see this post:

At Eternity’s Gate by Kathleen Powers Erickson — Book Review


At Eternity’s Gate by Kathleen Powers Erickson — Book Review

I checked this book out of the library because it was mentioned in a novel I enjoyed (Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review).  The author, Kathleen Powers Erickson, who holds a degree in the history of Christianity, takes exception to some of the widely held beliefs about Vincent van Gogh, and she presents a strong case for her opinions.

First she goes into considerable detail about the early religious training van Gogh imbibed from his father and uncle who were pastors.  If you’re a church history buff, you’ll enjoy this chapter.  They were not Calvinists, but adhered to Groningen theology which was Arminian.  (If you don’t know these terms, you’ll get an education about them!).

Vincent tried to follow his relatives into the ministry, and for a time was supported in his efforts as a missionary to Belgan miners by an ecumenical Protestant organization.  After a few years his position was not renewed because he “lacked persuasiveness in the pulpit.”  At this point he did become disillusioned with the institutional church, as well as his father and uncle.  He considered them hypocritical, as in his view true Christianity was expressed in a life of poverty and self sacrifice.

Despite this, Erickson maintains that van Gogh did not turn away from his faith.  She discusses the traditional religious themes present in many of his works, especially his later paintings.  Other works although not presented in a traditional way, still used color and symbols to represent his beliefs.  He was drawn to both The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Imitation of Christ, seeing Christian life as full of difficulty, but ultimately leading to union with God.  He identified with the suffering of Christ.  She cites excerpts from Vincent’s letters in which he mentions that he is comforted and consoled by the knowledge that he would spend eternity with God.

Erickson also debunks the idea that Vincent was insane, or that he painted many of his most famous works while in a manic state.  She believes (as his doctors originally diagnosed) that he suffered from a type of epilepsy which affected the temporal lobe without causing seizures.  He did not work during these episodes, but worked diligently when he was well.  He also probably suffered periodically from depression, and this is why he committed suicide.

VERDICT:  4 STARS.  This book is a bit academic, and probably not for everyone.  However, if you’re interested in art, van Gogh, or church history, I recommend it.  It is interesting, well researched, and clear enough to understand even if you’re not an expert in the fields presented.

Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review

If you enjoyed Garlough’s Sensible Shoes series, you’ll love this book also.  It centers around Wren Crawford, a young woman suffering from anxiety, depression and panic attacks.  She lives in Kingsbury, about ten years after the events of Sensible Shoes.  You will once again meet Hannah, Mara, and Charissa and get some updates on their lives.  You will also learn the back story of their spiritual director, Katherine, who turns out to be Wren’s Aunt Kit.

If you or a loved one has suffered from mental illness, you will be able to emphasize with Wren and her family.  This is another story about surrendering to God — surrendering when life spirals out of control, or when we feel helpless to change the suffering and anguish experienced by someone else’s pain. How do we come alongside, yet still establish boundaries?  It’s also about unanswered questions and how to go forward in our lives when difficult circumstances lack closure.

Wren’s story is interwoven with excerpts from the letters, art and life of the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, as well as the biblical concept of Jesus as “the man of sorrows.”  It introduces the spiritual practice of visio divina –inviting God to speak to our heart as we contemplate an image.

I was disappointed that this book did not include any specific spiritual exercises or a study guide at the end.  There is a list of recommended resources with organizations that can help with mental illness as well as books on suicide, grief, the art of Vincent van Gogh and spiritual formation.

VERDICT:  5 STARS.  This book spoke to me on so may levels.  I highly recommend it.

If you haven’t read the other books by Sharon Garlough Brown see these reviews:

Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown — Book Review

Two Steps Forward by Sharon Garlough Brown — Book Review

A Book about Surrender

An Extra Mile by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review