Picture Perfect
Heather Grennan Gary


One afternoon this past June, I had the opportunity to meet up with John Ruff, English professor at Valparaiso University (and former poetry editor of the Cresset), at the university’s Brauer Museum of Art. He offered to give me a tour of the current exhibit, and I was glad to take him up on it. I had previously visited the Brauer just once, and while I had appreciated the serene space and some of the paintings had caught my eye, I knew there was more to experience than my brief visit had allowed.

John’s familiarity with and enjoyment of the collection shined through in his animated introductions to the pieces on display. Having him as my docent helped me understand that on my earlier visit I had only seen the paintings in two dimensions—a realistic expectation for paintings, of course, but my experience had been decidedly flat. Suddenly, though, it seemed as if the paintings were leaping off the walls, calling me over, and telling me all kinds of things—where they were from, why they were there, who they were related to, how they came to be in the first place. It was as if John had flipped a switch, and the new light allowed me to see more fully. Over the course of an hour or so—it was not a long tour—the artworks took on personalities and histories. I could see each piece as an individual member of a much larger, captivating, and remarkable family—one that I felt privileged to meet.

John is eager to show you around the Brauer, too. His tour starts now, on page 4. You’ll get a sense of his zeal for the museum and its collection in “The Treasury of Valparaiso,” as well as his assessment of what it represents at this particular point in time. “The stylistic, cultural, and curatorial juxtapositions in the room are amazing once your eyes and expectations adjust,” he writes. “And adjusting your eyes is the idea here.”

This is not the only museum visit you will find in this issue. James B. LaGrand, professor of American history at Messiah College, takes us on a tour of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where he describes deeply moving exhibits, but also points out the weakness of some of the interpretive panels about African-American Christianity, even as they accompany some extraordinary artifacts. The “flattening and taming” of religion on these panels, LaGrand writes, is symptomatic of a larger national trend in which “religious belief has become a foreign country to many Americans today.”

It seems fitting to share these two essays with you now, as the country reflects on the events that unfolded in Charlottesville on August 11–12 and the aftermath of that white supremacist rally and counter-protest. While the hateful traits of racism and xenophobia were on full display there and elsewhere over the summer, Ruff offers a more encouraging vision, one of an evolving national portrait that is becoming more beautiful as it becomes more intricate and encompassing. And LaGrand tells of the power of Christianity in shaping the self-understanding of its adherents throughout U.S. history—even when those faithful Christians faced the grimmest of circumstances. “Even while enslaved, African-American Christians came to know and celebrate their full and equal humanity,” LaGrand writes, “and they connected this to being children of God.”

Finally, don’t miss Thomas C. Willadsen’s column that starts on page 54. In it, he writes about driving a family of new Wisconsinites—recent refugees from the Congo—to church. His story is full of awkwardness and discomfort, but it also bears witness to how those feelings were transformed into connection and communion. The picture Willadsen paints of one small act of mercy might not be on display in the Brauer, but it’s a picture worth contemplating, sharing, and reproducing at every possible opportunity.


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