Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago

By Kymberly N. Pinder. 2016. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 240 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03992-8 (hard cover), 978-0-252-08143-9 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Lauren Eldridge, Spelman College

[Review length: 636 words • Review posted on January 25, 2017]


[Cover ofPainting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago]

The cover image to Painting the Gospel is a self-baptizing black man done in mosaic tile by Damon Lamar Reed and Moses X Ball. The original image is part of a mural displayed in the Lawndale Community Church of Chicago. Upon first glance, the image itself is intriguing because the reader only sees it in part. Murals like this are meant to be viewed in part and in whole, and through this text, Pinder has captured and skillfully organized both partial and holistic readings of black sacred art throughout the city.

The introduction, “Visualizing Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother,” sets up the central concern of the text—the means by which African Americans have created and consumed images of the divine that reflect their own image. The title is taken from the African Methodist Episcopal Church's motto, proposed in 1856 by Bishop Daniel Payne. Through this motto, parishioners are encouraged to imagine themselves in personal relationship with "God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Man our Brother." This book follows the physical representations of those imaginings, the art that adorns black churches. Pinder painstakingly reviews the contexts in which this art becomes both radical and necessary. Her work thus lies at the intersection of the disciplines of art history, sociology, and religious studies. Scholars throughout these disciplines, and especially folklorists, should find much to value within this book.

The urgency of this type of project is demonstrated in the first chapter, “Painting the Gospel Blues: Race, Empathy, and Religion at Pilgrim Baptist Church.” The historic building which housed murals painted by William E. Scott in the 1930s burned down in 2006. Many images that are now lost forever are displayed in the chapter, which is also attentive to the musical significance of Pilgrim Baptist Church. Pinder accounts for the collaboration of the visual and performative arts in both this and the following chapter. Chapter 2, titled “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden: First Church of Deliverance and Its Media Ministry,” highlights the rich history of black sacred art created throughout the twentieth century, while focusing on the charismatic ministry of Clarence Henry Cobbs, a prominent Spiritualist pastor.

The third chapter, “Black Liberation Theology, Black Power, and the Black Arts Movement at Trinity United Church of Christ,” serves as a linchpin between past and present. The narrative around the creation of details such as the iconic stained glass at Trinity United Church of Christ depends on both the well-known former senior pastor Jeremiah Wright and former member Barack Obama, and the lesser-known but vital church art director Joseph Evans and stained glass designer Douglas Phillips. This chapter covers the 1970s to the present.

Pinder features the public art of several denominations with regard to the diversity encapsulated within black Chicago. Chapter 4, “Father Tolton's Soldiers: Black Imagery in Three Catholic Churches,” complicates the aims of the worshippers represented in this book. Black Catholics have not only had to fight contemporary prejudices for the right to practice; they have done so with two thousand years of holy images that do not necessarily include or affirm them. She also takes her conception of public art beyond the physical church. In the final chapter, “Urban Street Faith: Murals, T-shirts, and Devout Graffiti,” the author leaves the church edifice and examines the expressions that occur outside its walls.

The appendices are especially detailed and useful. The tours and maps included in the appendix are unique pedagogical tools for relating geographic space and social place, with topics such as "Church Murals, Mosaics, and Glass" and "History of Loss and Black Tragic Spaces." Pinder has provided a rigorously researched guide to black public art in Painting the Gospel. The value of this text, and its attention to the attendant folklore, will only deepen with time.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.