Matt Ristuccia

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt & Co., 2017)

Because of God’s compassionate love in Jesus Christ, the Church is called to care for those who suffer. And among those who suffer acutely, at least because of the stigma attached, are people with mental illness. Over 20% of Americans struggle with some form of mental illness. As one way to increase public awareness, May has been observed in the USA as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949.

Vincent Van Gogh suffered from mental illness. You think of him first and foremost as the Dutch post-impressionist genius behind such iconic paintings as “Sunflowers” or “Starry Night.” And that he is! But throughout his adult years, Van Gogh suffered from a combination of illnesses, possibly including clinical depression, epilepsy, acute anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And his world, including his parents and siblings, was uncomfortably at a loss as to how to handle it. As his father wrote in a letter when Vincent was 27, “If only some light would shine on that distressing darkness of Vincent.” But no such light did shine. In the end, at age 37, Vincent took his own life.

Vincent and Theo is not primarily about mental illness. Instead, it is a retelling of Vincent’s life through excerpts from letters to his brother, Theo. Deborah Heiligman, the author, argues convincingly that “the world would not have Vincent without Theo.” And so it is the relationship between the two brothers that takes center stage. Through that, I came to see Vincent’s development as an artist in an entirely different way. For example, I saw the beauty of “Sunflowers” in a fuller context, especially its choice of vibrant colors that Theo had advocated for years.

But most profoundly, I experienced the confusion and pain that a family feels when a loved one struggles with mental illness. Sadly, the church of Vincent’s father, who was a pastor, did not serve Vincent well. Nor did most of his family. But Theo was there for Vincent—at least most of the time. And that brotherly commitment to someone in dark need is the reason I recommend this award-winning book so highly.

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The Carols of Christmas by Andrew Gant (Thomas Nelson, 2015)

The Carols of Christmas cover image

Here are some odd and ends of Christmas carol trivia:

  • The first line of a best-known carol originally read, “Hark, how all the welkin rings! Glory to the King of kings.” (So what’s a welkin?)
  • The words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” can be traced back to seven prayers, the Advent antiphons, that were in use during the early 500s. (That’s long ago? But what’s a welkin?)
  • The tune to “O Christmas Tree” has popped up in all kinds of unlikely places, including the stadium of the Manchester United football team and the state capitol of Maryland. (Interesting, but I still want to know what a welkin is!)
  • The words to “O Holy Night” were revised and revised and revised again in a way that parallels the course of theology during the 19th century. (Yes, but…)

It’s no surprise that there are plenty of books providing background to Christmas carols. For almost two months every year, carols are everywhere! You hear them when you shop at MarketFair. You can listen to them non-stop on Pandora, Spotify, and Sirius XM. During Advent, you sing them on Sunday mornings. So it’s easy to take these familiar songs for granted. But in terms of their origins, carols are hardly ordinary. And that’s why there is always a market for books that tell their backstories well.

Andrew Gant teaches at Oxford and is a renowned British composer. Not surprisingly, his contribution to the literature about carols, The Carols of Christmas, includes stories about 21 well-known tunes as well as their words. It makes for an enlightening read, especially since the music for some carols involve so many different people and countries and classes. While reading the book, I developed a deeper understanding of the extent to which carols are a gift of the whole church to the whole church. As a result, the book is well worth the read.

Oh, and as for “welkin,” it’s an archaic term that means the sky or the heavens.

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