Brief Book Review: Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves

Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy

By Mary W. McCampbell

What’s the main point? Those who engage with art, especially literature, film, and television, are given the opportunity to break down self-centered tendencies and foster empathy (not merely sympathy!) toward others.

Why does it matter? Seeing others – our neighbors – empathetically is essential for Christian formation: “We fail to love God when we neglect to see and cherish the imago Dei in other human beings.” (3)

What will get you thinking? Rather than applying terms of high and low culture to art, McCampbell seems to distinguish between art as prophetic (stretching our imaginations and grappling honestly with the human condition) and popular (which can often rely on one-dimensional characters and simplistic plot formulae).

Why is this book practical? For preaching and teaching purposes, McCampbell’s insightful analyses cover a wide-range of materials, including Flannery O’Connor, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Toni Morrison, and Better Caul Saul. Noteworthy is her baptismal treatment of Douglas Coupland’s Life After God and her eucharistic connections to Abel Ferarra’s The Addiction.

Kudos to her progression of thought. After setting out the importance of artistic engagement and subsequently, the universal human condition, she begins a movement outward. Art facilitates honest self-reflection, a first step in spiritual transformation. To the degree that we can see ourselves reflected in particular characters, we can begin the work of engaging with their stories to critique our own way of being, and perhaps to foster empathy for ourselves as “wretched and glorious” human persons. This can lead toward empathetic engagement with others, of seeing the world through the eyes of those who are different, yet not so entirely different, from ourselves. From there, however, we are challenged to look toward those with whom we might disagree to find, even there, a common humanity.

Quibble: The subtitle is misleading. It identifies “art” as the subject of McCampbell’s investigation, but the term really should have been “narrative art.” She references Jeremy Begbie and his treatment of the arts early in the text further setting up the expectation. But other than offering a visual and sonic analysis of some of the scenes within Three Colours: Blue, McCampbell treats narrative. Most clear in this regard is her treatment of Sufjan Stevens’s album The Age of Adz. While noting the importance of the musical texture (and quoting Stevens’s opening track regarding the futility of words), she largely analyzes his lyrics and offers only tantalizing instances of the relationship of music to empathy. I was intrigued by her insights here – it is clear that she has something to say – and I would have been interested to read more in this vein.

McCampbell, Mary W. Imagining Our Neighbors As Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022. 219 pages. $28.00. ISBN: 9781506473901.

REVIEWER: David A. Pitt
David A. Pitt is Associate Professor of Liturgical and Sacramental Theology
at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa.

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