Book review - A peculiar orthodoxy

June 23, 2021

Book review - A peculiar orthodoxy

Reviewer: Alison Woof


A peculiar orthodoxy: Reflections on theology and the arts

Jeremy S. Begbie, 2018.


Begbie’s project in this collection of essays is to explore what theology and the arts have to say to one another. Begbie is convinced that this conversation needs to be handled carefully in order, on the one hand, not to distort the way the arts actually operate (for example by reducing them to the propositional verbal forms of theological discourse), and on the other hand not to give primacy to a pre-conceived notion of beauty ‘that cannot accommodate a narrative that culminates in a crucifixion and resurrection’ (p.ix).

The arts are often associated with spirituality, and artistic creativity is perceived as spiritually ‘inspired’, but in a way that sits awkwardly with the specific identity and acts of the Holy Spirit revealed in Scripture. Historically, artists have viewed theology as ‘cramping’ the arts by insisting on a doctrinal correctness that belongs to propositional discourse but cannot be easily imposed on the arts. Begbie believes there is a middle way. ‘If we want some clarity about the relation of the arts to the Holy Spirit of the Christian faith,’ Begbie says, it is wise to ‘give them proper space to operate theologically’ (p114). The arts ‘can be redeemed and enabled to flourish in their integrity’ by the Spirit, and thereby re-order our lives and unlock ‘otherwise hidden dimensions of reality’ (p128) entirely concordant with those revealed in the Scriptures.

The first essay looks at the connection between ‘given’ beauty—the beauty ‘already there in the nature of things’ (p2)—and ‘generated’ beauty—the beauty humans make. Here Begbie outlines his theology of beauty, and relates it to the music of J S Bach. Crucial to his thinking is that a theology of beauty must be oriented towards the triune God attested in Scripture and find its ultimate expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is essential, he claims, when thinking about both given and artistic beauty, to recognise that creation testifies to God’s beauty, but in its own creaturely ways. It is a beauty expressed in diversity, not homogeneity, and reflects the abundant generosity of God’s outflowing love. In Bach’s music, which is both astonishingly original and at the same time based on ‘simple, “truthful” harmonies’ (p2), Begbie sees artistic beauty that draws on the created beauty already there in musical material, enabling it to flourish in its own appropriate forms, reflecting the way God enables creation to flourish.

Chapter 2 explores beauty and sentimentality —the impulse to evade or trivialise the existence of evil, and to evoke superficial emotion that avoids costly action. Begbie relates this ‘deep, pernicious strand in contemporary culture and in the church’ (p26) to the modern Western doctrine of progress, that imagines humans as basically good, and humanity’s problems as inevitably solvable. Such a perspective leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the horrors of history, and produces art that reduces complexity and ambiguity, or wallows in negative emotions for the pleasure of indulging them. Emotion divorced from judgment is the primary currency of postmodern culture. Think of the memes of social media, that invite us to exercise our moral outrage at social evils through no more costly action than posting an angry emoji.

Begbie’s answer to the dangers of sentimentality is for Christian art to interpret beauty through the narrative of Easter. We need, he says, to view the crucifixion in light of Easter Day, thus recognising Good Friday as good, yet also to view the story from the perspective of those who lived through that Friday and Saturday without knowing the ending. The resurrection does not erase the memory of the cross, but confirms it as the place where evil was borne for us. The cross as an event of torture and death is still ugly, yet through this particular death, God’s love is displayed at its most potent. This love graciously redeems that which is ugly, and in so doing offers humans the possibility of being remade in the likeness of true beauty.

The quest for beauty, therefore, need not stifle action. ‘Justice, after all, concerns right relationships, and the same goes for beauty—the beauty God desires for the human community is the proper dynamic ordering of lives in relation to one another. Justice is beautiful.’ (pp44‑5) Begbie cites here Christian art that promoted awareness of social injustice and the need for effective action in, for example, South Africa under apartheid.

What I would have liked to see here is more exploration of the seductive nature of beauty, and how we should think about art that does not intend to glorify God, or represent truths about the world he created, but quite the opposite. How should Christians engage with beautiful artforms that are intended to draw us away from allegiance to our God, that entice us with lies about the world and God, that are explicitly committed to promoting a worldview that rejects the God revealed in Scripture?

One concept I found particularly helpful in the essay ‘Faithful Feelings’ is that emotions depend on beliefs about the world and oneself. They reveal whether I view the world or something in it as threatening or welcoming, pleasant or painful, etc. This means that different appraisals by different people of the same situation can give rise to different emotions. Emotions can be appropriate or inappropriate, rightly- or mis-directed. Worship, therefore, should school our emotions, as our imperfect responses are united with the perfect response of the incarnate Son. ‘Christ assumed the whole of our humanness in order to redeem us. Included in that redemption are our emotions.’ (pp61-2)

Chapter 7 asks what is ‘natural’ about natural theology, and whether suggestions of quasi-divine inspiration in the arts, without reference to any particular God, provide openings for conversations between Christians and those of little or no faith. Referring to theologian Anthony Monti, who ‘believes that the arts by their very nature are theologically loaded, irrespective of their explicit content’ (p134) and that ‘spiritual truth is enfleshed most fully’ in music (p135), Begbie insists that natural theology, ‘if it is to remain recognizably and distinctively Christian… can only be defined out of a center in what has happened in Jesus Christ’ (p138) and we must question any natural theology ‘that is constructed prior to or wholly apart from attention to what has been embodied in Jesus Christ’ (p138).

This chapter and an earlier essay also engage directly with theologian David Brown’s insistence that ‘the arts too can operate as independent vehicles of truth’ (p82), and that Scripture should not be privileged, indeed ‘the arts can in some cases serve to improve and even correct the biblical texts’ (p132). Begbie takes issue with the claim of natural theology to a ‘neutral perspective’ on the reality of the physical world, and on what is primordially human, including human cultural activity. In fact, there is no universal human rational faculty independent of time, space and culture, un-corrupted by sin and free of tradition. Begbie argues that reality is shaped by the Creator; what is primordially human is found in Christ; and human culture is to be considered in light of our vocation as image bearers ‘to discover, respect, develop and heal what we are given in creation, with and for the sake of others’ (p137).

An example of how the arts can give us fresh perspectives on theological truths is given in the essay ‘Room of One’s Own?’, which looks at the concept of space and freedom and the problems we have conceptualising how God can be both ‘transcendent’ and ‘immanent’—both ‘external’ and ‘internal’ to the world’s space. When we think of space in visual terms, the space that God occupies and the space the world occupies cannot ‘overlap or interpenetrate without threatening the other’s integrity’. We have the same problem understanding how Jesus Christ could be both God and man, without compromising either his divinity or his humanity, and how one God can be Father, Son and Spirit. Begbie suggests that the way musical notes, when played together, can occupy the same ‘aural’ space, yet still be heard as distinct and different, gives us a way of conceptualising these truths. There is a lot more to his argument that I cannot spell out here, but I found this simple change in perspective attractive and compelling.

In his conclusion, Begbie identifies an impulse in contemporary Christianity to reject the iconoclasm of the Reformation and ‘recover a sense of the infinitely “unsayable” through a rehabilitation of the (nonverbal) arts’ (p203). It can be seen in some contemporary worship that shows ‘extraordinary confidence in music’s power to mediate God’s saving power directly without words’ (p204). Begbie acknowledges that human language can never encompass the divine, and declarative propositions are not the sum total of meaningfulness. But human language is irreplaceably intrinsic to God’s self-communication. In the Incarnation we see the Word-made-flesh as Word-user, creating authoritative text. So we must hold both ‘that the church is called to be faithful to the discourse God has graciously appropriated’ and ‘that other communicative media—such as the nonverbal arts—will possess their own distinct capacities to mediate dimensions of the very realities of which this discourse speaks’ (p207).

Begbie’s vision is of a conversation between theology and the arts that values the integrity of both in a way that gives the church greater scope to engage with the arts confidently and sensitively. Of course, not all art speaks as eloquently as the works Begbie discusses (and some speaks from a position antithetical to Christianity). Nor is this level of analysis possible for or accessible to every Christian. The intended audience of this book is an academic one—theologians, art-makers and philosophers of art. How applicable are these ideas to everyday churches and Christians? I think the take-home points are to recognise that aesthetics, music, poetry and the visual arts have a contribution to make to enriching our experience of God at work in his world; and to approach them with a generously attentive ear, but one attuned first to the ways the Father, Son and Spirit work in the world as revealed in Scripture.

Given the non-propositional nature of the arts, and their power to move us, we will need to make wise choices about the ways we use artistic work in corporate worship. If we see the arts as complementary to, not trying to do the work of, theology, we will gain access to fresh ways of experiencing and thinking about the God who created, loves and redeems his creation.

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