A Peculiar Orthodoxy, Jeremy S. Begbie. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.
Summary: A collection of essays exploring the intersection of theology and the arts.
In recent years there has been an upsurge of conversation relating theology and the arts. One of the leading lights in this conversation is Jeremy S. Begbie, both a trained theologian, and gifted pianist. This work is a collection of essays given as academic presentations, and thus, the reader will encounter some overlap of ideas and themes, but also a rich appreciation of both art and orthodox theology.
Begbie begins with Bach and the subject of beauty. Beauty as one of the transcendentals is often related back to Platonic thought, but Begbie argues for an understanding of beauty in light of the Trinitarian God and then uses Bach’s Goldberg Variations to explore how Bach’s religious beliefs are evident in his music. A companion essay follows dealing with the resistance to an idea of beauty that often reduces to sentimentality, and doesn’t deal with the existence of ugliness, evil, suffering and pain in life. Begbie argues that the Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter reveals a perspective in which God enters into human suffering fully and works redemptively. This is a beauty that does not hide from or hide evil, but works restoratively.
A fascinating essay follows, “Faithful Feelings,” that explores the connection between music and emotion and suggests that music may concentrate, indeed purify emotion. Likewise in worship, our emotional lives are concentrated and purifies in the worship of the Triune God, and that the use of music in worship ought to be shaped by a congruency between music, and the theological truth being expressed.
Both the fourth and seventh essays address music and natural theology using the work of David Brown who has written extensively on classical music and belief. Begbie would contend for the specificity of orthodoxy in these discussions rather than the more inclusive theism of Brown. Begbie argues that our thinking about the arts must be shaped by a trinitarian, indeed Christ-centered understanding.
Between these essays are two focused on particular works, one of music, one written. The musical work is Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, in which Begbie explore the ambivalence in John Henry Newman’s portrayal of purgatory in the words, carried over into the musical setting of these by Elgar–a movement between confidence and anxiety. This is followed by an analysis of George Herbert’s poem, “Ephes. 4.30”, and the link Herbert portrays here between the arts and the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the essay I found most fascinating was the eighth, exploring the ideas of music, space, and freedom. He proposes that often we have difficulties with questions of the one and the many, or the intersection of divine and human freedom because of perceiving these in terms of either visual or material space. He observes that music opens up another way of conceiving of these in which multiple tones may occupy the same aural space simultaneously, with none being cancelled out, and if anything, producing a richer and more interesting sound than a single tone, whether harmonious or dissonant.
The collection concludes with Begbie’s thoughts on the contribution of Reformed theology to the arts. His discussion of Reformed perspectives on “beauty” and “sacrament” help sharpen the creature, Creator distinction, and clarify the fuzziness with which these ideas are often thrown around in art and theology discussions. He addresses the Reformed commitment to the word as both significant in God’s self-communication, and yet also complemented by other media that communicate realities for which words alone are inadequate.
Reflecting Begbie’s musical training, the essays tend to focus more on musical than other forms of art. As a choral singer and lay theologian, I did not mind this. His thoughts about beauty and sentiment reminded me of singing the second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in which the pastoral beauty of Psalm 23 is juxtaposed with Psalm 2 and the dissonant raging of the nations against God. The evocative power of music and the alignment of music and words to express truth in worship was powerfully apparent when we performed Ola Gjeilo’s Dark Night of the Soul that seems to capture the stillness of the soul facing the dark, and the wonder of the sheer grace of God that one finds in this setting of St. John of the Cross’s meditation. There is the wonder (when it happens) of many voices singing different parts coming together as a single entity–where the singing of individuals didn’t cancel out each other but create something more than our separate voices.
Begbie’s essays made me reflect on these experiences and gave theological content to them. The essays are written at an academic level, for academic conferences, but reward careful reading with insight. This is a great service for artists, who seek not merely technical proficiency, but to write, or sing, or play, or dance, or act, or paint with an authenticity that reflects our deepest loves, and for the Christian, the connection of our work with the Creator’s story.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own