Review: A Peculiar Orthodoxy

a peculiar orthodoxy

A Peculiar OrthodoxyJeremy 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

Should Taxpayers Support Arts and Humanities?

It has been widely reported that our current administration is proposing to completely cut the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This would mean cuts of $148 million to each of these agencies. According to an article on Snopes, the combined total represents 0.006 percent of the Federal budget or less than $1 per person.

I have to be honest. I’m deeply torn about this. The creation of great works of art in all its forms–visual, performance, written–is one that lifts us above what is often a “least common denominator aesthetics” of the marketplace. They capture both the greatest aspirations and painful realities of our human condition. Furthermore, there is a role of the humanities in educating us for citizenship, for our common life in the republic. The website of the National Endowment for the Humanities states:

“Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”

Their work of creating and preserving culture includes funding resulting in seven thousand books, sixteen of which have won Pulitzer prizes. Did you like the Civil War series? NEH funding helped make that possible. We have a set of bookshelves in our living room filled with Library of America works by the best of America’s writers. NEH made that possible. Over 63.3 pages of newspaper have been digitally archived through the United States Newspaper Project. It can be asked how we can possibly aspire to greatness as a nation if we do not know our story.

Unless our object is to become a nation of barbarians, it seems to me that it is unarguable that we must continue to support our arts and letters. But it seems to me that this begs the question, should this be via government agency through compulsory taxation? And this is where I’m torn. Our 20 trillion dollar deficit (nearly $61,000 per person) tells me that we expect far more government than we are willing to pay for. Now the $300 million for these two agencies is just a drop in the bucket, even while we expand spending on our military and propose to build a hugely expensive border wall.  But if we aren’t willing to pay more taxes, we have to cut somewhere and truthfully, most of the rest is entitlements for both rich and poor, as well as our defense spending.

I wonder if it is time to make agencies like NEA and NEH into private foundations and to encourage private philanthropy to invest in the arts. One thinks of the Gates Foundation, which has given away as much as $5 billion to causes it supports in a single year. I for one would be happy if most of the money spent on political campaigns were given to the arts instead. Instead of the grief of robo-calls and endlessly coarse and repetitive advertising, we could have great art and great ideas. Probably not going to happen, but I can dream.

On a more serious note, my home town of Youngstown has a nationally known museum of American art because an industrial magnate made it possible to build an outstanding collection and provide free admission. Will a new generation of philanthropy step forward to fill the gap and sustain our artistic greatness? Could some of our wealthiest citizens step forward and replace what may be lost to budget cuts?

But support of the arts is not just for the rich. Most of us can think of at least one arts organization or artist that has given us joy. It could be a community arts center. You might do like a friend of mine and set aside money to buy original works of art and start your own art collection. Maybe it is your local public radio station. Perhaps it is a poet just starting to publish their work. I sing with a choral group, and I know that our ticket sales only cover a small portion of our budget. The joy of making great music together makes it worth investing not only my time but my money. Do you know that if just one million of us contributed $25 a month to such efforts, it would equal the budget cuts we have been talking about? And many of us could do more.

There is something else that can come of more of us personally supporting the arts and humanities. We tend to pay attention to what we invest in. We get to know artists and writers whose work we like. We come to understand what it means to give birth to works of beauty, and what many of these people sacrifice to do so. We break the walls of impersonality that have separated artists from the rest of us and enrich each other’s lives.

On one hand, I wonder why trifle over such a “drop in the bucket” when we propose to spend huge amounts on a wall that I doubt will make us any safer (the “really bad dudes” tend to have lots of money to circumvent things like walls). But I also wonder if organizations like NEA and NEH might be better off, and more accountable to the public, if they cut their ties with government. I can see why not all taxpayers get paying taxes, even a minuscule amount, for such things. Why not let those who do more directly support such efforts, and other arts organizations and artists from national to local levels. What is stopping us?



Culture Care Instead of Culture War

culture-careRecently I went with a group of friends to see Martin Scorsese’s film rendition of Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  It is not an easy movie to watch but one with gorgeous cinematography and one that raises profound questions about suffering. What was also a point of reflection for me was the violent, dark, special effects heavy, and loud trailers of coming attractions that preceded the film. The feature was a work of beauty, an enrich work of art. The trailers, and perhaps the movies they represented were a war on the senses and perhaps the spirit.

The trailers seem to reflect the dominant metaphor of our society–war or battle. We hear of culture war. There are those who believe precious values and cultural goods have been threatened or lost and the ground needs to be recovered. Others dig in, believing progress and liberty are under threat.

Perhaps war is sometimes a sad and necessary corollary of the human condition–cultural or military. But perhaps, at least in the dimension of culture, if not international relations, there is an alternative. In a recent book (Culture Carereview forthcoming), artist Makoto Fujimura proposes an alternative to culture war, and that is culture care.

Rather than contesting Fujimura wants to focus on creating, fostering a movement that results in fresh works of goodness, truth and beauty in the arts that inspire the soul and feed our common life.  His assumption is that culture is something to be cultivated and nourished, not captured and conquered. It is not enough to make a living if we do not also have that which is worth living for.

It does strike me that culture warriors rarely create works of beauty. It is perhaps instructive that the acceptance of gay marriage was not accomplished simply by a court decision but also prepared by expression in visual media, music, literature, and fashion that swayed the mind of a nation. Meanwhile a culture-warring church was undermined by divorce, sex scandals and abuse, power struggles between men and women, and often ugly rhetoric.

Perhaps it is too late to know but one wonders what it would have meant to cultivate a culture absorbed not in banal Christian romance fiction, sentimental art, and “Jesus is my boyfriend” pop music, but works of depth and realism and beauty with power to capture the imagination not simply of an insular Christian sub-culture, but a wider culture hungering for an alternative to “the wasteland” of modern mass culture.

I look forward to seeing more of Fujimura’s vision of culture care. It seems that it is never too late to create and preserve cultural goods. Augustine’s City of God cast a vision that buoyed a church facing a crumbling Roman empire. Bach’s chorales and cantatas did as much to nourish the Reformation of the church as did the writings of Luther and Calvin. Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Return of the Prodigal deeply embeds the truth of this parable in our mental vision.

I’ve wondered about the wisdom of the trillions spent in the American wars of the last decade. Did we squander opportunities to rebuild our national infrastructure and equip our people for the new economy? I equally wonder about the squandering of energies in the culture wars of the last thirty years. Might it be time and past time to pursue an ethic of culture care?