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.

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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

Review: Beauty for Truth’s Sake

Beauty for Truths Sake

Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Stratford Caldecott, (foreword Ken Myers). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017 (my review is of the 2009 edition).

Summary: An argument for the unity of faith and reason, beauty and truth, the sciences and the humanities, and for the recovery of education as a lifelong pursuit of wisdom, both rooted in and eventuating in liturgical worship.

As one who has long worked around universities, the fragmentation of knowledge among the disparate disciplines is an established fact. Those who teach in the humanities, and in the sciences often hold each other in mutual suspicion if not contempt, and speak in languages often unintelligible to each other. One of the few things that unites a number of these people is a shared suspicion toward religious faith (sometimes, but not always, warranted by stupid or wicked things done in God’s name).

In this work, Stratford Caldecott contends for an ancient, and yet contemporary vision of a restored unity of knowledge that brings together arts and humanities, math and the sciences, the beautiful and the true, reason and faith in a “re-enchantment” of education that leads to wisdom, and worship. He writes in his Introduction:

“I believe it is possible to remain an active learner throughout life, and yet to maintain a moral compass in good working order. But vital though they are, adaptability and ethics are not enough by themselves. There is a structural flaw in our education that we need to overcome. It is related to a profound malaise in our civilization, which by progressive stages has slipped into a way of thinking and living that is dualistic in character. The divisions between arts and sciences, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, have a common root. In particular, our struggle to reconcile religious faith with modern science is symptomatic of a failure to understand the full scope of human reason and its true grandeur” (p. 12).

Caldecott would argue that our modern fragmented education divorces meaning from fact, dooming the humanities to solipsism and the sciences to sterility. He would argue, along with Dorothy Sayers (in The Lost Tools of Learning) for a restoration of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and an adaptation of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, expanded for additional disciplines). He believes that the key to the unity of these disciplines is beauty, which serves as a pointer to truth, as well as goodness. He connects the recovery of the poetic imagination with its focus on symbol to the recognition of the symbolic in the scientific study of the natural world, opening us to the wonder of what is beyond. He explores the beauty and symbolism in math and geometry, the structure and beauty of music, and concludes with how this “re-enchanted” cosmology finds its consummation in liturgy.

What I most appreciated in this work is the sense of the recovery of wonder in our inquiry. In the modern academy, it seems that one of the prices paid for advancing in proficiency, whether in “getting good data” in science, or in applying critical theory to historical events or literary works is the loss of wonder–the joy of a good story, admiration for a historical figure, appreciation of the structure of the cosmos. Certainly this is not always so, but to see the wide-eyed wonder of young scholars replaced by cynicism is grievous whenever it happens, and I cannot help but think that the educational flaws Caldecott critiques contribute to this loss.

Where Caldecott may be critiqued is in his “Christian Platonism” that views our language, our numbers, our physical world pointing to a world beyond–the world of forms, ideas, perhaps all found in the mind or person of God. I have to confess that I don’t have the philosophical wherewithal to critique or defend this idea, and I haven’t thought of things in quite these terms. I do believe that all human artistry, and the artistry of the physical world is a reflection of the Great Artist in a general sense. But I’m not as sure about the effort to “symbolize” all physical reality as a signifier of transcendent reality. There is something that feels as if it could be forced to me, akin to those who try to find some spiritual lesson in everything and sometimes reach some pretty wacky conclusions. I think I’d rather be open to beauty where I find it, to be attentive to what it points toward, and aware that we sing God’s songs, and think his thoughts after Him.

I’m not sure if that makes me a Christian Platonist or not. And perhaps that points to the goodness of this book, that it is making me think and re-examine my own understanding. It makes me think about how I relate goodness, truth, and beauty, how it is that I can claim reason and faith are not at odds and that there is an underlying unity to all knowledge. It poses the question to me in my work of how I can claim to suggest that the integration of faith, learning, and practice are a possibility in the modern university, and not just a slogan. Most of all, it inspires me afresh to think of how wonder might lead to doxology.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Culture Care

culture-care

Culture CareMakoto Fujimura. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A call for a different kind of engagement with culture, one of care, of becoming generative, rather than engaging in war or battle, to foster beauty in our common life.

To read this book was a moving experience for me, one about which I wrote (“Culture Care Instead of Culture War“) while reading the book. I found a voice that resonated deeply with my longing for alternatives to the banal, rancorous and ugly expressions of culture around us. Fujimura invites us to care for our culture rather than engage in war over it, to give our selves to a common pursuit of beauty to sustain and renew our common life.

He invites all who are creative in some way to exercise their creativity generatively.  Often this involves “genesis moments” where failure and tragedy gives way to something new. It is generous in a world that often just thinks of survival. Becoming generative means thinking across generations, observing the work of those who have gone before us, working for a generation at our own creative work, and passing this along to future generations.

The rest of the book elaborates what a generative care of culture looks like. He begins by paralleling culture care with the creation care movement. He invites us to look at similar fragmentation in our communal life and the divide between technological efficiency and the love of beauty and art, or the divides between groups contending for their vision of culture, the culture wars. He proposes instead that, “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care.” Such care may begin with care for our own souls, as we face our own brokenness and understand we are wounded healers. We then begin caring for culture by our efforts to bring forth beauty out of brokenness.

He proposes the idea of artists as mearcstapas or “border stalkers.” Artists are often those at the boundaries of society, the liminal spaces between groups, an often uncomfortable place to be. They are like Aragorn, “Strider,” in The Lord of the Rings, and capable of great leadership in reconciliation across the divides between groups. He shares the example of Mahalia Jackson, an artist sitting behind Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as he gave a somewhat “set” speech until she called out to him, “Tell ’em about the dream!” Artists can call forth the “dreams” toward which we long and live, and which we sometimes suppress. He writes of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh, both at the margins of the church, who in their art challenged the rigidities that drove them to the margins where they struggled with faith.

This leads to a striking declaration of Fujimura’s own calling that left me both breathless and saying “Yes! Yes!” He writes,

    “I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being. Vincent van Gogh was not a Christian artist either, but in Christ he painted the heavens declaring the glory of GodEmily Dickinson was not a Christian poet, and yet through her honest wrestling, given wings in words, her works, like Vincent’s, like Harper Lee’s, like Mahalia Jackson’s–speak to all the world as integrated visions of beauty against injustice.

    “It is time for followers of Christ to let Christ be the noun in our lives, to let our whole being ooze out like a painter’s colors with the splendor and the mystery of Christ, the inexhaustible beauty that draws people in. It is time to follow the Spirit into the margins and outside the doors of the church” (pp. 84-85).

The last chapters of the book suggest some helpful images and practical considerations of culture care that seemed to me a generative gift to young artists. Fujimura speaks of soil care, that art is nourished in the rich soil of the whole, expansive gospel of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. He writes of estuaries, transitional habitats for apprentice artists. He commends business practices and gives practical advice for young artists, including his own example of “raising support” even while in art training. He then concludes with a vision that transcends the fear that drives culture war and asks “what if” a paradigm of culture care were to replace this.

At least part of why I resonate so deeply with what Fujimura writes is that I feel I’ve become increasingly uneasy hiding behind the evangelical culture war walls and have been drawn more to the boundaries as a “border-stalker” or mearcstapa. Like Fujimura, I haven’t abandoned evangelical faith, but I find myself increasingly drawn to care for the culture (as well as the creation) rather than war on either. Perhaps it has been the discovery that I live with two artists.

A number of years ago, I woke up to the reality that one of my wife’s deepest longings was to give herself to painting, and began to ask what it means to “husband” such a longing. The greater surprise was to discover that the other artist with whom I was living was myself as I found culture caring joy as a choral singer and a writer. I even joined my wife’s artist friends in picking up sketchpad and paint brushes and entered into their world. Instead of polemical conflict I find myself increasingly exploring the common ground of beauty which seems one of the most conducive atmospheres to conversations about the “beautiful Savior.”

My apologies for the biographical digression. What I hope this conveys is that Fujimura gave language and a clearer vision to my inchoate thoughts and images about a different engagement with culture. If that is where you find yourself, you might find this book as helpful as I did. At very least, you will know what is a mearcstapa!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

An Evening with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College."Marilynne Robinson" by Christian Scott Heinen Bell - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.”Marilynne Robinson” by Christian Scott Heinen BellOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I read Gilead and Home several years ago and have Lila on my “want to read” list. So when I heard that Marilynne Robinson was speaking at Northwestern University while I was at a work conference near O’Hare Airport, I jumped on the opportunity to go hear her. She was speaking on “Our Elegant Universe: Is Beauty an Accident?” as part of a program called The Veritas ForumShe gave a prepared talk on the theme and then participated in a question and answer period with an audience of at least 500. I scribbled some notes from the talk and Q and A time. This is not a verbatim rendering, but rather a summary that I hope is faithful to her words and thought. I thought others who love Robinson’s work might enjoy this, and those who have not discovered it might try one of her novels.

In her presentation, she argued that the beauty of the world, the elegance of the universe (of which she sees us a part) is no accident. She thinks that science and theology ought not be at war over these things when in fact both perceive the grandeur of the creation. She contended for a “divine freedom that precedes reality” and that materialist explanations don’t allow for that which is beyond our own experience. She sees in the sheer variety of beauty,rather than being one thing, the grace of God.

Here are some of the questions she discussed following her presentation:

What is a day like in the life of Marilynne Robinson? Has that changed since Gilead?

Not really. I am a solitary creature surrounded by many, many books. My sister visits me a couple hours a week to connect me to the outer world. Otherwise I stay in my house except for walks which I’m told are good for my circulation. Otherwise, I stay in my house. I like my life but many would not find it enviable. I’m a monk, basically.

Was there a “conversion moment” in your life.

I can’t remember any “dawning”. I never thought of myself as other than Christian. I almost went to divinity school except that there weren’t many opportunities for women. I went to graduate school instead. I was always good at writing. My brother encouraged me and Housekeeping was kind of a family artifact. But as for my Christian experience, I would describe it as uniformity with enriching.

Have you ever thought that the Christian subject matter of your novels would limit your audience?

I never considered it. I was never a careerist. I wrote about what interested me. I was surprised by the reception of Gilead. I don’t think about my readership. I’m just glad they are there. Writers should trust their own insights and trust the interests of the public.

When you look at the world, do you ever think evil overcomes beauty? Does this argue against God?

Most people throughout history have lived with great afflictions and yet many have produced works of incredible beauty in the belief that there is something beyond evil and suffering.

Is God beauty?

Beauty is a signature of the divine. But nothing is identical with God — that would be blasphemy.

What challenge would you leave with students?

Two things:

1. Remember who you are, the flower of the universe. You can do all kinds of things and you won’t know until you try!

2. Read the primary sources!

This is a much-edited version of 90 minutes of presentation and dialogue. Besides the fact that she lives surrounded by many books (!), it was a delight to spend an evening considering the beautiful aspect of our pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Others may see beauty in a world without God but what struck me was the seamless arc between her perception of the beauty that finds its source in God and the beauty manifest in her writing. I for one am glad she simply writes what interests her. I’m thankful that she has given expression to this and trusted to the interests of her audience for in so doing she has given us great works of beauty.

Review: Dogmatic Aesthetics: A Theology of Beauty in Dialogue with Robert W. Jenson

Dogmatic Aesthetics: A Theology of Beauty in Dialogue with Robert W. Jenson
Dogmatic Aesthetics: A Theology of Beauty in Dialogue with Robert W. Jenson by Stephen John Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodness, truth, and beauty. This language of the “transcendentals” sounds inspiring and noble. But why do we believe in these things and what shapes our understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful? Are there grounds for answers to these questions beyond our own experience and perception? Stephen John Wright, in this dialogue with his theological mentor Robert W. Jenson, and other theologians would answer in the affirmative, that is, in the Triune God.

But how might this God as the source of beauty be known? Wright would take issue with the analogia entis (analogy of being) approach of Erich Przywara and others and follow his mentor in proposing the centrality of Christology, our understanding of Christ, to our understanding of beauty. In other words, Wright would argue that we work not from our own experience up to an understanding of beauty in the being of God but rather that the being of God, as revealed in Christ, helps us understand beauty in our human context.

There are four foci to his argument and the organization of the book follows these. First there is beauty in relation to the Triune God. We understand there is a Trinity because of Christ’s incarnation but this then challenges us to understands the relations of the persons of the Trinity and the oneness of God and in so doing Jenson and Wright help us see the basis of harmony, proportion and simplicity in the Trinity.

Second, we understand beauty in the Incarnate Christ that reconciles on the cross suffering and ugliness in the creation with the grace revealed in our salvation and the restoration of all things through this act.

Third, in the creation of all things through Christ and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo we see that beauty and change and transience are not mutually exclusive and this distinguishes the beauty of the creation from the beauty of God. Wright does some interesting work here drawing upon Japanese aesthetics that are particularly attuned to the transitory beauty of creation.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting to me, was his treatment of beauty and the future or eschaton. As part of his discussion Wright notes a tension between language and music and that the poetic language often used to speak of the end points toward a reconciliation when we are caught up, to use Jenson’s metaphor, in the “great fugue” of God where our voices are joined to the harmony of the Trinity. (As a choral singer, I particularly loved that part!).

What struck me in reading Wright’s account is that this was a theology of beauty that was beautiful while never departing from scholarly engagement. Furthermore, and I guess this is because I would agree with his basic premise, I deeply appreciated the consistent recourse to the person and work of Christ as central to our understanding of beauty. This is truly a Christian and not simply a theist aesthetic. Finally, I found myself wanting both to read the work of Jenson, which I have not, and making a mental note to look for more from this young theologian.

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