Review: The Art of New Creation

The Art of New Creation (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel Train, and W. David O. Taylor. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: Contributions from a variety of artists and theologians from the 2019 DITA10 Conference at Duke Divinity School, focusing on how the theology of the new creation shapes the work of Christian artists in various fields.

Anyone working in the arts in some sense works with existing materials from paint and canvas and clay to words, sounds, musical scales, instruments and one’s own body to make something new, whether a painting or sculpture or musical piece or choral performance or poetry or dance. Christians working in the arts both confront and bring an added dimension. Artists work in an existing creative context but also have in view a faith-shaped understanding of New Creation, the belief that living between the first and second comings of Jesus, we are participating already in anticipatory ways the New Creation, and looking forward one day to its full realization. It means seeing the world both in its brokenness and with the hope of restoration.

The origins of this book, exploring these themes, comes out of a conference (DITA10) held at Duke Divinity School as part of the Duke Initiative in Theology and the Art, headed up by theologian-artist Jeremy Begbie. Between the conference and the publication of this book came both the COVID pandemic and the racial injustices and protests of the summer of 2020. Many of the essays in this work incorporate reflection on these two upheavals to all of our lives.

Jeremy Begbie opens with a theology of new creation focused around how the new creation in Christ is already before us–both its dissonance with the old and the restoration of the broken as it gestures toward the final remaking of all things. New creation is something accessible to the artist already.

The next part, “Soundings,” works all this out in a variety of artistic media. Devon Abts focuses on the rhythms and meters of poetry, something of which Gerard Manley Hopkins was keenly aware, that invite us into rhythms of new creation. Ephrem of Nisibis, a fourth century poet is the subject of Charles Augustine Rivera–particularly the theology of the incarnation evident in the Madrase on Virginity. Daniel Train steps back and explores the tension Augustine enunciated between enjoyment versus use, a tension found in comparing the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Rowan Williams. Train finds a way to reconcile these latter two thinkers. Kutter Callaway wrestles with the idea of transcendence, and how that may be empirically observed in the arts in the response of people to artistic work.

Sara Schumacher considers art and new creation in the context of the environment, exploring the metaphors of artist as responsible servant, apprentice, and prophet. The White Savior, particularly in blockbuster movies including Avatar and Titanic needs to be confronted by Christian artists, argues Jacquelynn Price-Linnertz. W. David O. Taylor observes the ways that singing together works to unite human beings at an embodied level and in the Christian context, our “Spirited songs” express the new community formed in Christ–one that sings itself into our new creation future. He (and I) grieve the loss of corporate singing as one of the deep ravages of the pandemic. Amy Wisenand Krall takes up a similar theme in her essay that follows, and reminds us, amid shortages and self-protection, of the abundant care of the Lord of the new creation.

“Conversations” are just that, pairing theologians and artists in conversations on placemaking (Jennifer Allen Craft and Norman Wirzba), Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Five Quintets (O’Siadhail and Richard Hays), Creation and New Creation in J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (Malcolm Guite and Judith Wolfe) and living into the new creation in musical performance (Elizabeth Klein and Shadwa Mussad). The latter conversation reminded me of the challenges performers experienced during the pandemic and the parallels between orchestral and choral performance and the body of Christ at its best closing with the new creation hope expressed in Duke Ellington’s wonderful “Come Sunday.” Part Three, “Arts in Action” follows with several brief interviews with a dancer, three visual artists (including Steven Prince with several of his works) and a musician.

N.T. Wright concludes the collection with a reflection on the resurrection of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. He focuses on how we see in her “the vocation of arts: to sum up the tears of Mary, the insight of Mary, the renaming of Mary…and the commissioning of Mary to go and tell.” Wright proposes that the artist has the calling to embody the surprising faithfulness of God in Christ.

This is a valuable resource for understanding what it means to be an artist and a Christian. Beyond technical expertise and the cultivation of one’s unique gifts is a different vision, of the new creation, both already and not yet. This collection touches a variety of facets of how that works out in both the thinking and practice of artists. The theologically-oriented reflections, both bracketing and running through the collection offer a vision infusing the life and practice of artists. The discussions of the COVID pandemic and the racist incidents and protests of the systemic aspects of racism ground the various contributions in reality, forcing consideration of what the hope of new creation means amid brokenness. This is a valuable collection for both artists and those who recognize that beauty as well as goodness and truth are part of what it means to be salt and light in the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.