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.

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