Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World, David F. White. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2022.
Summary: An argument for the important role of aesthetics, of beauty, in Christian formation.
Since the Enlightenment, the formation of Christians in their faith has emphasized truth and goodness, reason and praxis, discarding aesthetics. David F. White argues for the recovery of a theologically shaped aesthetic in the church’s effort to form her people. He argues that the consequence of the neglect of beauty has been an excarnate spirituality, divorced from the materiality of being human in God’s good creation.
White begins by considering beauty as a phenomenon pervading all existence from microscopic life to the cosmos. He explores how beauty awakens us to the transcendent, displaces us from the center of existence, draws us into community, and bids us into living worthy lives. From this, he turns to the theological aesthetic of Hans Urs von Balthasar, his aesthetic epistemology and how this leads to our attunement to beauty in creation and the re-enchantment of the world.
Ultimate, an aesthetic of beauty finds its focus in the person of Christ who reveals the beauty of God.in human form. He encourages focus upon the material form of Christ, and a kind of attuned play with the narratives of his life, imagining them, and embodying them ourselves. This leads him into the poiesis or ideas of making of John Milbank. Making begins with the transcendent God who comes as verbum, speech that makes, creates. Humans in the image of God are called into participation in this making as a gift. Formation then cannot remain in our heads; we must get our hands dirty, engaging in a kind of reciprocal gift-giving with others.
White next focuses on liturgy as art. He draws on the insights of James K. A. Smith and the power of liturgies to form us, whether from the church or the culture and he considers how aesthetics can enhance the formative power of liturgy, particularly as beauty is understood as the telos of worship. He urges leaders to recover a vision of the beauty inherent in the rhythms and movements of liturgy, to weave artistic expression throughout and to use the eucharistic meal to focus on the beauty in the form of Christ.
We live in a world that alternates between beauty and terror and White advocates for the role of art in the movement from lament to hope. A theological aesthetic looks for the beauty of people amid brokenness, glimpsing healing amid suffering. He concludes with the image of a church of people formed by beauty as the flash mob interrupting the stale banality of modern life with sounds and sights of exquisite beauty reminding people of the other, better world for which they deeply long.
White, I believe, has made an important proposal in this book, that the church vitally needs to recover a theologically grounded aesthetic. This is more than just embracing the arts. It is understanding the role of beauty, with its focus on both the materiality of creation and Christ, in forming us as knowing makers, participating in God’s poiesis in the world. White takes a deep dive in attempting to summarize von Balthasar, Milbank, and Smith yet ably does so, weaving together their ideas with his own vision of a theological aesthetic. Like White, I’ve been captivated by flash mob videos and like him, I long that the church might captivate the world in this way.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Speakeasy.