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.

____________________

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

Review: Contemporary Art and the Church

Contemporary Art and the Church

Contemporary Art and the Church, Edited by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.

Summary: Essays from artists, theologians, and church leaders participating in the 2015 Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) Conference exploring the conversation to be had between the church and contemporary artists.

The relationship between the church and the art world has often been a tense one, particularly on the contemporary art scene. Often, believing people don’t know what to make of contemporary art, or they may find it repulsive or even insulting when images of their faith seem to be denigrated. Contemporary artists sometimes come from church communities but have experienced rejection, or the disjunct between professed beliefs and lived experience. Then there is the group working in both worlds, and living in the tension between those worlds. These are the people represented by the essays in this book, which came out of a Christians in the Visual Arts conference in 2015, gathered to explore how a conversation might be had between these two worlds–a conversation made up of artists, critics, theologians, and church leaders.

There are three groups of essays, and then two concluding symposia and two final essays. The first group of essays explores what is meant by a conversation between the church and contemporary art. Wayne Roosa’s essay seems to maximize the differences, that this is a conversation between strangers that will involve a posture of close listening and receptivity to even understand each other. Linda Stratford responds that there are overlapping qualities between the two, commending as an example the late work of Andy Warhol, who turns out to have been far more religious than many would have guessed. Jonathan Anderson draws on Paul Hiebert’s work around bounded and centered sets and suggests the latter offers a model for intersection between the two conversation partners around shared concerns of ultimate value. The final essay, by Bowden and Lettieri explore examples of what is being done at a practical level through exhibitions in church galleries and other settings.

The second set of essays focuses on theology–God and contemporary art. Ben Quash opens with the provocative question, “can contemporary art be devotional art?” He considers three oppositions in this relationship, which he describes as a “marriage in mediation,” Taylor Worley responds by exploring how faith, hope and love shape our engagement with contemporary art. Christina L. Carnes Ananias explores some of the different ways one might understand silence and nothingness in the work of Yves Klein. Finally, in one of the most interesting essays in the collection, Chelle Sterns explores a “haptic pneumatology” (the experience of the Spirit through touch, physical sensation) in the installations of Ann Hamilton. If her work is ever in my town, I want to see (and participate in) it after Stern’s description.

The third section concerns art and worship, Katie Kresser, an art historian, explores some of the theory of visual and spiritual perception around images and makes recommendations for art in the worship context that expresses shared apprehensions of truth of the worshipers rather than a mere personal expression of the artist. W. David O. Taylor affirms this but presses further in asking, “Which Art, What Worship?” Allen Craft argues for an art that gives a congregation a sense of its “place” in the world. Finally, David W. McNutt contends that churches in the Reformed tradition shaped by Barth’s emphasis on Word and negative view of images, may find support in Barth’s ecclesiology for art in the church. I have to admit that I wasn’t persuaded, but that McNutt is far more knowledgeable about Barth than I.

The final section consisted of two panels, one moderated by Nicholas Wolterstorff, the other by Kevin Hamilton. The first might be described as “the way it was and how far Christians in the arts have come.” The second was a much younger group of artists working in public settings, describing much more, “the way it is.” This is followed by an essay by Calvin Seerveld giving advice to recent grads–apprentice, do imaginative work rooted in one’s humanness, and create works that reflect one’s vision of “the city of God” in all of life. Finally, he argues that artists are jesters and ventriloquists. Cameron J. Anderson explores both the embrace of calling and beauty in the pursuit of one’s art and the knowledge that grace alone saves the world.

This is a pretty high level conversation, where we overhear serious thinkers and artists exploring the conceptual and imaginary worlds of the church and the contemporary art world. Apart from Bowden and Lettieri’s essay, and the two symposia, there was less on practical program and more on exploring the first principles of such conversations. More important, it seemed to me a kind of rehearsal of how CIVA artists and church sympathizers might extend these conversations, both in the direction of the wider church, and the wider art community. This path-breaking work seems vitally important if a real conversation is to occur, one that fosters new-found appreciation for the concerns of artists, and one that explores how a contemporary aesthetic might open up fresh ways of apprehending the God we worship and God’s ways in the world.