Recent years have witnessed fruitful conversations about the interplay between Christian theology and the arts. But what these dialogues need most, according to Duke Divinity School theologian Jeremy Begbie, is a firmer grounding in Scripture, the classic creeds, and a Trinitarian imagination. In his latest book, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, Begbie draws together such topics as beauty, natural theology, divine and human freedom, and the role of emotion. Jennifer Craft, associate professor of theology and humanities at Point University, spoke with Begbie about the mutually enriching relationship between faith and the arts.
You highlight the value of Reformed theology for conversations about the arts. How do you see it affecting the way we think about and practice the arts in Christian communities?
It’s hard to explain trends. But in the ever-growing ferment between theology and the arts, there are signs of a new interest in the Reformed tradition. The tired old caricature of Calvinism as anti-art has been radically revised. The legacy of writers like Hans Rookmaaker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Calvin Seerveld continues to be felt, and many are finding that a Reformed outlook brings a much-needed freshness to old debates.
Perhaps its most important contribution is a refusal to blur the boundary between God and world. This doesn’t mean treating God as divorced from the world or indifferent to it. But it does mean seeing the cosmos as made to praise God in its creatureliness—and believing that the arts witness to God most powerfully when they aren’t trying to play at being God. The artist can explore, celebrate, and develop the stupendous variety of the physical world, but without treating the world as if it were God in disguise or imagining that the artist is divine.
Along with this, a Reformed perspective shuns all sentimentality—the Cross reveals that this world is fundamentally good but marred and disfigured. The Christ-inspired artist will present the natural world, for example, as glorious but painfully flawed, awaiting its climactic liberation in the new creation.
You argue that beauty is an important yet confusing topic in theological discussion. Where have we muddied the waters, and how might we think differently about its role in the arts?
Some people think I have no time for beauty. Anything but! My concern is only that Christian talk about the arts tends to jump to beauty too quickly.
There are a few things to bear in mind. First, the idea that there is some kind of necessary link between the arts and beauty is in fact fairly recent. It’s not obvious that the aspiration toward beauty is what makes the arts distinct from other activities.
Second, if beauty is understood through ideas like unity in diversity, proportion, attractiveness, and so on, all these need to be anchored in the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. That is where all the concepts associated with beauty have been supremely put on display. The fallacy is to think we can borrow a fixed concept of beauty from a pre-made philosophy and then simply graft it seamlessly onto a Christian imagination of the world. If we’re thinking about the beauty of the created world, this has never been more clearly seen than in Jesus’ resurrection, which previews the new creation. That will rescue beauty from all ideas of sentimental prettiness.
I believe Christians ought to have the courage to re-form all the concepts associated with the arts (beauty, inspiration, sacrament, creativity, the “aesthetic,” and so on) in ways that take seriously the costly path of God’s redemptive plan.
Why does Christian dialogue about the arts need to remain grounded in Scripture?
The Christian faith is shaped first and foremost by the Old and New Testaments. This is where we rediscover, again and again, what God has done and is doing with the world he loves.
Of course, the Scriptures give little direct instruction for the creative artist. Instead, they offer what I call a “Christian ecology.” They witness to a three-fold Creator who takes on flesh in Jesus Christ, to a cosmos made by and through Christ, and to a vision of the human calling as “voicing creation’s praise.” My colleague at Duke, Richard Hays, speaks of the church’s urgent need to recover a “scriptural imagination,” a way of “living into” these ancient texts so that they reshape us from the inside out. That applies to the artist as much as anyone else.
These are exciting times for biblical scholarship. Sadly, many of us involved in theology and the arts leave the Bible behind very early in the conversation.
Why do you stress the importance of maintaining a Trinitarian focus in theological discussion of the arts?
Simply because this is what identifies the Christian God. Sometimes I have been pigeonholed as offering “a Trinitarian view of the arts.” I’m tempted to reply: “What else should a Christian offer? A unitarian view?” If we believe God is crucial to theological dialogue with the arts, then how can God’s triunity not also be crucial?
Sadly, underneath the surface is a perennial weakness in much Western (especially Protestant) theology—and, just as sadly, much theology amid the arts. We presume that God is one thing and the Trinity quite another, and that belief in the triunity of God will make no substantial difference in what we say about the human vocation to make and enjoy art. We need to see how a Trinitarian dynamic is built into every book in the New Testament. These texts speak of a world created by God through and for Christ, reconciled through the blood of Christ, and drawn by the Spirit toward a stupendous end. Humans are invited to share in this glorious movement toward a new creation. This should revitalize everything we think and say about the arts—and indeed, the way we go about making and enjoying them.
Music is probably the art form with which we’re most familiar, at least in a corporate worship context. How can churches use music to enrich our theological understanding not only during “worship time” but throughout the service?
We should be careful not to suggest that worship only begins when the music starts. Music is one vehicle of worship, but only one.
Yet music has unique powers. It can provide a concentrated emotional experience; it can bind a disparate crowd of people together like nothing else; it can radically the change the way we understand the words we sing. Worship leaders need to be wise to these (and other) powers of music. They need to ask: What is music actually doing to serve the God of Jesus Christ? Do we want to communicate the depth and width of the gospel in our music, or are we more concerned with giving people a feel-good experience? Is the unity we enjoy in singing promoting the unity God wants to bring about in the church?
What are some exciting developments in the area of theology and the arts?
There’s much to celebrate. Courses are cropping up all over the place—in colleges, universities, and churches. Internet resources are proliferating. Communities like CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) are thriving. And books are pouring out as never before. Writers like Malcolm Guite (perhaps the best Christian poet alive), painters like Linnéa Spransy, and composers like James MacMillan are gaining a wide hearing, certainly wider than was possible 50 years ago.
Personally, I’m most encouraged by young scholars who immerse themselves in Scripture and the classic creeds, believing that untold riches for the arts are waiting to be discovered. Let’s pray they grow and flourish.
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