Each month we will be recommending one or two recent publications relevant to the theology-arts interface. Not all of them will directly address the arts; but all, we believe, are especially significant for theologians at work in this field.
This month’s recommendations:
The Lion’s World:
A Journey into the Heart of Narnia
London: SPCK, 2012
In this pocket-sized, meditative volume, Rowan Williams visits the seven Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, exploring their gifts to Christian theology as fantasy-fiction, and suggesting how such modes of imaginative reorientation may yet have to play a crucial part in today’s expression of the gospel.
The book’s chapters move through several of Narnia’s most effective theological themes—anthropology, Incarnation, conversion, and Christology—while noting the series’s development alongside Lewis’s personal life and other works. Though the book acknowledges limits to Narnia’s internal consistency and theological scope, Williams’s meditations nevertheless make an excellent case for the value of Narnia in welcoming readers to a world in which the joy, fearfulness, surprise, and poignancy of the truth find fresh and profound expression in that magical “holy nation” of human and non-human creatures and their “wild” king, Aslan the Lion.
This new book by Williams, blessed with elegant and reflective illustrations by Monica Cappoferi, serves as a strong reminder of the vital theological and divine encounters fiction can offer by adjusting our eyes to the light of Reality under fantastical suns.
Wandering in Darkness:
Narrative and the Problem of Suffering
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010
If God is who Christians claim God is, then why does God allow us to suffer? Stump’s tome, sweeping in scope, offers one possible answer by artfully combining neurobiology, medieval theology, analytic philosophy, and narratives.
More specifically, Stump situates Aquinas’ theodicy alongside the meta-story that emerges from four biblical narratives about God’s relationship to human suffering (the stories of Job, Samson, Abraham and Isaac, and Mary of Bethany). This story-based defense suggests that God might justifiably allow suffering if it remedies willed loneliness, facilitates interpersonal union, or gives humans their hearts’ desires in ways more consistent with their ultimate good, which is union with God.
In the process, Stump demonstrates that narratives provide a kind of knowledge of persons that is simply unavailable to analytic discourse. This means that the narrative arts are essential for understanding relationships and for coming to know others—including God.
Jacobsen, Eric O.
The Space Between:
A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012
Although numerous volumes have been written about how as Christians we are to view and work with the natural environment, there are relatively few books that provoke us to think about the spaces we construct and the way they shape our lives.
Here is the latest, the most thorough and perhaps the best currently available. It will certainly make readers look at their homes, neighborhoods, offices and schools in a very different way. The author is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes: “It's a fine contribution to an extremely important topic that has been neglected for too long by too many.”
Gorringe, T. J.
Theology and the Challenges of Art
Yale: Yale University Press, 2011
This is a book about seeing. Against the broad canvas of Europe’s secularization, the author wants to help us see again: to see God in the everyday, the divine in the worldly. And this way of seeing, he believes, can be generated by art.
Gorringe wants us to pause and gaze at “secular” art – the portrait, landscape, still life, genre painting, abstract art, the kind of art we might well never associate with the specifics of Christian faith. Such art, he claims, can embody and witness to a God-graced secularity. With this in mind, we are led on a remarkable tour through the world’s art galleries. The style is consistently engaging, and Gorringe’s range of reading extraordinarily wide. There will be few readers who will not see things differently as a result of working through these pages – not only the paintings themselves, but the world reflected in them.
The Poet as Believer:
A Theological Study of Paul Claudel
Farnham: Ashgate Press, 2011
Each year the Conference on Christianity and Literature cites a work that "has contributed most to the dialogue between literature and the Christian faith." The winner this year is this readable and engaging study of the French poet Paul Claudel (1868-1955), also a playwright and diplomat.
Converted on hearing Vespers sung in Notre Dame in Paris at the age of eighteen, he remained a devout Roman Catholic until the end of his life. A fierce opponent of any merely naturalistic account of the universe, his literary works are here carefully presented, along with the biographical, cultural and theological influences that informed his outlook. Aidan Nichols is himself a prolific writer, with an incisive and brilliant mind.
Kimbrough, S T, Jr.
The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley:
Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011
This book illuminates not only the lyrical theology Charles Wesley, but the nature of lyrical theology itself. Kimbrough persuasively suggests that, if we wish to hear the theology of a hymn or poem, then we must listen to more than the words—we must also discern how their poetic form contributes to the work’s overall meaning.
Kimbrough likewise proves that Charles Wesley is a lyrical theologian par excellence, and, by providing background information and a broad collection of Wesley’s works, he enables readers to sound the depths of Wesley’s lyrical theology. This book is a must for those whose hearts have been “strangely warmed” by the songs of this somewhat lesser-known Wesley brother, as well as those who are rightfully intrigued by the intersection of music, poetry, and theology.
The Poetics of Evil:
Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy
New York: Oxford, 2012
Traditional modern theodicy, Tallon writes, excludes the aesthetic not only in its answer to the question of God and evil, but in the very way it asks the question: John Hicks, for example, says from the outset that only strictly moral reasons will, for him, carry any weight in justifying God. But what, Tallon asks, if we want to consider other dimensions? What if, with Eleonore Stump, we want to take seriously the difference between theodicy done in the third person (about a hypothetical or actual suffering creature) and theodicy done in the second person (requiring an encounter, a counterpart who addresses us as ‘you’)? What if the best answer to evil we have is that God shows up—as in the end of Job; as in Christ? Can the aesthetic help us in thinking through any of these questions?
Tallon explores aesthetic theodicies of harmony (the world as being finally beautiful and just), of tragedy (the world as beautiful though unjust), and horror (the world as neither beautiful nor just), and explores thinkers inside and outside the Christian tradition who have defended each model, seeking less to arrive at a final unimpeachable aesthetic theodicy than to hear in each strand the truths it is uniquely positioned to reveal.
Faith, Hope and Poetry:
Theology and the Poetic Imagination
Farnham: Ashgate, 2010
Malcolm Guite is an unusually gifted poet, theologian and speaker. This is one of the few books available that combine theological depth and precision with detailed exegesis of particular poems, and in a style that is consistently accessible. Guite’s thesis is that poetry can be a way of knowing, a vehicle through which the truth of things can be made more vivid and visible. We are shown not only how theology can illuminate poetry but how poetry can enrich theology. Herbert, Donne, Coleridge, Larkin, and Heaney are just some of the poets explored, and the opening chapter on that medieval tour de force "The Dream of the Rood" provides a compelling and moving overture. Guite has given us a remarkable piece of writing that deserves a wide readership.
Johnson, Keith L.
Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis
London: T & T Clark, 2010
This book tackles a topic that has often been a sticking point between Protestants and Roman Catholics, one that has come to pervade much of the contemporary discussion of "aesthetics" and theological engagement with the arts. The so-called analogy of being (analogia entis) concerns what kind of similarity and dissimilarity we can assume holds between God and the world. Johnson’s study deals with Karl Barth’s famous suspicion of the analogia entis. But there is much more than that here. With meticulous precision, Johnson highlights all the main theological issues at stake in the current debate, clearing up confusion after confusion. For those wanting to explore in depth the theological underpinnings of an authentically Christian treatment of the arts, beauty, and related themes, this is a must-read.
Mahan, David C.
An Unexpected Light: Theology and Witness
in the Poetry and Thought of Charles Williams,
Micheal O’Siadhail, and Geoffrey Hill
Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2008
This is a book of unusual wisdom. Mahan asks: "can poetry matter to Christian theology?" and he asks this with a view to clarifying how the Christian gospel can engage effectively with an increasingly disaffected "late-modern" ethos. He urges that poetry has a unique and irreplaceable role in the enrichment of theology in the Church today, and he demonstrates this in conversation with three major poets: Charles Williams, Micheal O’Siadhail, and Geoffrey Hill. The writing has a focused lucidity throughout, and the argument is always solid.
The Christian West and Its Singers:
The First Thousand Years
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010
What kind of history of music can you write when there’s no music? For the first thousand years of the Church’s history, there was no written music. So what can you write about? The answer, as Christopher Page makes clear in this extraordinary book, is people: through written words (and a little archaeology), we can enter the world of those who made music and heard music, and set what we find against the social and cultural contexts in which these people lived and moved. In The Christian West and its Singers we are offered, in effect, a history of the Western Church up until around 1000 A.D. through the eyes (and ears) of those who sing. Unusual and utterly compelling.
The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011
Dr Barfield wears many hats – he is a pediatric oncologist at Duke University, teaches in the Divinity School, and (somehow!) has managed to write this learned and fascinating volume. Philosophy has been heavily affected by poetry and poets, far more than we might think. But many philosophers have strongly resisted poetic modes of thinking. Understanding this "ancient quarrel" is hugely important to theology, since many of the same flashpoints and struggles can be seen in theology’s engagement with the arts. A fascinating and important study.
Steele Halstead, Elizabeth, et al (eds)
Dwelling with Philippians
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010
This is a beautifully produced book that surrounds Paul’s letter to the Philippians with a remarkable variety of media: visual imagery, poetry, and other worship-related arts. Interspersed are reflections, prayers and a host of other carefully chosen texts. The result is an attractive and highly original multi-dimensional treat, and one that will help the reader discover untold riches in this short and joyful letter. One can only hope that more volumes like this will appear in the future.
Stone-Davis, Férdia J.
Musical Beauty: Negotiating the Boundary
between Subject and Object
Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011
This is an absorbing, original and important book. The argument is subtle and complex, but pushes the reader toward an account of musical beauty that takes its physicality seriously, its rootedness in the very earthy and bodily business of making and perceiving sounds. This, Stone-Davis argues, opens up a rich and nuanced conception of the way in which self and world, subject and object are (and should be) related. She develops her vision in conversation with the early Christian thinker Boethius, and the modern Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. The theological dimensions of her case are gently suggested rather than asserted overtly, which makes the book all the more intriguing. A demanding book, but well worth the effort.
Dyrness, William A.
Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010
Bill Dyrness, at Fuller Seminary, will be known to many who link to this site, having given us a number of fine studies in the theology and arts field. The perspective here is rather wider, though related. Dyrness is convinced that although visual art, writing and so on can be "poetic," the term can also be applied to a host of activities which speak to our need for play, celebration and ritual – attending a basketball game, for example (I am writing this at Duke!), water-skiing, feasting. He is also convinced that such activities are (potentially) sites of divine activity, witnessing to the call of the Creator in and through his good creation. Cornelius van der Kooi of the Free University, Amsterdam writes: "A wonderful journey through Reformed spirituality and a wake-up call for Reformed theology."
Writing God and the Self:
Samuel Beckett and C. S. Lewis
Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011
This is an unusual book, to say the least, but fascinating nonetheless. Some of the best academic writing emerges from unexpected juxtapositions. In this case the mismatch comes in the form of a lengthy and intriguing engagement with the work of C. S. Lewis and Irish playwright and poet, Samuel Beckett. Jebb examines both authors from the perspective of how they imagined the human self, and especially how their view of selfhood is intimately related to conceptions of the self’s relation to God. Other voices from the history of Christian thought (ranging from Teresa of Avilla to Rowan Williams) are drawn into an immensely rich and insightful discussion.
Mystery of The Night Café:
Hidden Key to the Spirituality of Vincent van Gogh
New York: State University of New York, 2009
There is something enormously attractive about attending to just one piece of art over a lengthy period. This is what Cliff Edwards does with a well-known but enigmatic painting of Van Gogh, "The Night Café." We are led on something of a detective hunt, in which hard earned clues are used to expose and clarify the faith dimension of Van Gogh’s life and work. The author, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, writes: "The uniqueness of my approach, as compared to the hundreds of books written about Van Gogh, is that I take seriously the artist’s own interest in spirituality fostered by his personal study of the Bible and his original hope to become a pastor."
Guthrie, Steven R.
Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and
the Art of Becoming Human
Grand Rapids, Baker: 2011
Talk about the arts has a habit of veering into talk about "spirit," the "spiritual" and "spirituality"; and likewise, "spiritual" talk often slides into talk about the arts. This might not matter much, if it weren’t for the fact that Christians, eager to find connections with the religious impulses of our culture at large, are prone to use the language of ‘spirit’ in ways quite alien to Scripture. Most worrying, talk of "spirit" is used to justify a neglect, even a denigration of our humanness, especially our embodied nature: to be ‘spiritual’ is somehow to rise above our earthy, common humanity. And when the arts are drawn into this kind of confusion, the problems multiply.
Guthrie brings a welcome breath of fresh air to this foggy territory. He shows us that at the heart of the Spirit’s work is the renewal of our humanity – through the Spirit, we are changed in the likeness of the Son, Jesus Christ. We are re-humanized by the Spirit, not de-humanized. With this perspective in mind, he invites us to enter the world of human artistry, and re-envision the arts. Throughout, he is illuminating, compelling and properly generous in his estimation of the work of the Spirit beyond the Church.
This is beautifully written theology, and will reward virtually any reader at multiple levels.
Belfiore, Eleonora and Bennett, Oliver
The Social Impact of the Arts:
An Intellectual History
Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010
This book first appeared in 2008, and is now reprinted – rightly so. The authors offer an intellectual history of the wide variety of claims that have been made through the centuries for the impact of the arts on society at large. The writing is crystal clear, balanced and measured, and there are numerous connections made with the arts policies of governments today. The almost complete lack of attention to Christianity and the Church is on one level disappointing, but on another immensely telling; at the least, it should spur the reader to think much more deeply about how Christians have regarded, and should regard the role of the arts in the Church and the communities in which we live. Here you will find lucid sections on catharsis, "art for art’s sake," art as play, the distinction between "low" and "high" culture, and much more. It's worth every penny.
Harasta, Eva and Brock, Brian
Evoking Lament: A Theological Discussion
London: T&T Clark, 2009
There are frequent calls these days for a recovery of lament in the Church, not least in worship. A pervasive sentimentality in our culture, with its preoccupation with "feel good" states and evasion of evil, has helped to foster a damaging neglect of this strand of biblical teaching and practice. However, there have been few clear-headed treatments of the theme that don’t slip into promoting "lament for the sake of lament." Self-indulgence is an ever-present danger. This collection of essays is unique in bringing together systematic and pastoral theology in an effort to show just why lament deserves a central place in the worship and the life of the Church, and just why, properly understood, it is anything but self-indulgent. The most valuable essays are those that show how the dynamics of lament intertwine with crucifixion and resurrection. For all who care about the arts in our churches, the implications are enormous.
Jeffrey, David L. and Maillet, Gregory
Christianity and literature:
Philosophical foundations and critical practice
Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2011
If you want a solid but readable introduction to thinking about the relation between Christianity and literature, this is your book. The authors are well established in the field, and manage to sustain a rigor in both the theoretical and practical realms of their subject. They face head-on the thorny issue of truth in literature, delve into the associated philosophical thickets of that question, and explore the literary dimensions of Scripture. A lengthy historical section bears out the authors’ conviction that a "full appreciation of literature in English requires a curriculum that acknowledges the presence of Christ in the literary imagination down the centuries." They conclude with terse observations on the current state of literary studies ("our fragile discipline") and a gentle but clear call to younger scholars to involve themselves fully in the field as ambassadors of Christ. Lucid throughout, the trajectories of this book extend far beyond literature.
Art that Tells the Story
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Gospel Through Shared Experience, 2011
This is a magnificently produced book – spacious, glowing, and subtle in its interweaving of text and image. Brewer has brought together an impressive array of contemporary artists and allowed their art to “tell the story,” to bear its own kind of witness to the narrative of the Word-made-flesh. It would be hard to work your way through this book and not be moved. Mako Fujimura writes the Foreword, and many of the artists represented will be familiar to those who keep in touch with Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) – Edward Knippers, Bruce Herman, Sandra Bowden and others. Byron Borger of Booknotes writes on the back: “It is rare when I, as a bookseller, get to say that there is nothing like this, but there it is, boldly put: There is nothing like this!” He is right.
Bychkov, Oleg V.
Aesthetic Revelation: Reading Ancient and Medieval
Texts after Hans Urs von Balthasar
Catholic University of America Press, 2010
Oleg Bychkov, professor of theology at St Bonaventure University, is a scholar’s scholar who has inhabited the world of aesthetics for many years. This is the fruit of a profound exploration of the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s aesthetics, in particular Balthasar’s treatment of ancient and medieval writers. Helpfully, he includes an account of the development of the modern concept of “aesthetics” (an extremely slippery word at the best of times), before plunging into Balthasar himself, and the historical texts which form the core interest of the book. By the nature of its subject-matter, this is hardly easy reading, but for anyone seeking to gain more from this endlessly fascinating Swiss theologian, this is a must-read.
A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer
Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2011
"While working as a docent in an art gallery, Juliet Benner began showing people how to meditate on Christian art treasures that are rooted in a passage of Scripture. She taught a way of encountering the Word behind both the words of Scripture and the artist's meditation on Scripture. This became a way of seeing art as an aid to contemplative prayer. In each chapter you'll encounter a passage of Scripture and a corresponding piece of art. In the process you'll find yourself entering into a new experience of prayer and meditation in God's presence."
This is a great book for those who are looking for a marriage between lectio divina and the visual arts (or as it's often called, visio divina). It'd be suitable for personal devotion as well as for small groups. It includes artworks like Jean-François Millet's "The Angelus" and He Qi's "The Visitation," but I think Caravaggio's "The Supper at Emmaus" arrested my attention the longest.
Art in Public:
Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture
Cambridge: CUP, 2011
Is government funding beneficial to artists and their publics or would it be better for artists to compete in the economic marketplace without government support? Should government funding come “with no strings attached” or should it uphold standards of decency and social order? Are contemporary artists progressive agents of social change or are they a decadent menace to society? These are the kinds of questions that occasion Zuidervaart’s latest contribution to philosophy, Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture.
Zuidervaart marshals an impressive range of conversation partners, including Habermas, Adorno, and Charles Taylor, and his target audience is likely philosophers over lay readers. To the extent that the government plays a role with the arts, by what it permits or prohibits, by what it makes difficult or easy to occur, Christians have a responsibility not only to think clearly about these matters but to do something about them. Whether it is through our patronage dollars or through our votes, Christians, as Zuidervaart helpfully reminds us, get to play an important role in the public arts.
We Get to Carry Each Other:
The Gospel According to U2
Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009
In this book Greg Garret seeks above all to take U2’s music seriously, in order to “give others permission to claim the comfort and wrestle with the personal transformation that many of these songs invite.” Taking the music seriously means, for Garret, shaping the book’s theological emphasis in ways disciplined by the outlook of the band. This means that we really do get the gospel according to U2. Each chapter also comes with a carefully chosen U2 song list that is to be played while reading, in order further to integrate words and music.
Of the various U2 books out there, this one stands out for its close attention to the various actions performed by U2 songs as they function on different levels in different contexts. Garret’s years of careful and reflective listening provide the serious U2 fan with scores of insights into what is really going on beneath the surface of the music. More than that, the book weaves the theological threads that run through the U2 catalogue into the fabric of Christian doctrine. We get a feel for the band’s relation to Christian tradition in the areas of doctrine of God (Faith), the Church (Community), and Ethics (Justice).
One Step Closer:
Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God
Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006
This book stands out from the recent flurry of writing on U2 for its more studious approach to the interface between the band’s music and Christian theology. Scharen, of Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture, presents themes from U2’s music in three “steps.” First, U2’s artistic action as enlightened by the literary genres of Scripture. The Psalms (notably lament Psalms), wisdom’s oppositions, prophetic repentance speech, parables, and apocalyptic literature are taken in turn. Scharen does an excellent job of showing the extent to which these categories shape the band's lyrics and approach to performance.
The book’s second “step” moves from scripture to theology, we might say, as Scharen explores U2’s music through a series of polarities: Faith (Not sight); Hope (Not Possession); Love (Not Power); Now (Not Yet). In this way, readers can gain both a greater appreciation for the music of U2 as a form of “practical theology” and gain a deeper understanding of some of the major themes in modern theology. The book closes with a discussion of “the truth that frees” or why it matters that U2 sings the truth rather than proclaims it aggressively. Through the invitational medium of music, says Scharen, U2 provides a model for Christian speaking of the truth more widely.
Mochizuki, Mia M.
The Netherlandish Image after Iconoclasm, 1566-1672:
Material Religion in the Dutch Golden Age
Farnham: Ashgate, 2008
What remains of the image in the wake of the iconoclast? Does religiously motivated iconoclasm only have to do with the rending of sacred images and the whitewashing of church walls? In this book, Mia Mochizuki questions the popular notion that 16th century European reform movements were simply manifestations of a kind of brute iconoclasm concerned with the wholesale abolition of images and church art.
Her study centers on the decades following initial reform in the Netherlands - the so-called Dutch Golden Age - focusing on developments in architecture and ecclesial art in the early modern Dutch Reformed Church. By carefully scrutinizing a variety of examples of Dutch Protestant architecture, sculpture and painting, Mochizuki builds the case that iconoclasm among the Reformed was not merely destructive but also intensely generative for the making of visual arts. This important book is highly recommended to anyone who studies the intersection of Protestant theology and image-making, as well as those interested in the history of developments in early modern art and architecture in northern Europe.
McClure, John S.
Pop Music and Theological Invention
Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011
This timely book urges theologians to listen to contemporary culture and to take some needed cues from one of today’s most influential voices: pop music. Artfully interdisciplinary in his approach, McClure offers the methods and technologies of pop music as a highly pragmatic metaphor for theologians.
Pop musicians use new technologies to invent “mashup” songs: artifacts that are rooted in tradition that nevertheless generate novelty through creative sampling and mixing. These artifacts, moreover, can enter consumer culture and steer desire toward the transcendent, revealing their capacity to shape today’s theological landscape. Like pop musicians, theologians must be rooted in a tradition, combine sources in a way fitting for the context, and be attentive to their social situation. Mashup Religion is broad in both scope and relevance.
Goizueta, Roberto S.
Christ our Companion:
Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation
Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009
During a lecture in which he had referred to the gospels as ‘narratives,’ Roberto Goizueta was confronted by a man who identified himself as Jesús. “They’re not ‘narratives,’” Jesús said. “They’re gospels.”
Goizueta argues that facing the gospel as gospel, as a transforming historical encounter with Christ, must necessarily bring together theological aesthetics and liberation theology. He intertwines them in order to understand the popular practices of Hispanic Catholic faith, especially the ways in which Christian symbols must function if they are to resist modern rationalism and postmodern relativism. The Eucharist makes a public truth claim that cannot be avoided, and that can only be genuinely encountered by approaching it in part aesthetically, as a whole in which form and content are inseparable.
Christ was born in Galilee during Roman rule, and Goizueta argues that we encounter Christ today in the marginalized borderlands of post-colonial suffering, where the wounds of history are present in the very bodies of mixed-race Hispanic peoples, and can neither be explained away nor ignored. It is when we face these wounds squarely that we open ourselves to the pain and the healing, the horror and the ultimate beauty, of Christ’s cross.