A professionally trained musician who has performed extensively as a pianist, oboist, and conductor, Jeremy Begbie considers himself first a scholar and professor of theology.
“I’m basically a theologian who frequently works in the arts, not an artist who dabbles in theology,” says Begbie, who joined the Divinity School in January as the inaugural Thomas A. Langford research professor of theology.
A native of Great Britain, Begbie will maintain his ties with Cambridge University, where he is a senior member of Wolfson College and an affiliated lecturer in the faculty of divinity and the faculty of music. Among his priorities as director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts is developing collaborative programs between the two institutions.
Begbie is the author of Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (T & T Clark); Theology, Music and Time (CUP), and most recently, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker/SPCK), which won the Christianity Today 2008 Book Award in the theology/ethics category.
As your career shifted toward the study and teaching of theology, how did that affect your artistic practice?
From the start, I have tried to keep my faith and art together. That has worked out in three main ways.
The first is through music in worship. I have done what I can to promote good-quality music in churches in the United Kingdom — through writing, workshops, and by playing for my own church choir week by week. I am committed to a variety of styles in worship, and have been privileged to work with many fine musicians, from Matt Redman to Stephen Cleobury.
The second way is by asking, “What can theology give to the arts?” Christians have been given incredible resources to renew every dimension of life — including the arts. Why apologize for theology? During spring semester I explored the doctrine of the Spirit with a class, and at every turn we were dazzled by the implications that spill out for drama, painting, music, and so on.
The third way I have been trying to integrate theology and the arts comes by asking: “What can the arts do for theology?” The arts can help us not just express what we already know, but discover what we don’t know, or don’t know well enough.
To take an example: For some time I have been convinced that many of the problems the church has had with the doctrine of the Trinity have arisen because we have been far too captive to visual models of thinking.
It’s very hard to see oneness and threeness together. But when you approach the Trinity by thinking of the overlapping resonances of a three-note chord, everything looks — or rather sounds — different.
This is not a case of the church abandoning Scripture and getting new doctrinal standards from music; but it is a matter of allowing music to access in its own distinctive ways the wonderful realities of which the Bible speaks.
What attracted you to Duke?
I was attracted to Duke for many reasons, but most of all because of the quality of the faculty, the very high reputation of the Divinity School worldwide, and the eagerness of the school to develop a theology and arts program. What’s more, the combination of “seminary” and “academy” was very appealing — all my adult life I have been trying to find ways of holding these two worlds together.
What are your impressions of the state of the arts at Duke in general, and of divinity students here in particular?
I have found a remarkable artistic energy here which bodes very well for the future. Many of the faculty and students are already highly committed to the arts; they see clearly that the church needs to engage the arts as never before.
Many of the students are painters, poets, songwriters, and so on — and many are producing professional quality material. Recently the student body mounted a superb arts exhibit — all their own work.
The students I have taught are very highly motivated, energetic, thoroughly committed to the church. They are also extremely bright — among the brightest I have ever taught.
The establishment of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA) coincided with your appointment here as Thomas A. Langford research professor of theology. What is DITA and what are its goals?
DITA’s basic aim is quite simple: to promote a vibrant engagement of theology and the arts in Duke Divinity School, one that will serve the aims of the school within Duke University. It has three streams: research, teaching, and artistic practice. We want to combine cutting-edge academic research with first-rate teaching, and interweave these with exhibits, concerts, performances, workshops, and more. I can think of nowhere in the United States better suited to bringing these things together.
What courses did you teach during the spring semester?
The seminar course “Topics in Theology and the Arts” was a journey through the major writing on theology and the arts over the last 30 years. We explored the great swell of recent interest in this field, and I tried to help students see that they now need to carry the momentum forward.
In “Spirit, Worship and Mission,” we explored the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in conversation with the arts. It’s been astonishing to see how renewal in the Spirit often goes hand in hand with a renewal of painting, literature, and music. (Just think of the Wesleys.)
Third, in a course on Dostoevsky’s novels, a group of frighteningly able third-year students and I wrestled with the profoundest issues of life and death — Dostoevsky has that effect! In the future I expect to be teaching very similar material, but to add more options to the curriculum. In addition, we are developing an arts concentration within the new doctor of theology (Th.D.) degree program.
Any plans for special events in the near future?
A major book of essays entitled Resonant Witness will be published by Eerdmans in 2010.
We are also planning a cluster of major events at Duke in 2011, involving collaborations between theologians and artists. There will be a pilot project in 2010 at King’s College, Cambridge, culminating in a performance of James MacMillan’s new St. John Passion in King’s College Chapel. MacMillan is probably the best known classical composer in Britain, and a passionate Christian. He is very keen to work with us.
In terms of research, along with a steady stream of publishing that pursues the critical issues in this field, we want to see the arts integrated more thoroughly into the theological curriculum. I think we can do far more to encourage (and equip) faculty to incorporate the arts as a natural part of their teaching. I am glad to say this is happening already — but we could do much more. We also want to establish a regular cluster of events each year here at Duke that will pull together the best of current theology with the best of the arts. Faith and the arts are not water-tight boxes but more like two musical chords that enrich each other, sounding much better together than on their own.
What is your highest priority?
Scholarships for students, especially at the doctoral level. I would like Duke to be known worldwide as a place where students can be inspired and equipped as leaders in this field. At present we can only support a small number of students financially. This needs to change.
You will be resident at Duke one semester each year (currently spring) and the other semester at Cambridge. What collaborative opportunities will this provide for the two institutions?
For many years I’ve been working as a theologian amidst the arts in the United Kingdom. I’ve been fortunate enough to make many contacts and build a number of networks, not least in Cambridge. It seems foolish to give these up. So I shall be spending a fair amount of time building links between Duke and Cambridge. The theologians at each place have a lot in common. Also, Duke has a rich artistic history and, well, let’s just say Cambridge is not exactly short of artistic excellence either. Next Easter (2010) some of us will be meeting together to explore opportunities for collaboration in the future.
Given the many challenges before the church today, why and how are the arts important?
The arts should always matter to the church because the arts are part of being human: no society has yet been discovered that has done without the arts in some form. The arts also shape the way we live. Music affects the lives of thousands of young persons — forming the “soundtrack” of their lives; novels have changed the way countless people perceive the world; our architectural environment has a major impact on the way we relate to each other — think of the design of a church building. Of course, quite how the arts shape us is a complex business; but that they shape us, and often in profound ways, is undeniable.
But more is at stake than this. Today, it’s often through the arts that people are exploring “the big questions” of life and death. And this can happen far beyond the church. In my own field, music, there are countless examples — the songs of U2, the music of Nick Cave, Moby, John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, Alanis Morissette.
The Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow recently undertook some research which suggests that in North American society there is a very close link between a growing interest in religious questions at large, and an increasing participation in the arts. He found that the arts have played a key role in the spiritual journeys of thousands. Clearly, the church needs to be alert to these currents of questioning and questing — however confused and misdirected they sometimes are.
What do you see as the future of sacred music?
I would like to think the future will be one where we are asking theological, gospel-based questions about the music we sing, rather than simply questions of taste (“Do you like this or that style?”). The so-called “worship wars” are consuming far too much of our energy at present. It’s time to re-orient our musicians around the questions that really matter, such as: What is worship? What does music do in worship? Does our music reflect the enormous emotional range of the gospel? As I see it, the whole debate needs to be re-directed. Duke Divinity School could have a key part to play here.
What is your first musical memory?
I remember hearing my mother play the piano — I must have been about 4. The sounds seemed to open up a sort of magical world of wonder and delight.
Describe your earliest musical influences.
My main influences were my teachers, above all a piano teacher I was lucky to have in my teens. He was a major concert pianist, a theorist, a major academic, and a brilliant instructor. Somehow he managed to combine all the things that are important for a musician: sheer hard work, intellectual curiosity, and emotional involvement. He was also a deeply committed Roman Catholic — but I only found that out later.
I was also bowled over by watching Leonard Bernstein on TV — he embodied a mixture of practice, theory, and educational flair that has served as a model all my life.
As far as the music itself is concerned, I found I could listen to virtually anything: Brahms, Copland, the Beatles, Oscar Peterson; my tastes were (and are) fairly eclectic.
You have not always been a Christian. What brought you to faith, and what led you to ordained ministry?
I was about 19, already beginning a career in music (no other career was ever on the radar screen), when I started having conversations with my friend Alan Torrance (now a distinguished theologian). He suggested to me that Christianity was basically good news, that it centered on a person and not on impossible ideals, and that behind it all was a hospitable God who actually wanted our company.
All this came as a bit of a surprise to me, lazy agnostic that I was. He introduced me to his theologian father, James, an extraordinary man, and I went to hear him lecture. I didn’t understand a word he said, but I knew he had something I didn’t have, and I wanted what he had.
After a few weeks, I found myself a Christian, grasped by the grace of God. Life instantly got much harder, but I’ve never looked back. I soon sensed a call to ordination, and after a degree in theology, served as a pastor in a Church of England parish in West London. And then, unexpectedly, I had a call from Cambridge to teach theology in a seminary there.
After a year or two I realized this was going to be my vocation as an ordained minister. I’ve been at Cambridge, teaching at Ridley Hall and in the University for 23 years, and loved it.
I’m basically a theologian who frequently works in the arts, not an artist who dabbles in theology. Nothing excites me more than helping people discover that the good news is a lot “gooder” than they thought.