God’s Grandeur: The Arts and Imagination in Theology

God’s Grandeur is a collection of essays from the 2006 annual conference of the College Theology Society (CTS) and National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion (NABPR). David Robinson has collected a fine variety from the overwhelming wealth of presentations at the conference. The text is broken into five sections: Visual Arts, Musical Arts, Literary Arts, Aesthetics and Education, and Contemporary Forms.

I would love to see more edited collections on theology and the arts that, despite diversity and expansiveness, offer a cohesiveness.* This collection lacks cohesiveness in part because it is true to its purpose. It is essentially a book of bound conference proceedings. Their understandably narrow focus has hindered the volume, I contend, from getting the kind of audience it might have otherwise.

For the rest of this review I’d like to focus briefly on three of the contributions to the volume, those of Sandra Bowden, James F. Caccamo, and Colleen Carpenter Cullinan. I think these are three of the strongest essays in the collection and are three that may be of interest to readers of Transpositions:

“A Quiet Renaissance: Artists of Faith for a New Century” by Sandra Bowden (38-49) explores the way in which matters of faith have always been part of the cultural landscape of films and art exhibitions, despite many critics being surprised by their mainstream popularity in recent years. Bowden explores the seeming disconnect between those in positions of power in cultural institutions dismissing the importance of religious art for the contemporary cultural mindset and the overwhelming interest in faith, art and the imagery of Christianity. This essay is likely to be of particular interest to artists, those engaged in curation, and those interested the study of exhibition trends in relation to matters of religious art. Following discussion of exhibitions at the National Gallery in London, Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Provincial Museum in Edmonton, Bowden shares the way the work  of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) is quietly working to shape and influence contemporary art alongside St Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) and the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York. This chapter also contains an overview of Bowden’s work as introduced by the artist herself.

Next I’d like to consider, “The Listener as Musician: The importance of the Audience in the Moral Power of Music” by James F. Caccamo (59-79). Caccamo explores the complex relationship between music and moral action, and he argues for a deeper and more nuanced theological framework for both its appreciation and its critique. He explores the theological frameworks that consider the primary value of music as either that of inspiration or instruction and argues instead that more emphasis needs to be placed on the listener. Although much of his argument is reminiscent of reader-response theory, there is a strong emphasis here on enthnomusicology and its methodology. This essay is an interesting example of a theological rationale for the qualitative  study of religious and arts practice in examining the relationship between music and moral action. Consequently, Caccamo’s essay will be of interest as much to those interested in maligned contemporary musical genres like metal and goth as it will be for those interested in U2 and contemporary christian music.  Indeed, this chapter is extensively footnoted providing a useful bibliography for those interested in Theology and music.

Finally, I’d like to consider, “Imagining Redemption: The Novel as a Source of Dangerous Memory” by Colleen Carpenter Cullinan (95-109). Cullinan begins from the premise that theology is rooted in narrative, and specifically the narrative detailing the experience of believers. She states that the most important role of the imagination is “our constructive capacity to integrate our experience into dynamic and effective wholes which then function as interpretative grids of further experience” (96). For Cullinan,  “Dangerous memory” is that which destablizes or challenges the status quo, particularly in light of Joseph Metz’s “political theology,” and it may have far-reaching consequences for the whole of society (98). Cullinan explores novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams which directly address the notion of dangerous memory. In many of these case, “dangerous memory” is expanded to include a notion of memory that is incomplete or irretrievably altered.  Finally, she considers whether some novels garner a certain place in our imaginations such that they become part of our memory — a dangerous part — and function as something real upon which we rely and reference, though they may not be factual, historical or true in any sense. This definition of “dangerous memory” and assertions about the role of the novel has implications for explorations of cultural intertextuality, including, I contend, what Northrup Frye terms “resonance.” As such this essay is likely to be of interest to those interested in contemporary literature and theology, mimesis, or cultural intertextuality.

For the purpose of assisting those who might be interested in the very specific purview of one of the papers, here is a list of the essays included in the volume.

Part I Visual Arts

  • “Three Parables of the Rose, or Shanghai-ed into Acculturation” by Thomas M. Lucas
  • “The Trinity in the Gnadenstuhl Motif: Illustrating the Cross as an Event of the Triune God” by Susie Paulik Babka
  • “A Quiet Renaissance: Artists of Faith for a New Century” by Sandra Bowden

Part II Musical Arts

  • “Sacred Sound” by Don Saliers
  • “The Listener as Musician: The importance of the Audience in the Moral Power of Music” by James F. Caccamo
  • “John Dunne’s Words: ‘Explore the Realm of Music'” by William J. Collinge

Part III Literary Arts

  • “Imagining Redemption: The Novel as a Source of Dangerous Memory” by Colleen Carpenter Cullinan
  • ” Flannery O’Connor and a Catholic Theology of the Family” by Julie Hanlon Rubio
  • “Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Use of the Dramatic Time of Theater: Responding to a Political-Theological Concern” by Randall S. Rosenberg

Part IV Aesthetics and Education

  • “Profound Learning, Theological Aesthetics, and AIDS: Assessing the Effectiveness of Service-Based Pedagogies” by Kimberley Vrudny
  • “Beauty in a Rahnerian Key? Some Reflections on the Perception of the Beautiful in Transcendental Experience” by Ki Joo Choi
  • “Fictitious Worlds and Real Unrealities: The Aesthetic Imagination in Søren Kierkegaard and Herbert Marcuse” by Jennifer Elise Veninga

Part V Contemporary Forms

  • “Wind, Water, Fire, and Chocolat: Playing with Film Images for Feminist Pneumatology” by Frances M. Leap
  • “Mass Culture of Mass Culture? The Frankfurt School’s Critique of the Culture Industry vs. The Catholic Imagination of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen” by Matthew G. Minix
  • “If these Walls Could Talk: God’s Grandeur amidst Urban Blight” by Maureen H. O’Connell

* One collection that I’d like to highly commend to you is also a journal volume, but it is more cohesive in its approach:  Religion & Literature, Vol 41:2, Summer 2009.

If you were to buy a collection of essay on the topic of theology and the arts, what would you like to see addressed? Who would you like to read? Are there any artists you’d like to read about or schools or genres within the arts that you feel have been ignored?

3 Comments

  • Pete Phillips says:

    Thanks for this great review – really helpful to see more than few words on each essay and to get a feel for the whole review. Purchased the book now and also the suggested collection at the bottom.

    Thank you for putting the time in to write the review, Anna.

  • ryan stander says:

    A great book from a great conference. I spoke at the conference and it was wonderful to hear scholars from so many different perspectives and fields address issues key to the arts. I highly recommend the annual College Theology Society conference. A majority of the scholars there are Catholic, however, the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion meet jointly and add a remarkable flavor to the conference. Additionally, since this volume was published, the the Arts Section has continually had the largest number of sections. The conference publishes a select volume of essays each year and they will occasionally include one from the arts sections.

  • Steve Scott says:

    `If you were to buy a collection of essay on the topic of theology and the arts, what would you like to see addressed? Who would you like to read? Are there any artists you’d like to read about or schools or genres within the arts that you feel have been ignored?’

    Mission theorists and researchers have been pointing out for a while that most of the Christians now live in what used to be called `The Majority World’…….is it too simplistic to suggest that (therefore?)this is where most of the Christian artists, cultural workers and theologians live? They should be present in this conversation.

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