‘Looking to the Future: A Hopeful Subversion’ by Jeremy Begbie

Review of chapter 8 of For the Beauty of the Church, Edited by David O. Taylor. This is the final post in our series of reviews.

The final essay in this remarkable collection turns our gazes toward the future and toward what, with God’s help, is possible.  Confronted with the question, “what is the future of Christianity and the arts?” Begbie carefully sidesteps the temptation to engage in “futurology.”  Instead he invites us to imagine the ways in which a vision of God’s promises can become a reality for the present relationship between the church and art.  He brings to this task a trinitarian framework, in which the Spirit perfects all of creation through a “hopeful subversion” of the present by the future.  He suggests six different ways that this “hopeful subversion” may be applied to the relationship between the arts and church.  The brief summary is an invitation to imagine the possible ways that the arts can contribute to the life of the church, and that the life of the church can contribute to the arts.

First, the Spirit unites the unlike. He observes that in Protestant churches there is a “hankering after homogeneity.”  He notes that we even “find ‘artistic types’ forming their own churches.”  He suggests that, instead, Christians should find ways to celebrate diversity, and that pastors and artists, in particular, may be different in ways that are complementary.  He says that artists tend to “access the gospel” through their materials, while Pastors often dwell in a different kind of language that “has proved necessary to the health of the church.”  Where artists are metaphorical, he suggests, Pastors and the tradition of the church tend to be propositional.  How can these two different (though inter-related) modes of thought be used to reinforce each other rather than as a means of division?

Second, the Spirit generates excess. The arts remind us that God’s creation and consummation of the world is abundant and excessive.  The arts accomplish this in two ways.  First, the arts cannot be reduced to evolutionary or biological necessity.  Second, “they always ‘suggest’ more than they can tell.  The most enriching art is multiply evocative and allusive.”  How can Christian churches incorporate this excessive dimension of art into their worship and mission?

Third, the Spirit inverts. He describes the Christian vision of the future as “a dizzying, inverted world: the comic world Jesus brought to mind and lived out, where the rich become poor and the poor rich, where the humble are exalted, the exalted humble.”  Artists and pastors alike, says Begbie, need to be “stood on their heads by the Holy Spirit.”  In what ways can art embody and enact the inverted future that Jesus proclaims?

Fourth, the Spirit exposes the depths. He reminds us that the victorious lamb of Revelations still bears “the marks of slaughter.” (5:6)  “This should stand as a subversive warning against all sentimentality: when we misrepresent reality by evading or trivializing evil, usually for the sake of indulging pleasing emotions.”  But there is another kind of sentimentality? The kind that ignores the hope we have in Jesus for the redemption of all things.  The Christian artist lives between the existential and the eschatological; the already and the not yet.  How can the church live in this tension and find ways to “expose the depths”?

Fifth, the Spirit re-creates. Human artistry is an invitation to participate “in the re-creative work of the Triune God.”  He suggests that artists and pastors “take the notion of creativity and rethink it along these Christ-centered and trinitarian lines, offering a refreshing ‘hopeful subversion’ of an overused and rather tired concept.”  I think that the subversion of the “artist as creator” requires nothing less a subversion of popular Christian notions of the divine creator who effortlessly holds creation in the palm of His hand.  God gives nothing short of Himself in the creation and redemption of His world.  It is through the suffering and death of Christ that God re-creates the world, and it is here where we find our most challenging model of what it means to be a human, and also, therefore, of what it means to be an artist.  How can artists and pastors contribute to new ways and healthier of thinking about human creativity?

Sixth, the Spirit improvises. Begbie writes “One of the reasons artists and pastors need each other is to learn and relearn together that the richest fruit comes from the interplay between order and non-order, between the given chords and the improvised rift, between the faithful bass of God’s grace and the novel whirls of the Spirit.”  How can the arts contribute to a church that seeks after and lives out the interplay between order and non-order?


  • Ben says:

    Unrelated to the content of your post, I will just mention that tvtropes is awesome.

  • Dayton Castleman says:

    “[T]he arts cannot be reduced to evolutionary or biological necessity.”


    I think this speaks very clearly and succinctly to earlier conversations (they have seemed to recur) about art’s usefulness, utility, or practical value. I think that some of the difficulty of discussing this is caused by not properly framing the conversation into distinctions between the ontological, and teleological. I’m probably totally overstepping my expertise by using those terms in this case, but they are what comes to mind. Of course art is useful. Always. It’s just not necessary.

    Coincidentally, this came up in my own artwork as I interacted with the paper shredder piece pictured on the home page of this blog below Jim’s review of Begbie’s chapter. I never really understood that particular work (the “chicken salad” thing was simply the impetus for making it), until someone raised the issue (and the accusation) of wastefulness. The piece does shred 600 feet of perfectly useful paper every day it is displayed, and I had to grapple with the ecological/biological significance of this as the artist. An artist always “wastes” a little material when making something, but this thing is just obscene . It shamelessly wallows in material waste for all practical purposes. It demonstrates a lavish indifference to trees.

    But this wastefulness (and how really very gorgeous it looks while going about wasting) brought to mind this passage in scripture: “While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

    Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

    “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

    These words helped me understand my own work a little better, and helped me more closely understand the relationship between a work of art and its usefulness. I completely ignored the object’s biological or evolutionary “necessity,” yet the object has taught me something about art, about the world, and helped me more richly understand the Biblical narrative I mentioned above — an outplay that was completely unintended by the artist (of that, I can assure you). It has also found itself useful for helping illustrate my thoughts here.

    • Jim says:

      Dayton, thanks for this reflection on your paper shredder piece. The relationship between art as useful and art as useless has been a constant motif throughout the past week of reviews and conversations. In relation to this motif you mention a couple of things that I find particularly interesting.

      First, you say that art is useful, but it is not necessary. This, I think, is an important distinction. Works of art do not emanate from a psychological need of the artist. In other words, there is no necessary ground or reason for the existence of a work of art. And yet, we find all sorts of uses for them. The fact that we do find works of art to be useful suggests to me that the value we find in what otherwise might have been bits of paper and paint is ultimately grounded in an economy of grace.

      Second, you draw attention to the wastefulness of your paper shredder sculpture. Even though the shredder is being used for its purpose you have (literally) turned this piece of technology on its head and allowed its usefulness to spill over into an excess of wastefulness. Now, not all wastefulness is good. Evolutionary biology has taught us that life on earth has progressed in a very wasteful way that often leads to death and suffering. But the evolution of life is also wasteful in a good sense. The remarkable diversity of forms of life that need never have existed and unexpected genetic variations all contribute to a world that is beautiful and wonderful. As you point out, Christians have always held a spot within their theology for the gratuitous and wasteful. It is this world, full of waste, that sings praises to its creator. I think that whatever value we can find in ‘wastefulness’ is ultimately grounded in God’s creation of the universe, for Christians believe that God created according to his will and not simply according to his reason. The world made by the Christian God contains an element of what theologians often call contingency: things need not be as they are and yet God uses them to achieve his ends. And so now I think we arrive at the relationship between ontology and teleology that you mentioned. The ontology of the world is grounded in God’s sheer delight, and the telos (end) of the world is grounded in God’s gracious love of the creatures he has made.

  • David Taylor says:

    Dayton and Jim: I say amen and amen.

    As a historical note, the paper that Jeremy delivered at the symposium was not the kind of paper I had originally envisioned. I had envisioned a kind of “state of the nation” address. From Jeremy’s standpoint, I imagined we would be invited into a far-sighted vision of past and present that would result in a “futurist’s” prognostication of patterns to come. Tell us the future, Jeremy! Fortunate for me and the rest of the participants, Jeremy ignored my never explicitly-stated wishes. Instead he gave us something much better. He gave us an exercise in theology, which proved a far richer experience and in the long-run, more fruitful. As the months go by, I find myself more keenly grateful for the specifically pneumatological take that he offered us.

    As I mention in a comment on my blog, I think a Trinitarian pneumatology is one of the richest fields of Christian thought left largely un-explored by contemporary theology, or church people for that matter. There are pockets here and there, and the literature continues to grow, almost at an exponential rate. So that’s encouraging. The unfortunate habit of Christians, however, is to think of the Holy Spirit in non-Trinitarian ways. That leads to so-called Romantic ways of fusing the Spirit with the “Muse” or to any number of individualistic conceptualizations of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life.

    What results, I find, is crappy theology and messed up artists.

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