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?