Review: Theology, Aesthetics & Culture (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three-part review.

Robert MacSwain and Taylor Worley, eds. Theology, Aesthetics, & Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 313 pp., £68.00/$125.00 cloth.

In September 2010, after completing an MLitt in the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts (ITIA), I had the pleasure of attending a three-day conference fittingly titled “Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Conversations with the Work of David Brown.” Between 1999 and 2008, David Brown published five volumes with Oxford University Press (OUP): Tradition and Imagination (1999); Discipleship and Imagination (2000); God and Enchantment of Place (2004); God and Grace of Body (2007); and God and Mystery in Words (2008). These volumes served as the basis for the conversations at that conference, the proceedings of which have been published as responses in this book. In addition to the twelve plenary papers delivered at the conference, seven additional papers have been included in the publication (chapters 2, 6, 9, 10, 13, 16, and 19). Finally, and most importantly, the volume contains Brown’s own response to the various responses to his work found in these 19 chapters. Taken together, these chapters open up “the cumulative significance of Brown’s thesis as explored in this [OUP] series for a wider audience,” and form “an important original contribution to our understandings of theology, aesthetics, and culture” as related to the life of the Church, academy, and human society.”[pp. 9-10]

As with the conference, the volume is “most deeply indebted to David Brown,” as MacSwain notes, “not only for producing such an interesting and challenging body of work, but also for graciously allowing it to be subjected to this thorough and searching examination, and then providing such a robustly stimulating response to his interlocutors.”[v] Even so, the conference was not intended to honor the published work of David Brown on religious experience through culture so much as to give it greater critical attention and more serious engagement than it had hitherto received. It follows therefore that “this volume is intentionally not intended as a general Festschrift for Brown, but as a symposium focused on just these five books.”[p. 10n30] The volume is divided into five post-Introduction sections, one for each of Brown’s five OUP volumes followed by Brown’s “Response” and a Postscript. An appendix including references to select reviews of Brown’s five OUP volumes and an index round out this pricey but handsome hardback.

The remainder of this review will consider the first section which has to do with Brown’s Tradition and Imagination. In Chapter 1, William Abraham offers the best engagement with Brown’s work from this section, and is on the whole very appreciative of a book he rightly calls “a seminal contribution to the epistemology of theology.”[p. 27] His appreciation for the book, however, does not prevent him from pointing out a couple of fundamental disagreements with its arguments. Specifically, Abraham differs from Brown in thinking that “there is a vital distinction between something being revealed by God, say, by way of divine speaking or other revelatory activity, like the incarnation, and human discovery through experience, reflection, and imagination.”[p. 22] This is a critical distinction that affects claims which lie at the heart of Brown’s work. Abraham’s observation that “what Brown ultimately construes as divine revelation in tradition—as its texts are read and reread in new contexts—is surely better construed as a form of divinely inspired human insight and reflection rather than divine revelation”[pp. 22–23] appears to this reader as a needed correction.

In Chapter 2, Richard Viladesau offers an illuminating comparison of Brown and perhaps the most significant Roman Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner. Human experience and divine accommodation are vital components to both theologians’s understanding of God’s revelation, as well as “the acknowledgement of both the necessity and the ambiguity of the church and tradition as an extension or continuation of God’s ‘special’ revelation in Christ.”[p. 40] Besides raising the question of criteria—in this case, criteria for “judging which artistic developments are revelatory and which are aberrations”[p. 40]—Viladesau makes the additional point that even though both Brown and Rahner “have made significant contributions toward such a theology” of revelation, both theologians offer formulations which are incomplete, and so his hope is that “fruitful reflection” may result from “further engagement and mutual critique between their ideas.”[p. 41]

In Chapter 3, Margaret Miles engages least with Brown’s book of the first three chapters. In fact, she does little more than use Brown’s conception of tradition as an endorsement to offer what she considers a superior understanding of the human person than that which has been held during most periods of Christian history, namely that of an “intelligent body.”[p. 50] Most surprising, however, is that she proceeds to do so with only passing reference to Brown’s ideas, even though one of the five books under discussion is titled God and Grace of Body! Her discussion is certainly interesting, and to be fair she does refer in a footnote to a three-page review of Brown’s first two OUP volumes, warning that “as I have already written on the content of these two books” she does not wish “to repeat this material” in “this present chapter” but “to express some of my own thoughts that I believe run parallel to Brown’s.”[p. 44n5] That said, this chapter seems out of place in a book advertised as containing “Responses to the Work of David Brown.”

 


Originally published on 28th September 2013

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