Response to the Reviews of A Peculiar Orthodoxy and Redeeming Transcendence

I am grateful both to James McCullough and Ewan Bowlby for their thoughtful, concise and stimulating reviews of my books A Peculiar Orthodoxy (PO) and Redeeming Transcendence (RT), and to Transpositions editor Karen McClain Kiefer for the chance to respond to them.

As both reviewers see clearly, at root these books are concerned with allowing the disturbing and multi-faceted witness of the New Testament to be felt and heard in the arena of the arts. This of course means paying close attention to the canon as a whole and to subsequent tradition, including the major creedal confessions. But the primary pressure I am attempting to discern is that which gave rise to these extraordinary texts. I am still surprised at how little close engagement with Scripture we are seeing in the current theology and arts conversation.

James wants to point up some of the differences between me and some other voices in the current theology and arts conversations. He raises the question of criteria – and helpfully so. In PO (and in public) I have pressed David Brown to address the issue of the theological criteria that shape our assessment of claims to identify the presence and activity of God, the norms that govern and shape the theological enterprise at the ground level. (The conversation continues.) As far as beauty is concerned, I have found that certain assumptions about it too easily assume a determinative role in the current theology and the arts scene – hence what James calls my ‘reticence’. I have come to believe that writers like Nicholas Wolterstorff who speak of moving the theology and arts dialogue ‘beyond beauty and aesthetics’ need to be taken seriously.

The concern is not to jettison consideration of beauty but to avoid being mesmerised by traditions of reflection on beauty that have only tenuous connection to the self-disclosing acts of the God of Jesus Christ.

It is the same orientation to the New Testament that makes me hesitant to endorse the kind of Logos ontology to which James alludes. Much more, of course, could be said about how the Logos concept and the wisdom tradition operate in the New Testament (Ewan alludes to this in his review). At any rate, to be clear: what is at issue here is not whether Christ is present and active in the world at large. (If I didn’t believe that, I would not have spent so much time writing about and performing music outside the Christian Church.) No; the crucial matter is rather two-fold: (a) the extent to which reference to Christ, in his personal and historically earthed particularity, is required to articulate a theology of God’s active presence in the world; and (b) the extent to which transformation of the human person (in community) is required for consciously participating in, and thus faithfully perceiving, such presence. Ewan fears this kind of approach is too narrow: ‘Working with a broader, more generous definition of transcendence might help theology to avoid shutting out those who find themselves on the uncertain peripheries of faith’. I can understand the sentiment. But I can’t help feeling it confuses strategy with theology. Yes of course, as a strategy, simply downloading a Christian doctrine of transcendence on those hovering on the edge of faith is almost bound to be counter-productive. But why assume that, in order to be ‘generous’, our working theology should loosen its ties with that particular Person in whom the generosity of God has been embodied and enacted par excellence? When I find Bonhoeffer claiming that ‘The more exclusively we acknowledge and confess Christ as our Lord, the more fully the wide range of his dominion will be disclosed to us’, I’m inclined to think he had a point.

Leaving aside James’s strange comment that in my theological discussion of beauty, I fail to give corresponding artistic examples (half of a chapter is devoted to doing just that), there is the remaining issue of aniconism, and my supposed preference for language, for the ear over the eye. I am intrigued that James thinks I am anxious about representational art, and Ewan thinks I’m anxious about abstract art (!). In fact, I am anxious about neither in themselves, only about the weak theologies that are often used to justify and interpret them. Of course, despite my insistence that we must never set ear against eye, it may be that some readers will still cast me off as yet another Protestant hopelessly trapped in iconoclastic prejudice. More careful readers will, I hope, find something rather different. Again, the core issue is not about what I do or do not prefer, nor about the danger of becoming captive to a Protestant fetish for words (though that is real). It is about whether we are prepared to come to terms with a conviction that would seem to belong to the very heart of the Christian faith: that God has directly and dynamically engaged with human language, supremely in the incarnation, as part of God’s desire to heal and re-shape the human race. As a bodily practice, I see no reason to think speech was excluded from the humanity the Son assumed to redeem. Out of this divine engagement with language, the Christian tradition affirms that a speaking community arose, along with community-embedded norms of language-use: pre-eminently the canon of Scripture. It is in this light we may begin to speak of Scripture’s priority. All this, of course, raises a host of complex questions and challenges. Above all, it presses us to think very carefully about the relation of the verbal to the non-verbal – a relation which, it turns out, does not need to be imagined in terms of one medium oppressively dominating the other, as is so often thought. (I expand on all this at length in Music, Modernity, and God.)

A final point concerns the role of metaphysics in theologies of the arts – something raised by James. Again, the key issue is not about whether or not a theologian engages in metaphysics (it is unavoidable), but about what energises and constrains that metaphysics. Biblically grounded Christian tradition has affirmed that the inner trinitarian life has not remained ‘invisible’ (in the sense of inaccessible) but has been opened out to us within history, albeit without being entrapped or enclosed by that history. As I make clear in RT, this is where the metaphysical ‘heavy-lifting’ should be oriented. As I have tried to make clear there, and have found with readers and audiences all over the world, this orientation will nourish the arts in ways that are endlessly surprising and delightful.


  • Jeremy Begbie is the Thomas A. Langford Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School and founding Director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. He teaches systematic theology, specializing in the interface between theology and the arts. He is also an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge. Previously he has been Honorary Professor at the University of St Andrews and was co-founder of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. A professionally trained and active musician, his particular research interest is the interplay between music and theology, and his publications include Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker/SPCK 2007) and Music, Modernity, and God (OUP, 2014).

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