Review: Places of Enchantment, and The Gothic Enterprise

9780281067923Graham B. Usher, Places of Enchantment: Meeting God in Landscapes. London: SPCK, 2012, xvi + 141pp., £10.99 paper.

In this easy to read exploration of the role of landscape in the personal and cultural encounter of God, Graham Usher journeys through “eight different landscapes … to celebrate something of the enchantment of these places.”[xvi] For Usher, enchantment is described as the experience of “beauty, wonder and simplicity … evoked as we see the extraordinary in the ordinary.”[p. 11] Excepting the first and last, most of the chapters of this ten chapter work are named after a type of landscape in which Usher seeks to show how “something more about the wonder and beauty of God”[p. 22] is revealed.

In “The Contours of Landscape,” Usher asks: “But what is Landscape?” He begins by comparing an observer’s approach to landscape to the immanence and transcendence of God. He notes:

[Landscape] is something that is physical, can be touched, moved around within, observed and explored …. the closeness or distance between the observer and the observed [landscape] changes the perspective. Another dynamic, which has clear parallels with the Christian understanding of God’s immanence and transcendence, is around whether we are detached and observing … or part of the scene.[p. 4]

The next eight chapters explore different landscape types, and offer reflections on humanity’s relationship to these landscapes as well as how they can be understood within a theological framework. Usher walks through Land, Forest, River, Mountain, Desert, Garden, Sea, and Sky. Not only is the reader presented with a rich description of each landscape, but also, through explorations of art, literature, poetry, anecdote and even archaeology, we are given an historical report on humanity’s cultural engagements with them. Calling on theologians ancient and modern (e.g., David Brown), and exploring biblical theologies of landscape, Usher builds the theological context for the exploration, preservation, and experience of great natural beauty.

In the final chapter, Usher summarizes: “Landscape is sanctified by the incarnation and it is Christ that we are bidden to meet, even in part, in the moments of enchantment that we glimpse all around us in the created world.”[p. 139]

Places of Enchantment will be a satisfying read for those interested in the experience of God in nature, and those seeking to explore a short cultural and theological history of the pursuit of the divine in landscape.  It will also be welcomed by those looking for a read that moves beyond mere argument and approaches meditation and deep spiritual reflection.

Review by Thomas C. Brauer

9780520269996Robert A. Scott. The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, 2nd rev. ed.. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2011, ix + 294 pp., £18.95/$26.95 paper.

In this delightful read, Robert A. Scott, Associate Director Emeritus of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, not only introduces the reader to the Gothic Cathedral but also seeks “to understand the very idea of a cathedral—any cathedral,”[p. 1] through investigating the following sociological questions: “Why did people build these great structures? How were they built? What were they used for?… In addition to asking ‘how,’ I was drawn to the other questions that animate this book, namely, ‘why,’ and ‘for what purposes.'”[pp. 4, 8]

Scott divides his book into five sections. The first section sets the context for the Gothic cathedral: the social/economic/theological context that preceded the Gothic era, the materials required and the techniques employed for construction, avenues for necessary funding, and the composition of the workforce. In the second section, Scott takes on the challenging task of understanding the various political, social, economic, and religious factors that motivated cathedral building. Rightly, Scott demonstrates the complexity of human action; instead of reducing cathedral building to a primary motivation, he recognises that both sacred and secular forces were at play in decision-making, revealing that even the most beautiful examples of church art and architecture have both holy and self-seeking motivations.

The third section takes the reader inside the cathedral, explaining the different architectural elements of the Gothic style as well as the theological beliefs at play. To this end, Scott discusses the medieval concept of God, divine order, and the influence of the belief “that all visible objects contain within them the potential to reveal the divine—indeed, that through the contemplation of material objects, we can gain a direct experience of God.”[p. 122] He also spends ample time discussing how Gothic architectural decisions demonstrate the theological pursuit of light: “[i]n medieval theology God concealed Himself so as to be revealed, and light was the principal and best means by which humans could know Him.”[p. 131]

The fourth section considers the relationship between religious experience, sacred space, and human creation. In this section, Scott specifically considers the role of visual art in the church space, arguing that in the Middle Ages, “it was obvious that sacred spaces had to be created and that the act of creating them demanded the highest forms of artistic expression of which human beings were capable … sacred space demanded art—not just any art, but the most beautiful, exquisite, and refined expressions of human artistic endeavor available … [p]eople feared that a failure to use the best of human creativity might be interpreted by the divine as a slight, an indication of something less than full devotion.”[pp. 154-155] The final section concludes with further scene-setting, exploring how medieval living conditions, actions of priests and kings, and community pride and identity influenced cathedral-building. Scott’s concludes with the similarities between Gothic cathedrals and what is known about the building of Stonehenge.

In addition to being both an informative and interesting read, this book attempts the challenging task of understanding why the Gothic cathedral came to be in a time when “England was afflicted by the worst famine to occur during the entire Middle Ages, recurrent epidemics swept the country, including outbreaks of plague, and there were significant periods of war and incessant civil unrest. No more than 5 percent of the population could read, and no more than 2 percent could write.”[p. 42] While identifying motivation is only ever speculative, Scott’s book is an opportunity for the reader to enter into this fascinating historical period and conjecture with him about what might have been in the minds and hearts of those who have left us these beautiful Gothic structures.

Review by Sara Schumacher

Image Credits: SPCK and University of California Press

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