If you are part of a church community seeking to make the arts an authentic part of its life, you should know about Jeremy Begbie. As young Protestant and Evangelical churches discover and renew the place of stuff in worship—sounds, smells, movement, pigment, and clay—they need guides who can help them do more than dabble in the liturgical attic. In his books and essays, Begbie outlines a theology of the arts that is rooted in the past and alive to the present. Calling contemporary churches out of their historical amnesia, he offers a middle course between what he calls “word-obsessed Protestantism” and “floating aestheticism.” A true generalist, Begbie has a deep knowledge of music, the visual arts, theology, and church history, and writes in accessible, sprightly prose. This bird’s-eye view allows him to engage with a broad stream of culture, making him indispensible reading for pastors and worship leaders looking to find their feet in the world of theological aesthetics. He’s hopeful for the contemporary church—he believes that with care and discipline, church communities can come to a theology of the arts that is substantial enough to allow their congregations to engage even with difficult work, and that this engagement will bear good fruit. Begbie’s books are a treasure trove, but if you have a chance to hear him in person, don’t miss it. Seated at a piano, he plays bits and pieces of music—from Messiaen to TV jingles—weaving them seamlessly into his talks. A passionate advocate for an incarnational theology of the arts and a church that knows its tradition, he is also an elegant musician and consummate showman—like Irenaeus meets Duke Ellington.
I have been based at Duke Divinity School for two and a half years, while spending much of the time on Duke’s behalf in Cambridge. I see my calling over the next few years as a mixture of teaching, writing, speaking and performing, with a special focus on building up Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. My own writing is currently centered on a project which aims to show how music has been caught up in the theological struggles of modernity. Too many Christian accounts of the modern (and postmodern) age assume it is the sciences and philosophy that will tell us about the ‘big issues’ that Western culture has been negotiating for the last 500 years, and the arts get pushed to one side. That needs to be remedied. I shall also be publishing a book of sermons, and I am currently working on a remarkable piece for two pianos by Messiaen (Visions de l’Amen) which I’ll be performing next year in the context of a multimedia presentation, as part of Duke’s collaboration with the University of Cambridge.
Jeremy Begbie is the inaugural holder of the Thomas A. Langford Research Professorship in Theology at Duke Divinity School, North Carolina, and founding Director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. He teaches systematic theology, and he specializes in the interface between theology and the arts. His particular research interest is the interplay between music and theology. He is also Senior Member at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculties of Divinity and Music at the University of Cambridge. Previously he has been Associate Principal at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and Honorary Professor at the University of St Andrews where he directed the research project, Theology Through the Arts at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.
He is author of a number of books, including Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (T & T Clark); Theology, Music and Time (CUP), and most recently, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker/SPCK) which won the Christianity Today 2008 Book Award in the Theology/Ethics Category. He is a professionally trained and active musician, and has taught widely in the UK, North America and South Africa, specializing in multimedia performance-lectures.