The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics
By Bruno Forte
Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art
By T.J. Gorringe
Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination
By Malcolm Guite
Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality
By Belden C. Lane
TOWARD THE END of his life, the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth wrote that the theologian’s work should be wholly governed by the “logic of wonder.” Of course, Barth went on to note parenthetically (and I would guess, with a smile), there is the persistent danger that theologians will instead end up committed to just the opposite: the wonder of logic. In my experience, many people seem to find theology and beauty to be an odd pairing. They are surprised or puzzled when I mention the titles of some of the courses I teach: Faith and Beauty, Theology and the Arts. Perhaps this is precisely because there have been too many theologians devoted to the wonder of logic, and too few to the logic of wonder. Certainly, the term often used to designate this particular academic sub-discipline, “theological aesthetics,” sounds daunting, technical, and austere. Whatever the reasons for this perceived estrangement, four recent books testify to the depth and vitality of the current conversation between art, beauty, and Christian theology. All are thoughtful, well-researched, and attractively written works by practicing theologians. Two in particular—those by Belden Lane and Malcolm Guite—are thoroughly exceptional books; beautiful, engaging, and filled with striking insights. Moreover, each of the four is accessible and relatively free of technical jargon. They breathe the air of delight and astonishment and exude the logic of wonder.
Having said all of that, one of the most notable things about these four contributions is not what they share in common, but the ways they are different. One general impression that emerges from surveying them together is the breadth of the current dialogue.
It is a conversation, to begin with, that extends to more than one artistic medium and considers the function of beauty in more than one domain. Bruno Forte is mostly concerned with the topic of beauty within theology itself. His book surveys “the deep, even though not always obvious, contribution of theological thought to the understanding and experience of beauty.” Belden Lane, on the other hand, gives special attention to beauty in the natural world and in erotic love, and the vital role delight in this beauty has to play in Christian spirituality. Malcolm Guite’s volume is a theological study of poetry, while Timothy Gorringe explores “parables of the Kingdom” in visual art.
The books are also diverse in the theological resources they identify. Guite’s main dialogue partner is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose achievements as a poet are well known, but whose contributions as a philosopher and theologian are less widely recognized. Belden Lane’s Ravished by Beauty turns to Reformed theology—a tradition often assumed to have little interest in earthly beauty—and demonstrates instead the rich resources to be found in the work of John Calvin, the Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards. The basic theological categories for Timothy Gorringe’s Earthly Visions, in turn, are taken from Karl Barth—another theologian sometimes caricatured as hostile to beauty. Again, the range of sources is instructive. There is more than one place to turn in the Christian tradition for thinking about art and beauty. This is a conversation that is not only deep, but wide.