In Image issue 64, theologian Jeremy Begbie reviews books by James Elkins and Daniel Siedell on the often-uneasy relationship between religion and contemporary art. We asked him about his emphasis on church tradition, and why deep commitment always beats neutrality.
Image: In the current issue of Image you review two books on the visual arts, but you are also known for your deep knowledge of music, both as a performer and as a theorist. How do your interdisciplinary interests affect the way you do theology?
Jeremy Begbie: As long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in finding connections. My father, who was a physiologist, loved to trace the links between his discipline and visual art and poetry. It was always natural for me to look for links between music and the other arts, and, when I came to faith, to search for resonances between music and theology.
By its very nature, theology is concerned with God in relation to every facet of life and experience. I think being a good theologian means being multiply alert—with eyes and ears open in all directions to the multiple ramifications of Christian truth. That’s what I try to show when I teach and write—and I can’t think of wanting to operate in a more closed, categorical way.
Image: Your review touches on the way two thinkers—a secular critic and a Christian critic—deal with the relationship between contemporary art and religion. Is there any hope for developing intellectual common ground between the communities these two writers represent?
Jeremy Begbie: I believe there is, and that’s because I believe in the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit is the go-between, the one who makes all fruitful communication possible.
The danger is in thinking we can find some neutral common ground, some space that is unaffected by our deepest commitments. That is impossible. The Christian enters into honest and respectful conversation with the non-Christian not by suspending commitment, but as someone committed to a particular God, eager to find signs of the activity of this God wherever they may be found, and open to learning more about what this God might be up to in the world. It is this God who will find the common ground for us. For many years I have been engaged in conversations with artists of little or no faith, and often been astonished at the way spiritual matters emerge quite naturally. But I find it fruitless if I pretend to be uncommitted.
Image: You praise Daniel Siedell’s God in the Gallery for reminding us that Christians need to think not only about scripture but also about tradition, and about the church as bearer of tradition. Could you say a little more about what you mean by that?
Jeremy Begbie: Sadly, in some parts of the church, amnesia is a common ailment. Protestants can easily think that little of importance happened between the close of the New Testament and the Reformation, and between the Reformation and the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We often pride ourselves in being free of tradition, relying solely on Scripture. The truth is that no one can escape tradition—we all read Scripture with tradition-shaped eyes. The Protestant movement is itself a complex post-biblical tradition. The question is not “Should we trust tradition?” but “which tradition(s) are we going to trust?”
Too many of us never look outside our own particular tradition. Siedell rightly draws our attention to those central early church traditions (especially the Council of Nicea) which consolidated and energized the church at a crucial early stage of its life, and which proved so important for all that followed. To know these traditions well means we will not be easily fooled by each “new” heresy that comes along in our own day (which in any case usually turns out to be a very old one in disguise).
Of course, it is also important to have an awareness of one’s own particular tradition. A friend of mine speaks about having ‘roots down, walls down’. He means don’t simply sample a few icons here, dabble in a bit of contemplation there. Have roots in a great historical tradition, get to know it properly. And belong to a community that lives as if it were true—traditions don’t exist in vacuums, they nurture and are kept alive by churches. But then remember: you are not the only garden in town. Learn from the life beyond your own walls.
Image: You are interested in the role of the arts in worship. How can churches today incorporate contemporary art more thoughtfully into worship?
Jeremy Begbie: I think the key is sensitive, careful education. There are ways to help a congregation “read” contemporary art so that it becomes a vehicle of authentic and heartfelt worship, through talks, sermons, leaflets, and displays. I have seen many churches incorporate a variety of art in worship, including works that would be challenging even in a gallery. Provided that the focus of those who do the educating is on enriching God-centered worship, the possibilities are endless.
Image: You have recently accepted an appointment at Duke University. Tell us a little about what you hope to do there in the coming years.
Jeremy Begbie: I’ve been hired to teach theology and to promote Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, a vibrant program of the Duke Divinity School, in partnership with the University of Cambridge. We want to combine cutting-edge academic research with first-rate teaching, and interweave these with exhibits, concerts, performances and workshops. Duke is brilliantly geared up for this sort of enterprise—I feel very privileged to be based there.
Image: What question will your writing address next?
Jeremy Begbie: I am fascinated by how theology—a verbal discipline—handles (or doesn’t) nonverbal media like painting and music. So I am writing a book that tries to steer a course between a word-obsessed Protestantism on the one hand (the idea that if it can’t be adequately stated, it can’t be true) and a sort of floating aestheticism on the other hand (“paint it, sing it, but don’t spoil it with words”). I’m convinced this is one of the biggest challenges facing the church at present in a cultural context that relies on highly sophisticated nonverbal communication: how can we do justice to the potential witness of media without words while still believing that God has taken human words into the very center of his purposes?