Jeremy Begbie, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts (Baker Academic. Pp. 224. $32.)
Review by David Beadle
No theology suffers the blows of sentimentalism more than that of beauty and art. Words like presence, sacrament, and participation are thrown around too freely in theological circles, and at times lack specific meaning. In light of this vagueness, Jeremy Begbie offers A Peculiar Orthodoxy. Peculiar refers to those specific tensions in Christian dogma that refuse to be resolved and orthodox to that commitment of leaving them unresolved, of refusing to gloss over them, of allowing them to speak, rather than shutting them up. According to Begbie, Christian theology should not inhibit artistic expression, but should rather provide a path toward its truest expression.
Beauty is not the same thing as art. This and other important distinctions appear in Begbie’s book. Beauty is either created or divine. The former refers to nature while the latter refers to (leaning on Barth) the “form of God’s glory in his self-revelation.” Between created and divine beauty, then, is an existential tension that inspires art. For Begbie, as an example, the cry “take me away” from the presence of God in Newman’s Dream of Gerontius reveals an ultimate decadence, while George Herbert’s resolution — “Lord, pardon, for thy sonne makes good / My want of tears with store of bloud” — exemplifies how theology and art should relate to one another. In the case of Herbert, shame and anxiety are expressive, but they are not ultimate. This sort of art reflects the redemptive story faithfully.
A Peculiar Orthodoxy critiques tendencies in contemporary discussions of art and theology that tend toward sentimentalism. It is sentimentalism that places meaning in mere subjective emotion, that trivializes evil by vague appeals to progress, that ultimately idealizes the world and tends “toward premature harmony.” The implications are a theodicy that reaches for Easter Sunday without Good Friday, a “world without the Fall.” This recalls the bad sort of Christian art that speaks more of modern optimism than it does the redemption of a broken world in Christ. In good Barthian fashion, Begbie attempts to locate functioning definitions of art and beauty in the specific redemptive event of Jesus Christ and all that this implies. This is, to my mind, the primary theme of his book.
Begbie’s primary contribution is his perspective on the unique power of music to speak when words fail. Though theologians labor to hold the seeming paradoxes of the Christian faith together, music provides a compelling explanatory experience of such tensions. Doctrines of “transcendence and immanence, divine immanence, divine and human agency, and Christology” and not least, Trinitarian theology, are best understood through the experience of musical harmony. Whereas language always amounts to a zero-sum game between these tensions, musical harmony reveals, in a metaphorical way, how distinct notes can be held together without being enfolded into a separate new thing.
Begbie justifies this claim by appealing to the lack of spatiality in the musical experience; spatiality and temporality are what limit visual art by forcing paradoxical tensions into a zero-sum game of dominance or separation. Through the musical experience of harmony, we have access to a non-linguistically bound language for God, creation, and their relation. Harmony holds distinction in a nonviolent unity. This is how dogmatic tensions are held together.
This volumes advances the conversation between art and theology, albeit with his unique vantage. Begbie argues compellingly for a specifically Reformed view of art in defense of its efficacy (leaning heavily on Calvin, Barth, Wolterstorff, and others). This includes cautioning language of participation and sacramentality, a brief engagement with the thought of Radical Orthodoxy, and a critique of the liberal theology of David Brown. The whole book is worth reading for, if nothing else, the final two essays that address human and divine agency, a strong defense of classical notions of freedom, and the benefits of Reformed theology’s relationship to art and beauty.
I don’t share all of Begbie’s concerns. References to participation and sacramental ontology are overused and can become vague and meaninglessness, but that doesn’t have to be the case, as in the careful arguments of Radical Orthodoxy. Even without accepting Radical Orthodoxy’s take on the nature-grace unity, the analogy of being, or their Neo-Platonic Thomism on the whole, there is much to offer in continuing the conversation of art and beauty.
Two examples that could be fruitful: first, Begbie’s engagement with Bach is one of the best parts of his book. It is begging, however, for Catherine Pickstock’s development of the concept of non-identical repetition in Repetition and Identity. This seems so fitting to me that I was half expecting each paragraph in the first two essays to mention it explicitly. Second, I wonder how Begbie’s phenomenological separation of music from language holds up under philosophical scrutiny. Would he disagree with the linguistic mediation (of the divine) that defines the human experience for Radical Orthodoxy? Is Begbie willing to make the specific point that music is not linguistic? Is this a necessary claim, haunting his argument throughout? This book isn’t about Radical Orthodoxy, but Begbie intentionally leaves space for Radical Orthodox thinkers to contribute fruitfully to the conversation.
A Peculiar Orthodoxy provides a refreshing understanding of the relationship of beauty, art, and theology that doesn’t devolve into either sentimental gloss or dogmatic suppression. Begbie defends art from suspicious theologies and theology from idealistic art. This is a well-researched, carefully argued book that will likely play a role in Reformed discussions of art and beauty for years to come.
David Beadle is director of student ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Tyler, Texas, and a student at the University of Texas, studying English, philosophy, and religious studies.