Tikkun Olam – a review by Lynne Baab

Tikkun Olam CoverJason Goroncy (editor), Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). ISBN: 9781610979221; 208pp.

A guest review by Lynne Baab

In recent years, congregations are engaging more intentionally with the arts. Music and, to some extent, poetry and drama have always played a role in congregational life and worship, but now the visual arts are becoming more prominent as well. Increasingly, congregations display or even create visual art during worship. Some congregations have established temporary or permanent art galleries showcasing artists and craftspeople from within or outside the congregation. Christians are discovering that the all the arts – visual art, music, theatre, poetry, etc. – are a wonderful way to make connections with the wider community. In the midst of this growing interest, theological reflection about theology and the arts is welcome.

Tikkun Olam gives the opportunity for us to listen to a range of voices on this relevant topic. Several of the voices will be well known to New Zealand Presbyterians. Contributors include Professor of Theology and Presbyterian minister Murray Rae, Presbyterian minister Jono Ryan, and Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership Intern Carolyn Kelly Johnston, and the editor of the volume is Jason Goroncy, Lecturer and Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre. Most of the ten chapters in the book began their life as presentations at a 2011 symposium and art exhibition in Dunedin. Two of the chapters are written by internationally known writers and speakers on Christianity and the arts: William Dyrness, Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Trevor Hart, Professor of Divinity and Director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. The additional contributors come from New Zealand, Australia and North America.

Jason Goroncy, in his Introduction, mentions that the opening two words of the title, Tikkun Olam, appear first in the Mishnah and can mean ‘repairing’, ‘mending’, ‘welfare’, ‘perfection’ or ‘healing’ of the world. The choice of title indicates the role that contributors believe the arts play, which includes an acknowledgment that things are not right with the world and that Christians need to explore all possible means to bring healing. Jason expands on this idea by citing Rowan Williams, who writes about the ‘acute awareness of the world not being at home in itself’. Artists, Jason believes, are called to speak responsibly into that reality, ‘to speak with fidelity not only to time but to eternity, and to acknowledge the meaningful relation of both to human being in the world and, in so doing so, dignify the human condition’. Jason quotes a W. H. Auden poem and notes that the poem describes the role of poetry in pointing ‘the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous’.

I particularly like the subtitle of the volume which avoids the temptation to focus on a biblical basis for the arts or a theological foundation for engagement with the arts. ‘Confluence’ implies overlaps and reflection, and the essays accomplish that task well. I’ll illustrate what that confluence looks like by describing the chapters written by people familiar in the PCANZ.

Jono Ryan, minister at Highgate Mission in Dunedin and New Zealand coordinator of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, has titled his chapter, ‘Questioning the Extravagance of Beauty in a World of Poverty’. Using the story of the woman who poured the expensive jar of ointment on Jesus’ feet (Mark 14:3–9), Jono describes the reasons why questions about the extravagance of art might be asked today in the light of world poverty. He affirms the significance of the questions, but also argues that the woman’s ‘excessive’ action has true parallels with Christ’s extravagant gift to us on the cross. He acknowledges that we cannot definitively solve this question but that we need to keep wrestling with it: ‘To be a follower of Jesus means, among other things, to live attentive to the cry of the poor. But it also means to live attentive to the beauty of God, which does not distance itself from poverty and injustice, but seeks to transform it’.

Carolyn Kelly’s chapter is entitled ‘Reforming Beauty: Can Theological Sense Accommodate Aesthetic Sensibility?’ Using Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility as well as the same story Jono cited about the woman anointing Jesus’ feet, Carolyn discusses some of the history of theological ‘sense’ juxtaposed with artistic ‘sensibility’. She argues that theology and the arts must meet each other in order for us see the aspects of both that ‘we have become inured to’.

Murray Rae’s chapter, ‘Building from the Rubble: Architecture, Memory and Hope’, focuses on architecture after disasters, including World War 2 and September 11. He cites the architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin as an example of the way a building can help people process grief, participate in the world’s brokenness and move toward healing. Murray writes: ‘Architecture itself cannot heal our brokenness. But what we build and how we build it can reveal the extent to which the Spirit is at work within us, nudging us toward forgiveness and reconciliation and a true mending of the world’.

The other chapters include these titles: ‘The Artist’s Role in Healing the Earth’, ‘Cosmos, Kenosis and Creativity’, ‘Living Close to the Wound’, and ‘New Media Art Practice’, showing the range in the essays. I long for congregations and their leaders to continue to grow in seeing the arts as a way to experience God’s beauty and engage with the wider culture. This volume made me think more deeply about the role of the arts in healing the world.

Lynne Baab is the Jack Somerville Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago and Adjunct Tutor at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership.

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