Last month, I had the immense pleasure and honour of speaking at the opening of an exhibition of Wes Campbell’s artwork. Wes is a theologian, artist, and (retired) Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia. An edited version of my talk is now available on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal.
Below are a few more photos of Wes’ work – 1. Nativity; 2. Silence I; 3. Silence II; 4. Three Crucified Shirts; 5. Banksias and Leucadendrons; 6. Transfiguration of Christ; 7. Transfiguring Light IV; 8. Wholeness; and 9. Women Visiting the Tomb.
I am thrilled to announce that the manuscript for Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology, which I’ve been editing with Rod Pattenden, is now in the hands of the publishers. Updated details here.
What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?
Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?
Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.
In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:
After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.
Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.
Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.
In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:
Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,
My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.
That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –
Why is this the time to get creative?
Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.
As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.
Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.
Love, Nick x
Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought.
Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.
That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.
Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.
I was delighted to receive an invitation to contribute a short piece for Zadok and their issue on ‘Urban Spirituality’. It’s a great issue, with pieces by some amazing people – Karina Kreminski (who edited the issue), Alison Sampson, Simon Carey Holt, Glenn Loughrey, Siu Fung Wu, Jo Kadlecek, Sherry Maddock, Geoff Maddock, Melinda Cousins, Joel McKerrow, and Matt Anslow. My own contribution is some scribbles about street art. Details: ‘On the Gifts of Street Art’. Zadok 146, Summer (2019): 13–15. [pdf]
I was even more thrilled when they chose to use one of my photos for the front cover.
[Update: the Australasian Religious Press Association awarded this essay silver prize for ‘Best Theological Article’ in their 2020 ARPA Awards.]
Keynote speakers and a rich offering of short papers, creative presentations, and workshops, will lead us in stimulating conversation about what roles the imagination and the vocations of the artist play in navigating and shaping the complex and changing climates of contemporary life.
The keynote speakers are Emmanuel Garibay (a visual artist from the Philippines), Lyn McCredden (an academic and poet from Melbourne), Jione Havea (a Melbourne-based bible scholar), Trevor Hart (a theologian and priest from Scotland), and Naomi Wolfe (a Melbourne-based historian). Emmanuel Garibay will also be Artist-in-Residence, and his presentation on Thursday 16 July will be open to the public.
And we are issuing a call for short papers and presentations. Academics and practitioners in the fields of theology, visual art, music, performance, literature, cultural studies, poetry, philosophy, and/or history are invited to send an Abstract (approx. 250 words) of their proposed presentation, plus a short bio, to Jason Goroncy (email) by 31 March 2020.
From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.
This four-day event will provide a unique conversation space for artists, performers, creatives, academics, and activists, to consider the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – social, cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc.
It will also invite conversation around further questions: What kinds of change? What are the grounds and manner of hope, transformation, and resilience? What might the arts and theology have to contribute to such discourse and action, if anything? How do we attend to the margins of this discussion, and speak and act more holistically as communities of change?
In February 2019, I will be coordinating and teaching an intensive class on Theology and the Arts at Whitley College. The class is an introductory-level doorway into a range of other related subjects, including those on film, on imagination, on poetry, and on creativity and spirituality. It is aimed at practising artists, theologians, curators, pastoral workers, and anybody else with interests in the arts and/or Christian theology.
Recently, a wee menagerie of art lovers and theologians met to imagine some ways that we might together provoke theological reflection, and to promote research and networking, on the conversations that occur between the arts (broadly conceived) and Christian theology/spirituality.
This led to a commitment to pursue some modest experiments – joint publications, organise some conferences, offer some courses, and develop a new website, Art/s and Theology Australia.
We are now looking for writers, poets, composers, academics, artists, theologians, and other creatives and endangered species who might be willing to share their work and to help build this network and public depository. If you’re interested to be involved, check out the website and get in touch.
You can also subscribe to posts via email, and/or follow the site via Twitter.
The Englewood Review of Books has published a friendly two-part review, written by Rachelle Eaton, on my edited volume Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts. Rachelle has picked up on the story told in Mark 14.3–9 and referred to a number of times in the book, of the woman who anoints Jesus (i.e., prepares his body for its forthcoming burial) with ‘very costly ointment’, as a way into reflecting on one of the recurring themes to surface in the book. You can read her review here and here.
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.
My review copy arrived on the day National Radio were playing the third of the 2013 Reith lectures featuring the potter, Grayson Perry, speaking in Londonderry on the role of art in society with the title, ‘Nice Rebellion: Welcome in’. The introduction focussed on the role of shock and rebellion then he commented on the nature of pluralism, marketing and attitudes. He said:
‘Detached irony has become the kind of default mode of our time in the art world … it was dangerous when art became synonymous with shock, which it did for a while in the sort of 1990s. There was so much art that was seen as shocking that it became what people looked for when they went to art, when in fact you know art can be lots of different things’.
In recognising that multi-role function, Grayson was able to extend the discussion beyond the simplistic ‘Art as shock’ motif. That became clearer in a response to a question where he said, ‘Art does have a very powerful thing that it can offer you and that is you know when you get involved in making something, you kind of forget yourself for a moment as well; and you also, in little ways you are affecting the world. You know if you feel powerless and depressed or something, if you’re making something you are in a small way changing the world. You do have that power, you do have that opportunity’.
This collection of papers from the symposium all offers approaches to this second view of art. They traverse a range of the arts looking at poetics, aesthetics, literature, painting, architecture, multimedia worship and song. Some offered a more theological, others philosophical, while two contributions were self-reflective with a quite personal approach.
Goroncy’s Introduction provides an excellent overview of the theme with pointers as to how each essay fits into place, as well as some commentary as to where the idea of ‘tikkun olam’ has developed from, namely the Mishnah and its revival in the 16th century by Rabbi Luria (p. 14). Goroncy builds a framework for us using W. H. Auden and Rowan Williams as points of intersection. The theme leads ‘with “unconstraining voice” the way towards healing’ in a world which is dislocated by its hurt and ‘busy griefs’ (p. 2). He understands the essays are ‘birthed upon the premise that artists and theologians can help us to see and hear better’ (p. 5). Underlying such a claim is the idea that there is a truth about the world and that truth telling reveals both present condition and future possibilities, and that for the Christian, ultimately that truth telling is grounded in the divine revelation which illuminates human lives and concerns. He concludes with a description of a leitmotif that runs through most of the essays, that of the question of beauty and its place in the search for the justice of which the kingdom speaks, and responses to the various answers given to that and the hope for the world that is engendered.
I found I responded to the essays in different ways. The most accessible were the offerings of Libby Byrne and the conversation between Joanna Osborne and Allie Eagle. Each used images by the artist that gives the reader a sense of where the journey of each has taken them, as well as allowing an appreciation of the imagery used and how it illustrates the theme. I have always appreciated having commentary with titles for works of art so that I can reflect on what I am looking at and these two pieces of work provide that. I found myself clearly engaged with Libby’s story and her exploration of the wounds in the world through her own work and that of Anselm Kiefer. In her conclusion she speaks of having chosen to live close to the wound so that she is ‘open to the possibility of being transformed, made more whole than [she has] been before’ (p. 111).
The second pair was Murray Rae’s and Steven Guthrie’s essays using architecture and music. Rae’s exploration of Daniel Libeskind’s work in Berlin and his approach that won him the competition for redeveloping the Ground Zero site in New York was enlightening. It showed how the work of architects is also to be included in this mending of the world through what we build and how we build it to ‘reveal the extent to which the Spirit is at work’ (p. 150). In a quite different way, Guthrie’s exploration of our contemporary environment, drawing from both the Psalms and from Pythagoras’ idea of the music of the spheres, offered a new way to understand the act of communal singing, both choral and congregational. Each of these essays gave the reader something to hang their understanding on.
Carolyn Kelly and Jonathan Ryan both take as their focus the Markan story of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus. Carolyn explores how aesthetics has become lost from theological discourse particularly in the Protestant sphere, while Jonathan explores notions of beauty and extravagance using this story as the vehicle to address the issue of poverty and injustice. Each adds something to our reading of the text as well as inviting the reader to explore how art might have a role to play in our wider understanding of mending the world.
Julanne Clark-Morris explores the role of multimedia in worship. As she used two video pieces in her presentation that cannot be accessed through the medium of print, the essay becomes something of a taster with the promise of more behind it.
The last group of essays – by Bill Dyrness, Trevor Hart and John Dennison – all use literature and come across as more academic pieces. John Dennison’s essay on Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics I found heavy going and will need careful re-reading. I was unsure of which voice I was to hear – Heaney’s, the critics’ or Dennison’s; yet Heaney’s faith and his understanding of the role of poetry and the poetic imagination in the world certainly address the theme of the book.
Most of the essays give very good bibliographies that enable the reader to explore their own responses to each presentation. This has been a rich experience exploring a side of the world that I don’t often appreciate, and as one whose personal world is in need of mending I found particularly in Byrne’s essay something that, for me, makes the whole collection a worthwhile addition to my library.
– Alistair McBride is the minister of Scots and St Stephen’s Presbyterian Churches, Hamilton.
A quick note: the Kindle edition for my latest edited volume, Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, is now available from Amazon in the U.S., UK, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico.
1. “Prophesy to these Dry Bones”: The Artist’s Role in Healing the Earth — William Dyrness
2. Cosmos, Kenosis, and Creativity — Trevor Hart
3. Re-forming Beauty: Can Theological Sense Accommodate Aesthetic Sensibility? — Carolyn Kelly
4. Questioning the Extravagance of Beauty in a World of Poverty — Jonathan Ryan
5. Living Close to the Wound — Libby Byrne
6. The Sudden Imperative and Not the Male Gaze: Reconciliatory Relocations in the Art Practice of Allie Eagle — Joanna Osborne and Allie Eagle
7. Building from the Rubble: Architecture, Memory, and Hope — Murray Rae
8. The Interesting Case of Heaney, the Critic, and the Incarnation — John Dennison
9. New Media Art Practice: A Challenge and Resource for Multimedia Worship — Julanne Clarke-Morris
10. Silence, Song, and the Sounding-Together of Creation — Steven Guthrie
A brief section from the Introduction provides a summary of each chapter:
The essays compiled in this volume, each in their own way, seek to attend to the lives and burdens and hopes that characterize human life in a world broken but unforgotten, in travail but moving toward the freedom promised by a faithful Creator. Bill Dyrness’s essay focuses on the way that the medieval preference for fiction over history has been exactly reversed in the modern period so that we moderns struggle to make a story out of the multitude of facts. Employing Augustine’s notion of signs as those which move the affections, the chapter develops the notion of poetics as the spaces in peoples’ lives that allow them to keep living and hoping, suggesting one critical role that art can play in imagining another world, a better world. For art offers to carry us to another place, one that doesn’t yet exist, and in this way offers hope and sustenance to carry people through the darkest times. This is illustrated by the outpouring of Haiku after the recent tsunami in Japan, or in the spaces made available for poetry in Iraq. Most importantly, it is underwritten by the centrality of lament in the biblical materials wherein we are reminded that lament and prophecy provide aesthetic forms that carry believers toward the future that God has planned for the world.
The essay by Trevor Hart considers the place of human “creativity” (artistic and other sorts) and seeks to situate it in relation to God’s unique role as the Creator of the cosmos. It draws on literary texts by Dorothy Sayers and J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as theological currents from Jewish writers and Christian theologians, to offer a vision of human artistry as (in Tolkien’s preferred phrase) “sub-creation,” a responsible participation in a creative project divinely initiated, ordered, and underwritten, but left deliberately unfinished in order to solicit our active involvement and ownership of the outcomes.
Beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar has suggested, is “a word from which religion, and theology in particular, have taken their leave and distanced themselves in modern times by a vigorous drawing of boundaries.” More recently, a number of theologians have addressed this distance and attempted to dismantle the boundaries widely assumed between certain Protestant theologies and the realm of the arts or aesthetics. In her essay, Carolyn Kelly seeks to contribute to that communal exploration by addressing the particularly imposing boundary line demarcating, on the one hand, Reformed affirmations of the beauty of Truth and, on the other, a Romantic commitment to the truth of Beauty. Kelly reflects on what Romantic and aesthetic “sensibility” might gain from its modern counterpart and, in turn, what Reformed theological “sense” might have to gain from a re-cognition of Beauty.
But what place is there for extravagant works of beauty in a world tarnished with the ugliness of poverty and injustice? This is a question taken up by Jonathan Ryan in his essay. Beginning with the recollection of the disciples’ objection to an extravagant act of beauty retold in Mark 14:4, Ryan allows the “anointing at Bethany” narrative in Mark 14 to frame this question and to suggest the legitimacy—and necessity—of works of beauty and creativity for bearing witness to God’s extravagant love for the world.
Libby Byrne’s essay explores the premise that the artist’s calling is to “live close to the wound.” Locating this contention within the nexus that seems to exist between art, theology and philosophy, she argues that we are able to consider the prevailing conditions required for the artist to work toward the task of mending that which is broken, and, drawing on theory from Matthew Del Nevo and Rowan Williams, Byrne helps us understand the importance of melancholy and vulnerability in the sacramental work of human making. She provides examples of how this theory may work in practice with particular reference to the work of Anselm Kiefer and finally with her own studio practice, reminding us that it takes courage to choose to live and work close to our wounds, and also that by so doing the artist not only opens themselves to the possibility of transformation but also offers to others gifts that reverberate within the world and that call us to healing and wholeness.
New Zealand artists Allie Eagle and Joanna Osborne discuss the Sudden Imperative, Eagle’s art project that reframes much of the ideology she held as a feminist separatist during the 1970s. They also outline a reappraisal of direction and motivation in Eagle’s thinking and highlight the theological and reconciliatory center of her current art practice.
Murray Rae takes up the question posed by Theodor Adorno following the Jewish Holocaust and considers whether art can have anything at all to say in the face of evil or whether some evils might, in fact, be unspeakable. Through a consideration of architecture and, in particular, the work of Daniel Libeskind at Ground Zero and in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Rae contends that while architecture, along with the arts more generally, has no power to redeem us, much less to make amends, it can nevertheless give expression to our memories, our sorrow, and our penitence. He concludes that art may also reveal the extent to which the Spirit is at work within us, prompting us toward forgiveness and reconciliation and a true mending of the world.
In his essay on the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, John Dennison argues that one of the most notable—and least understood—aspects of Heaney’s trust in the good of poetry and the arts in general is the way in which his account approximates religious faith. Some critics have been encouraged toward the conclusion that Heaney’s poetics constitutes an active (if heterodox and often apophatic) extension of Christian theology through the arts. Most importantly here, John Desmond in his book Gravity and Grace argues that Heaney’s writings assume certain fundamentals that mark his transcendental cultural poetics as Christian. Central to Heaney’s thought, Desmond insists, is the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christian doctrine, and in particular the doctrine of the Incarnation, is indeed central to understanding the character of Heaney’s public commitment to the restorative function of art. But, Dennison argues, if we attend to the development and structures of Heaney’s thought, we can see how this influential account of the arts’ world-mending powers is not so much extensive with Christian soteriology as finally delimited by the biblical and theological descriptions it knowingly appropriates. It allows us to see, also, the degree to which Heaney’s trust in the adequacy of poetry turns on a refracted after-image of Christian doctrine, particularly that of the Incarnation.
Julanne Clarke-Morris’s offering proposes that multimedia worship and worship installations would benefit from a more consistent approach to aesthetics and context than is often the norm. She suggests that new media art forms offer communities of faith a range of ready-made critical practices that could amiably be brought to bear in the case of liturgical installation art. Seeking to draw attention to the coherence and communicative power of multimedia liturgical installations in order to improve both their accessibility and artistic credibility, she investigates some significant insights from virtual reality art, immersion art, multimedia installation art, and site-specific art as resources for preparing worship installations and assessing their effectiveness.
The closing essay, penned by Steven Guthrie, bears witness to ways in which Christian scripture and the Christian theological tradition both testify to a natural world that has a voice; one that not only speaks, but sings. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah speaks of mountains and hills “bursting forth in song” (Isaiah 55), and St John exiled on the island of Patmos listens with astonishment to “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth” singing (Revelation 5). This idea is taken up in turn by Augustine, Boethius and many others in the tradition, where it is often joined to the Pythagorean idea of “the music of the spheres.” According to this tradition, all of creation comprises a finely tuned symphony, the combined voices of which articulate the Creator’s praise. This tradition of thought—conceiving of the world as a singing creation—is a valuable resource for all who hope to faithfully care for God’s world. The musical creation described by Augustine and other theologians is a beautiful and profoundly interconnected cosmos, filled with an astonishing harmony of human and non-human voices. In this universal song, humans have a vital but circumscribed role. Silence, song and harmony have the capacity to make us more—or less—fully aware of, and more—or less—responsive to the world we inhabit. Music may act as a kind of aural armor by which we shut out the voices of the creation and others who inhabit it. It may also be a weapon by which we dominate the surrounding space. Or music may be a schoolmaster from whom we learn attentiveness and responsiveness, and with which we might join with all creation to participate in God’s symphonic work of healing the creation.
More information about the book is available here.
In July this year, the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Otago hosted the first of what promises to be a biannual lecture series in honour of Professor Albert Moore. This year’s lectures were delivered by Professor Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Professor of Fine Arts at Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, and addressed the theme ‘Toi Karaitiana: Christianity and Māori Art and Architecture’.
For those who missed these lectures, or would like to experience them post festum, these are now available:
Lecture 1: From Samuel Marsden to Frederick Bennett: Te Hahi Mihinare (23 July) [Video; Audio]
Lecture 2: From Patoru Tamatea to Ralph Hotere: The impact of Catholic spirituality and iconography (24 July) [Video; Audio]
Lecture 3: Regret and resistance – The Crucified Tekoteko (25 July) [Video; Audio]
My friend Andrew has also provided a wee summary of the lectures here.
Recently, the publishers, essayists and myself have picked up a gear or two with the final edits on the forthcoming book“Tikkun Olam”—To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts (Pickwick Publications). The book is a collection of essays premised on a very basic conviction that artists, theologians and others have things to learn from one another, things about the complex interrelationality of life, and about a coherence of things given and sustained by God. The essays therein attend to the lives and burdens and hopes that characterize human life in a world broken but unforgotten, in travail but moving towards the freedom promised by a faithful Creator. More specifically, they reflect on whether the world – wounded as it is by war, by hatred, by exploitation, by neglect, by reason, and by human imagination itself – can be healed. Can there be repair? And can art and theology tell the truth of the world’s woundedness and still speak of its hope?
The Foreword was written by New York-based artist Alfonse Borysewicz, and the Table of Contents reads thus:
Also, Jeremy Begbie and Paul Fiddes were kind enough to read the manuscript and to provide the following endorsements for the book:
‘Artistically sensitive, theologically rich, and eminently readable – this is a rare combination, but it is amply demonstrated in this fascinating set of essays’.
– Jeremy Begbie, Duke Divinity School, Duke University
‘Emerging from a theological symposium and an art exhibition, the essays in this book show in glorious profusion and profundity the marks of this double origin. Theologians, artists, literary scholars, and musicians combine to bear witness to a world that is broken and yet is also the stage for a decisive event of divine love and healing. These are essays full of insights about order and disorder, beauty and tragedy. Their achievement is to make the reader think and, above all, imagine’.
– Paul S. Fiddes, University of Oxford
When the book becomes available, I’ll be sure to let readers here at Per Crucem ad Lucem know.
The department of theology at Durham University is hosting a one-day colloquium (13 June) on Ecumenical Readings of Aquinas. It will include presentations by Andrew Davison, Christopher Insole, Marcus Plested and Lewis Ayres. Details here.
The Australian Catholic University is organising a conference titled ‘Addressing the Sacred through Literature and the Arts’ (2-3 August). The conference will aim to ‘address acts of creation and co-creation and encourage a dialogue between artists, scholars and audiences in a mutual exploration of the sacred’. Keynote speakers are Amanda Lohrey, Kevin Hart and Rosemary Crumlin. Details here.
For details about other theology conferences, visit here.
While their respective projects are not always as divorced from one another as is sometimes suggested, it would be fair to say that theologians and artists do not always share the same concerns. That said, I suspect that every reader of the Book of Psalms will have sensed something germane to the vocation of both theologian and artist. Both are concerned, it seems to me, with a deep commitment to fostering and sharpening a triple vision—to take seriously what has been, what will be, and what is contemporary. (Another way of thinking about this is to simply take the journey with St Paul through Romans 5 to 8.) And theology, like art, responds to that triple awareness, resists the temptation to dissect the tri-part vision, and keeps asking—in its own particular way and with its own particular tongue—the foundational questions for all being; namely, who is Jesus Christ, and what has God done, what is God doing, and what has God promised to do in him?
Put otherwise, both art and theology properly seek to speak about what our eyes have seen, about what our ears have heard, about what our lips have tasted, and about what our hands have touched. And both are equally concerned with the matter of hope—about what our eyes hope to see, our ears hope to hear, our lips hope to taste, and our hands hope to touch. And both are concerned too to be attentive to the immediate, to what is, to those realities contemporary to our senses. So art and theology are fixed on a triple vision—of attention to what is behind and before and over the horizon—a vision grounded in the history of God’s own past, future and contemporaneity.