Why a Scriptural Imagination Is Essential to the Making and Enjoying of Art

Recent years have witnessed fruitful conversations about the interplay between Christian theology and the arts. But what these dialogues need most, according to Duke Divinity School theologian Jeremy Begbie, is a firmer grounding in Scripture, the classic creeds, and a Trinitarian imagination. In his latest book, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, Begbie draws together such topics as beauty, natural theology, divine and human freedom, and the role of emotion. Jennifer Craft, associate professor of theology and humanities at Point University, spoke with Begbie about the mutually enriching relationship between faith and the arts.

You highlight the value of Reformed theology for conversations about the arts. How do you see it affecting the way we think about and practice the arts in Christian communities?

It’s hard to explain trends. But in the ever-growing ferment between theology and the arts, there are signs of a new interest in the Reformed tradition. The tired old caricature of Calvinism as anti-art has been radically revised. The legacy of writers like Hans Rookmaaker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Calvin Seerveld continues to be felt, and many are finding that a Reformed outlook brings a much-needed freshness to old debates.

Perhaps its most important contribution is a refusal to blur the boundary between God and world. This doesn’t mean treating God as divorced from the world or indifferent to it. But it does mean seeing the cosmos as made to praise God in its creatureliness—and believing that the arts witness to God most powerfully when they aren’t trying to play at being God. The artist can explore, celebrate, and develop the stupendous variety of the physical world, but without treating the world as if it were God in disguise or imagining that the artist is divine.

Along with this, a Reformed perspective shuns all sentimentality—the Cross reveals that this world is fundamentally good but marred and disfigured. The Christ-inspired artist will present the natural world, for example, as glorious but painfully flawed, awaiting its climactic liberation in the new creation.

You argue that beauty is an important yet confusing topic in theological discussion. Where have we muddied the waters, and how might we think differently about its role in the arts?

Some people think I have no time for beauty. Anything but! My concern is only that Christian talk about the arts tends to jump to beauty too quickly.

There are a few things to bear in mind. First, the idea that there is some kind of necessarylink between the arts and beauty is in fact fairly recent. It’s not obvious that the aspiration toward beauty is what makes the arts distinct from other activities.

Second, if beauty is understood through ideas like unity in diversity, proportion, attractiveness, and so on, all these need to be anchored in the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. That is where all the concepts associated with beauty have been supremely put on display. The fallacy is to think we can borrow a fixed concept of beauty from a pre-made philosophy and then simply graft it seamlessly onto a Christian imagination of the world. If we’re thinking about the beauty of the created world, this has never been more clearly seen than in Jesus’ resurrection, which previews the new creation. That will rescue beauty from all ideas of sentimental prettiness.

I believe Christians ought to have the courage to re-form all the concepts associated with the arts (beauty, inspiration, sacrament, creativity, the “aesthetic,” and so on) in ways that take seriously the costly path of God’s redemptive plan.

Why does Christian dialogue about the arts need to remain grounded in Scripture?

The Christian faith is shaped first and foremost by the Old and New Testaments. This is where we rediscover, again and again, what God has done and is doing with the world he loves.

Of course, the Scriptures give little direct instruction for the creative artist. Instead, they offer what I call a “Christian ecology.” They witness to a three-fold Creator who takes on flesh in Jesus Christ, to a cosmos made by and through Christ, and to a vision of the human calling as “voicing creation’s praise.” My colleague at Duke, Richard Hays, speaks of the church’s urgent need to recover a “scriptural imagination,” a way of “living into” these ancient texts so that they reshape us from the inside out. That applies to the artist as much as anyone else.

These are exciting times for biblical scholarship. Sadly, many of us involved in theology and the arts leave the Bible behind very early in the conversation.

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Source: Christianity Today