For anyone familiar with the interdisciplinary conversation in theology and the arts, Jeremy Begbie’s name is well known. Begbie has been arguing for music – and arts more broadly – as sites for serious theological engagement for some time (his first major monograph, Theology, Music, and Time, is now a landmark) and has pioneered an approach to doing theology that goes far beyond superficial attempts to get “behind the art” with questions of authorial intent. Begbie’s approach is, as he describes it, to think theologically in (or “amid”), with and through the arts themselves, respecting them as able to articulate and express theology in ways that can be more faithful than can prose to the peculiarity of Christian orthodoxy.
A Peculiar Orthodoxy is a collection of previously published and independent yet interrelated chapters; the topics Trinity and Christology recur regularly throughout the book. The collection showcases Begbie’s ability to narrow in on the specifics of a particular work of art and situate it within broad, sweeping historical, theological, philosophical and aesthetic contexts. These kinds of moves make it clear that Begbie has long set up shop on the corner of the intersection of theology and the arts.
In Chapter 1, Begbie outlines the character of created beauty through a trinitarian and christological frame in relation to the music of J.S. Bach, especially his compositional conventions. Chapter 2 describes the relationship between beauty and sentimentality, suggesting that the emotional journey in the Triduum – Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter – is a model of beautiful and honest engagement with God. Chapter 3 explores the relationship between music’s formative and expressive potential through emotion, concentration and bodily behavior, especially in worship.
Chapter 4 enjoys some overlap with the content of the first and seventh chapters as Begbie engages directly with David Brown on the question of normative criteria for theology and the arts. This chapter is not only at the physical center of the book but is in many ways the metaphorical center as it defends the theological-scriptural method that Begbie employs throughout the rest of the book. Chapter 5 is an extended treatment of the theological significance of ambivalence and the object of Christian hope in the text and music of composer Edward Elgar’s setting of John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius.
The relationship between the Holy Spirit and the arts is at the core of Chapter 6, where Begbie treats the poetry of George Herbert at length (with, admittedly, almost as much attention to the other two persons of the Trinity). Chapter 7 is in some ways a summary of method for theology and the arts, especially in the potential for their use in natural theology.
Chapters 8 and 9 are highlights of the book. In Chapter 8, Bebgie suggests that shifting from a visual to an aural (that is, musical) sense of spatiality can alleviate tensions in theological discussions of the divine-human relationship, especially regarding agency and freedom. Chapter 9 is of particular interest to Reformed readers who may know of the work of Dutch neo-Calvinists Hans Rookmaaker, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Calvin Seerveld. In this final chapter, Begbie seeks to set out how a Reformed theological lens might serve as a corrective to recent lines of inquiry into sacramentality and God’s presence, as well as the limitations of language in understanding God’s self-communication.
Brushing past contemporary worship
As a student in liturgical studies and music, I was drawn to the select places where Begbie highlights contemporary worship, namely in a discussion on sentimentality and the arts in Chapter 2 and in a discussion in Chapter 7 of music’s power (or lack thereof) to mediate God’s saving power directly. Though the need for ongoing assessments of contemporary worship practices is as needed as ever, Begbie’s summary treatment of this broad phenomenon is uncomfortably more superficial than the way he engages with other styles, traditions and specific works of art elsewhere (despite his soft disclaimer). Looking to his engagement with worship more broadly, I would have benefited from a more explicit reflection on the practice of the arts as doing theological work concretely, especially within worship.
A peculiar strength of seeing this arrangement of decidedly academic essays side by side is that it highlights method and methodology for doing theology amid the arts. Begbie’s unwavering attention to Scripture as the source for the peculiarity of Christian orthodoxy – peculiar both in its strangeness and its distinctiveness – is exemplary. The arts, Begbie suggests, are especially capable of attending to both the mystery and concreteness of Scripture’s witness to the Triune God – that is to Christian orthodoxy. In A Peculiar Orthodoxy, Begbie offers readers an opportunity to move beyond binary oppositions between the allusiveness of the arts and the dogma of doctrine. In this way, the collection is as much a call to scripturally grounded, orthodox Christian reflection as it is about the usefulness of the arts to do that work.