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Compare and Contrast

By March 1, 2013 No Comments

Lisa DeBoer

In the foreword to Steve Guthrie’s Creator Spirit, Jeremy Begbie observes, “In our culture, there seems to be an intuitive sense that ‘the spiritual’ and the world of the arts are somehow intimately related.” As a professor teaching in an art department in a Christian liberal arts college, I can attest to the truth of this observation. Whether the underlying assumption itself, however—that the arts truly are somehow uniquely, intimately spiritual—is correct, remains to be argued. Creator Spirit Cover Were one to attempt that argument, Guthrie’s Creator Spirit would be a good place to start. In three distinct sections, Guthrie develops a theology of the Holy Spirit as “the humanizing Spirit,” applies this understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit to the work of the artist, and then points both the Spirit’s work and the artist’s work toward the Eschaton. In the end, while I remain unconvinced that the arts are uniquely spiritual, I am very grateful for this book, which gives me fresh ways to help my students think theologically about their work as artists.

The first section of Creator Spirit makes the case for the Holy Spirit’s work in remaking humanity. Drawing on both scripture and theology—particularly Athanasius—Guthrie argues for the Spirit as the one who remakes us by inviting us into right relationship to God, to self, to the material world, and to others. Throughout these chapters, Guthrie demonstrates his argument by drawing strong analogies to, or strong contrasts with, specific works of art. A sensitive analysis of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme provides an example of a “spirit-ual” work of art; parsing the theories and works of Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg demonstrates unsuccessful attempts to “spiritualize” art. Explicating the place of singing in the New Testament as a manifestation of being filled with the Holy Spirit reveals the harmony of individual and community that characterizes the life of the Spirit.

The second section of the book explores the question of artistic inspiration. I found these chapters especially engaging, as my students often struggle to understand “inspiration” in theologically coherent ways. Using Plato’s Ion and Susan McClary’s critical musicology as foils, Guthrie positions the work of the Holy Spirit as an antidote to the extreme passivity that both Ion and McClary’s social constructivism assume, returning agency to the artist as a worker who receives gifts from the material world and from human culture, and renders them back as gifts in turn, ref lecting the gift which is God.

Guthrie’s third and last section looks forward to the ways in which the work of the Spirit, and thus by extension the work of the artist, points to the consummation of history and the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. As he did with “inspiration,” Guthrie helpfully recalibrates what might be considered properly “prophetic” about the arts, and reclaims “beauty” as a characteristic of art considered in light of the terrible beauty of Christ. Throughout these chapters, Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe acts as an artistic interlocutor. The book concludes with the argument that as the rehumanizing Spirit, the Holy Spirit is also the beautifying Spirit.

From start to finish, this is an engaging book. I look forward to sharing it with my students. If I have any qualms, they pertain to the larger “theology through the arts” project of which this book is a part. It’s never been exactly clear to me whether “theology through the arts” is primarily about doing theology, deepened and enriched with examples drawn from the arts, or whether it is about developing an apologetic for the arts as a theologically privileged domain of human culture. The fact that we don’t have projects on “theology through family life” or “theology through gardening” leads me to think that the real aim is the latter. And if that is the case I worry about claiming too much for the arts. Creator Spirit, however, left me less worried about the aims of the “theology through the arts” project as a whole, and grateful for what I learned through this extended exercise in “compare and contrast.” The art of juxtaposition is central to my own discipline, art history. The comparisons need not be systematic to be illuminating. Good comparisons sharpen the eye and throw into relief something about each component that was not so clearly visible before. It’s always an enjoyable test of one’s observational and analytical skill; it often deepens appreciation; on occasion, the method helps us name something absolutely central to proper understanding that we’d not been able to notice before. In the case of Creator Spirit, the juxtaposition of artistic creativity and the work of the Holy Spirit does just that, helping us see the work of the Spirit more richly, and that of the artist more accurately.

Lisa DeBoer teaches art history at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.