Book Review: Voicing Creation's Praise
So writes Jeremy Begbie, author of Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts.
How do you react to that? It slightly depends on your understanding of what a ‘priest’ is, I suppose, and/or perhaps on your understanding of ‘calling’. Which is why it is important to understand what Begbie himself means by it, before we appropriate our own meaning to it with whatever approbation or censure that may bring!
In fact, Begbie originally introduces the phrase ‘priests of creation’ as one of the six main themes in his first book Music in God’s Purposes, going on to say ‘The Bible speaks many times of creation praising God; it is our role to extend that worship, to enable creation to glorify its Maker in a way that it could never do if it were left to itself.’ In his helpful review of that book, Ali Reid said: ‘…something slightly longer would have allowed Begbie to defend his position more thoroughly. I was particularly left with a question mark over why he had chosen the six main themes he did…’
Well, in Voicing Creation’s Praise (hereafter VCP), Begbie answers Ali’s question by giving us something which is considerably longer, indeed a veritable treatise on what he means when he describes the artist/musician’s calling as a ‘priest of creation’.
Divided into three sections, each section with five or six chapters, VCP really is expansive. In the first section, Begbie outlines and then critiques the theology of the arts conveyed by the twentieth-century German philosopher Paul Tillich; in the second, he again outlines and critiques a theology of the arts, this time that espoused by the Dutch Neo-Calvinists – Kuyper, Bavinck, Dooyeweerd, and later adherents Rookmaaker and Seerveld; in the third, Begbie outlines his own position, mainly constructed from the foundations of the Neo-Calvinists, but differing from them in some key areas, identified in his earlier critique of them.
It may be useful to give a précis of Begbie’s final section to give you an idea of what to expect, and as such I’ve included an appendix to this review with an expanded version of the following brief summary:
- Begbie first outlines his theology of creation, creativity, the humanity of Christ and its implication for out creative/artistic activities.
- He then outlines the historical and philosophical reasons for the ‘alienation of the arts’ from ‘normal everyday life’ and the effects of this, before proposing an alternative way forward.
- He then outlines eight ways in which as ‘priests of creation’ we can ‘voice creation’s praise’, based on the theological and philosophical insights of the preceding two chapters, touching on our conception of art itself, how we might ‘discover order’ and ‘redeem disorder’, how we might evaluate art, how we conceive of ourselves in relation to art (he argues against seeing ourselves as individuals pursuing self-determination but rather as relational beings in community with responsibilities to our society), and how we conceive of beauty and inspiration.
- He finishes with a fascinating discussion of epistemologist Michael Polanyi’s account of metaphor, how it applies to music, and what the theological ramifications of it are.
VCP is an impressive book, covering a vast scope of related topics, engaging with a huge number of thinkers from a range of disciplines – theology, philosophy, epistemology, aesthetics – and as such deserves attention.
Its breadth is probably its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Whilst on the one hand, the number of topics explored meant I felt I was learning new things and encountering new ideas in each chapter, which certainly made for a rich reading experience, it also meant I often felt a little dissatisfied with how far each repository was mined, and frequently I wished Begbie had at the very least given some specific examples of the various theories he was challenging or proposing. The subtitle of the book - Towards a Theology of the Arts - is definitely accurate: here we are not given a thorough theology of the arts. Rather, we are given a map of the surrounding landscape, descriptions of the various contours found therein, and some preliminary sketches necessary in the planning stages for constructing such an edifice. It makes you wish for the manor itself, and that is no bad thing.
This is a book that deserves a wider readership, especially among Christian music students, and especially among Christian music students interested in philosophy, aesthetics or musical criticism. On a practical basis, I have little hesitation in saying that unless you happen to be very interested in the philosophy of Paul Tillich, there is no shame (and certainly much time and effort saved) in skipping the whole of the first section. Given that Begbie concludes by rightly critiquing (and essentially rejecting) Tillich’s weak Christology, so little of it is carried forward by Begbie in constructing his own position as to be inconsequential. The second section on the Dutch Neo-Calvinists is eminently more readable and relevant to Begbie’s own position, but even here, you could save yourself some time (if you were so inclined) by simply reading Begbie’s very useful ‘summary’ sections at the end of each chapter.
Practical steps going forward
VCP is a serious academic book, and as such, is not cheap, and so in order to read it, borrowing from (preceded, if necessary, by ordering it up to) your music faculty library is probably your best bet. If there’s enough of you in your Music Network group interested in some of its ideas (see the Appendix below), you could even use the chapters of the final section over the course of a term for group discussion, though the reading would need to happen prior to the sessions themselves.
If you’re serious about thinking Christianly and deeply about music, art, knowledge, and philosophy, get this book out, and read it in tandem with someone like-minded - perhaps a fellow-student, perhaps your CU staff worker, perhaps your Music Network mentor - and enjoy the inevitable result: some very stimulating discussion!
Below is an expansion of the earlier brief summary of Begbie’s third and final section.
1. In the chapter entitled ‘Christ, Creation and Creativity’, Begbie outlines a theology of: creation ex nihilo; God’s commitment to His creation; order and disorder; the transformation of disorder; and what the humanity of Christ means for our humanity, this last applied particularly to the creative arts:
- ‘…human creativity is supremely about sharing through the Spirit in the creative purpose of the Father, as he draws all things to Himself through His Son’ (p179).
This creativity he then couches in terms of ‘discovery’, ‘respect’, ‘development’ and ‘redeeming disorder’, done ‘together’, i.e. in community.
2. In the chapter entitled ‘The Alienation of Art’, Begbie outlines how and why, philosophically, the arts became more and more separated from ‘normal everyday life’, and how this affected the arts themselves. For example, as German musicologist Curt Sachs once wrote:
- ‘The growth of musical forms that we observe in Europe from the seventeenth century on seems to be connected with the growing separation of music form social life and extramusical claims. Contents, sizes, and forms underwent an obvious change when music became self-contained, to be listened to in public concert halls and opera houses by audiences wholly devoted to its artful elaboration’ (p194).
He then proposes that an alternative way forward can be found, drawing on the epistemology of philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer.
3. In the chapter entitled ‘Artistry in Christ’, Begbie finally spells out more concretely what the priestly task of voicing creation’s praise actually entails.
- Recovering ‘a deeper sense of our embeddedness in creation, and of the physicality of artistic creation; the rootedness of art in substance, in the human body, in stone, pigment, in the twanging of gut, the blowing of air on reeds’ (p206).
- Recovering a sense that ‘works of art are first and foremost instruments and objects of action, inextricably part of the fabric of human purposes, through which we carry out our intentions with respect to the world, our fellows, and ourselves’ (p207).
- ‘Discovering order and redeeming disorder.’ This is extensively discussed, with some useful explications and qualifications, notably that this does not commit artists to a mere ‘reproductive’ or ‘copy’ theory of art, and furthermore that ‘responsible creativity involves a penetration of disorder’ (p213).
- Rejecting the isolation of a work of art from the context in which it was created as though to do so were to maintain its “purity” and our ability to interpret/appreciate it “purely” on the basis of its internal form and nothing else. Rather, ‘art can, in fact, illuminate (or obscure) reality in ways that can be assessed and appraised… a work of art can direct our attention to states of affairs beyond itself (and beyond the consciousness of the arts), and…can reflect (with varying degrees of potency) values which transcend cultural preference, without thereby losing its distinctiveness as art’ (p216).
- Rejecting the idea that ‘art affords no cognitive contact with reality’ (p217).
- Acknowledging that ‘there are norms pertaining to the arts which are not wholly relative to our own theoretical frameworks, paradigms, forms of life or whatever’ (p218). In other words, it is possible to evaluate art, and here, whilst Begbie concedes the huge difficulty even in formulating criteria for such evaluation, he comments briefly, following American Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff in (a) distinguishing between aesthetic excellence (“that is made well”) and artistic excellence (“that serves its function well”), (b) reminding us that ‘moral appraisal cannot be discounted’ (p219), and (c) suggesting that ‘the difficult process of making judgments about art can be most fruitfully illuminated by reflecting on the character of divine judgment’ (p219).
- Rejecting art as the pursuit of self-determination, and rather recalibrating it as an activity of relational beings, such that:
- We will view works of art ‘as ineluctably acts of communication’ (p220).
- ‘It would not be inappropriate to plea for greater attention to be given to an artist’s responsibility to his society’ (p220), and therefore also ‘there are going to be occasions when we are bound to speak of a community’s responsibility to, and support of, its artists...’ (p221)
- ‘We will be suspicious of sanctifying originality as the supreme artistic virtue, and will seek to rehabilitate a sense of the importance of tradition’ (p221).
- We will acknowledge and embody the fact that ‘the arts will flower best in the context of… a ‘dialogical community’, in which conversation, undistorted communication, and communal judgement inform our commerce with the world’ (p223).
- Recalibrating our understandings of beauty and inspiration, with the former considered not as a static quality discovered innately in creation (and the pinnacle of artistic endeavour) but rather as a dynamic quality understood chiefly in ‘the redeeming economy of God which culminates in Jesus Christ’ (p225), and the latter considered not as ‘a divine ‘take-over’ which pulls us into a super-human ecstasy’ but rather as ‘being caught up in a movement originating in an infinite God who has created all things out of nothing and has will to free his creation from all that enslaves it’ (p228).
4. In the chapter entitled ‘Art and Metaphor’, Begbie finishes with a fascinating discussion of epistemologist Michael Polanyi’s account of metaphor and how it may be applied to our understanding of the meaning of music (also drawing on the writings of Leonard Bernstein, Deryck Cooke and Susanne Langer) – ‘the representational aspect of music is the temporal morphology of creation as we encounter it, that is, the structure of processes which we experience in time – both within and beyond ourselves’ (p245), and ‘an art work must be enjoyed as a unity of frame and story’ (p246) – before going on to explore some of the theological ramifications of this metaphor-centred, cognitive view of art:
- Art is irreducible. ‘We simply cannot reduce art to literal statement without simultaneously robbing of content’ (p248); ‘Whatever meaning is disclosed in a piece of art is given in and with the work itself, not as an ingredient to be distilled out, but as a total impact which claims our attention and involvement’ (p249).
- Art’s function is far more than ‘to release and provoke emotional dispositions’ (p249).
- In evaluating art, we must be ‘careful not to attempt to distil the ‘message’ or ‘story’ without first approaching it as integration of frame and story’ (p250), and yet nor must we restrict our evaluation simply to the piece’s ‘frame’, that is, its performance, the technique employed in its production etc.
- Art is not about creating deceptive illusion, because, as in a verbal metaphor, ‘representation depends on recognising the distinction between subject and medium’ (p251). Rather, artists ‘encourage us to envisage or imagine a world distinct from the actual world’ (p251), and ‘the composed, projected world of an artists bears the potential of showing us something of the actual world’ (p252) such that it ‘may lead us to change our attitude to the states of affairs with which it deals and which inform our day to day lives.’ But ‘this is not a case of confusing the imagined world with the real world, but of having our experience of the everyday world enriched and illuminated by the imagined world’ (p252). In an encounter with excellent art, ‘we are taken out of ourselves in order that we may return to a deeper appreciation of the reality in which we have our ordinary existence.’ (p252)