A Review of
Tikkun Olam—To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts,
Jason Goroncy, Editor
Reviewed by Rachelle Eaton
Tikkun Olam—To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, edited by Jason A. Goroncy, is a collection of papers that grew out of a symposium and art exhibit on the same theme. Tikkun olam, literally the healing of the world, is an idea from the Jewish tradition which the contributors explore, in Goroncy’s words, as “both a confession that things are not right with the world, and an act of hope that things might be bettered, or even made new.” The book provides not a comprehensive overview but a sampler of the variety of work being done in Christian theology and the arts as this confession and hope.
The essays have been carefully arranged and I recommend reading them in order. Loosely speaking, they move from theory to practice. William Dyrness describes the basic theological functions of art: art shapes our loves, art gives us the imagination necessary to attempt to heal the world and, finally, art gives the means for lament. Trevor Hart uses Dorothy Sayers’ play The Zeal of Thy House and Tolkien’s concept of the “sub-creator” to lay some groundwork for the relationship between human and Divine creativity (creare, creator, and creation were used solely of God’s activity until the Renaissance).
Carolyn Kelly explores the relationship between Enlightenment rationality and Romantic aesthetics, juxtaposed using Jane Austen’s terms “sense” and “sensibility,” concluding that, though the emotions and experience are often viewed with suspicion, both “sense” and “sensibility” are necessary for the Christian faith. Jonathan Ryan considers the appropriateness of art in a world full of poverty; he argues that an act of extravagance, even “waste,” pictures Christ’s gift of self-emptying through incarnation and cross.
From here we move to the practice of particular artists, including images of their work, which one could wish were color plates rather than black and white (though some of them can be found online). Libby Byrne explores the way artists attend to the wounded places in our lives, the wombs from which, like Jesus’ empty tomb, new life can grow. Allie Eagle discusses her work from her days as a lesbian separatist and leader of the women’s art movement in New Zealand in the 1970s and her current body of work, which responds to the earlier pieces from her changed perspective as a Christian. Murray Rae considers the work of architect Daniel Libeskind at the Ground Zero monument and the holocaust memorial Jewish Museum Berlin, showing how, though architecture cannot heal our brokenness, it expresses our openness to the Spirit’s work toward that healing.
John Dennison examines the way Seamus Heaney’s poetics approach religious language, particularly the almost Christ-like position of poetry as a mediator between human history and transcendence. Julanne Clarke-Morris addresses the use of installation art for worship, giving some examples and principles to follow. Finally, in an inspiring essay that almost embodies a doxology to close the book, Stephen Guthrie considers the topic of sound: in contrast to our modern “aural solipsism,” Judeo-Christian thought and ancient Greek philosophy both consider creation to have a voice, a song. Reclaiming practices of silence and singing can help us return to a state of harmony with a world that has been so damaged by our considering it a mute, inert object for our use.
To go a bit deeper than these brief summaries I would like to highlight the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume, as told in Mark 14:3-9, which is referenced by three of the essayists.
Carolyn Kelly uses this story as an example of how “theological truth might be apprehended and enacted through sensual experience; it proves that an ‘aesthetic sensibility’ might get things right” (emphasis original). Although the woman was accused of waste, Kelly connects this to Jesus’ teaching that whoever loses (or wastes) their life for his sake will find it. This is in contrast to the attitude of the “philistine,” who values art only for pragmatic reasons; the “wastefulness” makes true worship possible. The woman’s anointing is prophetic of Jesus’ own “wasteful” offering of himself. She shows her understanding of Christ’s identity in a super-rational way; “she is acting into more than she knows and can articulate” (emphasis original).