Jonathan Ryan uses this story in considering the old question: how can we justify the time and expense spent on art and aesthetic concerns in a world full of poverty and suffering? Ryan believes we must wrestle with this concern and not “readily adopt the belief that art cannot be questioned, that art is somehow beyond the realm of good and evil.”
For Ryan, this story helps us reevaluate our questions about poverty. It challenges the late-modern assumption that the beautiful, the true, and the good are disparate, an assumption which we see operating in the fact that “rarely is poverty perceived to be an aesthetic issue.” It challenges the belief that beauty ought to have pragmatic value, which opens us to the dangers of propaganda and marketing. Finally, it challenges the perception that acts of beauty cannot carry any real meaning; that “only practical acts of compassion, or words of justice . . . ‘count’.” While Jesus does interpret the woman’s act with words, first he points out the beauty of it, a beauty we should not try to reduce to mere symbolism.
Like Kelly, Ryan considers the wastefulness or excessiveness of the woman’s act. Its extravagance explodes the classic definition of beauty as proportion; it pictures the self-giving love of God on the cross, an extravagant generosity not for the self but for others, and also proclaims the abundance of God’s coming kingdom to a world so often driven by fear of scarcity. The extravagance in art that Ryan proposes is “not a matter of decadent gallery openings and lofty sale prices, but rather the extravagance of a gift to the other, pouring ourselves into works of beauty that will bring blessing to others, rather than to ourselves.”
Finally, the woman’s anointing of Jesus is mentioned by Julanne Clarke-Morris in her discussion of installation art used for worship spaces. Installation art resists commodification, and likewise installation worship art is a gift that should not be reduced to monetary considerations; this echoes the previous discussions of “waste” and extravagance. However, for Clarke-Morris it is still legitimate to question the amount of resources put into installations, especially the ecological impact of the materials used. She believes that installation art should be part of the bigger picture of a church’s outreach and advocacy for the poor; it is especially important that the work provide opportunities for more than just one isolated individual.
As mentioned, Tikkun Olam—To Mend the World is an eclectic book, which is both its strength and its weakness. Some of the papers are more accessible than others to what we must expect will be a non-specialist audience. However, each essay is foot-noted and has its own bibliography, making it easy for readers to find the resources to go deeper in the topics that interest them the most. Anyone interested in the intersection of theology and the arts, whatever their expertise, will find plenty to challenge, inform, and inspire them here.