A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections
on Theology and the Arts
Hardback: Baker Academic, 2018
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Review by Danielle Davey Stulac
I first encountered the theological thought of Jeremy Begbie not through printed words, but through vibrating strings. In the chapel of my seminary, I and many others listened, rapt, as Begbie sounded the middle C on the grand piano, and then silently depressed the C an octave higher. To our surprise, we heard not only the middle C, but also the quiet vibration of the higher C. The second string sounded, as Begbie explained, by “sympathetic resonance” with the first. In other words, the sounding of the first C enabled the second note to sound. “How might this phenomenon,” Begbie asked, “help us to think about God?” He went on to observe that in visual models of perception, two bodies cannot occupy the same space. (We cannot see red and yellow in the same space without them blending into orange.) Therefore, equipped only with visual perceptual categories, it is difficult for us to conceive God’s three-in-oneness, or Christ’s two natures, or the co-existence of divine and human agency. But, a simple perceptual shift from visual to aural metaphors can render the classic conundrums of theological thought into pseudo-problems. As a young seminary student (and life-long pianist) contending with these aporias, the implications of this perceptual shift struck me like a hammer on a piano string.
Ten years later, I am delighted to see the publication of A Peculiar Orthodoxy, a compendium of Begbie’s works spanning the last two decades abounding with similar paradigm-transforming insights. The gifts of this volume are manifold, but I will highlight three. First, it gives an account of theology and the arts that drives us deeper into the scriptural witness of the central mysteries of Christianity, namely the Trinity and the Incarnation. The work persuasively demonstrates how a robust commitment to this “peculiar orthodoxy” allows us to sound the depths of human creativity as it, in turn, bears witness to the gospel. Second, it discloses the ways Christianity’s peculiar orthodoxy resoundingly responds to the deep suspicion in the postmodern milieu that any “orthodoxy” is a foreclosing totalitarianism that restricts human freedom. Third, as a model of theological writing, A Peculiar Orthodoxy is a careful work of faithful thinking that bears witness to the “language renewing” and reason-transforming event that is Jesus Christ.
In Chapter 1, “Created Beauty,” Begbie explores, with characteristic precision, a concept of beauty derived from the Scriptural witness of the Trinity and Incarnation. To focus on just two facets of Begbie’s multi-faceted account, the “formful beauty of intratrinitarian love” grounds a concept of created beauty that is characterized by delight in a “diversity of particulars” and is “wary of closed harmonies” (6, 10-12). The improvisational dynamism of this concept of beauty starkly contrasts with the static, mono-logic characterizations of beauty that rely on the a priori abstractions of Platonic thought.
In a characteristic methodological move, Begbie then reverse-engineers this concept of beauty through the music of J.S. Bach. (Indeed, I find “beauty” easier to apprehend this way around.) “What kind of cosmos, under God,” he asks, “might Bach’s music provoke us to imagine?” (14). Begbie begins by explaining Bach is not driven by “extramusical schemes of organization” but rather seeks elaboration governed by the intrinsically generative nature of “the musical material” itself (16). Bach’s reliance on elaboratio (elaboration on a basic musical idea) as his chief compositional discipline, embodies this improvisational ingenuity. It also accounts for the “astonishing contingency” or “wildness” often noticed in Bach’s music. The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, is a “stunning exploration of the possibilities of God-given sonic order.” Far from foreclosing human creativity, the basic harmonic structures of the universe are “felicitous” for an “active process of making” (22). This “subtle relationship between natural and artistic beauty” reveals what Begbie calls “perhaps the central paradox of a Christian view of creativity: in and through the act of strenuous making, we discover more fully what we have not made” (23-24). Just as in sympathetic resonance, God’s creation sounds the note that enables human creativity to sound.
Our sense of the significance of this paradox is augmented by Begbie’s conversations with David Brown of St. Andrew’s University in chapters 4 and 7. Brown’s approach to reading the divine in the arts is to avoid theological specificity, concerned as he is that preconceived categories will over-determine our readings. Begbie commends the scope and spirit of Brown’s project, particularly in its desire not to instrumentalize artistic creation for theological ends. Ultimately, though, Begbie critiques this method as an obfuscation of the presuppositions that will inevitably govern Brown’s (or anyone’s) work. As Begbie points out, “The issue concerns not whether criteria ‘set in advance’ are operating, but which criteria are operating,” and on this Brown is “less than clear” (87). Begbie turns again to Bach briefly to show how “greater theologically specificity might actually advance rather than impede” the desire to explore the experience of the divine in music (89). With similar dexterity as in Chapter 1, he shows how the Trinitarian thinking opens up our capacity to read Bach, rather foreclosing it.
Yet, as Begbie acknowledges in Chapter 7: “Natural Theology and Music,” what Brown and others who avoid theological specificity seek is a kind of “natural theology” that is capable of bearing witness to the “non-godforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin” (quoting Stanley Hauerwas)—a theology that does “justice to the particularities…of the world,” and offers a “winsome and compelling” apologetic for those who find the claims of Christianity “unsupportable and unconvincing” (130). In keeping with these aims, Begbie then proposes a “natural theology” or “theology of creation” (the term he prefers)—but one grounded in the “basic trajectories” of the New Testament. These trajectories, he proposes, are four-fold: an attentiveness to physical reality, to the “primordially human,” to human cultural activity, and to human reason. For example, in his elaboration on the last category, human reason, Begbie proposes that music bears witness to the “thought forms appropriate to a renewed rationality” (143). In other words, the “perceptual simultaneity” allowed by music bears witness to the redemptive integration of our perceptive faculties brought about by Christ through the Spirit. For any apologist of the faith seeking to recover from post-Enlightenment servitude to disembodied cognition, this is an enlivening witness.
But, all of this discussion of music, Begbie insists, is not to dismiss language. For example, in chapter 6, Begbie explores the ways the playful polysemy of the poetry of George Herbert can enact similar disclosures of reality, bearing witness to the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit (a discussion that invites further study). In the final chapter, “The Future of Theology and the Arts,” Begbie argues that the language of Scripture remains primary in any discussion of theology and the arts. In this context, Begbie surveys the gifts of Reformed tradition to the theology/arts conversations, decrying overreactions and caricatures that dismiss Reformed thought as anti-image and therefore, anti-art. Begbie calls our attention instead to the gifts of a Word-grounded confessional Christianity in which Christ is a “language-renewing event” (205). Far from diminishing the human creativity, God’s self-communication in the Word is ground note with which the arts can uniquely resound.
The precision and care of Begbie’s own language is theological writing at its best. In the years of thought embodied in A Peculiar Orthodoxy, Jeremy Begbie has pioneered a path for an exploration of the arts that is abidingly faithful to the peculiar witness of Scripture.
Danielle Davey Stulac lives in Durham, NC with her husband, Daniel, and daughter Abigail, and is part of Blacknall Presbyterian Church. She is Program Director for the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative at Duke Divinity School, and Adjunct Professor of English at California Baptist University Online.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com