08/04/2020

Voicing Creation’s Praise

This article is the first in a series exploring some of the titles in the KRUX library.  All listed page numbers are from Begbie, J.S. (1991) “Voicing Creation’s Praise, Towards a Theology of the Arts”. T&T Clark (Edinburgh).

Voicing Creation’s Praise (1991) is a highly detailed and staccato piece of writing, a bit like a Beethoven Scherzo. Jeremy Begbie is known for his writing and lecturing in theology and the arts and is a professor at the Duke University Divinity School. He also studied music and is an accomplished musician.

I embark on this piece as an artist and a layperson, with other words, quite uninitiated in the more ‘serious writing’ on arts and theology. My background is in fine arts. Yet I met Calvin and Luther on the shelves of my dad’s study before I could walk, and since then have always been compelled to ‘dig a bit deeper’ theologically.

To ‘voice creation’s praise’ is one of the tasks with which Begbie charges the artist, but the word ‘praise’ might be a bit misleading if it makes you think of church choirs. The book is more about tracing the meaning of all art (not the liturgical arts, or ‘Christian arts’ as some understand it). This is crucial since the whole movement surrounding the protestant theological fathers (Paul Tillich, Kuyper, Bavinck, Dooyeweerd, Rookmaker, and Seerveld) seeks to diminish the distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’, moving the conversation from what is ‘Christian’ to what is ‘human’ (as Rookmaker famously expressed it). Begbie’s fundamental statement in the book is,

“that 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” (179).

It is important to know that ‘Voicing Creation’s Praise’ is scrupulously systematic and historical and doesn’t take the lyrical tone that someone like Makoto Fujimura offers in his writing (from what I have seen). That being said, my analytic side (the one I try to muzzle when I’m making art), enjoyed this rigorous, academic take on the topic.

In reading it I was reminded how deeply I’m part of a specific historical legacy (whether I like it or not), shaped by a number of thinkers usually grouped together as the Dutch Neo-Calvinists. This movement started in Holland with Abraham Kuyper, a theologian, thinker, Dutch prime minister and founder of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Begbie spends much time tracing why Dutch Neo-Calvinist thought is essential to his exploration of arts and faith, parts of which he problematises later in the book. I will not go into these topics in depth (common grace, the separation between regenerate or unregenerate and the role of sphere sovereignty) (89-94), but I admire that he makes them part of the discussion.

Calvinism has deep roots in South Africa where I live, but of course Begbie and figures like Hans Rookmaker, Calvin Seerveld and Francis Schaeffer do not have to be read only within the church-historical frame of Calvinism. It is their character as believers in Christ (and courageous ones for spearheading the conversation on the arts in their tradition) that gives them their timelessness and relevance for all topics touching on culture and ‘being human’.

In 1991, when this book was published, the critical writing on the intersection of arts and theology was ‘scant’ and inconsistent, whereas the past two decades have seen a blossoming of the arts in protestant tertiary institutions across the world. Begbie’s wish with this book was to at least “open up paths along which others may usefully travel” (258), something which I think he truly achieved.

The mandate to engage with culture and the arts is central to what we do at KRUX, and is probably what first drew me to Francis Schaeffer and the L’Abri movement a few years ago, *(although I wouldn’t call myself an expert on either). But I had never attributed this ‘cultural mandate’ to anyone in particular. Begbie explains that it was Abraham Kuyper who desired to “activate the Church into a thorough engagement with every field of culture […] and remind them of the universal kingship of Christ” (82)

Engaging culture is one thing, but what exactly does good or ‘beautiful’ culture look like? The succinct chapters ending each of the parts in ‘Voicing Creation’s Praise’ are brilliant summaries to work through, but for my own sake I will briefly revisit some of his main arguments.

In Christ there is freedom

One of the main ways in which Begbie differs from the early Dutch Neo-Calvinist theologians is that instead of ‘created order’, divine perfection and ‘underlying structure’ he embraces freedom found in grace and redemption. He writes “I am contending here that the most fruitful model of beauty for the artist will be found not by attempting to distil some formal principle from the contingent processes of the created world, but by directing our attention first of all to the redeeming economy of God which culminates in Jesus Christ” (225).

One of my artist friends always cringes when God is described as the artist fashioning “order from chaos” (although of course we understand where the reference comes from). She, like many artists, can envision how ‘order’ can be debilitating and ‘chaos’, redemptive (think facism or South African history). Aspiring towards ‘created order’ often has the effect of restraining, rather than freeing, humans towards creativity.

Begbie’s criticism of the ‘created order’ model comes partly, I think, because of the later political misuse of order and classification (in South Africa’s history), but also because it doesn’t point strongly enough towards Christ’s work of redemption. He believes that the only freedom we truly need as artists is the freedom from Sin and Self;

“In the humanity of Christ, our humanity has been incorporated into the divine life by the Son of God, set free by the Spirit from its debilitating self-obsession, from its self-will and its evasions of the truth, liberated to respond to the father’s love and will, and freed to respond appropriately to the created world” (178).

When it is released from the constraints of fixed, ordered ideals of beauty, art can more easily be an action towards God and humanity, instead of merely being a statement about them. This aspect of art (relating, partaking) forms part of Begbie’s main view of the artmaker’s task; “I am suggesting, then – albeit in a very compressed outline – that 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” (179).

Furthermore, if artistry involves ‘encountering the other’ or partaking in the ‘word answering Word’ as Begbie describes it beautifully (177), it is natural that art will be historically and geographically specific, not universal and timeless. “Language, style, structure and content are all grounded in historical particularity (216)”, he suggests. By rejecting Kantian ‘disinterestedness’ (the self impassively surveying its object) (207), art can better take its place as an active role player in a social, historical world of human relationships

Material qualities

Begbie’s emphasis on the material quality of art really encouraged me, since I seem to subconsciously resist the postmodern definition of artist (as philosopher and social activist) and yearn for her to be a ‘maker’ and craftsperson. Begbie borrows from Seerveld when writing:

“to speak of beauty as the true goal of art fails to do justice to the physical character of an artist’s task. Art is mainly about wrestling with material reality, not striving after a spiritual idea. ‘Beauty is intellectually refined, spiritual; art is generally a physical, always a sensuous, craft-made object’” (134).

Begbie quotes a number of artists (Christian and other), who express their craft as a physical, embodied activity; “Dorothy Sayers insisted that the business of the artist is not to escape from his material medium or bully it, but to serve it; but to serve it he must love it. If he does so, he will realize that its service is perfect freedom” (209). Even as a musician, the ‘least material’ of the arts, Begbie realises and underlines the importance of physical matter and our embodied interaction with it.

Human suffering

A natural outflow of Begbie’s theological understanding of the arts (which is also explored by Seerveld, Rookmaker and others) is the embrace of ‘realism’ and human suffering in art. Unlike Kuyper who tasks the Christian artist with only the beautiful and the glorious, these thinkers suggest that the artist can “penetrate into the world of decay and suffering as healers of its brokenness and celebrators of its coming wholeness” (180). I enjoyed how Begbie quotes a number of artists and writers in this regard. David Harned for instance writes:

“The man of letters must follow where the man from Nazareth led, through all the twists and crannies and depths of the finite” (212).

Yet Begbie is careful not to suggest the glorification of suffering, or of a realism that denies ultimate good or purpose in the world. Begbie keeps the crucifixion as the central axis, writing that; “whatever else ‘Christian art’ is, it will be art which takes for its final ‘realistic’ reference-point the raising of the crucified Son of God from the dead. Such art will inevitably resound with an inner joy even though it may only be a joy won through despair” (215).

Inspiration

At our yearly artist gathering I often see the role of the Holy Spirit as an interesting nuance among Christian artists’ beliefs. Begbie looks at this topic historically, claiming that until the nineteenth century, two ideas prevailed, “The idea of alienation – that an inspired artist is transported into ecstasy […] and second, the idea that inspiration involves an external power falling upon and working through the artist” (226). Begbie (and Seerveld before him) are cautious to hold on to human freedom and agency, and he suggests thinking rather of the artist’s ‘responsiveness’ to the spirit alongside his/her own, and not ‘giving over’ to the spirit at expense of the self. He writes,

“The spirit is the one who draws alongside us, making is not less human but more human, not less free but more free” (228).

Furthermore, he writes from experience when saying that “inspiration does not do away with the need for strenuous, painstaking and often frustrating effort. Quite the contrary, it is just in this kind of toil that the Spirit is probably most active” (227). In my own practice there have been rare times when I felt something mysterious (or ‘other’) guiding me in my choice of subject matter or affecting my process (for instance waking up in the morning with a vivid idea, or ‘forgetting myself’ when busy painting), but for the majority of my practice it is sustained effort and considered decision making that forms the basis of my progress as an artist.

Artists and their experiences are very different in this regard, equally so; their understanding of spirituality. (Footnote: I’m also aware that the interplay between conscious and subconscious artmaking process is not only a Christian concern, but also an issue explored by psychologists and writers in a number of secular books.)

Community

I have found at our annual ‘artist gathering’ (a small conference for Christian artists we host every year) that ‘community’ is something that artists need to a greater or lesser extent, although a support network of sorts is definitely indispensable. Begbie believes that “it is clear that the arts will flower best in the context of what Richard Bernstein calls a ‘dialogical community’ in which conversation, undistorted communication, and communal judgement inform our commerce with the world” (223).

Having at least an honest friend or two looking at your work makes the world of difference in artistic practice, as seen famously by the Inklings, and more recently in communities like The Rabbit Room and Makers & Mystics collective. In my experience, creative community leads to an exponential unfurling of creativity (sometimes art, sometimes artistic spaces, exhibitions, catalogues, events, websites or talks), but it can be difficult work. For people who are used to making their own creative choices, give-and-take is hard work and requires sacrifice.

Even ‘administrative collaboration’ is not easy when artists work together. But the gift this brings has been one of my biggest joys in the last couple of years. It has given me a sense of shared vision and purpose that the life of a ‘lone visual artist’ simply doesn’t offer, but that makes being part of an editorial team, or playing in a band or symphony orchestra so attractive and rewarding. Over the past 10 years I have found myself working on projects with writers, teachers, pastors and composers, and each collaboration has enriched my (if you want to call it that) individual studio practice immensely.

Conclusion

“Originality without tradition stagnates just as quickly as tradition without originality”, Begbie writes (222). In the same way the writer manages to elegantly navigate tradition and innovation, taking heed of the theological tradition before giving expression to his own ideas. ‘Voicing Creation’s Praise’ is the scholarly springboard from which he develops his later theological writings of the arts. Begbie reserves ambiguity and poetry for the aesthetic realm, which makes it, to some degree, a ‘stale’ read. I found the philosophic chapters on Paul Tillich quite abstract and hard to read – they also seemed of the least relevance to me as a maker – but the text got easier the further you went. If you have limited reading time, you might want to skip parts I and II and only read part III (the main argument for his theology of the arts) and the prologue.

Begbie’s wide knowledge of artists and thinkers certainly testifies of his integrity as a scholar, but I think it also gives the book a sense of ‘a community of witnessing voices’. I thoroughly enjoyed this communal aspect of the book. The fact that Begbie is a musician, I think, keeps him from straying too far into the abstract realm (or at least to return to it after exploring the philosophers like Tillich). In fact, he mourns art that ‘flies above the heads’ of others when saying; “Today in the secular world creativity is simply a gift from the self to the self, it has degenerated into a synonym for any form of personal pleasure without reference to others”.

By exploring artmaking through a polyphony of serious scholarly and artistic voices, Begbie manages to remain indebted to what Abraham Kuyper believed, that

art is no fringe that is attached to the garment, and no amusement that is added to life, but a most serious power in our present existence” (Lectures on Calvinism 1898).