Jeremy Begbie, Ed.: Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts

(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000)

The authors in this collection of eight essays aim to help us live in awareness of the foundational fact of our lives as Christians: that in Jesus Christ God was among us, not as a one-time occurrence, but as evidence that God's very nature is to participate in the creation. Many factors prevent us from living with this joy, not the least the denigration of the material and the body in European philosophy since Plato, and most recently the vaporous media-driven culture of today, when everything seems to be in cyber-space. How do we capture the joy of incarnation? The authors argue that "getting inside" the arts can bring us into deep awareness of this profound mystery. Because arts are sensual -- presenting themselves as did Christ through seeing, hearing, touching, and empathic bodily experience -- they can play a powerful role in helping us experience God's presence with us.

An introductory essay by Trevor Hart unites the "themes of artistic imagination and the incarnation" and proclaims that in the arts we participate in the creativity of God. He asks us to ponder: "Is there any sense in which art itself, through its capacity to transform our vision of and response to the world, shares in or corresponds to that redemptive activity of God?" Malcolm Guite shows us that literature can redeem the words we have bankrupted; Andrew Rumsey celebrates poetry's particularity -- its "call to attention" of God's actual presence in Christ and in the smallest thing and moment. In considering the human body, Sara Savage develops the capacity of the body in sacred dance to lead us into the mystery of Christ's actuality as a human person; Jim Forest looks at icons in the Eastern tradition, which make present the word made flesh. Sculptor Lynn Aldrich shows the power of sculpture in the three dimensional materiality that it shares with us to lead us into awe and reflection at God's incarnation. Graham Cray takes the career of popular single Marvin Gaye to argue for the capacity of popular culture's ability to take on profound themes, and uses Gaye's songs and his life to argue that "To take the incarnation seriously is to take the temptation of Jesus seriously" (119). Begbie, who has played an important role in bringing together theologians and artists to consider a "theology of the arts," closes the collection with a stunning essay that tackles the human fear that were God to be active in the world we would somehow not have room to act. Using the analogy of several notes sounding at the same time, each of which influences what we hear of the others, Begbie proposes that "music can remind us that all the extraordinary patterns of interpenetration and resonance we have been tracing -- within God, between the Son and the humanity of Jesus, and between us and God -- all participate in a magnificent multi-voiced symphony of salvation, with the incarnate Son at its heart"(150).

The book is aimed at the general reader, who will find some of the ideas already "abroad" but others quite fresh. Most readers, I think, will revel in the thought-provoking very specific examples of the essayists. This celebration of art's foundation in the body and the senses is a welcome reminder that we, too are artists, and we live most deeply when we experience the awe of God's work with us in our every moment. -- Elizabeth Johns, Renewal '97