The Aesthetics of Atheism

Theology and Imagination in Contemporary Culture

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Kutter Callaway, Barry Taylor
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University
    , April
     2019.
     274 pages.
     $24.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506439884.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Does Christianity need atheism? Specifically the aesthetic atheism of pop culture and art?  Yes, say Kutter Callaway and Barry Taylor in their book The Aesthetics of Atheism: Theology and Imagination in Contemporary Culture. The central thesis of this book is that “there is a (often unrecognized) aesthetic dimension to contemporary a/theism, that at its very core, is theologically significant” (8). Or to put it in simpler terms, there is something of the theological in certain pieces of art that speaks to the darker overlooked elements of scripture, when these two elements engage in dialogue they offer contemporary people new means to engage the unique position of life in the postmodern world.

The authors posit that this aesthetic dimension is most present through specific pieces and artists within the pop culture and art cannons; from Netflix’s Stranger Things to the music of David Bowie, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen as well as the work of visual artist Damien Hirst.  They then pair each of these artists and art pieces in conversation with the Gospel of Mark, that unlike the other three gospels ends not in the resurrection of Christ but in the uncertainty, ambiguity, and darkness before the resurrection. Callaway and Taylor suggest that core elements of Christianity are uniquely and dynamically engaged through the a/theism present in these artists’ work. The authors present this interplay between a /theism and central Christian ideas (radical love, compassion for the other, the divesting of power and control) via an intersectional approach.

Through this approach Callaway and Taylor utilize  death of god theology, radical theology, engagement with the biblical text, existentialism, theories of religion, and contemporary philosophy as a means to understand the unique positionality of the contemporary person. No matter what one’s religious affiliation, be they theist or atheist or something in between, Callaway and Taylor contend that one cannot escape the way postmodernism has contoured life. Given the reality of this contouring they believe one cannot engage in the kind of concrete worldview that was afforded to pre-modernists, for even those who rail against postmodernism are still engaging with it.

For the authors this reality is seen in the interplay between atheism and theism, specifically the atheism present in Christianity and a form of theism present in pop culture spaces. What they espouse in this text is a space to live in a radically-loving and power-divesting way, fully embracing all of the contradictions of embodied life. An embodiment that mirrors the Christ presented in the gospel of Mark where hope that is not reliant on a future transcendent reality but rather an embrace of the ephemeralness and unknowableness of life.

The book is structured in three major sections (The Where, The What, and The How) highlighting one genre of art. In turn each major section then is divided into three chapters with the final being focused on the Gospel of Mark. Methodologically, the authors utilize the art pieces as the practical elements that relay the philosophical and theological concepts they are engaging, which compiled together create an a/theistic aesthetic. This aesthetic is how one might embody a better, more honest and faithful means of being in the world. To begin Callaway and Taylor lay out the issue at hand as they see it, that the world and reality has radically shifted. Specifically reality has been contoured by modern secularity which is the by-product of the Protestant Reformation and its subsequent interreligious conflicts rather than a conflict between faith and non-faith (4). It is their thesis that in light of this, one must find a different way of being and believing in the world, one that is not rooted in a notion of a timeless, fixed, and permanent knowledge of the way things are (15).

Having established this thesis the authors move into “the where” using the genre of horror, specifically the Netflix show Stranger Things to explore the philosophical notions of cosmic horror, the realization that humanity is not the center of the universe and is not central to its functions. Next comes “the what” the place where this reality of humanity not being the center of the universe is revealed and experienced. Making use of selected works of the three musicians Cave, Cone, and Bowie, the authors relay the conflicting realities of life and faith as expressed via song “the traumatic reality of life in the godless world” (115). Each of these artists were chosen because of the specific religious references in their cannon of work and the lack of acknowledgement in a personal religious affiliation.

Additionally, these three artists reflect for the authors a nonbinary space that is neither belief nor disbelief, “and engagement of theology by intentionally avoiding theology ”(116). The final section of the text deals with “the how” by exploring the work of painter and visual artist Damien Hurst. Instead of the limited oppositional relationship between art and religion which is so often how it is presented, Callaway and Taylor focus on the ways in which religion and art seek to engage and name the human condition. They conclude the book by offering the notion of a “faith of crisis.” This “faith of crisis” is the opposite of a “faith in crisis;” a “faith of crisis” is a faith that is marked by a flexibility and willingness to divest itself of power and what has always been done for the sake of being present and engaging with oneself and others. It is a faith that is rooted in embodiment and presence, realizing that gospel (i.e., good news) only comes with a willingness to sit in the complications and possible darkness of the unknowing and birthing process.

The strength of Callaway and Taylor’s book lies in their choice of focusing on pop culture and art. This choice allows them to offer tangible connecting points to some of the more complicated  theological and philosophical theories they are utilizing in their construction of an a/theistic aesthetic. The authors are able to make accessible religious theorist Rudolph Otto’s notion of the numinous or the postmodern philosophical writings of Eugene Thacker because of how they are connecting the theory with an artistic example.  In this case the encounters the characters in Strangers Things have with the “upside down” relay the theoretic concepts the authors are exploring.  By using the art as the means to unpack these concepts, Callaway and Taylor are offering what could be a pretty academically heavy conversation accessibility to and through a broader readership.

Moreover, for added reader clarity they also offer a summary of the philosophical/theological concepts they are presenting so that one need not have a degree in theology or religious studies to understand what is being said. The authors weave their content and conversation easily through all of the various points of the text, creating a consistent thread of a/theism and Christianity in dialogue. Those familiar with the authors will immediately recognize the rhythm and cadence of the book’s flow and structure, which has a conversational feel to it, similar to a deep conversation one might have with a well-read friend about any of the pop culture pieces present in the book.

Overall, The Aesthetics of A/Theism is an interesting and worthwhile book. The authors’ ability to create a text that seamlessly weaves together such seemingly disconnected elements as religion, pop culture, and postmodern philosophy into an interesting, thoughtful, and accessible conversation speaks to the strength of this book. It is a book that could be used in a variety of spaces that are seeking a glimpse into the intersecting broad cultural conversations on these topics. Callaway and Taylor offer the reader a chance to explore and wrestle with what it means to live in the complexity of life and faith in the present day wherever their interest lies pop culture, religious studies, or just those looking for a different perspective on contemporary life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jessica Knippel is a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
October 24, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kutter Callaway is Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute, where he serves as a consultant and advisory board member for various film and TV studios.

Barry Taylor is Affiliate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also an instructor at the Art Center College of Design, teaching on advertising and consumer culture.

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