Beauty's Vineyard

A Theological Aesthetic of Anguish and Anticipation

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Kimberly Vrudny
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , May
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this collection of essays, Kimberly Vrudny, theology professor and senior editor of ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies, skillfully launches biblical and theological analysis through interpretation of selected contemporary paintings that evoke theological reflection. Each of the eight chapters opens with a full-page color image of—and Vrudny’s analysis of—a social realist painting that she puts in dialogue with an aspect of her understanding of beauty. Framed by an extended preface and short epilogue, each chapter takes up a distinct theme of classical systematic theology, proceeding through the Trinity, anthropology, christology, soteriology, theodicy, and pneumatology. Structuring the chapters as dialogues with a particular painting on a specific topic makes each a distinct unit, yet the collection functions well as a clearly united whole.

Biblical references to the vineyard as an image for what God desires for humanity run throughout Vrudny’s text, though these are most explicitly developed in the preface and epilogue. The thesis is that beauty is a “transcendental aspect of all beings which becomes manifest in the person of Jesus the Christ” (xxiii). Each chapter develops its selected theological theme with reference to the integration of beauty, goodness, and truth, arguing, finally, that “all works of mercy, compassion, and justice are valued” by God and are the signs of fruit in God’s vineyard (252).

The first chapter is a succinct, deeply personal theological autobiography which establishes Vrudny’s compelling voice. It describes aspects of the author’s experience leading to the publication of this work, including the changes in faith perspective which led to her becoming a Roman Catholic, the death of her second baby, and travel to South Africa, Thailand, and Mexico. The following chapters demonstrate wide-ranging expertise in biblical and theological sources, yet Vrudny’s writing is exceptionally clear. The personal tone and carefully crafted explanations make this text exceptional in charting out complex theory in an engaging and understandable manner.

The chapters reflect a globally informed and concerned perspective, sensitive to the anti-Semitic stain in Christian biblical interpretation, drawing upon African Ubuntu, and dialoguing with Protestant thought, liberation theology, and a few feminist authors. The theological vision of the text is contemporary, yet as a whole, a vision shaped most extensively by Augustine and Aquinas.

The three persons of the Trinity are explored in a Thomistic vein as the good, beautiful, and true, which cohere as love, and as Being which is the source of all other being. Augustine’s view of evil as lack of rather than something in itself is taken up and wedded to this trinitarian view. After clearly tracing Protestant and traditional Catholic differences in understanding original sin and the Imago Dei, Vrudny affirms the image of God as “the Good, Beautiful, and True radiating within us . . . Imago Dei is our truest nature” (67). While the chapter on sin dialogues with feminist process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, it reaffirms an Augustinian perspective to delineate personal and structural sin.

Although a strength of the work is the author’s extensive interaction with a wide variety of theological perspectives, Vrudny does not engage at all with several contemporary Roman Catholic thinkers who might be expected as dialogue partners on these theological topics For example, although Vrudny states that “Creation itself exists within Divine Being” (41), the text makes no reference to contemporary Catholic pantheistic theologians or creation or Wisdom theologies; it also makes no reference to Susan A. Ross’s work in the area of theological aesthetics

It is not clear why the work of a few Protestant feminist theologians is referenced, however briefly, while significant Catholic feminist theologians, working in overlapping areas, are not even mentioned, despite Vrudny’s contribution to a 2012 collection of essays featuring some of these very authors. This is a notable omission because topics that Vrudny develops often seem to beg dialogue with these thinkers. In fact, Vrudny occasionally employs language and imagery developed in this body of feminist thought, as when, for example, she refers to the world existing “within the womb of God” (41). In addition, the chapter on theodicy does not acknowledge substantial work by Catholic theologians who have challenged the very category of theodicy as a theological way of responding to suffering. This chapter also does not reference the extensive body of feminist theology critiquing conceptions of divine power as the power to dominate rather than the power of love, even as Vrudny concludes that a better way to understand divine power is “not as the ability to coerce, but as the ability to attract” (208).

Finally, although Vrudny acknowledges that the choice to follow the Augustinian understanding of evil as lack of is controversial, the problematic implications of this choice, especially as extended to the notion of beauty, are not anticipated and countered. The social constructions of beauty and ugliness which oppress some and privilege others are nowhere acknowledged, despite the author’s passionate concern for social justice. For example, Vrudny states that “humans experience what they call deformed or ugly, but, properly understood, these are not experiences of something” (47). As the author is well aware, and quite sensitive to in other aspects of her thought, many are identified as deformed and ugly because they do not meet social standards of ability or beauty. Without straightforwardly addressing this problem, the author’s position may unintentionally further a hierarchy of worth ranking persons according to socially constructed notions, rather than the transcendentals of the Imago Dei that Vrudny wishes to affirm.

Each chapter could stand alone, and function well as a selected reading for an upper level undergraduate or graduate course. Those interested in Christian theological aesthetics and theological dialogue with art, especially with social realist paintings highlighting injustice and suffering, will want to read this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Downie is assistant professor in the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kimberly Vrudny is associate professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Thomas. She teaches and publishes in the areas of political theology, theological aesthetics, and the arts. She is also the senior editor of the academic journal ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies.


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