Divine Generosity and Human Creativity

Theology through Symbol, Painting and Architecture

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David Brown
Christopher R. Brewer, Robert MacSwain
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his latest published offering, Divine Generosity and Human Creativity,David Brown discusses the value of the visual arts and the role of imagination in religious experience and understanding. The volume is formed of  a series of unpublished and previously published and re-adapted essays and conference papers that are linked thematically and seamlessly stitched together by the editors (Christopher Brewer and Robert MacSwain). The sequence of essays forms a compelling critique and indictment of the neglect often shown to the arts which, it is here claimed, have commonly been cast in a minor rather than an integral role in a  religious context.

Given that the thrust of the book is to assert the significance of the visual arts and the power that images play in feeding the imagination and in deepening our understanding of the written word, it is to be lamented that the volume is devoid of such illustration itself (aside from Jonathan Borofsky’s cover image, Walking to the Sky). The book would have benefited greatly from the representation of some key images referenced in the text (such as Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, Matthias Grünewald’scrucifixion scene from the Isenheim Altarpiece, Max Ernst’s The Infant Jesus Chastised by the Virgin Mary, etc.). The complexities and vagaries of the various image copyrights that would have been required is no doubt an issue that the publisher rather than the author is obliged to defend, but given the high retail price of the book, many will be put off by the absence of images to highlight the author’s exposition.

Moving on to what isincluded, the basic theme underpinning the volume has been reworked from Brown’s past magisterial academic works, such as Tradition and Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1999) and Discipleship and Imagination(Oxford University Press, 2000). Nonetheless, those who have not read these previous works will be rewarded here with a well-judged overview and introduction to the author’s area of speciality.

The book is divided into four parts: Foundations; The Power of Symbols; Artists as Theologians; and Meaning in Religious Architecture. Brown sets out to convince us that increased interest in the arts has not gone far enough to expel the notion (an essentially Protestant assumption) that for Christians the role of the arts should be essentially illustrative rather than innovative and cannot pretend to have any deep basis in the biblical (i.e., textual) foundations in which the Christian faith is rooted. Brown challenges this view and calls upon Christians to pay heed to how God might be speaking to us, not only through the Bible and at church but in “the wider imaginative world where God continues to be at work” (4). Explicit here is a challenge to the idea that Christianity is exclusively a “religion of the word” (5). Brown explores just what has been lost in the retreat from a once intimate connection between religion and the arts and looks at what can be done to revive this relationship, to both nourish and inspire the faith that such a connection once brought.

Part 2 turns to the power of symbols and to sacred dialogue. Brown cites the German Lutheran Paul Tillich on religious symbols that point both to the infinite (which they symbolize) and the finite: “they force the infinite down to finitude and the finite up to infinity” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1, James Nisbet, 1953). Through such interaction Brown explores how a more nuanced account of symbolism might succeed in contributing to the flourishing of religion. A section on the symbolic significance of water, in relation to creation in general and baptism in particular, brings the general and the specific together in a discussion of Bill Viola’s video installation, The Messenger, which hints not only at the sense of drowning and coming back to life (see Romans 6:1-11 and Colossians 2:12), but also at a wider cosmological metaphor: the waters of chaos being replaced by the water that gives new life.

We are subsequently treated to an examination of symbolic truth versus literal truth. In his essay, “The Annunciation as True Fiction,” Brown shows how symbolic worlds can open up alternative ways of reflecting and accessing truth. Christians today are perhaps prone to worry when theologians tell them that parts of the biblical narrative are not literally true. Brown tells us that such anxieties are misplaced once we recognize that a story has been told to both represent and to reveal a truth and that invention is used to show the significance of what is being told. In other words, the fictional and symbolic should not be excluded from illuminating historical events. Artists who have followed this line—for example, in inventing a kneeling angel (as in Filippo Lippi’s Annunciationin the National Gallery, London)—had the right intuition, according to Brown. God’s representative (the archangel Gabriel) is seen to kneel before representative humanity (Mary). Lippi’s Annunciationthus celebrates not only God’s entry into our world but also shows us that his entry was as a vulnerable infant, dependent like us on others, not least upon his mortal mother.

The final part of the book deals with meaning in religious architecture—that there is more to a place of worship than its purely practical function. Abbot Suger, the creator of the medieval abbey church of Saint-Denis, spoke of the new use of light in the Gothic church that “illumines minds so that they go through the true lights to the True Light where Christ is the true door” and are translated “by divine grace from an inferior to a higher world” (161). 

Here, as elsewhere, Brown urges us not to shy away from imagination but to embrace it. We need to acknowledge how much religion flourishes—and thus the generosity of the revelation that God seeks to address to humanity—by being set free to appropriate what the imagination can discover. For this to be possible the author asserts that truth cannot be narrowly confined to “fact,” nor can biblical text be allowed the final say. Image, text, and truth need to work together, not in opposition. This is a wonderfully liberating way of looking at religious art that reflects a truth often lost through a tradition of rehearsed dogma and doctrine. Anyone looking for a way in to such a rich and rewarding area of study should look no further.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Miller is an Independent Scholar in Art and Theology, who studied for his Masters, in Christianity & the Arts, at King’s College London. He is the author of The Word made Visible in the Painted Image (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016).

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Brown retired from the University of St Andrews as Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture in 2015, having previously held positions at Oxford and Durham. Five major volumes on relations between theology and the arts were published with OUP between 1999 and 2008, with a large edited volume on Durham Cathedral: History, Fabric and Culture(Yale, 2015) his most recent contribution. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2002 and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2012.

Christopher R. Brewer is visiting scholar at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has edited or co-edited three volumes, including Art that Tells the Story.

Robert MacSwain is associate professor of theology at the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, USA. The author of Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith, he has edited or co-edited six other volumes, including Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown.


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