EXPLORATIONS IN ART, THEOLOGY AND IMAGINATION

by
02 November 2006

Equinox £13.99 (1-84553-028-4)

EVELYN UNDERHILL, writing of mysticism, considered whether William Blake was a mystic who was a painter, or a painter who, in and through art, was a mystic. She is not the first to have observed, in art, the effective integration of the queen of the sciences and of the arts (theology) with the representational realities of the world. It is, however, an observation that lies at the heart of Canon Austin's clear collection of thoughts on the aesthetic.

Unapologetically, these are the explorations of the title by which he seeks to look at theology from the perspective of the artist rather than taking the more usual reverse approach. Austin is convinced that there is now a pressing need to gain an understanding of art that can affirm the crucial importance of art for theology. This little volume sets out to tackle this, and does more than justice to its subject, traversing its terrain like a sure-footed mountain guide.

Crucial to his understanding, in a work that necessarily contents itself broadly with Western art, and so with the three prophetic religions of the People of the Book, is a recognition, with Eliot Deutsch, that religion creates its own "religion-works", which parallel "art-works". It is by such rites and symbols that Christianity can be freed from the narrowness of propositional dogma which so marks the iconoclast. Religion is, as he argues elsewhere, itself a kind of art, and one task for theologians is to see the Bible as
art.

At the outset, Austin asks what art is (since the defining concept is late in developing in the West), and then reviews ways in which this has been understood by theologians. Somewhat predictably, this means Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, von Balthasar, and Hans Küng, all of whom might one day become Doctors of the Church in a pantheon of German thought.

This bias is inevitable, but it casts a shade over other thinkers, especially Italian responses to Arte Povera, and the work of French post-modernists. It also dictates later use made of Anton Ehrenzweig's anatomy of artistic imagination.

But the opening exploration shows that the inner pattern of deep feelings behind art is equally coherent in religion, and that the incarnation profoundly claims a place for artistic representation. The second portion of the book establishes telling differences between both, and demonstrates where theology can criticise art and vice versa, a valuable corrective to a view of art as autonomous.

The far-from-modest conclusion is the challenging understanding that, by helping theology create frames of reference and safe environments for exploration, art itself can become an agent of salvation. If no other reason, this convinced me that the book is vitally useful in our day and for our Church.

The Revd Dr Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in south-east London.

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