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Book reviews >

Caught, but not held, in poetry

Revelation is ongoing;it works in us throughwords and images, says Richard Harries

God and Mystery in Words: Experience through metaphor and drama
David Brown

Oxford University Press £25 (978-0-19-923183-6)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

THIS IS the third volume of a trilogy that David Brown would like us to see related not only to the two previous volumes in the series, but to two earlier books of his. A theme running through all five books is that the Church is always embedded in wider culture, and inescapably develops its own life in relation to that culture, particularly its imaginative horizons as expressed in the arts.

Changes in the Church’s belief or life, for instance over the existence of hell or the place of women, are, he argues, the result of changes in that wider culture that is itself the result of a continuing interaction with the Church.

The Church needs the honesty to admit that many of the assumptions that we now take for granted, such as the wrongness of slavery, were very different in both the Bible and most of Christian history. Change came as a result of wider changes in society as a whole, to which, of course, Christians often contributed very significantly.

One implication of this is that we must get away from any idea of revelation as being fixed and final. Revelation is a continuing process, brought about by the totality of experience interacting with the Christian tradition, which is itself the result of a long and continuing process of reinterpretation.

In this volume, Brown is concerned particularly with words and worship, but he ranges very widely, with much knowledge, over all the arts. He suggests that we need to move away from the idea of words or metaphors as abstract entities pointing elsewhere. Rather, metaphors can themselves be carriers of revelation. We need to stay with the actual words and images, and let them work in and on us.

In short, there is no great abyss between words and sacraments. Words, too, are sacramental, embodying the Divine Presence. Yet God still remains mystery, as expressed in a poem of Les Murray

  Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;

  . . .

  and God is the poetry caught in any religion,

  caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

  that he attracted, being in the world as poetry

  is in the poem, a law against closure.

The idea of being “against closure” is also fundamental to Brown’s approach, because one of the marks of metaphors’ carrying divine revelation is that, instead of being fixed and static, they have continuing power to evoke new interpretations, and new forms of life. This also applies to visual works of art; so no huge divide should be opened up between them and words. Both have the capacity to evoke new ways of seeing and responding to life.

Brown argues that Christians tend to have much too narrow an understanding of the kind of feelings and attitudes that should be taken into worship. The arts contain a much wider range, by which the Church should allow itself to be influenced. God works through the whole gamut of human experience, not just what we regard as socially acceptable at any one time. Brown looks at psalms, hymns, drama, and music from this point of view.

Obviously this approach poses a number of questions about criteria: criteria for what constitutes legitimate reinterpretations and developments; criteria for what should be taken on board from the arts of the wider culture, and what rejected. But it would be a pity if we became so obsessed with these difficult questions that we side-stepped the important change he wants us to make, not just in how we see divine revelation, but in the practice of our church life, particularly its worship.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, Gresham Professor of Divinity, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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