God known in pop and dance

by
06 March 2015

Robin Ward reads responses to wide-ranging work by an Anglican theologian

Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the work of David Brown
Robert McSwain and Taylor Worley, editors
OUP £71 (978-0-19-964682-1)
Church Times Bookshop £63.90 (Use code CT656 )

THE Revd Professor David Brown is one of the most prolific British Anglican theologians of his generation, and one whose body of work gives rise to appreciation and controversy in equal measure.

His earlier work at Oxford culminated in The Divine Trinity, characterised in the introduction to this collection as being Anglican in theology, empirical and analytic in philosophy, and historical-critical in its approach to biblical studies. This synthesis provoked a hostile reaction from the guild of British philo-sophical theologians, and Brown's subsequent development as a theologian encompassed a substantial period of reorientation after his move from Oxford to St Andrews.

At the end of a decade of assimilation, he published five substantial works, in which the mediation of religious experience through nature and human culture is addressed with a tremendous breadth of reference, embracing the performing arts and pop culture with fluency and insight. This collection of essays seeks to reflect on that quintet, which in its methodology has not been without its critics; and it gives Brown the opportunity to respond to some of the themes identified by his interlocutors.

The collection is the fruit of a conference held in 2010, and consists of 12 papers given in the plenary sessions, supplemented by seven further chapters. The papers are grouped according to which of the five books by Brown they are intended to address. The first two sections consider themes emerging from Brown's account of revelation in scripture and tradition; the latter three, the importance of symbol and sacramentality in the human experience of the Divine. The effect at times is somewhat overwhelming, as theologians, philosophers, dancers and BIGLovely's guitarist (who is also an associate professor of Africana Studies) range over kenotic Christology; resurrection bodies; Isadora Duncan; and the way in which Jean-Luc Marion can help rescue the lyrics of Kylie Minogue from the charge of being kitsch.

Nor are the papers uniformly admiring of Brown's approach: Gordon Graham is critical of his understanding of enchantment and transcendence in iconography and architecture, and Graham Ward compares his account of the humanity of the ascended Christ with Poppy Z, Brite's vampire fiction. An essay by Clive Marsh even sets out the shortcomings of contemporary Western Christian theology on the basis of Brown's failure, for a decade, to own a television set.

If you are the sort of reader who finds this kind of stuff a bit like embarrassing parents bopping about in front of their mortified children in order to look trendy, then this collection is probably not for you. But Brown's project deserves serious attention, perhaps most obviously as an attempt to create, in an Anglican register, the sort of cultural repristination of theology undertaken by Hans Urs von Balthasar. Barthian critics dislike the way in which Brown's understanding of revelation can appear to leave behind the terra firma of scripture (and there is not much about the Bible in this collection).

But there is in his vision a sense of sacral landscape, an incursion of glory into the created order, which resonates with the festive economy found in Richard Hooker, and the gentle theurgy of the Cambridge Platonists. Brown's own response to the papers in this collection is the best advertisement for his theological method: courteous to his critics, willing to make amends, sympathetic to the flawed character of all human apprehensions of Divine perfection, but confident that, despite that, we can live like the saints with a lively sense of the presence of God.

Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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