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An invitation, but not from the pulpit

12 August 2016

Jeremy Morris looks at the contested part played by the arts

Imagery: “Black Madonna” mosaic at Jasna Góra, Poland. From the book

Imagery: “Black Madonna” mosaic at Jasna Góra, Poland. From the book

Sense and Spirituality: The arts and spiritual formation

James McCullough

The Lutterworth Press £15.50




THE arts have had a difficult and ambivalent relationship to theology over the centuries, especially in countries affected by the Protestant Reformation. A strong emphasis on preaching and suspicion that painted images promoted idolatry or immorality made the part played by visual art in expressing religious truth particularly ambiguous and uncertain.

Yet art in a broader sense — not only painting, but music, architecture, and literature — none the less remained central to the expression of believers’ spirituality and religious experience.

In recent years, the relationship of theology and the arts has become a fruitful field of inquiry, with the establishment of university courses on both sides of the Atlantic, and the growing reputation of theologians and writers such as Jeremy Begbie, Graham Howes, Aidan Nichols, and Ben Quash in the field, covering not only the study of religious art as such, but the theological aesthetics of art in general.

James McCullough’s book is a provocative and rewarding addition to this literature. It is a forceful reassertion of the possibilities of the arts as means by which religious truth can be communicated and explored, and spiritual growth enhanced. This, in a sense, is the focal point of the argument of the book. Against the common idea that the non-verbal nature of much artistic endeavour essentially detaches it from the presumption of specific meaning, McCullough argues passionately that art conveys an intention, and a perspective on life, that issues in “an invitation for the receiver to consider”.

Art, in other words, demands response, and response carries theological resonance and evokes spiritual aspirations (of course, it can do so negatively as well as positively). Art is, for McCullough, a catalyst of spiritual encounter, which requires of the “receiver” a cultivated appreciation of craft, content, and context.

It is hard to do justice to the suggestiveness of McCullough’s argument in a short review. The real core of the book is the first part, which he calls the “theoretical framework”. Three short, dense chapters are packed full of ideas and observations that will send readers away to do more reading, and that really demand greater elaboration. A great deal of ground is covered in these chapters, which read a bit like a programme for further work.

In a second part, “Practical Application”, McCullough looks briefly at three instances: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, the painter Makoto Fujimura’s The Four Holy Gospels, and the composer James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. McCullough deliberately doesn’t produce a new interpretation of each example, but, rather, simply sketches how a reader might begin to appreciate the “theological aesthetics” of these works.

Some readers, I suspect, will find this second part a disappointment. But that would probably be to misunderstand what the author is trying to achieve. His book is like an invitation to further study, and made me want to set off straight away to the nearest gallery. He makes a powerful — to my mind, utterly convincing — case for seeing the arts seriously as a subject of theological inquiry.


The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

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