January 17, 2013
Philip Nielsen has a nice article on Balthasar’s aesthetics:
Here are a couple of my favorite points:
For Balthasar, a Church totally devoid of images is not something that could concentrate the eyes of the congregation purely on Christ (as many Protestant and even some Catholic thinkers would assert), but is rather much more akin to a Gospel in which half the parables of Christ were removed.
…sacred art and architecture should avoid taking on merely human dimensions, seeking rather to preserve the “dissimilarity” between God and his creatures. Sacred architecture’s first duty is to create a sense of “spacing” between God and man. The church, but especially its sanctuary, must clearly depict a distance between God and his creatures. A church that looks like a living room makes an awareness of the difference between Creator and creature more difficult to perceive—it makes it an act of near heroic virtue. “Spacing” can be achieved first and foremost by scale, ornamentation, art, and architectural cues such as rails, screens, stairs, or curtains. All of these elements, insofar as they make the glory of God more clear to the participant, express true beauty. This beauty must lead to God, however, not simply to an aesthetic experience. “The awareness of inherent glory,” writes Balthasar, “gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God.” [Balthasar, New Elucidations, 136.]
Nielsen is a Phd candidate in architecture at Texas A&M and previously studied theology and architecture at the graduate level at the University of Notre Dame.
Image: Catedral de Burgos, by Axel Haig (1835-1921)
October 10, 2012
In light of my recent bit of music criticism, I thought it would be worth pointing to some of my favorite contemporary acts, lest you think that I only exist in the 1960′s and 70′s. As much as I idolize and idealize that time period, there are in fact recent artists who are just as capable. Here is a wide range:
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has an inexhaustible amount of imagination. I don’t need to add to what has already been said about this magnificent double-disc album. Certainly a fan favorite is “Raconte – Moi Une Histoire,” the life of a frog. If that doesn’t make you happy, you have no soul.
The Joy Formidable
Their Atlantic debut, The Big Roar, is about the most addicting album in recent memory, with its unique brew of shoegaze and 90′s alt-rock. They have an extensive YouTube presence; check-out “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” and “I Don’t Want to See You Like This.”
I don’t know what to make of his most recent album, Tomorrowland. I suppose every artist needs a departure, to test the waters; and after three albums of near perfection, we can cut him some slack. Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun should be in everyone’s car. Listen/watch his first single, “Southside of Heaven,” to get an introduction.
Justin Townes Earle
Here is another fine example of folk-country Americana. I would pick his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues, as a good place to start. I will close this post with his performance of the title track on Letterman:
October 5, 2012
I’ve lost count of the number of articles either defending or assailing Mumford and Sons. I haven’t seen anything like it. I was introduced to their first album when it was initially released a couple years ago. I was at work and a fellow co-worker — a super enthusiastic evangelical from California — told me that I gotta hear this band. He played one of their songs and passionately described how the song was recalling the captivity of sin or something like that. I smiled, nodded, and said something generic like, “sounds pretty good.” I eventually listened on my own time and concluded that they were okay but nothing compelling. So, I wasn’t very impressed, and now I’ve enjoyed ruminating further on what in particular is not compelling.
Consider this quote from Mumford about songwriting:
I can’t write lyrics unless I really feel them and mean them, which can sometimes be quite frustrating — because if you’re not feeling much at the time, you’re stuck.
Umm. Let me first give some background to my criticism. I’ve been steeped in the classics of American folk and country for quite a while now. My CD tower (yes, I still buy CD’s) is full of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and the like. Why would I listen to Mumford when I can listen to “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”? This is where I agree with many of the critics of Mumford. The lyrics really do try too hard, and that by the way is my general complaint about the whole indie music scene. When Dolly Parton wrote her 70′s masterpieces (e.g., My Tennessee Mountain Home), she wasn’t groping for literary allusions. She was describing her world, painting a picture with words — not unlike Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. None of these earlier figures were trying to be philosophers or even poets really. They were mediums, storytellers, communicators — and the clearer the better. They wanted to bring comfort in all areas of life, both the highs and the lows. They were neither tragic nor idealist. They didn’t write songs about needing to accept their weakness; rather, they were weak, pure and simple, nothing to fuss about. They didn’t need to take the next step of abstract speculation or emotional grappling about their weak status! I could say the same thing about nearly every theme that dominates the indie music culture, from which Mumford derives his sound and voice. Can you imagine Merle or Kris saying that he couldn’t write lyrics “unless I really feel them”?
Everyone who is looking for “the real” or authenticity, and think they have found it in Mumford, should dig a little deeper into the American music repertoire. We perfected the “real,” with the birth of country, rock, and blues. Actually, we should specify that the South did this because of all her sins. These great forms of music were born out of the cultural turmoil of a racist and segregated South. Something beautiful and powerful was born in the collision between whites and blacks struggling in the poverty (and shame) of Reconstruction. Here, the particular is what is being fought for and loved. The small things and common things were life-giving. Mumford tries to touch on this by making the common things his themes, but he just needs to bring himself down a little from his metaphysical heights. The world doesn’t need to be infused with meaning; it already bears it. No striving necessary.
August 3, 2012
Randall C. Zachman (Professor of Reformation Studies, Notre Dame) is one of the finest historians of the Reformation today. Professor Zachman specializes in the theology of the key figures of the Reformation, beginning with his brilliant study of Luther and Calvin published in 1993. There is a serious concentration on doctrinal nuances in his work, which makes his historical monographs especially useful for the student of dogmatics.
For your reading pleasure, I point you toward this essay I recently discovered at the Institute for Reformed Theology:
“The Generosity of God: The Witness of the Reformed Tradition” by Randall Zachman
I especially appreciated his use of Zwingli, along with Calvin, in bringing-out the themes of goodness and beauty in Reformed theology.
July 6, 2012
June 11, 2012
After treating the intellectualism of Hegel and his followers, Bavinck turns to the Romanticism of the period which oriented religious thought along the affective and aesthetic domain of the human person. This domain of feeling was thought to be the proper domain for religion, not the rational domain strictly speaking, though the concerns of modern reason and skepticism were never far away. Romanticism was found in Wordsworth and Coleridge in England, Rousseau in France, and, most importantly for dogmatics, Schleiermacher in Germany. Here is a brief excerpt from Bavinck’s incisive appraisal of this approach:
One then, naturally, slips into the error of confusing and equating religious feeling with sensual and aesthetic feeling. Known to us all from history is the kinship between religious and sensual [erotic] love and the passage from one to the other. But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death.
[Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 267]
To be clear, Bavinck does note the positive connection between religion and art: “From the beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. …In religion, specifically in worship, the imagination has its rightful place and value.” (Ibid., emphasis mine)
March 27, 2012
Take an hour out of your day and watch Roger Scruton explain the value of art, beginning with an engrossing display of 20th century art as rebellion against form:
For more on Scruton’s work on aesthetics:
His latest book is the publication of the Gifford Lectures from 2010 at St. Andrews.
February 2, 2012
Here is Pope Benedict XVI describing why the organ is better than guitars in worship:
The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation – as was just said – and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.
Okay, he’s not directly contrasting with guitars, but it’s probably in his mind after a few too many hokey John Paul II masses.
December 29, 2011
I’m finally joining the rest of the blogging world and doing a year end list of favorite books, films, and such. Thus, [tongue in cheek] others can benefit from my impeccable tastes and standards!
The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin by Randall Zachman (Fortress, 1993). A gracefully written and fascinating historical monograph. Can assurance truly have an objective ground? His conclusions are basically in line with Barth.
The Theology of Schleiermacher by Karl Barth (Eerdmans, 1982).
The Theology of the Reformed Confessions by Karl Barth (WJK, 2002). These lectures, and those on Schleiermacher, were delivered in Göttingen during his first major academic post, following his pastorate at Safenwil. These early lectures are immensely interesting for anyone with even a remote interest in Barth. They have shed a lot of light on my reading of the CD.
Reformed Theology by R. Michael Allen (T&T Clark, 2010). For those who want a higher level introduction to Reformed theology, respecting both the classical and modern strands, Allen will be my first recommendation. A much-needed book.
The City of God by Augustine (Modern Library, 1993). At times, I really wished that Augustine would just condense the material and move on. The choice morsels are spread throughout.
Seven Days that Divide the World by John C. Lennox (Zondervan, 2011). Lennox is Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science. This is one of the very few books that I have read with a satisfied sense that the author actually respects both Scripture and the work of scientists. Unlike John Walton (The Lost World of Genesis One), Lennox believes that material, not just functional, claims are being made by the creation narratives, which thus limits the reach of evolutionary explanations, especially in regard to the origin of humans.
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean by Waylon Jennings (RCA Victor, 1973). I’ve been collecting country albums from the sixties and seventies. So far, this has been my favorite. If you have never given country music a chance, start here.
The Taker/Tulsa by Waylon Jennings (RCA, 1971). This is the beginning of Waylon’s “outlaw” break with Chet Atkins, the famed Nashville producer who created the “Nashville sound” of smooth, pop-sensible country. Despite this fact, Atkins was really quite brilliant, but Waylon needed to expand and produce his own material. It begins here, and it is amazing.
Mama Tried by Merle Haggard (Capitol, 1968). A good place to begin with the great Merle Haggard. The title track, “Mama Tried,” is a favorite.
I’m a Lonesome Fugitive by Merle Haggard (Capitol, 1967). More proof that Haggard was doing outlaw country long before it gained a moniker.
Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars (Sensibility, 2011). These are two of the loveliest voices I’ve ever heard. Even if the songs sucked (they don’t), I would still listen.
Actus Tragicus by J. S. Bach (a long time ago). This has become my favorite piece from Bach. Haunting. Strikingly similar to Jar of Flies by Alice in Chains — I’m probably the only person who makes that connection.
Forget movies. Television has dominated for the last decade as Hollywood continues to lose all the best writers to the TV networks. I have watched more television series than I care to admit (thanks to Netflix). My favorites this past year have been Dexter and, of course, Friday Night Lights. On the surface, these are two completely different shows with completely different demographics, but it is hard to name any other show with better personalities and character depth than Dexter and FNL. Truly remarkable and utterly addicting. Also, The Tudors was surprisingly well done. Based on the first couple episodes, I thought it was just soap opera and eye candy, but it quickly becomes a nuanced account of civil strife and personal turmoil, with great sensitivity to the religious and moral struggles of the characters. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is captivating in every single episode. His performance is worth the price of the DVD set.
November 8, 2011
Until I find the time to actually do a substantive post, I will just continue pointing-out stuff like this:
CBD has a great deal on Living Beyond the Word: Visual Arts and the Calvinist Tradition, ed. Paul Corby Finney (Eerdmans, 1998). It’s currently only $9.99. It’s a very nice volume, with a variety of essays and great illustrations throughout, similar to a coffee table book. For those interested in the topic of Reformed aesthetics, I really enjoyed William Dyrness’ Reformed Theology and Visual Culture. For theological aesthetics in general, you obviously must go to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord.
If you are buying from CBD, you should also check-out Lesslie Newbigin’s Signs amid the Rubble at only $2.99. I’ve never read it, but it’s Newbigin — he’s only ever amazing.