15 November 2010

Interview with Jeremy Begbie

I am very happy to offer you this, the thirty-fourth interview in the “Where are we now?” series, with noted scholar, theologian, concert pianist, and public speaker Jeremy Begbie. His talks, books, and online writings about theology and the arts are among the most important in the field. His books (written, co-written, and edited) include Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts (I’m reading this one now), Voicing Creation's Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts, Theology, Music and Time, Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, and Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts. He also contributed an essay to W. David O. Taylor’s For the Beauty of the Church. I also had the wonderful opportunity to hear Dr. Begbie speak and play the piano; I reported on those events here and here. Rosie wrote about him here. Note that even though this series is taking the pulse of North American arts, Dr. Begbie is from the United Kingdom. However, he teaches at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina and lectures widely around the U. S. and Canada. His perspective, then, is invaluable for this study.

Before or after reading this exciting interview, please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series, read others of interest, and leave a comment. Thank you.

Interview with Jeremy Begbie, arts theologian
via email
17 October 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself: your career as a pianist, your theological training, your teaching jobs, and your current interdisciplinary work with “Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.”

JB: Well, I originally trained as a musician in Scotland (as a pianist and oboist), but around the age of nineteen switched to theology, and followed what I sensed was a call to ordained ministry. After a spell in parish work, I taught theology at Ridley Hall, Cambridge for over twenty years.

Throughout this time, I tried (and still try) to integrate the musical side of my life with the theological –– through a fair amount of performing, as well as in my speaking, writing and teaching.

For the last two years, I have been teaching theology at Duke University in North Carolina, while keeping strong links with Cambridge. In particular, I have been asked to promote a vibrant engagement of theology and the arts at Duke Divinity School, under the banner “Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.” Much of the work is being carried out in partnership with the University of Cambridge. We want to combine cutting-edge academic research with first-rate teaching, and interweave these with exhibits, concerts, performances and workshops. Duke is brilliantly geared up for this sort of enterprise –– I feel very privileged to be based there. Needless to say, all the details are on the Duke website.

IA: How did you find your way into your unique vocation as a teacher-speaker-writer-performer? Was it in response to specific needs you saw in the Christian community?

JB: Not really, although I do think that in a multi-media, artistically savvy culture, the need to help people find different ways of engaging with the Christian faith will be ever more critical.

I suppose I found myself combining these things because they all seem completely natural to me, and I saw no good reason to drop any of them!

IA: As a classically trained pianist, what specific techniques do you use? Were you taught a particular school of thought, physical approach, historical performance practices, etc. that still informs your playing?

JB: I was fortunate to have an outstanding teacher in my teens who didn’t belong to any “school,” but taught me a variety of basic techniques that opened up a huge range of repertoire for me, and very quickly. He was daunting and very demanding, but he was a brilliant performer and a first-rate academic. I loved his combination of practical know-how and intellectual rigour –– it’s not that common these days. He was interested in most kinds of music –– except Debussy. He once told me that if I wanted to learn any Debussy I would need to find another teacher. (I never found out why.)

IA: This is simplifying the matter quite a bit, but as I understand your approach to theology through the arts, it’s pretty much backwards from the traditional approach, which was “arts through theology.” The conventional Christian methodology was to think about a particular theological or doctrinal fact and then to examine the arts, or a piece of art, through that lens. This led to a very narrow concept of what was spiritually acceptable in the arts ––for instance, a Biblical worldview teaches us a sacramental approach to the body and sexuality, so public nudity is immoral, therefore we were very uncomfortable with nudity in art. But then you come along and say, instead: “Why don’t we examine the techniques of art and see what they can reveal to us about God’s character?” So, for example, you’ll look at first-species counterpoint and learn from it that two totally separate voices can coexist without canceling each other out or subsuming one another into a new single entity. You then read this as a metaphor, or, more, a physical microcosm for God’s sovereignty and man’s free will (this was the topic of your talk I attended at Biblical Theological Seminary). Am I expressing your approach correctly?

JB: Well, almost. But thank you for the question!

The best way of explaining it would be along these lines. On the one hand, there is “theology for the arts.” By this I mean bringing a Christian or biblical outlook to the world of the arts. Here we start with Scripture, or doctrine, or some basic Christian conviction and ask “What does this have to say to the arts and to artists?” This needn’t be restrictive, moralising, or narrow. Anything but, if it’s properly done. And it must be done. In all that I do in the arts I am trying to work with an orientation that is unapologetically Christian, that takes its cue from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, testified in Scripture. And “theology for the arts” keep us facing in the right direction. If we get lazy here, we will quickly find that our thinking is being ruled by some other perspective, some other Lord –– sub-Christian, or even anti-Christian.

However, working within that orientation –– always making sure our final bearings are taken from the biblical testimony –– it seems to me quite legitimate to ask: “How can the arts help us discover, unlock, and understand more deeply the truth given to us in that testimony?” That’s what I call “theology through the arts,” or “theology with the artist.” Music, for example, can not only help us express what we already know, it can help us discover what we don’t know, or don’t know as well as we should.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular “school” or “movement” of theologians?

JB: Not really. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of movements and labels. For me, being a theologian means returning again and again to the bedrock of Scripture, while drawing on the vast riches of Christian tradition to help me and others understand and live out the biblical Gospel every more fully. I’ve been influenced more by the Reformed tradition than any other, I suppose, especially in its strongly trinitarian versions. But I’ve also been nourished by numerous other traditions: especially Anglican, Orthodox, and evangelical.

IA: What can you tell us about the current state of the arts in the Church? I’m particularly interested in comparing North America with what you see happening in Europe.

JB: This is an enormous question, and I find it very hard to generalise. As far as the Church is concerned, in the States, you have (generally) more money, a philanthropic culture, seemingly endless enthusiasm and energy, and a refreshing “can-do” attitude. All this has made the U.S. a vibrant arena for artistic innovation and engagement in the Church. In Europe, on the other hand, we have a richer historical heritage staring at us on practically every street, and we are far more aware of tradition. This means that the arts in the Church tend to be far more historically alert. As far as general attitudes to the arts among the public are concerned, they would be very similar on both side of the Atlantic. Getting funding for the arts is especially hard in the U.K., and especially for anything Church-related.

IA: How do you think the arts are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism?

JB: I don’t think there’s much doubt that the “postmodern” ethos has liberated many artistic movements that previously would have been suppressed under a heavy modernist, secularist blanket. The postmodern concern for diversity, plurality, hearing many voices etc. has definitely had its effects, even if the results can be confusing and bewildering. Also, we are, I believe, living in a post-secular age, in the sense that the extreme “naturalism” that used to haunt our culture, denying the existence of everything except the material and observable, is now waning. (Exceptions like the “new atheism” of Dawkins have appeared, of course, but I see this as a fairly superficial fad, with little intellectual credibility.) I am part of many secular academic groups concerned with the arts, and I find the suspicion of faith is nothing like as strong as it used to be.

On the other hand, there are many circles where it is clear that the common pleas for “diversity” are not intended to include Christian faith. And the postmodern preference for “spirituality” over “organised religion” does tend to iron out the distinctiveness of any particular faith. What’s more, insofar as postmodernism involves a drive towards assessing everything solely in terms of its economic value, this has had a damaging effect on the arts.

IA: What topics tend to recur in the many speaking engagements you have had in the U.S.?

JB: In the States, I find a huge interest, especially among young people, in how the arts might link up with “spirituality.” Many seem to have a gut instinct that there is some kind of umbilical cord between the arts –– especially music –– and the “sacred.” Other very common themes are freedom and hope; again, many I speak to are fascinated in exploring the potential links between these foundational human concerns and music (not to mention the other arts).

Here are several videos of Dr. Begbie’s piano performances and lectures:
playing Schumann
playing Bach
playing Liszt
A talk about Jesus as worship leader
A talk about God's retiming and remaking
A talk called “The Sense of an Ending”
A talk on God and freedom
A talk called “Seeing God with the Mind’s Ear”


Rosie Perera said...

So great to see Jeremy Begbie in this series. His talks on theology through the arts have absolutely riveted me.

Rosie Perera said...

Image Journal has just posted a web-exclusive interview with Jeremy Begbie.