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God and Wonder: Theology, Imagination, and the Arts

Jeffrey W. Barbeau and Emily Hunter McGowin, eds.
Published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2022

In an era when the humanities are taking a beating in academic curricula and in church life, a work arrives to remind us of the revitalizing power of imagination that these disciplines offer. Edgar Allen Poe captures the human longing in his short story Morella: “It is a happiness to wonder; it is a happiness to dream.” Yet, Christians seem to forget that their God is one of wonder and creation who communicates these attributes to his people. In God and Wonder: Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, the authors articulate how the liberal arts invite us to discover and foster this power of imagination to lead us to awe. In fact, we long to be astounded and awed by our God.

The two editors are professors of theology at Wheaton College who have gathered a collection of essays on various humanities with their intersections to theology. Their goal is to restore a recognition of wonder in the craft of our disciplines by reintroducing imagination into our vocations. Two essays bracket the work with a persuasive conviction about the place of wonder in the world, particularly in Christian thought and life. The prelude by Emily Hunter McGowin links faith with an ethos of amazement: “Theology, like philosophy, has its origins in wonder” (5). Here, humility is the central quality for any theologian to be struck by awe. Meanwhile, cultural forces are at work against wonder and humility, namely that “the conditions of modernity led some to approach Christian faith in scientific and mechanistic terms” (7). Wonder threatens systems, she insists, and God cannot be restricted to even our best attempts towards understanding and explanation. The postlude by Jeffrey W. Barbeau grasps how the psalms reveal a wonder drawn from history, through an “expectation rooted in a history of God’s faithfulness in the past and a hope for a future that exceeds the darkness of our present reality” (199). Between these two brackets, four groups of selections show the juncture between the notion of wonder and issues of method, creation, wisdom, and the church. A range of specialists participate, including researchers, pastors, artists, and poets to offer a range of illustrations around the wonder of God. Intermittent poems by Misook Kim provide an opportunity for wonder itself to emerge.

A sampling of essays here reveals the plausibility of their case. Tish Harrison Warren inspirationally captures the embodied practice of creating from lament and longing. The labor of writing is “an ordinary way that we reach toward beauty and glory,” even “to grasp the ineffable and transcendent” (60). Likewise, “Artmaking or any encounter with beauty points us to that which is beyond and greater than ourselves” (61). From our broken souls, the power of loss is mysteriously transformed when we create an expression of beauty. Jeremy Begbie writes on encountering the uncontainable in the arts to reveal the metaphysical and theological dimensions to the power of creating: “Wonder is a reaction or response to something that arrests our attention. It cannot be self-generated. It also involves a large measure of surprise: it comes upon us with unbidden force, unexpectedly” (104). The breadth and creativity of the book is perhaps best illustrated by Crystal Downing, who writes a surprising chapter on the wonder of cinema in Dorothy Sayers and Spike Lee. While one cannot be assured of the faith of the latter, Downing realizes “he fulfills Sayers’s sense of the image Dei.” He is “committed to art that not only fills us with wonder but also captures the paradoxes of existence” (148). As expected, a theology of the image of God finds an imperative place in the book. Any work on Christian wonder would not be complete without the contribution of Marcus Plested on the Orthodox tradition. Besides capturing the aesthetic culture of the Eastern church, he also recognizes its function in discipleship: “Wonder must, in short, always be tempered by and in wisdom if it is to lead us where we want to go—to Christ and his kingdom” (166).

Some essays operate with a more specific focus than others. Songwriter Andrew Peterson offers a reflective focus on the artistry of place, articulating experiences in urban, natural, and cultural venues. Yet, the powerful dimension of sacred space is omitted, such as a cathedral that offers an intersection between the spiritual realm and the role of art that transports us to it. The phenomenology of space in writers like Belden Lane would enhance the chapter; given the construction of culture at work, it is surprising that Richard Niebuhr is conspicuously absent throughout the book. Most essays effectively connect both a discipline and its scholarship with the sublime. Notable is that of Jennifer Allen Craft, where beauty is an elemental means for arriving at a place of wonder, mediated through the arts, that represents premier support for the thesis of the book: “While all art is not bound to engage us in an experience of beauty, art that does invite into this type of ‘unselfing’ through beauty can perform a prophetic function, calling us to re-evaluate our perception and relationship to the world and thus make it anew” (96).

Edited volumes often possess a decentralized quality, as essays rotate independently around a thematic axle while generally advancing the thesis on their own terms. This book is no exception. Occasionally an essay here works heavily in the first person with anecdotal episodes displacing scholarship, evidencing a range of latitude and perhaps a space for creativity by the editors. The methodologies and approaches are not consistent across chapters, so that the theology of wonder and its intersection with various humanities comes in different styles and educe wonder to various degrees. At times theology does not extend far enough to fully embrace the humanities. For example, Scott Cairns resources a wealth of literary sources and critiques failed historical readings of scripture, but his theory of a noetic imagination finds little expounded justification beyond Coleridge. The Apostle Paul’s use of “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) belongs here, although Cairns offers a brief recognition of the Holy Spirit essential for a theology of creation. On the other hand, even as Nijay Gupta provides a short story with an imaginary dialog between Paul and a young disciple, the use of scripture and his development of theology allow him to recognize how “Paul wondered at the supremacy and grandeur of the divine, the realm above and beyond our often myopic minds and eyes” (132).

On the whole, the theology at work here is thorough, moving from creation to the eschaton. The eras for theory and illustration range collectively from patristic to medieval to modern and contemporary examples. The multiple applications in art, music, church, landscape, and even engineering is impressive. In fact, the eras and applications seem to form a matrix of creative examples in which the reader cannot imagine from where the next illustration may come, as if wonder and surprise are at work even in the creation of the book. From the opening influence of Fra Angelico’s frescos of Christ to the closing quote from Coleridge’s essay on reflection, the range and sampling of humanities that spawn imaginative thought is breathtaking. The bibliography is superb.

God and Wonder will foster constructive conversations around the multifaceted role of humanities for faith and life. As the Christian academy and the church feel pressures to justify or even desert humanities in community life, the role of creating suffers and a dimension of our humanity subsides. This work can revitalize a vision for wonder through creation, in turn directing us to the God of wonder. This work can assist scholars in other disciplines to consider their own intersection with humanities or the need to foster wonder in their own work. A call for revitalization is underway in this book, where one realizes a breadth and depth of the Christian tradition that invites us to imagine, create, reflect, and experience the God of awe.

W. Brian Shelton

Asbury University
W. Brian Shelton, Christian Studies and Philosophy, Asbury University.

One Comment

  • Joseph 'Rocky' Wallace says:

    Thank you for your reminder that it is indeed our responsibility to embrace and promote ‘the arts’. Indeed, in recent years, education across the board has narrowed the curricular richness of a liberal arts education–both P-12 and higher ed. Thus, as a society we are trending backwards in what should be a robust appreciation and endorsement of creativity and diverse exploration of all of the unique talents of every person. History tells us this is NOT the direction in which an enlightened, healthy culture will go.