The Art of New Creation: Trajectories in Theology and the Arts
Encouraging signs suggest that a revival of Christian art could be gathering strength. New publications, workshops, conferences, communities, websites, and leaders are in place, working to bring a powerful infusion of spiritual energy into the Body of Christ via the many-faceted vehicles of Christian art.
The Art of New Creation draws from the proceedings of one of the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, held over three days in September 2019 at Duke Divinity School. The book that issued from the symposium was developed against the backdrop of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial violence to offer encouragement for Christians working in the arts to refine their focus and redouble their efforts for new creation. It offers an excellent sampling of the kind of work Christian artists are pursuing.
The foreword and introduction present the argument of the book. Appealing to an image of Mary, Untier of Knots, Natalie Carnes explains the arts can help untie the knots of human problems, strife, and confusion: “The knots are in our worlds, our communities, and ourselves. Yet entangled with them are our sources of energy and delight. . . . Gladness is braided with distress, vitality with affliction” (ix). Art can help loosen our stress, lighten our strife, and tie new knots that make for new creation: “while aspects of both the work of theology and of art could be described as tying or untying, the work of art has particular affinities with tying” (xiv). The contributors to this volume view the arts as powerful for bringing new creation to a suffering world. Jeremy Begbie marks out the parameters of this in his introduction. That new creation will be Christ-centered and both anthropological and cosmological. It must embrace everything that exists, for all things are of, through, and unto Jesus Christ. He Himself is the model or template for the new creation art labors to birth. He is the epitome of beauty and creativity, and His work is prophetic and eschatological. Art seeks to actualize in a variety of forms all the potential which exists in Jesus Christ for realizing foretastes of new creation here and now. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, laboring through gifted servants called to the work of the arts. The Spirit pursues this work through a “new community” (11) of like-minded servants who learn, work, pray, and create together to untie the knots of contemporary strife and uncertainty and retie the unraveled threads into a new tapestry of redemption. New creation is the product of hard work. It stands out markedly from the old order it seeks to revive and renew but does not seek to escape the limits and possibilities of the old creation, only to refashion them: “Art caught up in the Spirit of new creation, therefore, will likely be marked by an interplay between the regular and the unpredictable, between constraint and contingency, between tradition and innovation…” (15). Finally, new creation seeks to embody eternal norms and values “in which there is an eternally expanding, proliferating newness” (17).
The book unfolds in three parts. Part I: Soundings consists of eight essays exploring various matters of art, theology, art history, and the knots of our contemporary world. The first, “In God’s Good Time” by Devon Abts, looks to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins as an example of new creation art. Abts provides the best explanation of key Hopkins subjects—such as “inscape” and “instress”—that I have read. He shows how “Hopkins strives to incarnate the rhythms of the new creation in the dense medium of his art through a vitalizing ethic of stress” (23). Abts demonstrates that many of the aspects of art and new creation introduced by Begbie are convincingly present in the work of Hopkins.
The second essay, “Sketching the Incarnation” by Charles Augustine Rivera, looks to Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306–373) as another example of Christians using the arts to point toward new creation. His poetry is both “literary art” and “profound reflection on the theological and spiritual meaning of art making” (36): “According to Ephrem, Christ—and the true Christian teacher who follows his lead—plays harmoniously upon three harps, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Nature…” (37). Especially in his poetry that reflects on other art forms and art making, Ephrem offers another helpful example of new creation.
The remaining essays in Part I further develop Begbie’s vision of art and new creation. Though valuable, none of the remaining six brings as many aspects of the book’s prospectus to light as the first two essays. Questions addressed relate to the practical value of art; interpreting the transcendent in art; art and the environmental crisis; the “disease of racism” in art-related practices, especially film; and song and singing as a way into new creation. All these essays align well with the purpose stated by Carnes and Begbie. Only space prevents me from unpacking them in more detail.
Part II: Conversations was not as helpful to me for tracing out the overall vision of new creation; yet the specific works discussed demonstrated aspects of how that vision could be pursued and the forms it might take in daily life. The entries here demonstrate how particular artists are attempting to allow new creation thinking to shape their own work. Four conversations explore themes of place-making, The Five Quintets by Michael O’Siadhail, creation and new creation in the work of Tolkien, and performance art as a way of exemplifying new creation themes, forms, and practices. Jennifer Craft argues that “placemaking is central to our creative vocation in the world” (her emphasis, 147), and she cites Wendell Berry as an example of this focus. Her conversation partner, Norman Wirzba, explains, “When people care for their lands and neighborhoods, they are participating in God’s creative work that builds and sustains the infrastructures of life. We are constantly (re)making (with other creatures) the places through which we live. The crucial question is whether our making honors God’s making” (148).
Richard Hays interviews Michael O’Siadhail regarding his “dazzlingly erudite survey of intellectual and cultural history from the dawn of modernity to the present time” (154) as an example of poetry’s power to work for new creation. Hays remarks, “your massive poem is a powerful work of Christian testimony. It bears witness to a vision of the joyful, unpredictable, all-encompassing, eschatologically healing overflow of God’s grace” (155).
Judith Wolfe and Malcolm Guite discuss the role of imagination in art and new creation with a particular focus on Tolkien’s fantasies: “The artist becomes a co-creator of beauty, and God gives being to the gift of that beauty, which then assists the healing and redemption of many other souls. God not only permits and enjoys the art in itself in the new creation; the artistic contribution is part of the healing” (167).
The final conversation argues the value of active participation in the arts. Elizabeth Klein and Shadwa Mussad insist that practicing musical instruments is like Christian life, where we practice faith and hope, especially since, as Mussad points out, “Practicing is as much physical as it is mental” (170). Klein adds, “Practicing is a bodily, future-oriented endeavor, geared toward the goal of bringing the music to life in a performance” (170).
Part III: Arts in Action consists of a series of responses by various artists to questions about art and the theme of this book. Like parts I and II, it offers valuable insights and reflections on how art works to point to and actualize new creation. Dance, visual art, and musical performance are discussed by Leah Glenn (dancer), Lanecia A. Rouse Tinsley (visual artist), Steve Prince (visual artist), Linnéa Spransy Neuss (visual artist), and Awet I. Andemicael (musician).
The concluding sermon, “The Surprising Faithfulness of God,” by N. T. Wright summarizes the project of this book. Working from 2 Corinthians 5:17, Wright expounds the meaning of our having been made new creations in Christ Jesus. We are God’s “poems,” Wright explains, citing Ephesians 2:10; and we should expect that creativity toward Christlikeness will be an important facet of our being-in-the-world. He assesses the state of Christian creativity in the modern world:
Our culture has been deeply resistant to the idea of new creation. We’ve been told for the last 250 years that we are the new thing—we, the Enlightened ones, with our new philosophies, our new science, our new political systems, our new technology: we are it! This has transformed the world! And anything that went before is just a foretaste of the real new thing that is now, well, us. We modern Westerners. We have co-opted the idea of newness, and we have patronizingly allowed Christian faith to occupy a subservient place called “religion”—as long as it doesn’t make too much noise and frighten the horses (252).
He counters this by rightly insisting, “The multiple vocations in what we have called the world of the arts are not peripheral to that vision, as Western modernism has often imagined, causing great frustration to those with the gifts of creation and new creation in their bloodstream. In the world of new creation, the vocation of the artist is central” (252).
As The Art of New Creation demonstrates, much welcome activity is rising from within the growing Christian arts community. Yet the energy and importance of the arts have not yet begun to affect the larger Body of Christ. Pastors and teachers are the key to leading the people they serve into the new creation potential of Christian art, and this book could provide the encouragement they need to unleash that energy among local churches everywhere.