A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Matthew Raley
The problem with studying aesthetics is that sooner or later you have to read books about it. I would rather look at designs, listen for how music delights or repels me, and talk with others about art than read an analysis of how to define beauty. Esoteric lectures on aesthetics from the likes of G.W.F. Hegel require grim determination to finish. The controversies about what makes an object beautiful and who should set the standards seem to mock the experience of delight I should be having.
If it is challenging to read about aesthetics, theology may be even tougher, with its endless technical terms and argumentation. David Covington has written a book about both.
A Redemptive Theology of Art is Covington’s attempt to reframe the issues of aesthetics in biblical terms. He writes, “We want to see, after all, what the Bible has to say about aesthetics in context with its other major themes: systematic theology and redemptive history, sin and salvation, and the coming rule of God.” In this project, Covington tries to bypass the philosophical lingo that clings to aesthetics, as well as to write winsomely about the faith. He includes personal experience from his years as a songwriter and maintains a colloquial tone throughout.
These are laudable goals. The book suffers, however, from too broad a mission—or perhaps too many missions. The technical issues of aesthetics and theology won’t surrender easily to charm. Dropped into the maze of issues raised by this book, the reader must not only navigate the technicalities, but also Covington’s expansive writing style.
Covington gives an insight that is crucial for aesthetics.
The matter of subjective taste and objective beauty has bedeviled aesthetic philosophers for centuries. Are objects beautiful in themselves, or does our taste make them beautiful? Beauty does seem to have an objective reality, yet our diversity of tastes makes discovering it an exasperating business. One person loves Mozart, another loves the new wave rock band, The Cure, and another says both are equally beautiful. We can’t exactly send that disagreement to the lab.
Covington’s insight is that beauty ought to be measured by God’s responses to the world. God is the viewer of all things. In the Bible, God’s “taste” defines what is beautiful. Covington writes, “God who makes also sees; the aesthetics of God’s glory is for God’s pleasure. He is the audience. He sees and appreciates creation’s aesthetic aspects together with other aspects of his glory.”
Our taste regarding beauty and ugliness either reflects his glory or overthrows it. Covington rightly argues that sin is as much an aesthetic reality as a legal one. Sin makes the world ugly.
A difficulty with this line of thinking is that we may find ourselves asking, “Does God prefer Mozart or The Cure? Does he think both are equally ugly or beautiful?” Questions like these land us back in the same centuries-old quagmire. Who is qualified to settle such questions? We can’t send our answers to the lab for testing, nor can we send them to theologians.
Fortunately, Covington doesn’t apply his insight this way. Instead, he draws on other theological principles. For instance, God created an integrated world in which every person is connected with others, and every part of creation is designed to fulfill his purposes. What God sees as beautiful, then, are the actions, words, and attitudes that express his integrated design. In a word, God has a taste for love.
The ugliness of sin lies in its isolating, selfish aesthetic in which everything reduces to personal pleasure. Covington says, “We substitute our solo passions for God’s passions. Satan tempted Eve to imitate God’s delight instead of sharing it. She became an autonomous enjoyer and an autonomous sufferer.”
The highest beauty for God is Christ’s purchase of sinners at the cross—a beauty that rebukes ugliness. “God designed, arranged, and accomplished the crucifixion as the pivot in a larger drama by which he presents his bride to himself.” Even further, the work of Christ in us restores the aesthetic of God’s glory in our hearts and relationships so that we share his delight again.
This is a strong line of argument that could open fresh ways to think about Christian artistry. Using a redemptive aesthetic, a Christian painter is not limited to a narrative painting or illustration that “shares” the gospel. The entire created order is an expression of wholeness from God’s hand. Therefore, all kinds of visual forms can display wholeness, from the realistic to the abstract—as Makoto Fujimura has been showing in his work for many years. The same is true of a Christian novelist or songwriter: redemption can be portrayed with power even if the work isn’t a gospel tract.
The problems with Covington’s book are twofold.
First, his central argument is obscured by convoluted explanations of what he calls “triads”—abstract connections through which God displays his glory. The Bible, he argues, shows that God always links such categories as content, form, and purpose. For an object to point to his glory, it seems, it must exhibit a triad that matches God’s design. In a work of biblical theology, I want to see Scripture’s direct teachings exegetically grounded, rather than what this concept of triads seems to be—at best, a latent pattern.
Second, when Covington tries to apply his argument concretely, he brings large aesthetic issues down on his head. For example, he wants to argue that “art for art’s sake” creates an autonomous human endeavor that fragments God’s design. This is a straw man, and his supporting quotes are questionable. He cites Nicholas Wolterstorff as endorsing “art for art’s sake”—a quite serious misreading of Art in Action, which could strengthen Covington’s case with philosophical depth. Covington’s examples often end up raising more debates.
Books about aesthetics will always be burdened with technical detail, as will books about theology. While there are ways to add sugar to the analytical medicine, generalizing about matters like these will only make the presentation more difficult and problematic.
David Covington has lots of good material to develop, and I hope he will gain more opportunities to bring his insights into focus.
Matthew Raley (PhD, SBTS) is the senior pastor of Living Hope Fellowship in Chico, where he has served since 2011. His novel Fallen (2008) and his non-fiction book on evangelism, The Diversity Culture (2009), were both published by Kregel.
Buy the books
A Redemptive Theology of Art: Restoring Godly Aesthetics to Doctrine and Culture