Once in a while you can get shown the light /
in the strangest of places if you look at it right
— Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias”
One of the things we need to figure out as we’re working in theology and literature is how we can connect them together. How can we pursue theology within literature, especially in “non-Christian” literature. Or are we stuck reading Christian fiction (horrified gasp)?
Paul Tillich’s 1959 book Theology of Culture collects essays regarding philosophy of religion and culture. In his essay “Aspects of a Religious Analysis of Culture,” he discusses the church’s role in contemporary culture. Rather than proposing hard boundaries between the Christian church and the culture in which it lives, Tillich stresses the church’s role as prophetic witness to the culture, as well as its need to hear corrective truth from the culture to itself. Refusing a clear separation between church and culture, Tillich uses the illustration of language used by church and culture. He argues, “The form of religion is culture. This is especially obvious in the language used by religion.” He notes that
“There is no sacred language which has fallen from a supranatural heaven and been put between the covers of a book. But there is human language, based on man’s encounter with reality, changing through the millennia, used for the needs of daily life, for expression and communication, for literature and poetry, and used for the expression and communication of our ultimate concern…. Religious language is ordinary language, changed under the power of what it expresses, the ultimate of being and meaning.”
So, Tillich argues that language is not secular or sacred. Only that of which language speaks, and the meaning it conveys, make it so. Tillich’s approach to theology and culture encourages to us a pursuit of Christian theology through the literature of contemporary culture, if we are attentive of the meaning and impact of work that we are reading.
Similarly, musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie makes this even clearer as he draws a helpful distinction between “theology for the arts” and “theology through the arts” in the following video produced by Duke University.
In theology for the arts, the goal is to try to understand music in the light of a theological worldview… In theology through the arts, the questions are, “what can music or the arts being to theology?” and “How can those particular powers of music help us unlock the great truths of the Gospel?”
I like this approach–the idea of pursuing theology through art. If I can see the beauty of God in a child’s laugh or a hummingbird’s wings or the view in an alpine wilderness, then I can also see it in other parts of creation. Like a song, or a poem, or a book. Whether that book is a story about a Hasidic Jew who paints, or about a zombie plague. Both may speak of calling and beauty and redemption and love.
I first learned these ideas from Jamie Howison, author of the (fantastic) book God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations Through the Music of John Coltrane. In that book, Howison studies theology and music, specifically jazz, and most specifically the recordings of John Coltrane. You don’t have to be a jazz or Coltrane fan to love that book. It was one of my favorite reads from last year.