Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Begbie, Jeremy - Abundantly More

Book review
By Nigel Halliday
ABUNDANTLY MORE:  the theological promise of the arts in a reductionist world
by Jeremy S. Begbie
Baker Academic.  251 pages.  £26.09
ISBN  978 1 5409 6543 1
This book starts with the theme, highlighted by a number of recent writers, that
the Enlightenment has led to a reduced way of understanding the world, which in turn fails to account for our lived experience. Christianity, by contrast, not only makes sense of but celebrates richness and diversity in creation and society. 
But the author, as the title indicates, wants also to show that the arts not only support the Christian refutation of reductivism, but can themselves enrich our knowledge of our Lord and the life he has given us.
Evangelicals can get twitchy at the idea of the arts revealing truth, but Begbie is clear that authoritative revelation comes from God through Christ and the Scriptures alone.   However, he shows that evangelicals’ heavy reliance on words to the exclusion of imagination and art has a lot in common with modern reductivism, and we thereby forfeit much of the richness of the knowledge of God that is available to us.
Erich Auerbach described many years ago in Mimesis how the Bible, unlike other religious texts, seems to be deliberately written to invite the reader to enter imaginatively into its stories, because these stories are relevant to our own lives.   Begbie demonstrates how the use of the imagination, subject to the bounds set by Biblical revealed truth, can enrich our theological understanding. He is also interesting on how knowledge, again contrary to the Enlightenment, is held as much in our bodies as in our minds.     
Presumably with his academic audience in mind, the author often uses long words where short ones would have done. But he also concludes dense paragraphs with a summary in plain English; and he helpfully recapitulates his arguments from chapter to chapter, so his themes are easy to follow.
This book will particularly help church leaders and academics who are forming constructive Christian responses to our culture and who want to demonstrate the wonderful richness of the life Jesus wants us to enjoy. The theme that we know with our bodies and that we are not just brains on sticks, should also stimulate preachers and teachers in how authoritative Biblical truth can be effectively communicated.
The book is also a call for greater use of the arts in church and in our personal lives.  Works of art are not divine revelation. But listening to Bach’s Inventions, pondering Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus or reading a poetic reflection can help us to experience Biblical truth in ways that are real, rich and more powerful than simply reading words on paper. For, as Begbie argues, experiencing things in our bodies is a real form of knowledge, and imagination is a God-given faculty by which we can extend our understanding.
This review was first published in Evangelicals Now, February 2024.