A Redemptive Theology of Art: Restoring Godly Aesthetics to Doctrine and Culture. By David A. Covington. Grand Rapids, M: Zondervan, 2018.
David A. Covington is an artist-theologian who is passionate about both music and Christian discipleship. Unfortunately, for quite some time in his life he found these two passions to exist in separate realms, especially within the context of the church. In his search to “live one life rather than two separate ones, one in music and one in theology” (21), he was led later to seminary to study “what the Bible has to say about the power of music, about all beauty, all passions [aesthetics]” (21). He was in search of a way past the long-standing separation of theology and aesthetics—a dichotomy he argues is “unnecessary, even harmful” (49). This book is the result of that search.
The author announces early on that he is writing “from within the orthodox, historic Christian tradition, broadly considered, with personal fondness for its Reformed expression” (21). Therefore, the astute Lutheran reader will rightfully find some aspects of his work to be challenging. However, from the outset Covington claims he is not aiming at a “theology of glory” that avoids the reality of sin and the need of redemption through the cross. Nor is this work an attempt at a natural theology set apart from God’s revealed word. Rather, it is a Trinitarian-creedal systematic theology embedded in and taken directly from Scripture. Thus, Covington aims at directing the redeemed believer to a renewed view of creation that comes only through the person and work of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s word.
Beginning with the first four chapters of the Book of Genesis, Covington takes the reader on a journey of discovery “to look more deeply to the Bible for the roots, defacement, and restoration of beauty” (15), in order to develop “the ways and means that Scripture should be applied specifically in regard to the aesthetic aspects of discipleship” (198). His goal is to show the reader that “Scripture helps us connect God’s glory, human aesthetic experience, pastoral practice, and creedal confessions” (49). In so doing, he follows a trajectory of works such as Jeremy Begbie’s Voicing Creation’s Praise (1991) and William Dyrness’s Poetic Theology (2011). In line with these, Covington advocates a Trinitarian approach that highlights and intimately connects the creation account to the overarching redemptive-historical narrative of Scripture for a deeper understanding and more effective practice of a redemptive aesthetic hermeneutic for daily living.
Covington does this by developing a simple and practical organizing framework he terms “glory triads,” consisting of the three key aspects of God’s glory (form, content, and purpose) as first revealed in the context of the creation account in Genesis 1–2. He further argues that “[t]his theme of God’s glory appears, in various language, throughout the overarching Redemptive-Historical Narrative” (70), consistently revealing God to us as aesthetic Creator, First Seer and Eternal Beholder, and Redeemer. With this organizing framework, he challenges the reader to think “triadically” through these three interconnected aspects of God’s glory of content, form, and purpose, as well as “perspectivally,” that is, from a God-centered perspective on aesthetics that is preaffectional and calls for a return to a scriptural presupposition in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ. This is radically different from the normal approaches to aesthetics of objective standards or subjective taste and preferences. In so doing, Covington effectively debunks the Enlightenment proverb “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” in which man is believed to be the primary subjective seer, and instead restores God as First Seer and Eternal Beholder. At the same time, he also effectively debunks the Romantic paradigm of “art for art’s sake,” which sought to compartmentalize art (form) into its own autonomous realm apart from truth (content) and ethics (purpose), and instead effectively illustrates the reality that the integral triadic God-centered aesthetics permeate all of creation, all of Scripture, and therefore every aspect of the human creature’s life (18).
This integral “triadic” pattern and primary “God-centered perspective” also provides Covington with “a baseline for exploring the aesthetic effects of sin” (76). Here, he offers a “thick description” of the aesthetic effects of the fall and sin on our seeing expressed through the triadic pattern of “autonomous, fragmented, and darkened vision.” Covington further expounds that the devasting effect of this triad is that “[w]e steal God’s role as first seer, we break up the unity of his glory [beauty, truth, and goodness] into separate fields of endeavor, and we darken those field’s witness to the Creator as we are no longer able to see God’s glory translucently through his creation” (98).
These devastating effects lead Covington to further illustrate our desperate need of repentance, and the redemption that centers solely on the person and work of Jesus the Christ as redeemer and restorer of our aesthetic sensibilities. Here, Covington focuses the reader’s vision on the cross event as the place where Jesus, in a moment of extreme brutality and ugliness, reunites beauty, truth, and goodness, the three fragmented aspects of God’s glory, which got severed in our eyes, broken up in the fall, torn apart by sin, and in the cultural disintegration that followed. Jesus unites them by being, himself, their unity in the “glory triad” of Prophet, Priest, and King in one man. In so doing, Jesus restores the primacy of the Father’s seeing (149), and reunites his people’s sense of truth, beauty, and power (150), as he himself is the image of God (form), the Word of God (content), and the power of God (purpose). Covington is adamant that only a redemptive approach can restore our feelings to God’s eternal purposes in Jesus Christ, our Prophet, Priest, and King (106). And, therefore, that “[o]ur Lord’s call to aesthetic discipleship starts here, at the cross, and all our pursuit of beauty for God’s sake (together with our wills and beliefs) must first pass through this fire by aesthetic repentance and faith” (134).
Covington concludes with a call to the redeemed disciple of Jesus Christ to a God-centered scripturally based approach to an aesthetics of redemption that sends the redeemed follower of Jesus Christ back into the created sphere with renewed eyes that are able to see translucently through creation to God’s glory. However, as Covington rightly points out, “Only the Holy Spirit working through the Word can bring light to our darkened eyes, revealing our sin and God’s glory in creation and in our redemption” (93). Here, the redeemed Christian eye informed by Scripture and opened by the Holy Spirit judges their surroundings in all three aspects of God’s glory (truth content, aesthetic form, and ethical purpose), and locates it in God’s great story, including its four major chapters: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (80). Thus, our restored vision opens our eyes to this translucence, God’s glory radiating through every created thing, visible and invisible (214). However, God’s revealed word must guide this translucency. It is always a scripturally regulated translucency (215).
At the end of every chapter the author has included a section called “Read, Reflect, Discuss, and Sing,” which includes discussion questions as well as one traditional hymn that he connects with the particular aspect of the topic as it is handled in the chapter. Although helpful, I was hoping that Covington, as an artist (singer/songwriter/musician) would actually engage more music (cultural artifacts) in the actual text of his work, as the impetus of his original search for a unified life of music and theology led him to seminary to study biblical songwriting. However, as he admits, as his questions changed and his search widened, his focus on the aesthetic metaphor of “seeing” came to the forefront with the result that his emphasis on music and songwriting quickly disappears.
Covington’s book is a creative and insightful addition for further exploration into the essential and intimate relationship between form (beauty/aesthetics), content (truth/doctrine), and purpose (goodness/ethics). It is not the final word on the topic, as over the past three decades many Protestant denominations have only begun to scratch the surface of this much needed exploration into aesthetics. However, it does provide a rich source for further thinking and practice, especially within the Lutheran context, which has few resources of its own in this field.
Andrew D. Whaley