Risking Beauty at the AAR

Those who are familiar with “the AAR” (shorthand for the 9,000-person annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature) know that it offers a fascinating pastiche of tones and colors. Eastern Orthodox sisters in habit walk side by side with French postmodern theorists of religion arrayed all in black; wearers of British tweed stand across from colorful Southern Baptist teachers and preachers. One’s tried and true sense of theological fashion gets stretched by these new combinations.

A few meetings ago, I had two contrasting aesthetic experiences that have provoked theological reflection ever since. The first occurred at the meeting of the Karl Barth Society, where the topic was Barth’s aesthetics. As we discussed his writings on beauty and art, I was confronted once again by all the worthy and valid carefulness and yet frustratingly iconoclastic tendencies of the Reformed tradition as a whole. All the blasted limitations of all our best images and words were correctly and stubbornly highlighted. The deep shadow that our fallenness and finiteness cast on all our works was stressed. Accordingly, images of Christ or God were distrusted and discouraged because of their tendency to limit, reduce, distort. Best not to try. Apparent safety trumped the risk of beauty. I felt mildly depressed.

Exiting the session, I ran into a friend, a West Coast evangelical, who introduced me to someone working with an ongoing project at St. John’s University. There and in Wales The St. John’s Bible is being produced. When completed, it will be the first fully illuminated manuscript of the Bible produced in the world for over 600 years. The project was materially begun on Ash Wednesday of 2000, when Donald Jackson penned the first verses of the Gospel of John on vellum. I was shown facsimiles of some of the title pages and illustrations from the gospels and the book of Acts. Images of Christ and God will be included, and those that I saw were breathtakingly beautiful. I was deeply moved. Moved by the care and attention with which the “sacred page” was being handled, by the careful, exquisite images and script they had produced, and by the stories of the calligraphers, illuminators, and artists working on the project. Some of them find this work to be among the most deeply spiritual and fulfilling tasks they have ever set their minds and hands to in their entire lives. I felt the gravity of it all and was so thankful they are attempting the challenge.

Where is safety to be found? We are not safe in either our action or inaction. For us sinful and limited, loved and lovely creatures artistically formed by a God far beyond us, there are only risks of different kinds and different degrees as we seek to speak of and image and honor that God. In our risking, we should be careful. We should be careful to maintain humility, humor, and a sense of mystery about ourselves and our work so that we might best alert others to the mystery which we touch but never control or fully comprehend.

Careful, but not timid. We in the Reformed tradition tend to have a “risk aversive” style. I think we could benefit from the example of the risky work of beauty going on at St. John’s University. I am reminded of the parable of the talents (Matt. 25): it is not clear what would have happened to the risk takers if their projects had somehow failed, but the displeasure of the lord of the story with the servant who thought he could play it safe is clear enough.

David L. Stubbs is Assistant Professor of Ethics and Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and a member of Perspectives’ Editorial Board.