Harries, Richard: Art and the Beauty of God
Richard Harries: Art and the Beauty of God, A Christian Understanding, Mowbray – New York, 1993.
by Iain McKillop Third Way Magazine, March 1994, www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk
This is a fascinating book, beautifully written by a bishop who knows how to communicate his ideas. It is not a treatise on the nature either of God or of art, but discusses how the arts affect us and how a perception of beauty has influenced the understanding of God through various church traditions.
Harries ranges from the concept of Christ as the creative Word over the apocryphal Wisdom literature to the ideas of Plato and modern writers. He is most at home discussing cultural expression in English literature, the teaching of neo-Platonic ideas in early church writers and the meaning in tradition and liturgy in the Anglican and Orthodox Churches. He does not give a linearly reasoned argument, but relates the arts, philosophy and faith like a 20th-century version of a Renaissance scholar.
He discusses how some Christian traditions neglect beauty and the imagination in favour of cliché and kitsch and talks of the need to develop an awareness of the transcendence of spiritual realities. We are shown how the early and later church regarded the idea of beauty in relation to the nature of God and his creation. God speaks, he says, through creation, art and our mental and sensuous responses and Harries is convinced that religious truth should be expressed in beautiful forms. Particularly he contrasts Western didactic Christianity with the more mystical or metaphysical expression in the teaching, art and practice of the Orthodox Church.
The weakest section of the book, I feel, is the essential chapter on the meaning of ‘beauty’, which is limited in its repeated referral to mainly visual modes. It is obvious from the rest of the book that Harries’ understanding is far broader than this. A student of aesthetics or an artist would not find the definitions he offers particularly enlightening. His writing on the visual arts (apart from icons) is not as acute as his grasp of meaning in literature. A few generalisations about Van Gogh, Romanticism and Abstraction spoil his pitch, though most of his examples are helpful.
Early on, Harries’ argument might have been more acceptable to some evangelicals if he had supported it as strongly from Scripture as from Plotinus and Augustine. His final conclusions, however, powerfully correct this imbalance: his last two chapters are magnificent and challenging. He looks at why and how icons convey meaning and tries to find lessons for a contemporary expression of faith. He then faces realistically the question of how our concept of the beauty and majesty of God and his creation can be held in balance with our everyday experience of a suffering society.
His positive words are a tonic in a world where both the news and the arts are so full of tragedy and where the church’s message so often sounds escapist or naïve. Harries ends with a call to all Christians, not just artists, by their perception and action to ‘share in God’s work of transfiguring the world’.