An Interview with David Brown: Art, Culture, and the Human Christian Experience

By Sarah Miller

In the fall of 2014, The School of Theology welcomed David Brown, professor of theology, aesthetics, and culture at the University of St. Andrews, to Sewanee to deliver the annual DuBose Lectures. Though much of Brown’s early career was spent examining the connections between philosophy and theology, for the last 15 years, Brown has explored how the often neglected or subordinated areas of imagination, art, culture, and human experience are sources of Christian authority and revelation. Rather than relying on intellectual inquiry alone to discover and convey truths about God, Brown argues, Christians must engage imaginatively with their own tradition and with their surrounding cultures.

Over the course of two days, Brown lectured on “Deepening our Experience of God through the Arts,” offering a wealth of examples of how God speaks in paintings, music, and architecture. The first lecture, entitled “Art and Architecture in Christian Discipleship,” demonstrated the way truths about God are conveyed in art as various as Matthias Grünewald and Mark Rothko. In “Music and Hymnody in Christian Worship,” pop music and praise bands were explored. In his final lecture, “Metaphor and Drama in Christian Preaching and Liturgy,” Brown teased out the connections between contemporary theater and the church’s rituals of word and sacrament.

Sarah Miller, T'15, and the Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain, assistant professor of theology and Christian ethics, had the opportunity to talk to Brown before his lectures to delve a little deeper into his particular view of the role of the arts in Christianity.

Miller: What is the focus of your lectures? What do you hope to communicate?

Brown: What I'm trying to communicate is the importance of imagination in people's lives of discipleship. And how, given the fact that this is a seminary, clergy can help people in that way. I think that although the arts have become more important in recent years, there's still a long way to go in using them in this context, and in appreciating that Christianity stands or falls by the extent to which it can be seen as something that isn't just a set of facts, but part of a lived reality. And so we don't just relate to the Bible by knowing that Jesus was born at a certain time. We have to somehow or other enter into that story ourselves.  And the question is, how do we do that?

For example, my second lecture asks the audience to think about the role of music and hymns in church. And what I've tried to do there is widen the territory and remind people that God can be found not just in the music in church, but in music outside church. And equally with words, we must learn not to control them, but to let God speak through them.  One thing that worries me about modern hymn writing is it's often very politically correct. And that means it reduces the power of the imagery.  So I'm trying to suggest that you think more about the openness of imagery. That's one reason why I introduce a bit of pop music in my lecture. Much of pop music says things very indirectly, and we can learn from that in terms of the imagery we use in church.

Miller: Could you say more about that indirectness in speaking about the Holy?

Brown: One of the examples I'll give in the second lecture is the poetry of R. H. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest. He's sometimes been interpreted as really sort of atheist, because he repeatedly says that we can't have God in the absence. What I think he’s trying to do is get the reader to feel through his poetry that the absence actually gives the reader the sense of something missing—that you are then gradually and pretty indirectly brought into the awareness of something more. I think most people have these sorts of moments, but they'll be different for everyone. Often it can be the exhilaration of having a child, or a piece of music that provides a sense of transcendence or of immanence. It's saying something more, but it's not giving you a detailed answer. I think religious experience is mostly like that. It's not that everything happens at that one moment. It’s the beginning of an exploration.

Miller: How might clergy and other leaders in the church apply these insights in their communities?

Brown: To give an example, I see much of the history of Christianity as a history of retreat. In the ancient world there was no sense of anything not being religious. When you ate, it wasn't just a matter of saying grace, you had to pour a little bit of wine on the ground as a thank you to the gods. If you engaged in sport, you sacrificed to the gods before you started the competition. Equally, all music was seen as religious, as saying something about God. And what's tended to happen in the history of Christianity is we’ve moved to be more and more “churchy” and defensive. Rather than thinking that people in the secular world are experiencing moments of transcendence, or encounters with God, the church is rather reluctant to endorse it because it's not fully Orthodox. Rather than being negative about those experiences of God, we should be saying, “let's pick up on that.” Which is why, in terms of music, talking with a person about what music they like and so on can make a point of contact.  Or, the gardener talking to people about gardening can make a connection. There are lots of opportunities to bring people into the Christian story, but the trouble is we tend to want to do it very directly and say “believe or don’t believe.” The extreme version, of course, is where you have to subscribe to a long list of things. And the problem, it seems to me, is the Creed is something you grow into, it's not necessarily anything that you're going to understand at once.

Miller: What are the consequences of spending too much time in an argumentative mode and too little in an imaginative one?

Brown: This is an issue that also worries nonbelievers.  There’s an art historian called James Elkins who’s written a book expressing anxiety as to why people don’t cry in front of paintings anymore. And the issue there is that we’re approaching them intellectually and not allowing a wider range of responses. So aesthetically, it’s perfectly possible to say how well the colors are blended and produced. But there are also other dimensions that are being ignored in the process. That also would be true of reading a novel.  You can read a novel to pass the time, but you can also read a novel to try and appreciate more clearly what someone's experience is like, and it would be odd if you’re not sometimes moved by that. I think it’s important sometimes to have emotional responses, and one interesting thing about contemporary philosophy is that some philosophers are now saying that emotions are one path to knowledge. A very obvious example of that is empathy. You’re unlikely to see someone else’s good motives unless you have some of your own. If you’re fundamentally a person enclosed in a little circle, you’re likely to see a false world in which your impression is that everyone is just out for self-interest.  Ironically, it will then reinforce your negative view of the world, because you’ll misinterpret any and all kind gestures that come to you, which will in turn stop people  from actually being kind to you.  So you do need an emotional response to the world in order to see a better world.

Miller: Your training was in analytic philosophy. Was there a turning point that led you in a different direction?

Brown: The answer is yes.  I’ve always been interested in the arts as a hobby. I moved from Oxford to Durham and was confronted with a fundamentally different way of teaching students. At Oxford, you have tutorials with, at most, two people. I had to give compulsory classes at Durham and had 80 or so lectures. Pretty soon I realized, as I looked around the room, that the way I’d done things in Oxford wasn’t going to work in this setting. Yes, there was a significant proportion of students that were keeping up, but there were quite a number who were clearly turned off or couldn’t understand.  So I started thinking, why not try a different way of doing this? I began to bring in imaginative questions, and that approach seemed to be far more effective than the analytical method with a wider range of students.  When I introduced imaginative, a much larger proportion of the class responded positively.

MacSwain: How much have you pushed or reacted against the analytic approach, and do you find it ever helpful?

Brown: It can be helpful. The most recent article I’ve written is in the analytic philosophy tradition. What I think is not true is that it can offer the whole answer. We’re rational beings, we have reason, that’s part of us, but it isn’t the whole of our identity. We’re also emotional beings, we’re imaginative beings, so somehow all these aspects have to be brought together. Bringing imaginative and analytic philosophy approaches together is more difficult, which is why I’m ending my career by trying to write about that. The one that’s most esteemed in our culture is analytic, but that’s because anything that’s technological is regarded as better. I just don’t think that’s the case; we can’t be confident that simply thinking in those narrow terms will necessarily make us, and the world, a better place.

To give an extreme example, at one level, the Nazis’ approach to the Jews worked, because it united Germany—you had someone to blame for the total collapse of the country. You can give arguments against it, but it seems to me if you’re just thinking in purely rational terms, it is something that would have to be considered. But emotionally you say no! What turns you away from the wrong answer is not necessarily more reason but another element—your emotional identity with other individuals.

MacSwain: How would you respond either to the claim that you're a Romantic, or that your thinking is against the grain of contemporary theology?

Brown: It certainly goes against the grain of much contemporary theology. Whether I'm a Romantic depends on how you would define Romanticism! It's true that Romanticism places great emphasis on experience and that includes experiences of God, so if that's the definition of Romanticism, then I'm a Romantic.

I suspect, however, what the term might mean is that Romantics are deluded optimists or something of that sort! I don’t see myself like that. I think sometimes contemporary theology sees itself as God's policeman, trying to protect God, as if he's such a precious thing that he needs to be protected from any over-familiarity. What they often do in the process is reveal more about their own anxieties than about the reality. If we have a God who exposes himself in the crucifixion to tremendous misuse, it seems strange to me to say that in our present world, he can't equally be exposing himself to misuse. There are going to be many examples of people getting the whole thing largely wrong, but from that it doesn't flow that God hasn't been somewhere in there. It isn't that he needs the theological policeman.  He actually needs us to hear that he is stretching out to us, as it were. That would be more my response.

What do you think? Let us know.