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In The Beginning is the Icon: A Review

November 23, 2010

A review of In The Beginning is the Icon: a Liberative Theology of Images, Visual Arts and Culture by Sigurd Bergmann, translated by Anja K. Angelsen (London: Equinox, 2009). [originally published in Swedish in 2003]

In his foreward, Nicholas Wolterstorff declares that Bergmann’s book “is a breakthrough in theological aesthetics.”  This is a remarkable endorsement from a scholar who has contributed so much to the contemporary landscape of theological aesthetics.  It seems to me that Wolterstorff’s assessment is, on the whole, accurate.  Bergmann does actually bring a great deal of originality to the conversation between theology and the arts, and he also widens the scope of the conversation considerably by drawing on voices from philosophy and anthropology rarely heard in a work like this.  Furthermore, Bergmann draws our attention to interesting works of art that would not be considered as part of the normal “canon” of high western art.

Nevertheless, there are reasons why the word “breakthrough” may be a bit of an overstatement.  First, Wolterstorff emphasizes the importance of Bergmann’s attentiveness to the various contexts in which works of art are situated.  He contrasts Bergmann’s contextual theology of art with a picture of the typical writer on theological aesthetics who “has their eye on high art of the West” and for whom the original context of the work is of little interest.  Perhaps this is true of some theologians, but surely this is a straw man in light of recent theological work (e.g. David Brown, the Dillenbergers, William Dyrness, Frank Burch Brown, Betty Spackman, Robin Jensen) that takes seriously the intepretive tools of those who study works of art and other cultural artifacts.  Second, Bergmann’s contextual theology of art is, as he points out many times, only a sketch.  He offers a theology of art in outline form, and the majority of interesting theological questions are simply left hanging.

I cannot offer a full summary of Bergmann’s contextual theology of art, but I would like to comment on three important themes that run throughout the book.

  1. The Plea for the Visual. Bergmann argues for the autonomy of the visual arts in relation to verbal arts.  He thinks that words have been given a biased priority in theological discourse, and that images need to be understood as theological texts in their own right.  Furthermore, he argues that images are more fundamental than words:  “verbal thinking should be seen as a fulfilment of visual thinking.  Linguistic and conceptual thinking presuppose the creation of mental images … without these images as a point of reference, the linguistic processing would be impossible.” (9)  His emphasis on the autonomy of art leads him to the interesting theological claim that fides ex visu (faith comes from seeing).  He contrasts this with the iconoclastic tendencies of the protestant reformation, and he argues that “The theo-logy – the discursive, linguistic reflection over God and portrayals of God – should not subdue the theo-iconic – the visual, spatial, intuitive representation of God and the expression of experiences of God.” (108)  Unfortunately, Bergmann does not take the next step and integrate his view of the autonomy of the image with a developed understanding of divine revelation.
  2. Art as an Encounter Between Cultures. Many of the works of art that Bergmann shows are either from a non-western culture, or they exist somewhere between two different cultures.  By doing this, Bergmann draws us to the radical way that one’s definition of art is shaped by one’s particular cultural context.  He challenges theologians who wish to dialogue with contemporary art to abandon their “universalistic and essentialist foundation to a more contextually aware view of [their] objective and method.” (78)  His discussion of Peruvian art in relation to western Christianity is particularly interesting (114-129).  Bergmann shows that visual media in Peru played an important role in both maintaining the identity of the Peruvian people, and the ‘inculturation’ of Christianity among Peruvians.
  3. A Soteriological Turn. Bergmann pleas for a departure from modern “theoaesthetics” (theories of art emphasize the metaphysical ground of sensuous experience) and towards a theology of art that is concerned with God’s saving acts through art.  In a soteriological theology of art the focal question becomes: “how does God perform acts of redemption and liberation with humankind and nature through art?”(37)  It is unclear how Bergmann envisages his theology of art in relation to others (such as Jeremy Begbie, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Trevor Hart) who also describe human artistry as participating in divine redemption.  Are their attempts to describe who artists are, what artists do, and what art is too “universalistic” for Bergmann?

In the final chapter, Bergmann states that  “‘theology of art’ here simply refers to a discursive reflection over God in visual art.” (98)  If this is what he has meant all along, then it is easy to see how to differentiate Bergmann from other theological attempts to situate human artistry in relation to the Christian life and to God’s redemption of the world.  But his emphasis throughout on the “liberating” power of art suggests something more than simply “discursive reflection over God in visual art.”  The most exciting and interesting elements of Bergmann’s work are, however, his analyses of individual works of art, and there is certainly much to be learned here by the theology student who wishes to explore visual expressions of the Christian faith.

For a student of theology, Bergmann’s book is disappointing and frustrating in the way that it brings important theological concepts to bear upon his philosophical and anthropological accounts of images.  In particular, his survey of theological responses to modern art ignores important contributions such as the reformed tradition (Rookmaaker, Seerveld, Wolterstorff, Dyrness, etc.)  The book is theologically thin, and raises many more questions than it answers.  Nevertheless, this is an important read for anyone interested in the relation between art and theology because it widens the scope of the interdisciplinary conversation and because it offers an intriguing vision for the role of art in theological discourse.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 23, 2010 11:28 pm

    Very nice article. Keep up the good work.

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