God and Mystery in Words – Review

David Brown
God & Mystery in Words. Experience through Metaphor and Drama
Oxford, OUP, 2008: 978-0-19-923183-6

[A review first published in Anvil 26;2 (2009). It is republished here by kind permission of the Reviews Editor.]

Natural and revealed theology, argues David Brown, are in a state of crisis, and the only way out of that crisis is to pay greater attention to the cultural embeddedness of both. The volume under review is the third in a series which examines religious experience as mediated by culture in general, and by the arts in particular. God and Enchantment of Place (2004) considered the ways in which religious experience has been found in religious architecture, in the urban built environment and in gardens. God and Grace of Body (2007) continued the investigation, and the present volume concludes the series with metaphor and drama. Brown notes the tendency in recent religious history towards a narrowing of the spheres in which religious experience might be found, and advances ample historical evidence that it was not always so.

Both parts of the book employ the same approach: to begin with a broad historical examination of metaphor or drama, and to proceed to an examination of their use in specific contexts of worship. Part One, on metaphor, seeks to recover the potential of language to function sacramentally. Part of the legacy of the confrontation between ‘science’ and biblical criticism in the last two centuries has been to force much theology into a defensive reduction of language to its literal descriptive function. Brown would like to see the church recover the power of verbal image to point beyond itself, and lead us to further reflection. Water, for instance (68-9) can be symbolic of cleansing, but also of inundation and destruction, or of refreshment and the quenching of thirst. There is much to be lost in the flattening-out of metaphor, and in the rush to premature closure. Along the way, Brown has stimulating and at times trenchant things to say to hymn writers; to those charged with revising hymn texts; to preachers; and to biblical translators. Brown is however careful to stress that such an acknowledgment of the ‘inexhaustibility’ of metaphor need not necessarily be mere obfuscation; a cloak behind which to avoid doctrinal commitment.

Part Two proceeds in similar manner to examine drama. Brown argues for regarding church music not only as a vehicle for words, but as having an important dramatic and structural function in liturgy in its own right. Liturgical dress and movement, church architecture and internal ordering are all considered, reinforcing Brown’s plea that these all be allowed the space in worship to function sacramentally. The impulse to explain and define ought not to be allowed to force an important minority of potential worshippers to seek a sense of the numinous almost anywhere but in church.

In sum, this volume handsomely repays attentive reading, being elegantly written, lucid and admirably concise. Specialist historians of worship or language are unlikely to be surprised in matters of detail; however, the range of material employed, across genres, periods and countries is dazzling and some highly suggestive historical insights are offered. Brown is scrupulously even-handed in his treatment of different artistic styles, and there is no trace of any particular churchmanship being brought to bear. For this reviewer, it suggested questions about how to understand the work of the Spirit through created things; questions sometimes sidelined through distrust of an over-powerful natural theology and for fear of possible idolatry or creeping immanentism. Although Brown does not address the work of the Spirit directly, he provides a fascinating basis on which to begin doing so.

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