In 1874, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky created his famous, 10-piece suite of music Pictures at an Exhibition. The work was originally composed in honor of the work of his friend and creative compatriot, Viktor Hartmann, an architect and artist. When Hartmann died, a number of his friends organized a special exhibition of over 400 of his works as a tribute. Mussorgsky’s contribution was to composes this work, which was a soundtrack, of sorts, for the exhibition, based on 10 of Hartmann’s works.
Both Hartmann and Mussorgsky were committed to the idea of a distinctly Russian spirit in art as opposed to the excessive Westernization they feared would overwhelm it. And so while Hartmann’s art was devoted to capturing Russian scenes such as children playing, women gossiping, and so forth, Mussorgsky’s Pictures aims to capture that same feel, capturing the atmosphere of Russian folk songs, and so forth, that suffuses the whole. These “pictures” distill, not only Hartmann’s art, but the social and cultural message of Hartmann’s vision of a distinctly Russian spirit. They present a vision of an alternative culture, an alternative way of being, that helps counteract the spirit of Westernization, and helps Russians remain true to their identity.
It is from this composition that Kevin Vanhoozer draws the title for his recent collection of essays Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom. Much like the Russia of Mussorgsky’s day, Vanhoozer thinks the Church is called to resist the Westernization of her culture, “to the extent that it conflicts with the culture, as it were, of the kingdom of God.”
To that end, then, he argues that the Church must be steeped in the pictures, the metaphors given in the biblical exhibition, aimed at shaping the life of the holy nation of God’s people. To do so, the Evangelical church must recover a sense of the importance of rehabilitating a properly biblical imagination.
For too long, imagination has gotten a bad rap as another word for “fantasy”, “illusion”, “making things up”, or failing to come to grips with reality. Imagination, though, is a way of seeing meaningful connections, to perceive meaningful wholes with the mind’s eye, or the thoughts of the heart—sometimes in ways that are not always immediately apparent. This is not always a matter of making things up, then. In fact, the point Vanhoozer wants to make is that our imaginations can and must be shaped by these holy metaphors, these biblical images and parables that help us see the world through the eyes of the heart shaped by faith. A biblically-formed imagination is what helps us live into the reality of what is “in Christ”, or the “theodrama” we’re inhabiting in the midst of our modern world, so to speak.
That’s why essays in this work aim to cultivate just such a biblical imagination, both by addressing specific images, or scenes from the church’s life (worship, the exposition of Scripture, etc), but also by articulating a way of doing theology that is aimed at the pastoral application of theology within the life of the Church.
Now, I won’t be so silly as to try and give some sort of “objective” review of the book. Vanhoozer is my advisor, I am a long-time reader, and I did type up the author index for the thing (while listening to Mussorgsky’s composition, of course). All the same, I figured I’d note a couple of features of the work that would give you a feel for what’s going on and why it’s probably worth your time.
First, this collection of essays is fairly unique from Vanhoozer precisely because a large number of them were delivered orally before they were printed here. There are a variety of lectures and sermons that, while still aiming high on the content level, retain their lively, spoken feel. (Yes, that means dozens and dozens of imaginative images and persuasive puns). They are “theology on the ground” and “snapshots” of ministerial theology at work in the local church setting. Also, an added bonus, since many of the sermons are expositions of Scripture, you get a feel for what Vanhoozer means when he’s talking about the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” For many, this might make this volume a perfect access point into Vanhoozer’s broader body of work.
Second, it’s true, Vanhoozer always seems to manage to comment on issues regarding method and prolegomena in theology. Even here, the whole thrust of the work is concerned with doing theology in a certain way. Heck, it has one of his best, short pieces on inerrancy that I’ve read (and I think I’ve read them all at this point). That said, in this collection there’s plenty of “material” theology regarding pressing, everyday church issues.
For instance, his essay on inerrancy is actually aimed at helping pastors properly handle Scripture in the context of the church. Or again, there are a couple of essays on the theology of worship, song, beauty, and the arts for the local church. Towards the back end, he’s got a sermon on the pressing, contemporary issue of status anxiety and the way it’s addressed by the cross of Christ that’s simply good, pastoral theology. (I drew on some of its themes to preach to a group of college kids just the other day!) Probably the most interesting (because most distinct) essay in the whole bunch is the piece on the ethics of brain enhancing bio-technology. (But maybe that’s just because I’m in grad school and would be sorely tempted to use it as I take German this summer.)
All that to say, there are a number of reasons you may just want to take a stroll through Vanhoozer’s latest gallery of faith speaking understanding.
Soli Deo Gloria