Previously published at Reading Religion, the book review website of the American Academy of Religion.
Published in a hefty and expensive hardcover edition in 2014, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts is now available in a more manageable and affordable paperback edition. The series of Oxford Handbooks aims to “take into account the best current scholarship on a given topic and to address representative issues and debates within the relevant area of study” (3). Its target audience consists of advanced scholars and students alike, including those with a profound interest in a particular research field. Comprised of a promising 542 pages, the thirty-six chapters in this handbook are structured along four main themes: religious aesthetics (five chapters); artistic ways of being religious (eight chapters); religious ways of being artistic (sixteen chapters); and issues and themes (seven chapters). Editor Frank Burch Brown discusses the interrelationship between art and religion by stating that “many individuals and groups involved in the arts continue to see their artistic aims as in some way religious or spiritual” (2) and that just as many see religion “as in some significant ways artistic, in itself” (6). This is a description rather than definition of the art-religion relationship and is reflective of the wide array of approaches and themes discussed in the volume.
From the introduction it becomes clear that the editor assumes “that relatively few readers are likely to be expert in a given area. As a consequence, some of the topics covered in this handbook have had to be explored in relatively broad and non-technical ways, although with attention to significant particulars” (4). Many of the chapters are comprised of listings of authors, topics, and research questions. This leaves very little room for critical engagement and analysis. It provides the handbook with the character of a catalog which one can use for further direction. Hardly any of the questions raised in the volume are provided with answers. One example: Graham Howes, in his informative chapter “Christianity and Visual Art,” poses a concern that may be valuable for all religious engagement with art: “a—perhaps the—theological problem that has perennially challenged Christian art [is] how, by the visible, can we suggest a reality that is invisible?” (299). Unfortunately, the chapter’s concluding paragraphs do not work towards an answer.
The cover of the handbook shows an Indian statue of Shiva, Lord of the Dance. In Part 3 of the book, “Religious Ways of Being Artistic,” each chapter has a world religion and an artistic discipline as a topic. In the other parts, however, the focus is predominantly on Christianity. Seventeen of the contributors work in Christian theology, as does the handbook’s editor. In a volume that wants to cover the entirety of religion and the arts, the balance between various religions could have been more even. Moreover, a stronger differentiation between theological and religious studies scholarship would have been welcome. For example, in Part 1, Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen writes that “art reveals … glimpses of divine beauty to the beholder and thus sustains, challenges, and enlightens the life of faith as well as theological scholarship” (88). In Part 4, David Morgan argues that “the material culture of religion, whether elite or popular, is an essential part of how people imagine their world. By imagination I mean not mere fiction-making, but the vital construction of a sense of one’s place in the physical or temporal universe” (495). The vast difference in approach is obvious when these passages are set side by side, but it is not ingrained in the structure of the book. I would argue that a handbook on art from a theological approach is quite different in character and aim from a handbook on art from a religious studies perspective. Bringing these approaches together, as occurs in this volume, is a challenging and brave endeavor, about which the reader deserves to be informed.
Not aiming for completion, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts is a useful departure point for scholars and students who want to get to know the terrain. It seems best to take the advice presented by the editor early on in his introduction: “Some of the more specialized questions are best pursued by consulting the bibliographies, which are an important feature of each chapter” (4). In other words, do not expect this handbook to provide in-depth analyses of current debates and developments. Instead, consider it to be an introductory catalog that helps you narrow down your interests before you dig into them further.