Brief Book Review: In the Beauty of Holiness

In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture
David Lyle Jeffrey

Who should read this? 
Anyone who cares about beauty, holiness, faith, and images that speak to faith will be given new vision by this gorgeous book. Notions of what is beautiful and what is holy are addressed in two parts: 1) from the third century to 1500 CE and 2) from 1500 to the twentieth century. Each chapter is enlarged with apt and instructive visual and literary works.

What’s the main point? 
Not a history of art, the author intends an exploration of “some of the ways in which a biblical imagination is tutored to receive all beauty as … a gift with a Giver.” (p. 2) This creative book uses the work of visual artists to get beneath Jewish and Christian witness over the centuries to the animating Spirit of God. 

What intrigued me the most?
No ready definition of beauty or holiness exists, and yet what is spiritual and what is beautiful are linked in the human mind. Paradox is beautiful. What might be labelled horrifying can be beautiful. The cross of Christ: beautiful and holy. How?

Why is this book significant?
Abundant reproductions of visual art help the reader to examine religious ideas, both affirming common interpretations and critiquing them. Seeing with new eyes is critical for enlarging our language about –– and understanding of –– faith. 

This book is a feast: well-written with admirable (i.e., large enough and in color) reproductions of famous and little-known artistic works. The author’s knowledge of literature, Bible, and art is visible on every page. A rich, 26-page bibliography and plentiful index extend the reader’s research options. Footnotes accompanying the text cite literary and theological writings that have influenced biblical interpretations over the centuries. 

The reader is invited to reconsider accepted definitions of beauty, the meaning of what is holy, the range and depth of biblical metaphors, the connections between the universals (the true, good, and beautiful), and the faith engendered by all these ways of seeing and knowing God. Because the chapters move from “Beauty and Holiness as Terms of Art” (philosophical and biblical definitions set side by side) to “Beauty on the Altar” (sacramental practice and architecture) to “Art after Belief,” “Art against Belief,” and finally “Return of the Transcendentals,” Jeffrey slowly turns the subjects of the book to be viewed in every facet. In the end, he brings together three artists (Rouault, Chagall, and Arcabas) who differ in religious background –– Catholic, Jewish, and one who paints from “a kind of lectio divina experience” (p. 350) –– but who all depict the qualities of the divine: the True, Good, and Beautiful, respectively.  It is in this creative exploration that Jeffrey’s work delights and surprises and will change the reader’s assumptions.

David Lyle Jeffrey, Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities, Baylor University, Waco, Texas. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,, 2017, 424 pages. 

REVIEWER: The Rev. Melinda A. Quivik, PhD

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