A Redemptive Theology of Art: Restoring Godly Aesthetics to Doctrine and Culture | David A. Covington
Covington, David A. A Redemptive Theology of Art: Restoring Godly Aesthetics to Doctrine and Culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2018. 316 pp. $24.99.
Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but is instead in “the eye of the Beholder” (25, emphasis added). In his first academic book, David A. Covington argues that sin has tainted our perceptions of beauty, and we need a redeemed vision to see beauty rightly: as God sees it. Covington teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary and had a career as a Christian recording artist prior to entering academia.
Covington presents this book as a “Bible study and biblical theology of aesthetics” (23). He moves away from a conversation of “aesthetic properties to one of aesthetic perceptions, especially God’s aesthetic perception” (61, emphasis added). Following a transactional ontology, he defines aesthetics as “a conversation between the maker’s intention, the character and properties of the work, the impression made on the receiver’s sense, and his affectional response” (38). Covington finds Scripture as his starting place for aesthetics, which he admits leads him to “depart from the historical brand of philosophy” of aesthetics (29). He does so because he claims “the Bible teaches . . . an entire theology of aesthetics and passions” (21). He frames this theology of aesthetics around the story of redemptive history, “creation, fall, redemption, consummation” (178), and finds key insights from the Genesis creation account.
The author begins with what he calls the “glory triad,” which he finds first in Genesis 1–3 and then echoed throughout Scripture. The glory triad consists of the three elements of God’s goodness as displayed in God’s creation: beauty, truth, and power. Genesis 1–3 depicts this triad in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “pleasing to the eye,” “good for food,” and “desirable for gaining wisdom” (63–64). He uses this triad throughout his book as the grounding framework for his argument. Confusingly, Covington cites another author who equates the same three elements of the Tree of Good and Evil with the Platonic Triad of truth, beauty, and goodness (73), but he never explains why he chose his “glory triad” over the Platonic Triad.
Covington then moves to the aesthetic consequences of sin, God’s plan for redeeming our aesthetics, and finally the path for individuals to restore their aesthetic vision. Covington rests his theology of aesthetics on an unspoken Calvinistic hamartiology of sin leading to total depravity. Sin has distorted man’s sense of beauty to the point of complete aesthetic blindness for the unredeemed just as it has utterly distorted his sense of power and truth (105). After establishing sin’s blinding aesthetic consequences, Covington then proposes the prescription: extending the Gospel and redemption to the realm of beauty. A redeemed person can develop a redeemed aesthetic sensibility. With a redeemed aesthetic vision that “comes to us immediately and gradually” (144), the believer can find redeeming qualities in all artworks and all aspects of creation: even those that the original artists did not intend to bring glory to God. A redeemed aesthetic asks not: “What would Jesus watch?” Rather, it asks: “How does God see this?” (110). Covington argues that, as our aesthetics are redeemed, we will see that “God reveals himself in everything, so God’s people can make God-centered meaning from everything” (178). In doing so, he makes the theological appeal for what Peter Leithart models in his 2015 book Traces of the Trinity. While Leithart compellingly demonstrates a redeemed aesthetics, Covington advocates the need for one.
A Redemptive Theology of Art would serve well for an in-depth Bible study for Reformed lay people. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions and response activities suitable to individual or communal learning. However, the book lacks the academic rigor expected of a scholarly biblical theology. Many of his biblical citations work well as analogies for his arguments but buckle under the pressure of proof he places on them. For instance, he precariously bases his argument that “sin distorts [aesthetic] vision in three ways: it hijacks, it fragments, and it darkens” (94) on a speculative interpretation of the three sons of Lamech: Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain. Due to his evil lineage, Covington rejects the Bible’s claim of Jubal as the father of music, deeming him a “awkward founder of a cultural movement” (61). He calls Lamech’s sons “pioneers of our distortion” as they each specialized in one of the three aspects of the glory triad and sought to master it (93). Shockingly, Covington criticizes mastery of a field to the point that he maligns academics despite holding a DMin (91). Finally, Covington’s argument against unredeemed aesthetics has two more glaring problems. First, he criticizes others’ application of common grace to a theology of aesthetics (47–49, 191–92). Second, he fails to mention the theology of the Imago Dei and how it informs humanity’s aesthetic understanding.
Despite these shortcomings, Covington makes many great points. More importantly, he presents a compelling trinitarian argument for God-centered and God-filtered aesthetic perceptions. However, due to weaknesses like those highlighted above, A Redemptive Theology of Aesthetics likely will only persuade those already aligned with Covington’s Reformed position. To convince non-Calvinists would require a more robust theological and philosophical work: a work I hope Covington will write.