Review: Gospel As Work of Art - Word&Way

Review: Gospel As Work of Art

GOSPEL AS WORK OF ART: Imaginative Truth and the Open Text. By David Brown. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2024. Xviii + 572 pages.

While the canon of the New Testament might be “closed,” or at least it is as complete as possible, I realize that some argue for the inclusion of other texts including the Gospel of Thomas — but it would appear that we have we need to provide a sufficient foundation for our Christian witness. When it comes to interpretation of the New Testament, and more specifically, the four Gospels, it is not quite as simple. So there seems to be room for imagination and even an open text that offers new visions of the Christian faith. The question before us concerns how we might best interpret scripture to gain new insight and perhaps even new revelation when it comes to the things of God. With that question in mind, we might ask how releasing the imagination might be part of the process. Many of us, who preach and teach, have been well-trained in the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, which does a good job of getting us as close as possible to the original context and even the original meaning of the text. For those of us who eschew doctrines of inerrancy, we are less worried by revelations that the Gospel accounts might conflict with each other. While this may be true, might there be more to the Gospel story than what the historical-critical method might reveal? So, with that in mind: might we envision the Gospel as a Work of Art?

Robert D. Cornwall

Gospel as a Work of Art is the title of David Brown’s book, which serves as an invitation to explore the Gospels through our imaginations, such that the text itself is understood to be open. He does so by drawing on artwork, poetry, and other art forms, including prose. In the course of this book, Brown seeks to challenge the idea that the Bible, and especially the Gospels, form a closed system, “such that the imagination can at most illustrate propositional belief, and that revelation ceased with the closure of the canon” (p. xxi). In inviting us to use our imaginations to engage with Scripture he challenges both conservatives and liberals who are thoroughly influenced by the Enlightenment and often fail to embrace the imagination as a source of meaning and revelation. Rather their roots in the Enlightenment often serve as a straight jacket on the religious imagination. Readers will find that Brown doesn’t fit our stereotypes of conservatives and liberals, such that it’s often difficult to place him on that spectrum. That is refreshing in an age of polarization. What we will discover is that Brown is a scholar and theologian of distinction. He is an Anglican priest who has taught at Oxford, Durham, and St. Andrews Universities. His scholarly work has focused on philosophy, theology, as well as religion and the arts. He brings all of this scholarly background into conversation with biblical scholarship.

Brown is concerned that modern Christians, left and right, fail to recognize that the Gospels themselves are expressions of imaginative truth, such that the Gospel writers often turned to invention to get their understanding of truth across to their audience. Unfortunately, too often we are led to believe that invention in the case of the Gospels is somehow a pejorative thing. We read books that suggest that the Gospels and other biblical writings are forgeries. Brown takes a different perspective, one that allows for invention, such that the original writers made use of their imagination to convey truth. That same imagination can be released to embrace an open text that speaks anew in each era. This might not provide a “firm foundation,” which many look for. However, it might open up new possibilities for insight into the things of God.

With this commitment to releasing imaginative truth, David Brown offers us a book filled with artwork, poetry, and excerpts from literary works, all of which give imaginative expression to the Gospels. The book is beautifully designed, having been printed on high-quality photographic paper. Since the book is over five hundred pages in length, it is quite heavy. While there is an aesthetic quality to the book, that is not his primary concern. It is a question of the message that these artistic forms provide. It is divided into three sections that focus on foundations, resources, and significance.

Part 1 is titled Foundations. This opening section of the book is comprised of four chapters. The first two chapters focus on the legacy of the Enlightenment when it comes to biblical interpretation. The opening chapter gives us a sense of Brown’s concerns, for it focuses on “Religious Control and the Spiritual Imagination.” Here he suggests, rightly I believe, that fundamentalism is essentially the fruit of the Enlightenment. We see this in the focus on propositional truth or revelation. In the effort to discover precise definitions of theology, whether from the right or the left, the imagination was shut down. Chapter 2 focuses on the question of “Meaning and an Open Text.” Here he discusses such things as the quest for the historical Jesus and what openness looks like when it comes to texts. These two foundational chapters are followed by two chapters that focus on discovering imaginative truth through art (Chapter 3) and Literature (Chapter 4).

With these foundations set, we can turn in Part 2 to “Resources Then and Now.” In the three chapters in this section, Brown “explores the resources available to Jesus in shaping his view of God and the divine purpose, but in a way that seeks to develop parallels and analogies with subsequent reflection on these sources, including in the present day” (p. xxvii). He writes that “for Jesus to function as the basis for the Christian faith,” there must be sufficient overlap such that “his life and values” are “intelligible to us” and when appropriately modified “function adequately in their new context” (p. 252). The three chapters in this section focus on resources “Through Prayer and People'” “Mystical and Natural;” and “Responding to Inherited Traditions.” He addresses the question of the distance between the ancient and modern worlds, noting the process by which historians of the New Testament seek to address the distance. His focus, on the other hand, is identifying a solid core that “allows us to transition relatively easily between our world and that of Jesus Christ” (p. 258).

The third Section, which is titled “Significance,” is the longest section of the book. It includes seven chapters. The first of the seven chapters asks the question of why the Gospel? Brown writes that in this section he focuses on how the evangelists treated what Jesus said and did. He notes three characteristics of what appears in this final section— “a search for meaning in the present; various strategies for escaping the consequences of the past (not just sin but also fear, anxiety, and uncertainty); and, finally a future sense of purpose or vocation.” (p. 261). In this section, Brown explores what he calls layers of revelation, miracles as signs and symbols, and parables, along with chapters on death and resurrection. He concludes the book with a chapter titled “The Openness of Faith.” Before you get the idea that Brown is advocating a form of postmodernism or pushing for relativism, that is not the case. What he offers here is an invitation to make use of our imagination as we engage with the Gospels so that these ancient texts might speak to the present. He is not dismissive of historical-critical studies, but he believes there is more to the story than what these tools of the Enlightenment reveal. As he notes in Chapter 14, “The Openness of Faith,” He shares his concern that “one of the most depressing features of contemporary approaches in theology is the extent to which its various subdisciplines maintain independence of one another. At their worst, biblical scholars assume that the Bible is all that is needed for Christian doctrine. Systematic theologians sometimes behave no better.” So, he offers a different perspective, from a theologian’s perspective, what he believes is a “more open approach that seems demanded by the way in which doctrinal development has in fact occurred” (pp. 498-499).

By making use of art and literature, both of which are expressions of the imagination, David Brown Invites us to envision the Gospel as a Work of Art. It is a vision of doctrinal development as we experience the Gospels anew through these art forms. To get there, Brown (and Eerdmans) have produced a beautifully illustrated book that pushes beyond the Enlightenment so that we might fully inhabit the message of the Gospels and an open faith. Even if and where we have differences of opinion, Brown provides the opportunity to break free of the religious controls that prevent us from fully appreciating the message of Jesus.


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Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest “Second Thoughts about the Second Coming: Understanding the End Times, Our Future, and Christian Hope” coauthored with Ronald J. Allen. His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at