Book Review: Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation, by James McCullough

Sense and SpiritualityJames McCullough recently received his PhD from St. Andrews, and Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation comes out of his dissertation (“Aesthesis and Ascesis: The Relationship between the Arts and Spiritual Formation,” 2013). The notes, “This book began its life as a doctoral dissertation, and … has undergone extensive editing and rewriting in order to make it readable and indeed palatable for a general audience” (xvii); however, McCullough states that this work “submits itself for approval and approbation…first and foremost, to the growing body of scholars and practitioners in the field of theological aesthetics” and “[s]econdly…to those in practical theology” (xv). I’m not certain that it has indeed been reworked for a “general audience”; it maintains the form, function, and readability of an academic thesis, not something one would generally pick up at a bookstore if interested in the arts and spiritual formation. However, not having read the actual dissertation, I am unable to compare and contrast notable differences and distinctions that may prove beneficial in determining which may be the most helpful for the intended theologian reader: the dissertation or Sense and Spirituality. For what it’s worth, given the brevity and lack of depth in “Part II: Practical Application,” it is my assumption that the dissertation would be the better route.

Part I: Theoretical Framework
McCullough simplifies “aesthesis and ascesis” into “sense and spirituality,” stating that his agenda is “to explore how skills in sensory perception with those related to ascetical development or spiritual formation, and how this dialectical relationship can be mediated, enhanced, or catalyzed through encounters with the arts” (9). The thesis is belabored and restated a number of times (academic filler material), but this is an important discussion to be had. How does art catalyze sense and spirituality “aimed toward progressive spiritual growth” (45)? McCullough takes roughly fifty pages to get to the point of trying to define art (craft, content, and context [Figure 03, p. 43]) and stating—in my own oversimplification—something that is quite well-known: the more one understands art, the more one may appreciate art, as well as the more one may gain from art. In this context, the gain intended is spiritual growth.

Part II: Practical Application
McCullough provides three examples in an attempt to demonstrate a practical application of his thesis: poetry (Four Quartets, T. S, Eliot), painting (The Four Holy Gospels, Makoto Fujimura), and music (Seven Last Words from the Cross, James MacMillan). Each of these is briefly discussed according to its craft, content, and context. The author writes, “I do not wish to write full-blown commentaries on these works, but something more akin to liner notes for a record album” (62), which is a shame because they do not, in my opinion, provide adequate commentary to qualify as examples of practical application of the original thesis (the chapter on Eliot provides only a hint of spirituality and does not appear to connect the reader with enough evidence to support its inclusion, though the subject matter itself certainly would if given greater attention; Fujimura’s is the most connected of the three, providing decent commentary on the purpose, method, and meaning behind the project, though the black and white images in a paperback do not help the reader; and MacMillan’s is, I believe, a poor example to use because of the tradition within which the music is composed, already easily recognized as “sacred” music intended for spiritual growth, meaning that the example appears to be stating the obvious). His conclusion, with which I concur: “Art is an irreducible amalgam of what is said and how it is said, to the point that they are inseparable” (101, emphasis original).

Part III: Conclusion
This “Part” is only five pages, restating and concluding in the tradition of this type of writing.

 

Truthfully, there’s some helpful material here despite its redundancy and what has already been noted concerning its practical application; however, much more work needs to be done in order to make it more accessible for a general audience. I’m now more interested in what the dissertation may have to offer.

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