Back to publications
David Brown, God and Enchantment of Place. Reclaiming Human Experience.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. 436. £50.
This is an extraordinary, insightful, engaging, passionate and problematic work. Avowedly rebutting those who would confine divine revelation to the biblical domain, this natural theology aims to rediscover a now lost tradition of generous sacramental interpretation of the world.
Echoing Weber, Brown argues that loss stems from tendencies to functionalise and ethicise the world which date back to scholasticism and ultimately flourish after the sixteenth century. In search of a re-enchanted world, Brown takes the reader on a breath-taking journey seeking hints of God first in human bodies, in landscape and abstract painting and in the symbolic geography of maps, cities and pilgrimage; then in religious and non-ecclesial architecture, in the worship spaces of Islam, Hinduism and Judaism; and finally in gardens and sport.
Much of the examination takes as its theme the way God is most adequately revealed through a juxtaposition of both transcendent and immanent sacramental forms. This theme is set up through an illuminating comparison of Orthodox iconography and Renaissance religious art. Brown contrasts the tendency of icons to draw the viewer ‘up’ beyond the mundane (though such transcendence potentially devalues the material world) with the opposing tendency in Renaissance art to bring the divine ‘down’ into recognizably worldly forms (but immanence thereby potentially devalues the otherness of the divine). Thereafter Brown explores how these opposing tendencies have frequently been felt in a wide variety of disciplines (an exploration most impressively pursued in his encyclopaedic treatment of the histories of landscape painting and of architecture).
The work though is not without its difficulties. At the simplest level one might quibble with the subjectivity of some of Brown’s interpretations (are, for example, Romanesque and Classic architectural styles necessarily always more ‘immanent’ than Gothic styles?). In addition, Brown’s focus mainly on high culture leaves one wondering whether God is as adequately to be found in the disabled body and the culturally insignificant. (In part this stems from a pervading ambivalence about the source of sacramental revelation: does it exist in an object, or only in the eye of an object’s beholder?)
More fundamentally, in stressing a worldly sacramentality Brown deliberately down-plays the significance of the incarnation and the biblical tradition focused upon it. Despite periodic caveats that he is being deliberately provocative (and his promise of a future volume discussing, among other things, the Eucharist) this seems to leave the work open to a question: how does one know that this body (or garden or building or art work) is really revelatory of God? Christianity has long held that some aesthetically beautiful religious forms may actually be demonic, whilst a crucified body, for example, may be truly revelatory. Brown himself (most notably in his repeated dismissal of Feng Shui) seems in some ways to want to circumscribe what is legitimately sacramental and what is not. However, precisely how that judgement is to be made is not always altogether clear.
That said, this is a remarkable work that will send the reader away with refreshed vision. Brown’s passion to see Christianity truly engaging with God’s presence in the world is intoxicating.
Anglican Chaplain, Reading University Mark Laynesmith