Review: Senses of Devotion

September 25th, 2013

With his latest offering, Fuller Theological Seminary Professor William A. Dyrness explores the aesthetics of a small set of Buddhist and Muslim groups in his area. The result, he hopes, is a movement toward a greater appreciation of practices and expressions among differing faiths.

Senses of Devotion, the seventh in the Art for Faith’s Sake series, is an ethnographic study, a systematic look at two of the world’s great religions as represented by ordinary practitioners in the pluralistic setting of Southern California. It serves as a companion volume to Senses of the Soul: Art and the Visual in Christian Worship (Wipf and Stock, 2008), which made a similar examination of aesthetics in Christian settings.

Dryness tries to approach his subject on its own terms. Rather than analyze the kind of art each faith produces, he seeks to understand how the practices of art and religion shape life itself. This is especially relevant for Buddhism and Islam, each of which relies heavily on shared practices to transform adherents according to their traditions’ ideals.

The author begins with a brief description of both Buddhism and Islam, with a special eye toward how their histories have helped shape their artistic expression. Buddhism, for example, was able to spread by incorporating more localized religions into its framework, resulting in a variety of creative representations of the Buddha. However, the religious imagination of Buddhism relies more heavily on shared practice—particularly meditation—than it does on shared imagery.

Muslim communities understandably have a much more limited scope of visual expression. Because depictions of God or the prophet Muhammad are forbidden, their artistic focus centers on the Quran itself. Mosques display no human form of any kind, but many are adorned with Arabic letters that bring to mind the holy book, the very voice of God among them. The daily prayers of Muslims take place in simple space in a structured way, always facing toward Mecca.

How, then, should we think of the interrelations among Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim expressions of aesthetics—not as they exist in comparative studies, but as they are lived out? Dyrness proposes a central image for each. Christians (particularly Protestants) can be described as singing a new song, receiving in worship the things they need to embody their faith in the world. Buddhists, on the other hand, can be said to chant their life into being, while Muslims inhabit a spiritual architecture that gives shape to their lives.

Dyrness’ metaphors for each religion provide helpful ways of considering their respective aesthetics, and for understanding the ways in which those aesthetics shape and are shaped by actual practice. Although Senses of Devotion may be of value to any educated reader, it is best suited for academic settings in which the methods and research findings it presents can be read in its native scholarly language.

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