On Sunday, February 8, 5:00 p.m., St. Matthew’s Cathedral Arts series hosted Dr. Jeremy Begbie. It was my first time to hear him present a lecture live. And this was a presentation, which is SOP for Dr. Begbie. He incorporates visuals and live music into his lecture that blends practical wisdom, wit, and substantive theological reflection. I had prepared myself for an engaging lecture on a subject of deep interest to me: The Spirituality of Art. But, as is often the case with aesthetes of Dr. Begbie’s stature, I received much more than I had counted on. I was already familiar with his work in music and theology, with his elucidation of cognitive decoupling and how it invites a deeper understanding of the necessity of a willing suspension of disbelief (our capacity as participants in any artistic experience to submerge our souls in the artist’s work/world).
His demonstration of appoggiatura as a necessary dissonant component in memorable musical compositions translated easily into a more nuanced appreciation of “non-harmonics” (i.e. micro-tension points) in literature, and in visual arts. It is that small wrinkle in the fabric of an otherwise predictable composition that makes it stick on the soul of the listener.
His exposition of Equilibrium, Tension, an Resolution in music invited a comparison with Joseph Campbell’s literary paradigm, The Monomythic Cycle, and its later incarnation in the excellent work of Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, and Stuart Voytilla’s, Myth and the Movies. I was prepared for all of this.
But the truly surprising thing about Dr. Begbie – his own appoggiatura – the curious wrinkle in his polished persona, emerged in our conversation following his presentation. I shook his hand and introduced myself, but before I could get out my carefully rehearsed question (there was a line behind me), he looked down at my shirt and exclaimed, “I have that exact shirt! Oh, my! Does your wife shop at Kroger?!”
“Kroger?” I asked. “Well, yes, but –”
“Oh, no, no, no – Kohl’s,” he said, laughing.
OK, so first off, I’m thinking, “this guy’s real.” And second, “how does he know my wife shops for my clothes?”
“Yes,” I answered. “She does – I mean, we do. I do. Sometimes.”
“Mine too!” he said. “Sorry, now what was your question?”
You learn a lot about a person in the first minute of meeting him. I learned that Jeremy Begbie – for all his honors, and with all the letters before and after his name, is a regular guy whose wife shops for him at Kohl’s. But more importantly, he takes the opportunity at the earliest possible moment to establish a shared connection with his guest. His humility is genuine. His enthusiasm is infectious. His joy is boundless. I left our brief meeting convinced that I had made more than an acquaintance. I had made a friend. The next time I see him, rather than saying, “Good day, Dr. Begbie,” I might just say, “Hey, JB, how’s it goin’, bud? Good lookin’ shirt, by the way!” OK, probably not.
But I might.
Jeremy Begbie is the inaugural holder of the Thomas A. Langford Research Professorship in Theology at Duke University Divinity School. He is also a Senior Member at Wolfson College, Cambridge and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge.