Ah, the Beauty{6} of Art


Caravaggio - NarcissusThis is the next installment in the Beauty series (for the complete series, click here).  This is based on the manuscript I wrote for a message I gave at Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia (links to both the manuscript and the audio are at the bottom).  We’ve gone through a lot so far, including a discussion of why we long for Beauty, a definition of Beauty, and how science and nature are beautiful.  This series has received great feedback from people (and it’s only about half done!).  So feel free to jump in and comment and keep the discussion going.  Today’s post is on the beauty of Art.

_______________

Humanity’s creations are beautiful.This is where we get to talk about art.

For some reason (I have no idea why) this was actually the very last section I worked on.Whether that means it’s a lot better or a lot worse, I don’t know.Anyway, art is a really tough thing to talk about.Its a huge topic that everyone has an opinion on, and as time has gone on, the conventions of art and what it is have broken down and definitions have broadened almost to the point of not really being definitions at all.Not only this, but you also seem to have people forgetting some very important things that we all must be reminded of.

First off, we are too quick to call God the “Supreme Artist”.That’s taking a description of humans and describing God with it.We’re right in starting with him in trying to understand art, but seeing Him as the “Supreme Artist” generally makes us picture in our minds the type of artistry we like best, and then begin thinking that God values that kind the most.This ends up being a bottom-up kind of description of art rather than top-down.Before God is Artist, He is a Creator, so we must start thinking of art creative-ly.This means that the way God is an artist is by making things that are not him and weren’t around before.So when I refer to God as Artist, that’s what I have in mind.

Secondly, we must keep in mind that God Himself was the first abstract artist.I kept reading all these books and articles written by Christians about art and so many of them seemed to not have room in their “theologies of art” for the abstract.The opposite of “abstract” art is “representational” art – art that “re-presents” something we know exists.When God did His artistry, it was all abstract.There was nothing to “re-present”So that being the case, I can’t think that God isn’t glorified in even the most abstract of art.There may even be an argument that abstract art is closer to the heart of God than representational.I’m not making that argument, but someone could.

Thirdly, as most Christians recognize, we create things because God does.In the first passage in the Bible that talks about people being made in the “Image of God” in Genesis 1:27, the logical question that follows is: what exactly does that mean?Now, theologians and philosophers have argued about this for thousands of years, and I’m not going to try and finish that fight right now, but I will say that it’s interesting that at this particular time in Scripture that this verse shows up, there’s only one thing we know about this God that humans are apparently in the “image of”: that He has the desire and ability to make things.I imagine that’s where we get our desire and ability.As G.K. Chesterton points out in his book “The Everlasting Man”, whatever role evolution may have played in the development of this world, it can’t by itself explain art.You don’t see monkeys in caves making bad art and humans now making good art.There’s something about art that reflects what makes us unique among all created things.

So when we do create and we do make, what does this have to do with beauty?Everything.I really do believe that art, like science, is a necessary endeavor in furthering God’s plan in History.God’s creation merely points to God’s Beauty.It doesn’t make beauty itself.Humans, on the other hand, actually make beauty and play an integral part in God “making all things beautiful in their time“.Let’s go back to our definition of “Beauty”:Complexity expressed simply - many complex strands woven into a sensually perceived simple tapestry.  The more complexity of “strands” that are represented in a piece of art, the more beautiful it is.And remember- different people, due to many factors, will find and feel different “strands” running through different pieces of art, leading to different personal aesthetic standards for each of us.

So imagine every strand in the universe is there before an artist preparing to do a piece.You have suffering over here, hope here, joy here, God, evil, life, humanity, death, birth, redemption, pain – all there before the artist.In art, the artist grabs as many of those strands as they can and crams and weaves them into the piece.And the more there are, the more beautiful it is.That’s why many people don’t like Postmodern art.There’s no complexity.It’s too simple and says nothing.There are not enough strands in it to strike the heart of a person so they can actually call it beautiful.A complexity of ideas makes art beautiful.In the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes out his thoughts on Beauty and art.He writes: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.”Though I disagree with Wilde on some of what he’s saying, nevertheless he is noticing that different strands in any piece should resonate with different people.Some people will be offended.Others will praise it.It’s just the way beautiful things are. After all, it’s how God and the Gospel are.

I’ll end this oh-too-brief section on art with a few comments on the distinction between “Christian” art and “secular” art.As Phil Ryken, just down the street at Tenth Pres writes in his book Art for God’s Sake: Bad Christian art “ultimately dishonors God because it is not in keeping with the truth and beauty of His character.It also undermines the church’s gospel message of salvation in Christ.”How? Well, the kind of modern art that most Christians scoff at is art that is completely void of goodness, light, and truth.But Christian art tends to do the same thing by being void of other very real things in this world: depravity, pain, and sin.When our art shies away from these things, in effect, we’re avoiding showing the world what they need salvation from.Jesus didn’t come to save some cute coffee mug or bumper sticker kind of world.He came and suffered, bled, and died an ugly death that we celebrate as the most beautiful event in all of history.We must make room in our art to explore the darkness and pain of this world so we can show them that Christ can and does engage and enter into brokenness to see it redeemed.

To conclude, recall what I said a couple of posts ago on the structure and nature of history and time?  History is not the story of the present hurtling through time towards some future endpoint we call “heaven”.  Rather, it is the beauty of that future world invading the present, even as we sit and read this.  If “Beauty” is the end goal for which God is making all things in their time (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then whatever floods the world with Beauty is actually furthering this process of redemption.  Artists, both saved and secular, are actually missionaries of sorts, as they help reweave the fabric of the universe with the beauty of their creations.

Are you all starting to see why we need artists?Good artists doing good and beautiful work; and not trite, kitschy, cute things that keep us away from the real world out of fear that we might “catch it” or something?A creation always reveals something about its creator.If you are a Christian reading this right now, may I urge you to show the world through your creations that you have been saved by a Gospel that makes you care about excellence engaging darkness, beauty engaging filth, order engaging chaos, and redemption conquering sin?Let our art, our creations, speak of a beautiful work that a beautiful God has done in us, whether or not it is an explicitly “religious” piece.

Art is beautiful, and necessary for the redemption of this world.

Resources for this series:

May I Offer a Definition of | Beauty{2} ?


Caravaggio - Saint Jerome2This is Part 2 of an ongoing series based on the paper I wrote on Beauty and the subsequent sermon I gave on it. [Bold: things I had time to say // Regular: things I didn’t have time for]

__________

Whenever you go to study a particular topic in the Bible, the first place you go is the concordance. You go online, or you look in a book, and you search for every time that word is used. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some place in the Bible where the the writer gives you a direct definition for that topic. You look for statements like “This is love” or “Faith is” or “This is the will of God”. The Bible never gives a definition of Beauty. It calls God, creation, and people all beautiful. It says some people are beautiful. It says some people do beautiful things. It calls both good things and evil things beautiful. It calls for us to seek after certain beautiful things. It tells to avoid certain other beautiful things. So, just simply looking at the whenever the Bible uses the word “beautiful” doesn’t help us tremendously, but it’s a start. We can start to see that beauty is a bit more complex than we’re sometimes told. We start to see how a lot of common definitions we hear some times aren’t true Biblically. We see that:

  • it’s not perfection.
  • it’s not just when something reflects God.
  • it’s not just order or symmetry. We all know there can be beauty in chaos sometimes.
  • it’s not just in the eye of the beholder. There is some objective sense of beauty.
  • it’s not just an attribute of things or people.

The next step in studying something topically is to look at the original language to see what the English translation “beauty” meant in the Greek and Hebrew. When you do this, things get nuts. In the ESV alone, there are over 20 very different Hebrew and Greek words all translated as “beauty” or “beautiful”, but we can still learn a few things. First off, we see that the Hebrew mindset is a lot richer than the Greek one. The Hebrew words range in literal meanings such as pleasant, dignified, adorned, sweet, delightful, precious, boastful, arrogant, glorious, vigorous – one word used only once even means “scraped of all impurity”. The Greek words mean simply good and beautiful. But there is some depth here. The most common NT word used for “beautiful”, but most often translated as “good”, originally comes from a verb which means “to call”, speaking to the attractive nature of beauty. The other word used comes from the word for “hour” which describes beauty as being “within one’s hour”. By the way, in the attached manuscript, you can find a full breakdown of every instance these words appear in the Bible, their form, their frequency, and what each of those Greek or Hebrew words most literally mean.

So now we have a fuller idea of beauty, but still no working definition. At this point you just have to pray, read, and think a lot while looking at the broader context of theology. We use the things we clearly know about the nature of God, humankind, and reality to shed light on the ambiguous things and help us get closer to a definition. When you do that, some things come up that we need to keep in mind.

First, our definition needs to make God the most beautiful Person in the universe, it needs to make the cross the most beautiful event in history, it needs to make Jesus the most beautiful man who lived the most beautiful life this world has ever known, and lastly, it needs to make the Gospel (or the message of Christianity) the most beautiful thing anyone could ever hear or believe.

Secondly, we see that there is a tension that has to be held when it comes to talking about Beauty. It seems like Christians throughout history have fallen into one of two errors when thinking about it: either a pantheistic view or deistic view of beauty. The pantheistic view would say that God is beauty so only things that join him in His beauty can be beautiful. Nothing can have beauty in and of itself. It’s only beautiful as much as God shines through it. This definition would say that bad music made by Christians will always be more beautiful than really good music made by non-Christians. Now we all know that’s not true, because we’ve all heard really bad Christian music. This is the over-objective view of of beauty. The other view, the deistic view would say that God is beautiful, so He put beauty on earth that’s completely separate from Him so we can have a beauty that’s all our own, and it doesn’t relate to God in any way. God is beautiful. Humans are beautiful. There’s no connection. We don’t share in God’s beauty. This view would say that there is absolutely nothing more beautiful about one song that talks about the depths of who God is as opposed to another that doesn’t. They’re just songs. This view is an over-subjective view of beauty.

The Biblical view is different from both of these. The Bible teaches that God is separate from His creation, but He’s still present. God is not in created things, but those things can and do preach about who God is. Man is not God, but God has become a man so that He might communicate Himself to us and accomplish for us what we could not do for ourselves. So God is completely other, but He’s near. So, our definition of beauty has to reflect this. It has to be something that is connected to the nature of God but is still something humans can possess, but not in the same way. It has to objective for God, but subjective for us.

After doing all that, are you ready for an actual definition? The best definition that my arrogant, immature, and prideful 23-year old mind has been able to come up with for beauty is this:

Beauty is the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply.

That’s it. Beauty is what makes infinity, finite; it makes transcendent things seem near. So the more “stuff” that is represented more “simply”, the more beautiful something is. The best image I’ve been able to think of to explain beauty is the Hebrew word shalom. Many people know that this word is usually translated as “peace” but it has a much richer meaning than this. The Old Testament uses this word to describe the ultimate goal and end of history and all that God is doing–peace. Now, when we think of peace, we usually define it negatively- no fighting, no war, no hunger, no pain. But this word in the Hebrew carries with it the connotation of reknitting the very fabric of the universe. It paints a picture of a world that is made up of an infinite number of “strands” of sorts, and shalom is when these strands are re-woven together into a sort of tapestry. Beauty, therefore, is when some or many of these complex strands are woven together into a tapestry that we can perceive with our senses, both physical and spiritual. The more complex strands contained in one simple “tapestry”, the more beautiful that thing is.

This is the objective idea of beauty. But, this definition also has the benefit of having an appropriate subjective component as well. You see, we as individuals over time become more sensitive to certain ones of those strands of the universe and less sensitive to to others. Our culture, experiences, natural make-up, and ultimately our spiritual state all cause us to sense and value various strands differently, making us value different “tapestries” differently.

Next time, we’ll begin applying this definition to other things to (a) better explain it, (b) see if it works, (c) explain why we find somethings beautiful. The first thing we’ll talk about being beautiful? God. Until then . . .

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

Philosophy & Theology {II} | “Christian” Existentialism [2]


A couple of days ago, I laid out some reasons why “Christian” Existentialism was not the end-all-be-all philosophical orientation for the Christian. But, as I explained in my first post in this series, Philosophy is not the enemy of theology. Rather, it can help us understand other finer points of theology by giving us new categories to think in. So, I proceeded to give three ways that Existentialism can inform our theology. The first way was that it helps us see sin in regard to our personal orientation to God. This post continues with two more ways:

Secondly, a big discussion in Existentialism the relationship between our “existence” and our “essence”.  I pointed out in the previous post that when god was asked by Moses “what’s your essence?” God answered “I exist”. This is the way it is with God. His nature and being are equated with His existence. He simply “is”. The big question concerning these two things in Existentialism is “which comes first?”. Classic Existentialism holds that our existence comes first and our essence is formed and shaped by our existence. This brings up some problems for the Christian. The Bible talks about our essences being known by God before we ever existed, but it also says that there’s something of our essence that is corrupt at its core. When God “knows” us before we exist, does he know our corrupted selves? Does God create us depraved? The Bible seems fairly clear in its representation of the nature of God that He doesn’t create and form our essences as corrupt, so it look likes the question is a bit more complicated than just “which comes first”.

Best I can figure, it looks like both essence and existence have narrative frameworks and are seen as whole things that are shaped through eternity past and future. In short, the story goes like this: God knows and forms our essence-1 (S1), which is pure and good in his sight. He then creates the world of existence-1 (X1) which is made good but then falls and gives way to a different realm of existence, existence-2 (X2).  At the moment this essence-1 enters into existence-1 (X1), it comes into the fallen world and becomes essence-2 (S2) which is corrupt. Christians, then, at conversion are changed at the very level of their essence such that they then become pure in essence (essence-3) living in a corrupt existence (existence-1 still). The rest of the life of the Christian is a slow work by God and others to bring more and more of this Christian’s life and existence in line with their now pure essence-3 (s3), to prepare them for existence-3 (X3). Existence-3 is when this created world/realm within which we exist is restored and glorified and finally our pure essences-3 are able to live in freedom and peace in pure existence-2 in glorified eternity.  Here’s what it looks like graphically:

__________

screen-capture

__________

Lastly, there is a very important service that Existentialism lends to the spirituality of the Christian life. In Existentialism, there is a loss of the objectivity of knowledge. All we know is our existence, and that is a very small sphere of knowledge indeed. What this tenet of the philosophy does is create a very strong sense of angst. Existentialists carry the reputation for being very depressed people, seeing as they can know nothing more than (1) they exist, and (2) they can’t know more than that. We can be sure of no other knowledge. This makes you feel very small in a world of chaos that you can do nothing to change. This sort of worldview should make people very despairing, and it has for people such as Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. But for others, like Jean-Paul Sarte and Soren Kierkegaard, Existentialism seemed to create a humble sobriety that actually allowed these men to enjoy life in a way many Christians could learn to do.

The Christian life is angst. It’s messy. It’s sloppy. That’s why it’s lived by faith - i.e. “trust”. Reality is such that we will be forced to have to trust our Creator to save us, because there really are no objective grounds (that we can know) upon which His salvation is based. This is because God knows He is the greatest of all things and our tendency is to drift from Him. It’s His love that makes us need to draw near. But, when we do, it shows us even more where we fall short and we cry out to God more. He draws even nearer and we are able to experience that One for whom our soul was made. Faith is not neat. Faith is not tidy. Faith is not naive. Faith is not imbecilic. Faith is having the courage to admit your finitude and inadequacy in order to be joined to and in communion with the Joy of joys, Peace of peaces, King of kings, and Lord of lords.

As one friend put it: “I will not resolve to embody that kind of [naive] faith ever again. So, I will read Scripture, asking God to communicate to me what in me is broken, what is unreconciled, what needs restoration, liberation, salvation. And I will sit at the foot of the cross, in the pain of who I am. And I will ask God for reconciliation, restoration, liberation, salvation. On the other side of it all, I will trust Christ more deeply. This is sanctification. This is working out my salvation in fear and trembling. And then, hopefully I will have caught my breath, and it will all begin again.”

Existentialism helps us recapture the “fear and trembling” part of working out our salvation (hence the title of Kierkegaard’s famous work).

I’ll end with perhaps my favorite set of quotes I have ever read. These have had such a profound impact on me and so reflect how I understand these things to be. These words are from the poet Joe Weil in an interview with Patrol Magazine. I leave you with these words that could have been written by the most quintessential existentialist:

“I once described faith as something I got on my shoe and can’t kick or wash off. I’m stuck with it. My poems are the trespasses and blasphemies of a malpracticing Christian, one who can’t stop ogling an attractive leg, or wanting to be first, who is venial, foolish, seldom at peace, horny and lonely, and so far from the kingdom of God that his whole life becomes the theme of that distance, someone knowing he is in deep shit. It’s the perfect place to be, where you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’re on the right track…The only thing I have to offer God is my sins. I am interested in mercy when it appears in places where you would never expect it. I am interested in love that shovels shit against the tide. I am interested in grace…It is better to be annihilated and crushed by God, if you are in love with God, then it is to have no relationship at all. Better God smite you then merely be absent. God does not ‘tolerate’ me. God loves me.”