Because We’re Not Good: “East of Eden”, a Book Review



We all have those pieces of art–be they movies, books, music, what have you–that upon first exposure we fall in love. We turn the last page or exit the theater or concert hall certain that this will surely be added to our list of favorites and long-held companions. Yet, how many times do we say this and a year or two down the road someone mentions that very piece of art and we find ourselves thinking, “oh yeah, I did read that, didn’t I?” or “I had forgotten how much I loved that album!”

So often we get swept away in the immediate experience of something skipping upon the waters of our soul, leaving little ripples and echoes dancing in its wake. But these dimples and dapples merely play on the surface for a time, returning once more to their source, leaving the waters ultimately undisturbed–the liquid plane unbroken; the deepest depths untouched.

There are other times, however, that we encounter a piece of art–or rather, it encounters us–and we are changed. It transcends mere rankings of “favorites” and “Top 10s” and weaves itself into our fibers. We do not critique and assess it, so much as it sizes and weighs us. The surface tension is broken and we are plunged beneath, staring humanity’s unvarnished truths in the face. And in so doing our own humanity is enlarged, a spaciousness expands in our souls, and we feel more human–even as our foundations are shaken.

John Steinbeck’s 1952 magnum opus, East of Eden, is just this kind of piece of art. It’s the kind of book people say they will read “someday”, only to read it and wish “someday” had come a lot sooner. So if you haven’t read it. Do so. Start today.

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Beauty: Revisited


As most people know, last year I gave a seminar/lecture/sermon thingy at my old church, Epiphany Fellowship.  The topic I spoke on was Beauty.  I spent about nine months doing research, reading, talking, and thinking before ultimately delivering it last August.  Recently, I updated some parts of the manuscript for a friend and thought I’d post the updated manuscript.  There aren’t too many changes.  The main updates happened in the last half of the manuscript.  I also updated the language of the manuscript overall to make it more appropriate as a written piece rather than a manuscript for speaking from.  I’m hoping to use this as the core of one of the first books I’m working on that I’ll actually finish.  After the break is the full “Table of Contents” for each part of the blog series I did going through each individual part of the manuscript.  Those blog parts have not yet been updated.  Here are the the updated full written Manuscript, the audio of my “lecture”, and an appendix with the Greek/Hebrew breakdown of the words for “Beauty” in the Bible.

Click for Appendix Pdf

Language Appendix

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Full Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Full Audio

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Beauty: The Complete Series


screen-captureWe’re done.  I promise.  Really.  I just wanted to do two things: First, offer this directory, or “Table of Contents” to the Beauty Series for a clear organization of the parts so people can navigate it more easily.  Secondly, below you’ll find not only the full audio and complete manuscript based off this series, but, for the first time, you’ll see a special appendix I put together.  It’s a complete breakdown of every word in both Greek and Hebrew that the English Standard Version of the Bible translates as either “beauty” or “beautiful”, broken down by frequency.  Along with those words (and all their forms), I’ve offered the most literal definition of each of those words so you can easily see the huge range of meanings that the Biblical words for “beauty” carry.  It took a while to put together so I hope it’s helpful.  You don’t need any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew to understand it or get something from it.  Enjoy.  And this is it for the series now.  I promise.

The Outline for the Entire Series:

Resources for this series:

[photo by David Schrott]

The Gospel is Beautiful{12} | it is finished


Rembrandt-Return of the ProdigalWell, it’s done. This is the end of the Beauty series. I won’t say too much, because this part is long enough already. I would just remind all of you of two things. Firstly, this whole piece began with the story of the most beautiful thing I have ever seen: the city of Edinburgh as I stood above it on top of a hill in the city. Secondly, our definition of Beauty: Beauty is the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply. It what takes the complex strands of the world, reality, experience, or God and weaves those complexities into a simpler tapestry which we can perceive with our physical and spiritual senses. The more complexity expressed more simply, the more beautiful something is. And with that, let’s finish this thing out. What’s coming next? I have a post ready for that that I’ll post up in a couple of days. We pick up right where we left off

In conclusion, I want to talk about the thing that ties every one of these things together. The thing in which there exists in a glorious and beautiful harmony between all the different things we’ve talked about tonight. The last part of our text tonight, Ecclesiastes 3:15 says “That which is, already has been; and that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.” God seeks what has been driven away.” In conclusion, the Gospel is Beautiful. The Gospel, in short, is the story and message of Christianity. It comes from the Greek word meaning “good news”. So what is this good news for us? The news that God did the ultimate act of beauty. The ultimate act of condescension of filling this finite world with the most Infinite of Beings for the sake of knitting it together again, and actually ultimately filling it with Himself. You see, God began History and ordered it in such a way that it was beautiful. He filled this simplicity with the marks of Himself, so all things pointed to Him and reflected Him perfectly. Humans came on the scene and were made in His image so that they as well truly and purely reflected, represented, and “Imaged” (that would be the theological term) this God on earth. But sin entered into the world, and made this world fallen from its original place of beauty. And we have followed suit. You see, sin is not finding certain things, people, or places beautiful. It’s that we find them more beautiful than God and these responses that are due God, we give to other things. We worship and “image” and express fallen simple things rather than the Holy complex God. We all have done this. I have done this. You have done this. You have soiled your beauty and abandoned it to your lusts! You no longer represent the One whom you were meant to mirror and reflect and therein find your beauty! You merely represent the world. The lowly fallen world. Fallen people imaging fallen things. There’s no beauty in that.

But God, being rich in mercy. Though we have abandoned God’s beauty and our own true beauty, God has not abandoned them. He loves His Beauty. And He loves the Beauty of His creation. So this God, for the sake of the worship His own beauty, and our own own joy in His Beauty, comes. The most perfectly knit together tapestry in the universe chooses to come and express the most Holy Complexity in the most intimate simplicity. This perfectly woven tapestry walks the earth, lives the perfectly woven life, and then stares into the cup of God’s perfectly woven wrath reserved for all things and people that are not beautiful in this world. And he drinks it. This perfect tapestry of complexity expressed simply goes to the cross willingly and allows the tapestry of His soul to be torn apart strand by strand by strand as the wrath of God that hung over everyone who would believe was gathered by God and poured it on Himself. That wrath that hung over many of us in here. That wrath that hangs above some of us tonight, that will be poured out on something. Either on Christ at the cross, or in you in Hell. Did you know that Hell is beautiful? Not for those that are there, but it is. It is pure, white, Justice and Wrath poured out on all that was wrong in the world. So God’s wrath will be poured out either in Hell or the Cross.

And history revolves around this cross. Because at the same time that Christ, Beauty Itself, was literally being torn apart, he was reconciling all things to Himself. In other words, he was taking every stray strand in the universe – every bit of evil, suffering fallenness there will ever be in history – and reserving its proper place in the final tapestry of History that we call heaven. He was making Himself the common glorifying thread that would reknit the broken fabric of a broken creation. And so we live now in the process and story of God putting all those strands in their proper place. As more and more beauty floods the earth He is still inviting his people to join Him in this epic story. He is calling his people to praise Him and draw near to Him, and out of the overflow of that to proclaim His Beauty to others and make more beauty, so as to usher in this new creation – or to put it in our terms tonight – the New Tapestry of Creation. Better than before. It is the one that has woven in it the purpose for all pain, sickness, death, and dying that God has ordained and allowed to take place so that this tapestry might make good on it all to the praise of the Beauty of God’s name.

And we, His people, His Bride, those that are “in Christ”, that are simple people Imaging and expressing the most complex of Beings, are woven into that tapestry that is Heaven and the New Creation. We’re not just going to live in it, we are part of it. Second Corinthians 5:17, in most Bibles reads: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But that’s not what it says in the Greek. It doesn’t say “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation”. There is no “he is”. The Greek literally says “If anyone is in Christ: new creation!” More accurately, I think it should be translated “If anyone if in Christ, this is the new creation. he old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” I remember an old professor at Westminster named Richard Gaffin. He used to go up to students, stop them, and just say to them “you are just as resurrected now as you will ever be”. We often forget that. Yes, we will get new bodies and the penalty, power, and presence of sin will be done away with, but as far as our souls go, we are as resurrected now as we will ever be.

We are the new creation. The new tapestry. We have been woven into the fabric of this ever-increasingly redeemed world that is being flooded with the Beauty of God. The new has come in Christ. Through the Gospel. The good news of our salvation is that all that has been ugly with the world and in ourselves has been conquered. Beauty is here, and Beauty is ever increasingly filling the earth, and this Beauty is our salvation from ugliness and sin. George Marsden in his incredible biography of Jonathan Ecdwards ends the whole book with this summary of Edwards’ view of all of life and salvation. He says that

“[Edwards believed that] God’s trinitarian essence is love. God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures. The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. Those. . . who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it. . . They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections. Truly seeing such good, they will have no choice but to love it. Glimpsing such love . . . they will be drawn from their self-centered universes. Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true reality, they will love God and all that he has created.”

The Gospel, this salvation, is beautiful.

And we receive this salvation by seeing its Beauty, turning our stirred affections toward this God, and trusting that we cannot reknit our own souls but Christ has reknit them for us. And as our affections are further stirred we press into Him ever increasingly as He draws ever-nearer to us. I pray, I plead, that those in here tonight that have not done so, would trust this beautiful God to have accomplished for them what they could not do for themselves. Please, consider this story, this message. See if it is not the most beautiful thing you could ever conceive. Just for a moment, see if something in you is stirred for this God. Even if you don’t believe He exists, or that He is this particular God that I have spoken of tonight, is there something in you that at least wishes it were true? Wishes it were this way? Wishes that God did in fact arrange everything to make it all beautiful in its time? Even if you won’t admit it, if that’s true, if you did wish this were the case, don’t ignore that. You have been designed to long for the Beauty of this Gospel, this story. Don’t ignore it. Sovereign, Beautiful Father, Lover, and Lord, save people that read this.

In conclusion, I’m going to break every rule I learned in my preaching class this last semester about how to end a message and end mine tonight with a poem. But not someone else’s poem. This is a poem I wrote in one take one particular afternoon through broken tears standing on top of a hill looking out over the city of Edinburgh as I was taken over by the most beauty I’ve ever seen. Let this encourage the weary saints reading this blog post, and let it perhaps woo those that have yet taste what these words are about. You can find the poem here, or just click in the section above entitled “The Site”.

Here are the links to the full manuscript and the full audio of my presentation of this material:

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

Proclaiming & Producing Beauty{11}


Sandorfi - KalfonariumThe next post after this will be the last in this series.  But today, we are finishing up the section on how we respond to Beauty.  As I stated earlier, there are two fundamental ways we respond to Beauty: we contemplate it, and we enjoy it.  But, within the enjoyment piece, I think there are four main ways to to that: we praise, participate in, proclaim, and produce Beauty.  Once more, our working definition is Beauty is the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply.  It takes the loose strands in reality and weaves them together into a tapestry that out senses are able to perceive.

Now, let’s pick up right where we left off:

Proclaim

But the process is still not over. First we praise the thing as beautiful, then we participate in its beauty on its own terms. Thirdly, we proclaim it as beautiful. Proclamation is not the same as praise. I believe it was C.S. Lewis that something along the lines of this: joy in something is not complete until it is shared with someone else. Proclamation is the telling of the Beauty of this thing to someone else. It is sharing in this affection with someone else. Here we start seeing something about Beauty that will lead into our final response: Beauty longs to be known and spread – almost like a virus. It wants to inspire you to tell others about it, so that those people might participate in it as well. For creational Beauty this is done in many obvious ways like reviews and just telling someone else about it. For divine Beauty, this is typically referred to as preaching. Speaking of this God should be the natural response to someone who has praised and participated in the Beauty of God. It is out of the overflow of this in someone’s heart that they should speak. Not out of begrudging compulsion or sheer white-knuckled obedience. We tell others about the things we find most beautiful. Should this not also apply to the highest of all beautiful people – God?

Produce

This brings us to our last part in the process of responding to beauty. It’s very much tied to the previous one and has to do with Beauty replicating itself. God, in His love for us, calls us to respond to beauty not only by proclaiming beauty in word, but also producing beauty in deed. Produce is the last way we respond to Beauty. We are built in the Image of a God who doesn’t just desire, delight in, and display Beauty, but a God who also does Beauty. We, likewise, all have abilities to produce beauty. Not only that, our response to beauty is not complete until it has inspired us to likewise create beauty. Every musician in here knows what it’s like to be at a show or concert, seeing someone play the instrument that you play and suddenly having your mind swirling with musical ideas you want to try out when you get home. There’s an entire field of art history that tries and find the obscure pieces that inspired some of the greatest pieces of art we adore today. It works off the assumption that nothing that beautiful exists without inspiration before it. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that everyone has some creative ability in them. I don’t care how “uncreative” you think you are. You are built in the image of a Creator God! You have not only the ability, but I fully believe the responsibility as well to bring forth more beauty in this world and further participate in God’s “re-knitting” of the universe. Now this “creative” ability in all will look different in everyone, so don’t think you have to stick to conventional forms of “creativity”. Really, anything that makes beauty does this. It can be gardening, serving, counseling, or raising your kids, even. I would argue all those take a certain type of “artistic eye” to do them well. We all have it. Find it. Do it well. Do it often. And do it as a response to the Beauty that is around you in both God and Creation.

This also shows itself in the Christina life (and in our text) as holiness, or “doing good” as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it. Seeing the Beauty of God should inspire us to holy living and loving of others. Serving those around us in order to share with them and replicate the Beauty of God that we have seen.

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

Enjoying Beauty{9}, Part I: Praise it.


Sargent - Claude Monet Painting in a Garden

We’re almost done! This is the home stretch of the series. After this, there are three more posts in this series on beauty. Then maybe a summary-conclusion article. Last time, we talked about what it looks like to contemplate Beauty. Here, we ask why we contemplate it and what the implications of this answer are. So, why do we contemplate Beauty?

So we can enjoy it to the fullest.

Our text says that God’s gift to man is the ability and call to enjoy and take pleasure in all things, even our vain toiling and strivings of heart. After contemplation, there comes the time when we must engage with what we have contemplated. Even in Christianity, our theological study and discovery of who God is is not complete until actually close the Bible, look up, and enjoy this revealed God. But how? What does this enjoyment look like? Well, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve broken down enjoyment into four different stages. To enjoy Beauty, we Praise it, Participate in it, Proclaim it, and Produce more beauty. Let’s break this down:

First, we praise the beautiful things.

This seems fairly simple at first, but it has a deeper level to it. In its external form, praising the beauty of something is as simple as calling it beautiful. But what about nature? Or art? Or a book? or poem? Perhaps the original artist is dead or not available for you to say to them, “Hey, that’s beautiful.” Those cases help show us that “praise” goes deeper than mere words. “Praise”, more accurately, is a turning of affections toward the object of the beauty before you. It’s acknowledging beauty at the deepest part of who you are. Now, don’t worry. I’m distinguishing between the affections we turn towards these things and the affections we have for God. Those that have been changed by God to see His Beauty have had their deepest affections changed so that God is highest in those affections. But it’s okay to have an affection for things that God loves and has affections for. Having affection for His Church, His people, your family, and Beauty (even the Beauty of quote-unquote “non-religious” things) is completely in line with someone who has been changed by God to see Him as most beautiful. The implications of this more accurate idea of “praising” are huge. First, it means that you can be “praising” with your lips and not actually be praising. It also means that you can be praising something fully, accurately, and appropriately without ever having uttered a word. Imagine staring at a beautiful piece of art. It’s just you and the art while everything else fades away, and every distraction disappears. In that moment, as your affection swells for this thing of Beauty, you are calling it beautiful – you are praising.

In the next few days we’ll discuss what it looks like to Participate in Beauty.  This will be a much longer, more developed idea.  And my favorite way of enjoying Beauty.  So until then…

Here are the manuscript and lecture that this series is based off of.

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

The Contemplation of Beauty{8}


Picasso - The Old GuitaristSorry for the brief hiatus.  I don’t quite know what happened.  Probably just getting used to work and a new schedule and everything.  I have a few “lighter” articles in the works for the next couple of days, plus I’m working on more substantial things for other sites.  I’ll let you all know.  But now, back to beauty.

Last we left the Beauty series, we were discussing the proper way in which to respond to it.  Though there’s no absolute “most proper” way to respond, I used our main Biblical text that we’ve been looking at, and an idea developed by C.S. Lewis to break down our response into two useful categories: contemplation and enjoyment.  Before we enjoy, we contemplate.  This is not to say we can’t enjoy anything apart from comprehensively knowing it, but it does say that a contemplation and exploration of things helps us enjoy them more fully; and to be enjoyed to the fullest is the ultimate desire of Beauty itself.  But what does this contemplation look like in real life?

Let’s recall our defintion of Beauty as the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply.  It’s what takes the complex unwoven strands out there in reality and weaves them into a tapestry that we can perceive with our spiritual and physical sense.  The more strands are woven more simply, the more beautiful that tapestry is. So in its most basic form, the contemplation of Beauty is thinking through what “strands” or what “complexity” is being represented in the thing in front of you.  So what does it look like? Well, formally, in philosophy, this endeavor is called “Aesthetics” or “Metaphysics”. It’s the philosophical study of Beauty and Beautiful things.

In the real world, for the rest of us, I thought of two ways this could look. First, when presented with something that your senses find beautiful, ask yourself, “What is it that’s actually being stirred in me?” Is it romance? Sorrow? Reminders of childhood joys? That stirring is your soul resonating with the strands that are in the tapestry in front of you. This is what art critics are really good at doing: teasing apart the strands that make up any given piece of art. The second way I could see this look is when you are encountered with something or someone that everyone seems to think is so beautiful but you just don’t get it. Maybe it’s the Mona Lisa. You may think: “Yeah, it’s a good painting, but what’s the big deal?” Maybe it’s some piece of abstract art that everyone else is swooning over but you. Maybe it’s a book, poem, or song you just don’t understand. In this case, I would encourage you to do research, read criticism, and try and understand the complexity behind the tapestry that others are noticing, but not you. It seems like people that know Music theory really well seem to like Jazz and Classical more than others. It seems like trained poets like weird abnormal poetry. The better you can understand the complexity in something, the easier it is for you to appreciate and ultimately enjoy the fullness of its beauty. This is why I would encourage all of you to be very curious about as many topics as possible. It’s not for the sake of more knowledge, but so that you can better enjoy the world around you and see it’s Beauty in everything.

Now, what I just went through is more for our everyday use and understanding of subjective, created Beauty. But more importantly, we must learn what it means to contemplate the Beauty of God. In Christianity this endeavor is called “Theology”. If Theology is (as most people know) “the study of God”, then it by definition is the study of Beauty Itself. This is what Theology was meant to be. It’s the kind of theology God calls us to do. Theology is the contemplation of the various complexities and revealed “strands” of God in order to better enjoy Him. John Calvin talks about this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He says that if your quote-on-quote “theological study” isn’t leading you to greater praise and enjoyment in God, then you’re not really studying theology! At that point it’s just studying literature – getting a better idea of this “character” named God in this “novel” called “The Bible”. This is why I had to leave seminary. I was in the midst of such beauty and I was numb to it! I was too immature. I didn’t have the spiritual infrastructure to see it for how beautiful it was! This infinite complexity being placed in front of me day in and day out was not leading me to enjoy Him. How many of us live day in and day out surrounded by the objective beauty of Christ and it does nothing to us? This contemplation of the Beauty of God can help us. Just yesterday our brother Marc Savage sent that group text (I have no idea how many of you got it) with this quote from Charles Spurgeon: “There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. No subject of contemplation will tend to more humble the mind, than thoughts of God.”

May I challenge all of us to press in and seek the complexities of Who this God is and how He has revealed Himself? Understanding the beauty of God is of the utmost importance to the Christian, because His beauty is completely pointless. It can’t be manipulated, used, or abused. It can only be enjoyed. Something I’ve learned over time: whenever spirituality of any kind goes awry and goes off track, the Beauty of God is one of the first things to go. The inability to accept the mysterious complexities of God is the beginning of all heresy. You can’t have a right enjoyment of the Beauty of God and be a legalist, libertine (someone who abuses grace), or a hypocrite. Seeking to enjoy the Beauty of God is a guard against all these things. In my reading, one of my favorite things I came across was from a Catholic theologian named John Navone. He says in his book Toward a Theology of Beauty that Christian theologians (which I would argue should be all of us) are people given the task of articulating and putting into words how everything in life is given to us by God. Navone calls this the “givenness” of life and selfhood. This means that all of life is grace – unmerited favor; and that even things that are usually seen as secular (types of visual art, media, culture, jobs, and types of “non-Christian” music) are actually things that “mediate the mystery of the dawn of Christ’s Kingdom, as epiphanies or manifestations of grace. We as theologians [(and I would argue as artists and beholders of beautiful things)] are charged with the task of ushering in and articulating the mysteries of beauty which we will rest in forever.” That’s amazing. He goes on to say that “Theologians [(and I’d say even Christian artists)] are engaged in a dialogue, not only with their public, but with the object of their contemplation.” This should be one of the distinguishing factors between artists that are Christians, compared to those that are not: non-Christian artists can only use their art to dialogue with other people (speaking horizontally) and other art (speaking down). Only the Christian can make art with the confidence and hope that it also speaks and dialogues upwards to a God pleased to see, hear, or watch it.

Now what if you’re hearing all this, but you wouldn’t say you’re a Christian. First, if your interest has been piqued, but you just don’t get it, I’d give you the same encouragement I gave to those earlier that don’t understand the Beauty of things that others find beautiful. Learn about this God. Stick around. Ask questions. Seek answers. Try to see the infinite complexity of this God and how simply he has revealed Himself. Look into how He has revealed Himself and start to pick apart the strands of the incredible tapestry he has revealed Himself as. Secondly, let me encourage you: there is objective Beauty. You heart yearns for it and longs for it, and it is out there. Objective beauty is when the fullest possible complexity is expressed to us. So God – infinite complexity – is that objective Beauty Itself. But people don’t know full objective beauty before they know God. This complexity cannot be comprehended until God changes someone to comprehend it. If you’re not there yet, that’s fine. Pray. Ask God to change you as He has changed many of us. Contemplate this God. Contemplate His world. Contemplate all Beauty.

Why?  So we can enjoy Beauty.  I’ll see you next time.

Here are the manuscript and lecture that this series is based off of.

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

How Do We Respond to Beauty{7}?


Klimt - Music 1

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Wow. We have covered a lot of ground so far. We’ve discussed what beauty is, what things are actually beautiful (God, Nature, Humans, Art), and why they are beautiful. But there’s one more very important thing left to discuss (that will take a while to unpack): how are we meant to respond to Beauty? We used our text (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15) to give us a context to figure out a definition of Beauty, and then we applied that definition to different things, so let’s go back to it and see how we are supposed to respond to this beauty.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”[Ecclesiastes 3:12-15]

The ultimate response, the final goal, of seeing all the Beauty God has put in our hearts, put in the world, and is doing in and around us, is joy and doing good. But the writer did something before he could declare this: he thought about it and “perceived” this to be the case. You see this in the final verses of this section as well. After declaring the joy that should come from seeing Beauty, he then steps back and sees the bigger picture. He tells us what first must be true about God if we are going to ultimately respond to beauty the way we should.

Reading this reminded me of something C.S. Lewis once said. In one of his philosophical works (I honestly don’t remember which one) he says that humans interact with things by contemplating and enjoying. He says that they cannot do these things at the same time though they can rapidly move back and forth between the two. I think this is a great way of saying what the author in Ecclesiastes is saying. We first must “perceive” (or contemplate) Beauty and then we enjoy the Beauty that God is making all things into and that he has placed into our hearts and world. Often, this distinction between contemplating and enjoying happens so rapidly that it seems like it is happening at the same time, so don’t worry, I’m not necessarily saying that you can’t enjoy beauty before sitting down and thinking about it, researching it, and writing out some paper something. Even before contemplating something and learning its complexities you can enjoy the Beauty of something. But this is the same way that a husband can enjoy his wife on the first day they’re married, but he must spend time and effort after that contemplating and getting to know his wife, so he can enjoy her more fully and more comprehensively. Contemplation is not necessary to enjoy at first, but it is necessary to enjoy fully.

I know this was a brief post. It’s just because the next several sections are substantial enough to deserve their own posts. So, mull on this for a while, read some other new posts of mine at Reform & Revive and GoingToSeminary.com, and Monday we’ll go really in depth into the contemplation of Beauty and beautiful things.

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Manucscript

Click here for sermon audio

Audio

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.

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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:

Eternity in Our Hearts: The God of Beauty, the Beauty of God


Sargent - Madame Errazuriz-smallThis message was seven months in the making, and this past Friday I finally delivered it.  So, as promised, I’m posting both the audio and the manuscript here.  You can also find a general outline on my Sermon site, and you can also find it at my Podcast.

Click here for sermon audio

Click for Audio

Click for Manuscript Pdf

Click for FULL Manuscript

This is the message I gave at Epiphany Fellowship. The topic was Beauty. The attached manuscript is the full manuscript. It is 43 pages long and contains far more information than I was able to give in a 40 minute message. It includes an appendix where every form of every word in the Greek and Hebrew translated as “Beauty” or “Beautiful” in the English Standard Version of the Bible is ordered by frequency and includes the literal meanings and lexical range of each word.

I really cannot stress how much more is in the manuscript than was preached.  Every section has huge amounts of thought and prayer in it that was not able to be included in the final message.  That’s why throughout the next week or more, I’ll be blogging about every section of this manuscript.  Each post will focus and discuss the fuller version of each section.  If it gets to be too much I’ll spread it out as need be, but we’ll see.  This is where your thoughts and insights will be so helpful and needed, but if you have a question now, don’t feel like you have to wait for that blog post to come to ask.  Engage with any and everything now.

I hope this blesses all of you as much as it did me.  The feedback that evening was more than I knew how to handle and perhaps I’m still processing it.  Thank you all for your grace and affirmation.  For those that came out, I thank you. I very much enjoyed both preparing and delivering this message, and I look forward to further chances to do so.  If you’re interested in giving me such a chance, feel free to use the contact email on the sidebar to the right (or just click here).

Enjoy, and feel free to let me know what you think, and please at least look through some of the manuscript.  Until next time . . .

One small final note: on most every site and post I’ve used to discuss this message I’ve used the attached piece of art.  It is a piece called “Madame Erraruriz” and it is by my favorite American painter John Singer Sargent.  I got to see this painting in an exhibit of his at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and ever since seeing the brushstrokes in this simple painting and seeing the nuances and the subtleties that don’t quite come across from this digital shot, I have long found it to be one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen.  It is for that reason I have chosen it as the picture that has constantly been up for all these posts.  A few years back I even wrote a poem based on the piece called “Extended Engagement”.  I ended up writing two versions, one less structured than the other to better mirror the feel of the piece, but on this blog you can read both Version 1 and Version 2.  Let me know which you prefer.