Truth, beauty, and goodness...

(Tim) This week saw the release of David Michaelis’ biography of Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip, Peanuts. Titled Schultz and Peanuts, reviewers are commenting on Michaelis’ heavy emphasis on Schultz as Suffering Artist. What did he suffer?

The Times (10/14/07) sums it up: “Drawings rejected by high school yearbook. Odd haircuts by Dad.”

Not exactly the Gulag, right? Well, this only as context for what follows.

I’ve noted before that in decadent societies artists become the high priests and art, itself, the sacrament. Now I don’t want to push this too far, but I’m determined to push it far enough to get us into a self-reflective and self-critical mode.

Commenting on readers’ desires for artists to be portrayed as anguished souls, University of Minnesota’s Patricia Hampl spoke of our need “in the age of entertainment’s dominance…for art to be something separate from our quotidian lives, something almost spiritual."

Ah yes, “something almost spiritual.”

Today, some of the most historically informed, doctrinally committed, and biblical Christians I know attach an importance to art and aesthetics that is entirely foreign to the historic reformed church, and that often has been vigorously opposed by orthodox Christians across church history. Believers of the past were quite intentional in keeping up their guard against idolatry infiltrating believers' hearts, the Church, and her worship. They understood how easily art and aesthetics are conscripted to serve as idolatry's' Trojan Horse.

Now, of course, at this point some of our good readers are on the verge of dismissing my concern with some useful smear like, “He’s poor white trash; his little learning has made him mad; he’s lived a nasty, brutish life and he’s trying to turn his own cultural deprivation into a spiritual principle; he’s a Cretin; he’s a Puritan; he’s a Baptist.”

Well, maybe I am. But then again, maybe not.

Rather, maybe we need to stop and think about Satan being able to appear as an angel of light. Maybe we need to consider that our noble talk and work raising up  a distinctively Christian culture, our pursuit of art, architecture, and music that is true, beautiful, and good--even within the church and her liturgy--is another face of our society's view of artists as priests and their works as our sacraments.

If you're disinclined to hear such a warning, read Augustine's Confessions once more and ask yourself why the early church was so fiercely opposed to the fine arts?

Comments

As one who thinks that the pursuit of a Christian culture, including the arts, is of vital importance, I absolutely agree with your critique here. I say this, in part, because I've seen this tendency in myself, so I know that it is true.

A pursuit of the arts must be just another route to serving others. Otherwise, it will become idolatry.

(Harold Best addresses some of your concerns in his book Unceasing Worship, which I would highly recommend.)

Never was your point clearer to me than when I was standing in Florence looking at Donatello's David. Here a church pays a known sodomite and reveler to sculpt an effeminate sculpture of a boy who was probably more of a man as an adolescent than I'll ever be, all so they can have the latest and greatest artist's work displayed in their halls. And anyone who has been to Europe knows that this is just one example of countless. Of course I'm certain there was some pious principle, like the "cultural mandate" we Presbyterians love to talk about which they used to justify the idolatry.

Must all beautiful babies be thrown out with dirty bathwater? Are we to rid ourselves of every beautiful thing that man has made in order to avoid pride on the part of the one who makes it and idolatry on the part of the one who appreciates it? Is there no way to create something beautiful for the glory of God and the service of Man? Is something stripped of all aesthetic delights somehow more pleasing to God than something else that is appealing to us? If this is the case, what is a man, then, who is created in the image of God, to do with the creative impulse his Maker has placed within him?

We've all met the young, guitar-playing Christian Bohemian who wants to embrace and express his faith through art and loves all art except what obviously glorifies sin. We've also all met the grouchy old Presbyterian who refuses to even sully his hands with a novel. I can think of one sin of which both our two friends are probably guilty - laziness.

The fact is that it's easier to draw a line in the sand than it is to think. It's much easier to say "everything on this side of the line is bad" or "everything on this side of the line is good".

Neither option glorifies God. The option that glorifies God is to be wise and discerning. And by wise and discerning, I don't mean we have an excuse to just nebulously apply our principles whenever it's convenient. I mean we have to be manly and moral about a sticky issue, and that's hard work. It's hard work for our young Bohemian to apply God's perfect and immutable truths about idolatry and pride to his love of art. He'll have to sacrifice things that he loves. But it's just as hard for our old Presbyterian friend to remember that (as Chesterton wrote) "reason and imagination are the great gifts of the mind. They are good in themselves; and we must not altogether forget their origin even in their perversion."

Having said all that, I have to confess that my generation clearly errs in the direction of the Bohemian. If Pastor Bayly seems (to our ears) to want to over-correct the problem, it's only because we've dug ourselves into such a pit of idolatry and confusion that it will take more than a timid leap to get out of it.

-Nathan

Dear Barbara,

Beautiful things are much more conducive to idolatry, aren't they? Take sex, for instance; it's so beautiful that God has linked it to the birth of the crown of His creation, man. And that's just the end of its beauty. Because of this beauty, though, we are surrounded by terrible perversions and idolatry. Should we all take a vow of celibacy, then?

No. Nathan is absolutely correct: Instead, we must do the hard work of fleeing idolatry.

And it's my hope that, as we read Chesterton, we remember which side of the Tiber we're on, and why.

Barabara,

In answer to all of your questions save the last, a resounding NO! We seek beauty because it points us to the origin of all beauty - God.

Tim,

If that means it might be more conducive to idolatry, perhaps the church hasn't done its job of discipleship properly. When I hear adult women say they have intimacy issues with their husbands because, "We hear sex is dirty all our lives, but then you get married and it's supposed to be good." I think we haven't taught them a thing at all.

How sad to think that I, as a single not engaged in that particular act of beauty, understand it better than those married women who should be abondoning their selves to it. Nathan is only partially right - in order to flee idolatry, we must also understand beauty and its proper use. That we, clearly, do not.

Kamilla

Well said. I've become convinced over the years that much of art, even that that is not "classical" in form, is really simply homage to the old Greek deities, and simultaneously reflects the vicious immorality of the creators of said art.

Say that in public, however, and one can, and ought to, prepare for a sound flogging, at least rhetorically speaking.

Don't get me wrong. I've spent many a happy hour in many of the great art museums of the world. I've just figured out what a lot of "art" is actually about, and sadly, it is "the mistresses of the artists and their patrons presented as Venus." Or, the "misters," in the case of too many of the Florentine greats.

Valiant Sisters, Barbara and Kamilla,

Both of you need to write a book on this beauty. Seriously. And since I'm suggesting it, would you mind giving me first dibs on publishing them? Seriously.

>In order to flee idolatry, we must also understand beauty and its proper use.

I thought that's what Nathan was saying.

As for the church's failure to teach the beauty and glory of sexuality, that's one of the chief labors of this blog; not only because we all need to see its beauty and glory, but more because men (and Titus 2 women) called to shepherd souls in God's flock need to see this failure to teach its beauty and glory as one of the principal evidences of our disrobing in the face of our culture--of our being hirelings, that is.

"...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things."

But not too much, eh? If it's true that Satan appears as an angel of light (and it is), then each manifestation of these qualities is potentially an idol for us. Including paintings and cartoons and novels and symphonies, yes. But also blogs and the internet, books like Augustine's Confessions and Calvin's Institutes themselves. I just wonder which object the readers of this blog are most prone to idolize--"The Sodomite's Boyfriend" mentioned above in such vivid terms or the computer on which everyone who's reading this spends an inordinate amount of time consuming and generating ephemera and for which he neglects the "quotidian" duties given him by God? For which he neglects commands such as "pray without ceasing"?

Are you really interested in battling idolatry? Or could there be instead a prejudicial distaste for the stereotypical "artistic personality"? After all, he's not too manly, is he?

Dear David,

Of course this post was in no way opposing beauty or the arts. Rather, it made the point that they are dangerous and that the increasingly uncritical emphasis they receive within the reformed church makes me uneasy, particularly when this emphasis appears in the context of worship.

To fail to see the distinction between caution and outright rejection likely indicates one's need to focus his attention on the caution.

Your loving servant,

PS: Did you forget I've subscribed to "The New Criterion" for years, now? Or that I have a Constable as my desktop? Or that my wife and daughters are beautiful and I've never taken sandpaper to their faces? Or that some of my best friends are aesthetes? ;->

"Rather, it made the point that they are dangerous"

Reminds me of something a wise man once wrote in one of his novels,

"Safe?! Of course he isn't safe, but he is Good."

And of the way my organic chemistry professor used to grade - the better you did, the harder he graded, knocking points off for the least little flaws in your drawings, etc.

I often think that the closer we get to Beauty, Truth, Goodness (capitals intentional) the easier it is to veer ever so slightly off course and not notice it in time to correct it.

Kamilla

P.S. About what Nathan wrote, glad for the clarification. I as being a bit thick this morning!

I don't believe I accused you of rejecting the arts outright. Didn't say anything of the kind. I know you better than that. I understand and agree with your caution, but in my real life I only wish I had enough time to idolize the arts. I'm lucky to find three minutes just to read about them. (On the other hand, there's always enought time for the Internet.) I don't think I'm unique in this, either.

No, it's just that I'm curious why idolatry always and only means the arts on this blog.

But I guess it's just because I'm not familiar with the "reformed church" to which you're primarily addressing your posts.

David, You've heard me speak against the idolatry of sports again and again. Also the government and these United States. The list could go on, I think.

And yes, I was directing my comments to a community I doubt has ever made much of an appearance on your radar screen.

Touché!

There's an excellent book on this from Francis Schaeffer, I think - or was it Hans Rookmaaker who wrote "Art needs no justification"?

We could recast this discussion in terms of music, but that would divert it even more :-)

There's an excellent book on this from Francis Schaeffer, I think - or was it Hans Rookmaaker who wrote "Art needs no justification"?

We could recast this discussion in terms of music, but that would divert it even more :-)

Pastor Bayly, you mentioned in your initial posting that the church is not as critical of the arts as it should be. I would be interested in some examples of ways in which the church is not critical of the arts. As an art student, I have seen more of the opposite. It seems that many in the Christian community tend to be judgmental toward the arts, dismissing a lot of contemporary art as irrelevant, or immoral, basing their judgments upon subject matter or what they think they know about the artist’s worldview, rather than principles of beauty.

Andrea,

"The Church" is made up of numerous sub-groups or sub-cultures, and I think Pastor Bayly is referring to certain of those groups, not every single local congregation in the country. One consequence of the diversity of the Church is that it's almost impossible--and probably unfruitful altogether--to make sweeping generalizations about it. Plus, our own experience isn't normally reflective of the big picture. (At least, mine isn't.)

What do you think are the "principles of beauty" that the Christians you're referring to need to apply when thinking about art? Are there any transcendent or objective "principles of beauty"? What are they? In your opinion, what contemporary art is relevant and moral and what's not, and why? If the Christians you're talking about stopped being so judgmental of the arts, what would it look like?

David, thank you for your clarifications. I understand that we are talking about the Reformed church here, and I should have specified that.

And you’re right, it is not profitable to make sweeping generalizations about the church, since it is so diverse.

If the Christians I’ve come in contact with were to be less judgmental of the arts, I think there would be more knowledge of what is going on in the art world among Christians. Modern painting ushered in the idea of the artist as a sort of prophet, and since then, society has viewed the artist in this way, placing importance on what they say through their work (and that importance, for the last century, has been more on the message than the artwork itself). Sure, this isn’t right, but in the same way, look at the way art has reflected the philosophy of the day throughout history. The art of our time is an important voice of our culture. H.R. Rookmaaker has written an excellent book on this-- Modern Art and the Death of a Culture.

It seems to me that Christians subconsciously put the artist in this position (simply because society has had him there for so long), but tune out his messages that are offensive. Instead of taking time to hear what the artist has to say, they ignore it because they don’t like it. How can we respond to the non-Christian artist’s/viewer’s ideas if we haven’t listened to them? Sorry—I’ve gone a little off-course here from where I’ve started. I think some of the criticism I’ve personally seen more of has more to do with many Christians’ response to nudity in art, which we aren’t really discussing here, as well as a kind of expectation for art to maintain a peaceful, ‘pretty’ quality, dealing with ‘pretty’ themes, which isn’t always the case with good art. I’ve also seen it with Christians becoming very attached to using music in only one way in worship, opposed to to changing the tune or changing the instrumentation, placing more importance upon tradition for tradition’s sake than aesthetics. Those are just a couple of more specific examples. If these were to change, I think we would be better able to reach our culture, for one. We would also be able to appreciate even more beauty in God's creation. I’m not saying we need to alter our message one bit. I’m just saying that we need to be aware of how our culture uses the arts to communicate in this day and age, and need to able to communicate in the same way.

And there definitely are universal principles of beauty that apply to every artform. The Golden Section is one example. They exist in every aspect of God’s creation. We can’t create good art of any kind without them. When we ignore these principles, poor quality or chaos is the result.

Can we explore the practical implications of this discussion-- what would it look like if we took the cautions we are talking about here? What are some specific areas in which the church needs to improve (or be more critical), and are we talking about the artist, viewers (or audience), or both? Is it mostly the artforms we include in worship that we need to seriously look at, or in other areas of life? This discussion has included looking at everything from Christian contemporary folk music to Donatello’s David to sculptures from Ancient Greece, all of which have different purposes for the artist and viewer.

Andrea

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