The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts

Article by   October 2007

The Beauty of God contains a collection of ten essays presented at the 2006 Wheaton Theology Conference. The essays are divided topically into three categories: music, visual arts, and texts and culture. As with any collection of essays, viewpoints, perspectives, theology, and content vary from author to author. Overall, the content of the works provide challenging critiques of the status quo of the evangelical world's approach to the art. However, while offering thought-provoking insights, the overall tenor of the collection tends to embrace the theology of Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The editors offer the apologetic for the collection in their Introduction. They write: "Nevertheless, as brilliantly as they embodied the beautiful in their own works, the likes of Luther, Bach and Edwards could do little to counter the disregard for beauty that marked much of Protestant theology and experience. By shifting the focus from the intricate harmony of the outward creation to the virtuous passions of the inner spirit, Protestant culture, perhaps unintentionally, fostered indifference to beauty beyond the self. In the fundamentalist tradition of the early twentieth century, in particular, beauty was seen to be suspect, and close attention to it was discouraged on biblical, theological and eschatological grounds." (8)

Much could be said regarding this statement. For instance, where is the great twentieth century reformed fiction? Catholics have Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, Belloc, Chesterton, and Tolkien. Why has the Reformed Worldview that embraces all of life and culture essentially failed in its propagation of great artists? Why do we rightfully cringe theologically with what passes for art created by Christians? Unfortunately, the essays that follow this Introduction offer tantalizing hints of a deeper theological discussion in the arts, but it is a path that will prove problematic for most reformed thinkers and artists.

That being said, there are still ideas and truths here with which to wrestle. Jeremy S. Begbie does a wonderful job of discussing the dangers of sentimentality and modern evangelical fascination with it. Begbie writes that these deficiencies include the misrepresentation of reality by the evasion or trivialization of evil, emotional self-indulgence, and the avoidance of appropriate costly action. "The sentimentalist loves and hates, grieves or pities not for the sake of the other but for the sake of enjoying love, hate, grief or pity." (51) This is the cruel side of sentimentality in that the anger over injustice does not result in action to right the injustice. The pictures of children starving in Africa may evoke pity or concern, but if it does not provoke action, than the felt pity becomes more important than the very real human needs.

Sentimentality creeps into the music of worship as well. As Begbie writes, "In a quite proper concern for intimacy with God through Jesus, reality can be misrepresented...?if sin is evaded and trivialized, God is shorn of his freedom and disruptive judgment and taken hostage to my emotional requirements." (57) Music that is "a direct and unadorned expression of love, with music that is metrically regular, harmonically warm and reassuring, easily accessible and singable" (56) may have a place is worship; however, much of this music in its sentimentality is "isolated from other dimensions of relating to God. Devotion to Jesus, after all, entails being changed into his likeness by the Spirit?a costly and painful process." (56) The result of neglecting to embrace the broader and deeper theology of the need for the sacrifice of Christ can easily leave us with "a Jesuology that has no room for Jesus as the incarnate Son of the Father, even less room for the wide range of the Spirit's ministries, and encourages us to tug Jesus into the vortex of our self-defined (emotional) need." (56)

Another idea that gets attention in several of the essays is that of "broken beauty." The question as Bruce Herman asks is, "How are we to understand a good God in a broken world?how are we to receive or encounter divine beauty in an ugly or disfigured human society?" (110) The concept has it roots in a rejection of what is seen as a Greek concept of beauty, truth, and goodness that was "recast into terms that appeared to fit well with Christian faith and practice." (87) These artists are working past a "Christianized version of these Greek concepts" (88) with the understanding that the "Neo-Platonic heritage" of evoking beauty to point to the beauty of God or an objective standard creates works that often "fail to engage the viewer because they are devoid of the substance and grit of life as we know it." (89)

While beauty in art, especially visual art, is much more than being pretty or sentimental, where is the line between recognizing the effects of the fallen world and using its vocabulary and images? E. John Walford asks, "What is art's most fitting role? To represent the ideal as a means to conjure the divine? Or treat the real as a means to illuminate the human condition? Or are artists?especially Christian artists?more effective in focusing on the place where these two intersect?" (92)

Walford's conclusion is that, "A broken beauty can be a redemptive beauty, which acknowledges suffering while preserving hope. Without entering into the realm of the horrific and grotesque in the manner of the postmodernist artists who find in beauty only boredom, for the Christian artist the incarnation of Christ provides a basis to engage with integrity both beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain." (109)

One distinction these authors make from the world in all their discussion of beauty is their actual belief that beauty exists. Despite the rejection of an objective standard of beauty, most people still respond to true beauty?thereby implying some sort of foundation for beauty. Modern artists have had enough and have rejected the entire search for beauty on any level. They have turned to a "reconceptualized version of the sublime: Beauty infiltrated by the dangerous, transgressive, bizarre, grotesque and the horrible." (101) No wonder the prominent value of much modern art is shock.

Roy Anker develops this inherent understanding of beauty in his essay on film: "It seems pretty much a cultural-theological given in the West that when the divine shows up, beauty displays as one of its signal traits: beauty beyond beauty, beauty beyond words, and that, to be sure is where the movies come in since, as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words or, better yet, simply goes where words cannot. Beauty is in fact one of the pivotal indications of the veridicality of divine disclosure." (124-25)

Jill Peláez Baumgaertner writes about the arts from the perspective of poetry and the use of language. She credits much of the failure of contemporary poetry with the narcissistic subject matter of the poet rather than the movement through personal perspective into something greater. Getting beyond the self and what the self wants to see or hear seems to be a great critique for what is lacking in much of the modern aesthetic.

Baumgaertner goes on to defend the idea of the language of poetry by saying: "Language, especially familiar language, seems almost insufficient to capture the transcendent, to reflect truth in all of its complexity. But language is what the poet has to work with and so the poet is forced to take sometimes exaggerated, sometimes extreme steps to pierce the mundane, breaking up lines, using words in odd new contexts, relying on sound effects and packing the stanzas with sensuous images and fragments from Scripture, and the common language of our faith which suddenly takes on new meanings through these odd juxtapositions." (155)

The final essay, "The Apologetics of Beauty," is by Edward T. Oakes, S.J., a noted Balthasar scholar. It is a summary form of Balthasar's writings on aesthetics and its intersection with theology.

The Beauty of God is an academic text that can be dense in places for the casual reader. As with all collections of essays, more is to be gleaned from some authors than from others. While some conclusions or sources of theology in the work could be troubling, this book also contains keen insights and challenging thoughts. Whether one agrees or disagrees wholesale, the truths presented deserve a sincere and serious inquiry. As Thomas Aquinas reminds us, "Do not consider from whom you hear things, but entrust to your memory everything good that is said." All truth is indeed God's truth, and may the Church more fully understand the place of the truth, beauty, and goodness of the arts in its life and culture.

Edited by Daniel Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin / Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007  
Review by Greg Wilbur, Chief Musician, Parish Presbyterian Church, Franklin, TN 

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