The God we worship glories in beauty! And how we live and worship should rightly reflect this.
I recently had the joy of preaching on Worship and the Arts (linked here).
In it I reference several important Biblical texts and statements on the importance of Beauty. Many of these are contained in the following essay that I wrote for our first Celebration of the Arts during Lent, 2015. It contains links to other works and references that I spoke about. I hope you are inspired to worship the God of the Good, True, and the Beautiful, and to use every gift, skill, and craft for God’s Glory!
BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD:
Christian Discipleship and the Arts
My own “awakening” to the arts has been gradual. I sang in church at six; marching and concert band in school; singing again when I became a Christ follower in high school. Then came a hiatus for many years, returning mostly out of a calling and a stewardship toward the God who gives gifts for His glory and our enjoyment.
In 1980 I traveled to Europe for the first time as part of an international Christian mission in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We were five weeks in Prague and other cities of the now Czech Republic, one week in Vienna for briefing and de-briefing, and a week of vacation near Salzburg Austria (during the Mozart Festival, for $8 per night at a beautiful British guesthouse for missionaries!) Architecture, art museums, classical music, and other beauties left me feeling like a cultural pauper. I started to give more attention to the beauty I was beginning to discover.
Several years later, I experienced Rachmaninov’s Vespers, or the All Night Vigil of Eastern Orthodoxy. I fell in love with the beauty of the music and the worship. An exploration of iconography followed, gazing at the beauty (to borrow from the title of Henry Nouwen’s wonderful little book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord.
I’ve entered the world of poetry in earnest. Poets like Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Scott Cairns, George Herbert, Denise Levertov, Edward Hirsch, Czeslaw Milosz and many others have become increasingly enriching friends. I am also way too late in coming to love the piety and genius of J.S. Bach’s varied music!
And so we come to our audacious title, “Beauty will save the world!”
Beauty will save the world?
My first impression of this enigmatic phrase was one of skepticism, or at least a sense of gross over-optimism! Digging deeper, it has taken on meaning and relevance that continues to accelerate. Andy Cuneo adds some helpful literary context and a vital question.
There are some quotations so arresting, so perfect in simplicity, that they never leave the memory…“Beauty will save the world,” says a prince in Dostoevsky’s unfortunately-titled The Idiot. The prince speaks as one having authority: beauty will save the world.
It is yet more surprising to find Genesis in league with…the above, for in Genesis‘ opening chapter the refrain so quietly insistent, “And God saw that it was good,” contains a Hebrew word (Tov) which may be translated either as good or as beautiful. The feel of the whole chapter changes if one hears God proclaim that the light, the sun, the greenery, the animals are all beautiful, and mankind very beautiful.
Ah, the riddle of beauty and the craft of these writers in phrasing that riddle. Indeed, our prince in The Idiot is asked, immediately after his triumphal statement about beauty, just which beauty will save the world? That is a much harder question, but the Prince affirms in response — who will save the world. In considering “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”…a temptation arises to forget the Person in view of the principles. Abstract ideas, concepts, and theories can take the place of God who quite physically incarnates those principles…Again, if Beauty will save the world, in Dostoevsky’s view, it will be a person.
(Andrew Cuneo, Beauty will save the world – but What Beauty? In Pursuit of Truth journal, May 18, 2009; read the whole article here.)
Beauty points to the source of beauty
Beauty points us to the source of what attracts us. This is understandable. To be hungry, infers the reality and accessibility of food that will satisfy and even delight us. Feelings of attraction long for reciprocal affection. When we move into the arena of Christian discipleship, beauty takes an even more central place.
Beauty was the organizing theme of Jonathan Edwards’ understanding of the Christian life — beauty in God, from God, for God. Forget the stereotype of Edwards being obsessed with God’s wrath.
To become a Christian is to become alive to beauty. This is the contribution of Edwards to Christianity. The beauty of the Christian life (is) first the beauty of God, beauty that comes to tangible expression in Christ, and second the beauty of the Christian, who participates in the the triune life of divine love. Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ. That is Edwards’ theology of the Christian life in a single sentence… The Christian life is a life of beauty…Love, joy, gentleness, prayer, obedience — all these …are spokes extending from the hub of a soul alive to beauty…They are what healthy Christians exhale, having inhaled the loveliness of God.
(Dane C. Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God.)
Historian Robert Louis Wilken notes:
…Early Christian poets created a resonant language to sing the praises of God and celebrate the glorious deeds of Christ. Christian thinkers also attended to other kinds of things, the bones of saints and martyrs, the dirt and stones of holy places, the oil of chrism, water, bread and wine, and, not least, pictures painted on wood and mosaics fixed on a wall. Pictorial art, like poetry, began early in the Church’s history. Because of the Incarnation, Christianity posits an intimate relation between material things and the living God.
(R.L. Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 240)
Gerard Manley Hopkins in As Kingfishers Catch Fire uses an expansive phrase, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” It captures the pervasive presence of God in the midst of all that he has made, including human beings.
On Easter, 1999, the Polish Pope, John Paul II published his famous Letter to Artists. It is a must read for all artists. It is a wonderful and practical theology of the arts. Here is an excerpt:
None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colors and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.
Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole.
In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, “awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19), is redeemed!
The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”. And, certainly, this too is a talent which ought to be made to bear fruit, in keeping with the sense of the Gospel parable of the talents. (cf. Mt 25:14-30)
Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.
May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.
People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world”.
Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…!”
(Read the whole letter)
The Polish poet and writer, Czeslaw Milosz, experienced the multiple horrors of World Wars and the darkness of Soviet communism as well as other personal sufferings in his 93 years. At the end of his poem, “One Day,” Milosz ascribes to beauty, the saving affect of moral discernment in a world that shuns absolutes:
Nonbeing sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence.
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly.
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil.
Only beauty will call to them and save them.
So that they still know how to say: this is true and that is false.
(Czeslaw Milosz, “One Day,” in Unattainable Earth)
PRACTICAL DISCIPLESHIP AND THE ARTS
I want to suggest six arenas where our engagement with the arts can deeply transform us and contribute to our calling as Christian disciples.
Worship often begins with wonder and awareness of God’s beauty. Over a thousand years ago, Prince Vladimir of Rus went looking for a compelling religion to guide his people and finally sent an envoy to Constantinople. What they reported back to him is now legendary. Describing a majestic Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia, they said, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.” And Russia embraced Orthodoxy.
In Psalm 27, David embraces the One Thing:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.
2. The Discipline of Awareness
This phrase is taken from Ken Gire’s wonderful book, Windows of the Soul: Experiencing God in New Ways. The arts can be windows that help us pay attention to the God who speaks and shows.
We reach for God in many ways. Through our sculptures and our scriptures. Through our pictures and our prayers. Through our writing and our worship. And through them He reaches for us.
His search begins with something said. Ours begins with something heard. He begins with something shown. Ours, with something seen. Our search for God and His search for us meet at windows in our everyday experience.
These are the windows of the soul. In a sense, it is something like spiritual disciplines for the spiritually undisciplined. In another sense, it is the most rigorous of disciplines—the discipline of awareness. For we must always be looking and listening if we are to see the windows and hear what is being spoken to us through them.
But we must learn to look with more than just our eyes and listen with more than just our ears, for the sounds are sometimes faint and the sights sometimes far away. We must be aware, at all times and in all places, because windows are everywhere, and at any time we may find one.
Or one may find us. Though we hardly know it… Unless we are searching for Him who for so long has been searching for us.
Gire has a chapter on “Windows of Art” where he reiterates the story of Henri Nouwen, who spent hours in front of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Nouwen’s own book by the same name details contemplations and insights that are deeply practical and moving.
“The homecoming of the prodigal son stayed with me and continued to take on even greater significance in my spiritual life. The yearning for a lasting home, brought to consciousness by Rembrandt’s painting, grew deeper and stronger, somehow making the painter himself into a faithful companion and guide.”
(Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Hmecoming)
3. Apologetics and Explaining the Good News
I had the opportunity to attend the C.S. Lewis Institute in Oxford as a part of a sabbatical. A memorable lecture was by theologian and Lewis biographer, Alister McGrath on the the apologetics of logic, story, and longing in C.S. Lewis. He notes that Lewis not only explained and defended Christianity in his theological and logical works (such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, etc.) but also in fantasy and science fiction stories like The Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. A third genre McGrath called the Apologetic of Longing in Surprised by Joy and other writings. (McGrath’s website has resources available including apologetics lectures on Lewis and others.) Lewis points to our longings for the good, the true, and the beautiful. If we pay attention and help others to pay attention – these longings will help lead us to their source and their fulfillment. (Other C.S. Lewis links)
Abraham Heschel offers a similar word specifically about art: “A work of art introduces us to emotions which we have never cherished before. Great works produce rather than satisfy needs by giving the world fresh cravings.” (quoted in Gire, Windows of the Soul)
4. Culture Making
The arts are one of the natural bridges to the culture. We are called to a “Christian humanism” that engages the world we find ourselves in. Anyone can resonate with true beauty and appreciate it with wonder. Like ethics, the arts can drive us to search for a reference point that answers the spoken or unspoken question, “Where does this come from?” It is vital for Christians to have the true biblical posture towards “culture.”
“It’s not enough to condemn culture. Nor is it sufficient merely to critique or to copy culture. Most of the time we just consume culture. But the only way to change culture is to create (and conserve) culture.”
(Andy Crouch, in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling)
“It is my conviction that the Christian community, despite its many laudable efforts to preserve traditional morality and the social fabric, has abdicated its stewardship of culture and, more importantly, has frequently chosen ideology rather than imagination when approaching the challenges of the present.”
(Gregory Wolfe in Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, a wonderful book of essays by the founder of Image, a vitally important journal for our on-going discussion.)
A note on who our artists are. For all the excesses and criticisms, I believe social media is creating more artists right in front of our eyes. Only one of my four children would, in the traditional sense, be called an artist. But each of them is an Instagram artist! A Facebook poet! They are constantly taking pictures, designing artistic expressions and graphic tableaus to get a point across or draw attention to something they are passionate about or want to pass on to the world. The arts are more and more central to how we communicate. And Christ-followers should be producing the best art!
5. The Beauty of Holiness
To become more like Christ is not primarily about “sin management.” It is about falling in love. It is about not accepting counterfeits, expertly knowing the real thing! Take chastity – sexual wholeness – as an example:
“So if we are going to …. clear up our confusion about what chastity is, then we have to return…to beauty. We have to fall in love with Christ more deeply.
Struggle aesthetically first and then struggle ethically. Struggle easily to be faithful first of all in your devotion to the one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – by falling in love with God’s amazing beauty. Then purity will be given to you in large part.”
(Timothy Patitsas, “Chastity and Empathy” in Road To Emmaus, #60, Winter 2015)
We will always be in a fight, but it can be The Beautiful Fight! (a title by Gary Thomas)
6. Eternal Beauty
C.S. Lewis ends the Narnia Chronicles with The Last Battle. These words reflect the longing that will be only satisfied in our eternal and beautiful home:
And as [Aslan] spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.
We can infer from the biblical images of beauty that the longing for beauty, together with an ability to recognize and experience it, exists within every human being. It is fair to infer that the experiences of earthly beauty can awaken a longing for a beauty that is more permanent and transcendent than anything this life can give — a longing for the beauty of God!
I’ll give Lewis the last word:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death… (Mere Christianity)
I more and more believe that beauty and the arts can make us ponder, arouse our emotions, help us speak Good News, engender our compassion, and motivate us to action for the glory of God and the flourishing of the world. It is by engaging all these arenas as disciples – gazing on the Lord’s beauty – that we can glimpse the extravagant truth that “Beauty will save the world!”
Lyle Mook, copyright, April, 2015
You can read a poem, Sunset Gospel here which was inspired by this theme.