THE NEED FOR BEAUTY AND ART IN A POST-LITERATE AGE
”There is nothing that does not participate in the beautiful.
– St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Divine Names, IV, 5
“ Let there be light…”
– Genesis 1:3
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God did not have to make anything, but chose out of infinite grace to create. To create the earth and the moon, the sun and the stars. The space in between planets, thereby creating vastness to demonstrate how “wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”. He created the animals big and small; and all this was declared good. Finally, we were created.
God is a creator. Creativity is central to God’s being. The original and ultimately, only creator. At its core, creation, the act of creativity, is creating something out of nothing. We cannot really create, try as we might. We can take existing things and arrange them differently, like taking different paints and arranging them in different ways on a canvas. But we cannot actually create ex-nihilo. Beauty, whatever that might be, exists because God made it exist. It is a reflection of who God is.
“And God saw that it was beautiful…”
After each creative act in Genesis, God proclaims it “good”. At least, that is what you’ll likely read in your translation. However, the Hebrew word for good, can also be translated as beautiful; and in fact, the Septuagint uses the Greek word for beautiful, rather than good. This seems to indicate that God found creation pleasing, not just in an intellectual sense, but pleasing to all the senses. To say it was simply good, in today’s world is, well, not good enough. We don’t accept good enough anymore. But, we do accept beautiful, however we may define it. Indeed, we are caught in a battle of wanting beauty, but not wanting to take the time to consider what it might be.
Think of the most magnificent sunset you’ve ever witnessed or seen. The oranges mixing with the reds mixing with the blue and grey. It is simply magnificent to think twice a day God paints the sky, all over the world. Does He do it to marvel at His own handiwork? Maybe. Why not? The artist is surely allowed to enjoy his own creation. Does He do it for us to be able to know that He is there? I believe so. The beauty of nature, serves as a reassuring sign that the sun rises and sets every day, just as the Lord is trustworthy with His promises.
Natural beauty, being a sure sign of God’s existence and character, has been found worthy of copying by artists for millennia. In paintings on cave walls, on parchment and canvas, God’s beauty has captured our imagination and inspired us to create. From painting to sculpture to poetry to song, we create because we have been given the drive to create something that speaks to us and teaches us. The artists, that special breed of creators who are, historically, particularly concerned with communicating truth through beauty, have been central to the story of God.
In many ways, the story that initially unfolds in Scripture is the story of the distorting of beauty. The desire to discover beauty has not left us however, it has simply been redirected through a broken lens. St. Basil the Great wrote: “By nature men desire the beautiful”. Could it be that along with writing the law on our hearts our, albeit, distorted nature still glows with the light of the imago Dei within us and recognizes beauty as a beacon? A beacon to what we do not know, but it seeks to teach us and to guide us home. We desire beauty because we desire God. Perhaps this is why artists fascinate us so much; or maybe it’s just me. I love creators, someone who can paint a beautiful painting, sculpt a sculpture or turn disorder into the order we call music. Someone who can, using human limitations and spiritual inspiration, create something to help lift us out of ourselves and consider the existence or presence of something higher.
As I write this, I am sitting in a small room inside an Anglican Convent located in Toronto, Canada. Out of my window to my right is a beautiful winter scene. The snow is glistening white, covered in a thin layer of ice. There is a small building, some deciduous trees, naked until the spring brings back their leaves. The room itself has a bed, a rocking chair, a desk and a chair, a side table, a dresser and a sink. Pretty plain but elegant in its simplicity. Comfortable but not distracting. A couple of paintings hand on the walls, depicting spring and winter scenes, and a small crucifix at the end of the bed.
On my desk, I have my bible, some books, a water bottle, this laptop, and a beautiful icon. Not the kind of icons we are used to in our digital age, but a piece of wood on which is written a scene from the Old Testament (icons are not drawn or painted; they are written). You remember the scene from Genesis 18:1-15, where the three strangers appear to Abraham? The scene is properly called The Hospitality of Abraham and was written by Russian Andrey Rublev. It eventually became known as the Old Testament Trinity and depicts three figures gathered around a table and a chalice, with a city, tree, and mountain in the background.
It is beautiful, simple, and profound. It is a two dimensional image hiding the deep mysteries that can be found by meditating on its imagery. There is great intention hidden there. And to be clear, no one worships an icon anymore than I worship a photo of my deceased father. Regardless of what you think of Orthodox theology, this scene I find myself in helps to illustrate for me something that has been troubling me for some time. The intentional lack of beauty in the church today, particularly by those of Anabaptist heritage.
This room is beautiful for its simplicity. It is comfortable without been obtrusive. It is simply here. It asks for no attention, but puts itself at my service. My Bible is beautiful. It has a soft cover that feels good to touch, a font and pagination that makes for comfortable reading, and wide margins for notes. Of course, the message it contains is what is really beautiful. There are the tough passages, full of ugliness, hate and death, but there is that thread of love that permeates and holds the story together. Through it God teaches us how to find beauty in the horrific or the ugly. We find beauty in the very first chapters of scripture. We were created in the image of God, and that image resides in us regardless of our faith. This gives us inherent value and dignity; whether we or anyone else recognizes it, it is there.
Yes, all these things are beautiful, but so is art. When we decided long ago that the “church” didn’t exist in a particular place, we did a near complete 180-degree turn and decided to eradicate anything that made a particular building look any different from any other building. What a tragedy. No cross, no art, no obvious beauty. Sure, some of our buildings are bright and airy and look wonderful when the sun shines in, but how do we engage the senses? What did beauty do to us that we told it to get out, or else?
Like much of our theology, we over corrected to the excesses of the past. Such as in response to when we paid Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel with taxes raised on the backs of the poor. That was a terrible thing for the church to do. Nonetheless, God is in the business of redeeming sinful acts and Michelangelo’s creation has inspired many. I know of someone who, while touring Italy, visited many churches and felt like she finally understood aspects of scripture that until that point had been hidden from her, because of the ancient art contained in those churches. Art is interpretation and in the case of religious art, it is interpreting something most Christians hold to be a source of truth. The painting is not infallible, nor is the artist, but it can help those who have trouble turning words into images, while reading Scripture. Beautiful art can take us out of ourselves and point us into a different direction, namely the Divine.
In her book Art of Spiritual Writing, Vinita Hampton Wright describes the task of the spiritual writer: “The spiritual writer communicates for the sake of uplifting the world, celebrating it, opening its depths, revealing its wonders, and healing its wounds.” How is it, we are okay with spiritual writing, but not spiritual art? The task of the writer is the same for any artist, is it not? Does the world not need uplifting, celebration, and revelation? Why do we insist on limiting the ways in which we will join with God in exposing those joys? Do we stand in the way of the artist who has been given talent and inspiration by God? Do we limit the creativity of God when we limit forms of expression? Speaking of creativity in general, Wright says, “True creativity is a spiritual function, a form of engagement that requires openness, attentiveness, honesty, and desire. These same traits are necessary for spiritual growth and enlightenment”.
“The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both.”
– Proverbs 20:12
Again, I ask, do we limit spiritual growth by limiting its expressions? Do we limit Divine communication to only certain human senses, when God has created them all? While it may be true that a church building is no different than any other building, why then does it hold true that a church building must be like any other building? The university I work for has recently taken possession of a new property, a former Catholic convent. It has one of the most beautiful chapels I have ever worshipped in. It is absolutely stunning. Stained glass windows that tower 56-feet above your head, carved marble markers for the stations of the cross along the walls, and a massive 27-feet tall cross suspended at the front. An amazing aspect of purpose-built chapels like this one is that everything has a purpose. Everything has a story, especially the stained glass. These are not just random collections of images; they have a story to tell. As an example, one of our university students wrote about her experience of our new chapel:
On my first tour through Tyndale University College & Seminary’s Bayview campus I was immediately awestruck by the incredible art and architecture in the Chapel. I walked through this vast room and stared at all of the beautiful French stained glass windows that line the walls. The first picture to catch my eye was of a little elephant, which soon became my favourite and the focal point of my attention each time I was there. It was not until I was handed a Chapel Guide handbook that any of these pictures stood out to me as much as that little elephant first had.
I flipped through the pages of this book and each small picture in the panels was explained, I realized that not only is there a little elephant sitting nicely near the front of the Chapel, but there is also a unicorn, a camel and a whale hiding in the stained glass, each symbolizing one aspect of the Christian faith. It was interesting to me to know that both the elephant and the unicorn are symbols of chastity while the camel symbolizes patience and the whale represents the resurrection. As soon as I read that these other animals could be found in the glass, I went immediately to the Chapel to locate all of these treasures and was determined to walk slowly through the aisles and take in each and every picture individually.
I am not suggesting that we all go out and raise millions of dollars to build an equivalent space, but it does teach us something. When a young woman can write that she was “determined to walk slowly through the aisles and take in each and every picture individually” and learn about what they had to say about Jesus and her faith, isn’t that worth promoting, indeed, protecting.
It is not entirely the church’s fault for rejecting art. Philosopher Roger Scrunton has observed that, whereas the purpose of poetry, art and music used to be beauty, a value seen as important as truth and goodness, now in the 20th century, it has been replaced by originality. “Art now aims to disturb or break moral taboos, no matter the cost. Art and Architecture have becomes soulless and ugly”. The cause of this transition, according to Scrunton is the rise of individualism. Like so many things in our society these days, beauty has become a secondary consideration to whatever highlights the skill, or meets the needs, of the individual. The art is no longer the object worth admiring, only the artist.
“Put usefulness first and lose it. If you put beauty first, then it will last forever.
It turns out useless is useful” – Roger Scruton
Scruton laments the loss of beauty, because as he sees it, beauty “leads us home”, helps us understand ourselves as spiritual beings and shows “human life to be worthwhile”. And it’s not so much that art has vanished, so much as creativity. We’ve stopped trying to make things beautiful. Along with the rise of individualism, we’ve also seen the rise of impatience and a desire for instant gratification. Seriously, how much time does it take to hang a toilet on a wall and call it art? The lack of creativity has made art appear useless. I have toured the Modern Art Museum in Glasgow, Scotland where I found the aforementioned toilet. I do not recall there being a single thing worth contemplating or being in awe of. How can a stupid toilet, hung on a wall, compare to Monet’s Water Lilies, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or DaVinci’s The Last Supper?
Oscar Wilde said “all art is quite useless”, except he meant it as a compliment. Art is useless. It has no use or utility for our world. Its only use is to be useless. We may observe it, contemplate it, let it take our breath away or take our minds to places divine. This seems to have no immediate use for our world. Why should we care about a painting, when there are hundreds of girls kidnapped in Africa, a child sleeping on cardboard in the downtown city core, or children being trained as soldiers? This is why art is useless. It has no obvious utility and our world teaches us that utility is all that matters. I argue however, that we need to dig deeper into our mission as the church, to fully understand why we need art, when it seems so useless. I do not believe that anything is useless if it can help us contemplate the divine or give us hope.
To more clearly understand, in our modern context, what the lack of artistic creativity can lead to, let us consider the scourge of pornography. Sex is awesome, it is a gift from our Lord. Pornography takes everything that is right and holy and good about sexuality and the conjugal union, and turns it inside out and backwards. Whereas in communion we repeat the words of Christ who said, “This is my body, which is given for you”, pornography turns it into a satanic anti-communion that says, “This is your body, which I take for me”. Whereas the original act in the upper chamber with Christ and His disciples was a beautiful act of service, of self-donation, pornography expels beauty and celebrates violent self-interest. If the conjugal act is the ultimate symbol of the union between Christ and His Church, then pornography is the destruction of that entire symbol. Pornography is not just a problem because it is sexist, racist and misogynistic, spreads disease, ends marriages, and uses women who are often trafficked. Even if you solved all those problems, it would still be evil because it degrades the human person created in the image of God and reverses the self-giving, all loving nature of God. Lust promises fulfillment, but instead, “lust, brings ugliness where one treats another as disposable”. Pornography by its nature inherently leads to ugliness, as the participant is drawn ever more down the rabbit hole of despair, searching for the next hit. If pornography brings us closer to an encounter with evil, beauty through art can steer us the other way.
Counter to the “useless” art of beauty, pornography promises to be useful. It promises to cure our feelings of loneliness, detachment, low self-esteem, even if just for a fleeting moment. These are all available through Jesus Christ, but sanctification is often a slow cooker process and it can take longer than we would like to experience change. Not only that, but it distracts those with actual talents, away from a holier calling. This is why useless art, created by the true creative, is so important to the spread of the gospel. It has been said that the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little. Everything it has to offer, is immediately available. There is no depth at all. Contrast that with my icon of the Trinity, and it has such depth, that you could ponder it a lifetime and continually learn new things. How much can you learn from DaVinci, or Michaelangelo, or Monet? There paintings are beautiful on sight, but they have depth. There are layers of meaning, interpretation and significance. There is so much to be gained from true beauty as expressed through art and the true creative process. To my mind, the pornification of our culture, is simply the natural end result of a utilitarian view of beauty and art. It is something to be used and quickly discarded. It is a sacrament of the new religion of individualism. Whereas pornography grants us access to a carnal place, true art can give way to a thin place.
The idea of a thin place, comes to us through the church’s Celtic tradition. It is a place where the veil between earth and the divine was thinner than other places. Witness the transfiguration of our Lord, as described in Matthew 17:1-13. The veil literally breaks open and Jesus stands with Moses and Elijah. Have you ever been in a place where there is something about it that puts you in a state that you just feel the presence of God all the more intensely? You walk a bit more lightly; you speak more softly, if at all. You are aware that there is a presence that was not there a moment ago, or at least, not so acutely.
“It’s easier to say what a thin place is not. A thin place is not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. Disney World is not a thin place. Nor is Cancún. Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”
Does transformation need a particular place? No. It requires a particular saviour and a particular gospel to be alive in your life. But, it can be communicated through art. Gaze on a landscape of God’s creation and wonder at its richness and complexity. Find awe in a painting of the crucifixion of Christ, or the martyrdom of the Apostle Steven. Allow God to speak to you through pictures. It is ok. It is not a sin.
Perhaps the best reason to get back to the use of art to communicate God’s message of love to a broken world is the reality that we do not live in a literate society, but a post-literate one. In the beginning, there was the Word … and He was the only one who knew how to write. Everyone was illiterate. No one knew how to write or read. Eventually, we got to a point where much of the western world knew how to read and write, and we actually did read. We now live in a society where we still know how to read and write, but we do not use it much except for what we judge necessary to get through the day. We do not read as much, and what we do read tends to be superficial. So, we find ourselves capable but underutilizing our skills. This reduces our ability to effectively engage in society as a whole; but, as many studies have borne out, it is also reducing our knowledge of Scripture. Our post-literacy is increasing our illiteracy of Scripture. This is a trend that needs to be reversed, but I think we can at least help by giving Christ-followers something else to focus on, rather than reruns of the Bachelor.
Art can create a thin place where the gap between us and God becomes narrower and where we can learn to love God all over again. And it is not just for His followers, but for seekers in need of an easier entry point to God, rather than a daunting 66 book library. Art is integral to the mission of the church. I am not suggesting we replace the preaching of the Word. It must remain a central part of our lives, but there is no reason to limit ourselves. Indeed, to limit ourselves in such a way may itself be sinful, an act of rebellion. Who are we to deny someone the right to glorify God using the talents they have been given?
“Beauty will save the world.”
– Dostoevsky, The Idiot.
Scripture speaks of God’s beauty many times, including: For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!” Giving God the attribute of “beautiful”, seems to indicate that beauty, like love, emanates from the core of who God is. 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love”. To me this simply tells us that love and beauty are somehow connected, or more likely that one is a visible manifestation of the other; almost sacramental. Jesus death on the cross, the ultimate act of love, can then be seen as a beautiful act of service and sacrifice, even if the immediate image of the act, is horrific. Beauty does in fact save the world. Perhaps, this is why we seem to be born with an appetite for beauty. We crave it. We seek it. It can lead us to God who is love by pointing us ever steadily on the path to knowing Him better. Yes, in our fallen state, it also leads us to pornography and other forms of distorted and counterfeit beauty that promises much in the here and now but always leaves us empty. It does not take us anywhere deeper, for it is inherently shallow. Rather than us going deep into it, it digs deep into us and does everything it can to never let us go. Our quick fix and fast paced world limits our ability to seek the transcendent beauty of a God who saved us all 2000 years ago. The least the church can do is to give the world as many examples of beauty, including through art, as it can, to show God’s depth and richness. Leaving that work to art galleries, not only limits it to those who can afford such extravagance but takes it out of the place where it rightly belongs. The place where we gather weekly and throughout the week. A place for contemplation and peace. A place of shalom.
Scripture does not really give us much in the way of guidelines as to where we should meet and what that place should be. Over the years architecture in general has seen utility take priority to beauty. “Form follows function” is the foundational concept of design, beauty has been relegated to a back seat. It was no longer necessary. As pointed out buy Scruton, “if you only consider utility, a building will eventually become useless”. Now, our places of worship may become useless for other reasons, but if there is one thing that the sad conversion of churches in to condominiums has shown us, it is that their beauty can continue to serve a purpose long after their congregations have left and the last words were preached. Beauty can lead us to adoration and worship; ugliness leads us to lust because we feel deprived and then depraved.
Social justice cannot be attained by violence.
Violence kills what it intends to create.
– Pope John Paul II
We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!
– Pope Francis
When you think of Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin, I imagine you do not think of beauty. And, well you should not. They were men who did unspeakable evils. This evil showed itself in demonstrations of extreme state violence. Thousands were murdered for crimes such as being too smart or being the wrong religion or ethnicity. This is ugly. Violence is not beauty, it is the exact opposite. It is for this reason that I find it astonishing that Anabaptists have not embraced beauty and art more. It is a full frontal assault to the ugliness of violence. Beauty does not cause violence, lust does. Helen of Troy may have had the “face that launched 1000 ships”, but was it beauty or lust that caused that war? The lack of true creativity and beauty in the world has deadened our senses, we need to awaken them again if we are to have a church of awakened people, able to provide an answer to violence and war, who’s language is death. Just as pornography will never deliver what the user is looking for, neither will violence every truly solve or create a solution. Violence is synonymous with death and death, violence death, is not what was intended when God created. We simply become more and more addicted, believing that if we just become a little bit stronger than our enemies, we will eventually prevail.
As Anabaptists well know, this is not the path taught by Christ. We are taught to live counter cultural lives and to pray for our enemies. For the sake of the reader who may not as acquainted with the words of Christ, I print them here from Matthew 5:44 (KJV): “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”. Society is saturating our world with images of lust, death, and exploitation. Worse yet, it is trying to normalize much of it; and it is working. What could be more counter cultural then once again flooding our world with visual beauty. Not to titiliate, but as an invitation to consider that there is another way. There is another answer to violence, another answer to pain, a real hope, that will last and will never separate itself from us. The artistic dimension is there for us to use, to introduce a hurting world to Christ and to help followers to go deeper. God is calling us to reclaim our heritage and use it, to spread the message of love and peace. Perhaps if we do, someone may hear the words “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
– Matthew 11:28
Rest. I worry that Anabaptists are not good at this. We are so focussed on “doing” the works of God, that we find no time to rest ourselves. When do we find time for contemplation? For prayer? Art can provide us a time, place, and way for doing that. Contemplating a scene from Scripture, meditating on its meaning or simply trying to place ourselves in the scene, can help us commune with God in a special way that can give us fuel to carry on the mission. In my experience, Anabaptists are bad at doing this, despite numerous examples of Christ retreating to pray: But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. If you want some suggestions on how to find these times of reflection, I recommend April Yamasaki’s excellent book Sacred Pauses.
… and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills — to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze,
How then shall the church respond in this post-literate, violent, sleeping, and cynical age? Let us begin anew a dialogue with artists of all kinds: painters, sculptors, photographers, and more. Encourage them, disciple them, give them space to create and to bring their own ideas. Encourage those inside and outside the congregation to participate. What a witness and a blessing if the church became known as a champion of the arts! Not in a pompous exclusive way, but in a way that brings glory to God and highlights the needs of the least of these. Art not only links us to our present, but it can also imagine a future. The rich heritage of art throughout Christian history and beyond can link us to our past and remind us of the rich heritage that we have to draw on as we work to fulfill our mission. Art that points to that mission, like an arrow saying this is why we are here, these are the people we are here to help. Anabaptists do not typically use the term “corporal work of mercy”, but it is a great short hand to describe the sacred tasks outlined by Christ in Matthew 25:34-40 – Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. We would also add that we are to be a witness to peace, even unto death. We take those sacred tasks very seriously. Sometimes though, I fear we place so much emphasis on doing those that we forget we also have the responsibility of introducing the world to Christ through those acts. I reflect on Matthew 16:26: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” and believe we have a responsibility greater than the works of mercy. We have the charge to introduce people to Jesus, the great hope of this world. Beauty is a wonderful way, a modern parable in its own right, to introduce people to the Jesus and His message.
Fellow followers of the Way, what gifts are we failing to use for the glory of God and the mission with which we have been entrusted? In the deuterocanonical book 2nd Maccabees, the writer writes: 7 If it were possible for us to paint the history of your religion as an artist might, would not those who first beheld it have shuddered as they saw the mother of the seven children enduring their varied tortures to death for the sake of religion?” What will the artists paint of us? Let us be at the forefront of introducing beauty back to the world. Let us preach the gospel of Christ in every way possible, using the gifts He has so graciously given us. Let us be known as those who not only have “beautiful feet” but whose minds, hands, voices, and eyes create beauty and put it back into a world so hell bound on elevating ugliness in replacement for God.
 Ephesians 3:18 (NIV)
 The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament.
 Many other translations are possible as well.
 Andrew Cuneo, Beauty Will Save the World – But Which Beauty?, http://www.cslewis.org/journal/beauty-will-save-the-world-but-which-beauty/
 Jeremiah 31:33
 Vignette Hampton Wright, The Art of Spiritual Writing (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2013), 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Kaelynne Franck, I Spy With My Little Eye, http://tyndaleblogs.ca/explore/2015/01/i-spy-with-my-little-eye/
 Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters, https://vimeo.com/112655231
 Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray, http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/owilde/bl-owilde-pic-pre.htm
 Luke 22:19 (NASB)
 Ibid., Why Beauty.
 I am indebted to Mark Groleau for reminding me of this concept, on his podcast, WikiGod. http://www.wikigodpod.com/home/7
 Eric Weiner, Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?_r=2
 Zechariah 9:17a (ESV)
 Ibid., Why Beauty.
 Pope Francis, Vigil of Prayer for Peace: Words of Holy Father Francis, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130907_veglia-pace.html
 Romans 8:38-39
 Ephesians 5:14 (NIV)
 Luke 5:16 (NIV)
 April Yamasaki, Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal (Waterloo: Herald, 2013)
 Romans 10:15