Sunday, October 05, 2008

My Essay for Christianity Today on Beauty


Here's the essay I wrote for Christianity Today mag via the Christian Vision Project. One bit of it goes like this:
"I submit, then, that when we present a gospel that ignores or devalues beauty, we not only present a small gospel but also a distorted gospel, because it misrepresents our God.
The God whom we preach can end up not looking like the Word made radiant flesh, but like the Word who belongs to a Mensa club. He has the answers, all of which are true, but with no real presence. He is the Right Idea who looks nothing like the resplendent, technicolor Son of Man—"hair a blizzard of white, voice a cataract, face a perigee sun"—whose beauty captivated the heart of St. John.
Likewise, instead of the Good Shepherd whom Mary of Bethany leisurely beheld, we can easily find ourselves following a worker-of-the-month carpenter, a driven good-doer who gets plenty accomplished for the kingdom, but who looks like a far cry from the transfigured Glory whom the early church fathers called the 'everlasting desire of nations'...."

I'm sure I'll get the kind of feedback that wonders why I didn't answer this or that question. For example, doesn't Isaiah 53:2 say that "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us?" Well yes it does. But to go from Isaiah's figure of the Suffering Servant to Jesus-as-physically-unattractive is an olympic jump that may not be warranted from the context. This may in fact be one of our worst proof-text cases in run-of-the-mill Christian conversation.

In any case, my point is simply to say that, yes, there are many dimensions and questions about beauty that I could not address in a 2,000-word piece of writing. I'm aware of many of them. I'm also aware of the shortcomings of the essay. My encouragement is to keep in mind the smallish objective of my essay: to argue for the idea of beauty as evocative of longing. What happens after that is thoroughly un-simplistic.
I've written further thoughts on the subject here:

On Beauty: Axiom #4: Your Job is not to Make Pretty

On Beauty and the Art of Schooling: Part 1

On Beauty and the Art of Schooling: Part 2

For those interested in making a more serious investigation of the idea of beauty, I recommend the following resources for starters:

1. The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. This is a multi-author volume that came out of a Wheaton College theology conference a couple of years ago. It includes chapters by Jeremy Begbie, Bruce Herman, Roger Lundin and a very fine essay on poetry by Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner.

2. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Art and Beauty, by Richard Viladesau, a Catholic theologian teaching at Fordham U.

3. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, edited by Gesa E. Thiessen and which contains some excellent excerpts on beauty from the early church fathers.

4. And if you are very ambitious and keen to plow through high-level florid language, I recommend The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart, a prodigious Eastern Orthodox theologian.

As more lighter fare but still refreshing, here's an op-ed by Chuck Colson on ugly church buildings and the goodness of beauty for beauty's sake: here.

For all you coffee connoisseurs, go here for a beautiful take on splashing milk.

On the contemporary philosophical front, there's this for an appetizer:

"For the 20 centuries between Plato and Kant, the study of beauty was a signature concern of philosophy. Recently, however, beauty has largely been dropped from the philosophical curriculum. The story of how this has come to pass is inseparable from a broader story about how philosophy itself has become so hopelessly professionalized. Contemporary philosophers, preoccupied with their small quarrels, have abandoned the discussion of beauty to the likes of Elaine Scarry and Denis Donoghue and their colleagues in art and English departments. It should come as little surprise, then, that beauty has been smuggled back into philosophy by Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, whose previous books have made wideranging inquiries into what he calls 'the art of living'."

Alright, I'll leave it at that for now. If you know of any other interesting commentary on beauty, feel free to let the rest of us know.

The artwork posted is by the French contemporary sacred artist Jean-Marie Pirot, affectionately known as Arcabas. His work is beautiful and fresh. See here for an introduction to the man and his work.

6 comments:

Heather said...

I'm reading The Beauty of God now and am loving it!

Heather said...

Also, have you seen Baker's new book, God in the Gallery>? Looks interesting. I'm afraid I'll have to wait to read it. It's going on my Christmas list since I've put a book moratorium on myself.

w. david o. taylor said...

Heather, I've glanced at the book cover and witnessed a friendly flurry of promotional activity on Facebook. I hope it does well. One book at a time, I tell myself; unless it's bedtime and then it's six books at a time.

Jim Janknegt said...

Thanks for pointing to Arcabas; I like his paintings very much. Where did you find out about this guy? I ma amazed at finding someone of this high quality who has been working for say 50 years or say and can stay so well concealed, due to the subject matter he paints, I suppose.

w. david o. taylor said...

Jim, it was Michele Trepagnier who put me on to him. Strange, hey, how some people don't show up on the general radar. It makes you wonder how many other similar artists are out there, hidden for the most part, making beauty that few will see.

florrie said...

Thanks for listing some resources on the subject matter. I intend on looking through them in the near future. I am also looking forward to meeting you in person this Saturday at my church's art show.