Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Music and the Objectivity of Beauty

I’m sitting at the train station waiting for 9:30 to arrive when the tickets for London become cheaper, so it seems a good time to jot down some comments on music and the objectivity of beauty. We got into a great discussion after church last Sunday about music. Can you say that certain music is “evil”? And if so, is it only the words that make such a verdict possible? Can any style of music be written for the glory of God? These were some of the questions we were discussing.

I’d like to begin, by way of a “throat clearing exercise” by briefly discussing the concept of beauty. Our era tends to give unquestioning acceptance to the truism that beauty exists in the eye of the beholder. Even Christians who would resist relativism very strongly in ethics (“what is good for you might not be good for me”) or truth (“what is true for you might not be the same as what is true for me”) nevertheless collapse into relativism when it comes to aesthetics (“what is beautiful to you might be different to what is beautiful for me.”)

One alternative to this aesthetic relativism is to say that beauty is an objective quality that describes how things truly are in God’s creation. From this standpoint, saying that a certain symphony is beautiful or that something else is ugly music is just as true as making accurate statements about what key it is in, what its time signature is, and so on. (Speaking of time signatures, I woke up the other night from a vivid dream about a very jerky song written in 7/8 time. Upon waking I realized that I had never heard of a song written in that time signature, if it even exists in the world outside weird dreams – anyone know?)

If we are to be consistent with our Christian worldview, it does seem that we are committed, at least in principle, to predicating some degree of objectivity to both beauty and aesthetic judgments.

Consider, throughout Scripture we find that the Lord puts a premium on beauty and on the aesthetic dimension of life. For example, when the Lord gives instructions for building the Temple, the Lord’s design is beautiful and includes aesthetically pleasing specimens of representational and abstract art. As the Psalmist says, “Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.” (Ps. 96:6) Throughout Scripture the Lord delights to describe physically pleasing women and clothing, and He doesn’t hesitate to pronounce these things as being beautiful.

In a minute I will explain how this helps to establish the objectivity of beauty and how this, in turn, helps to inform the discussion of music. But first, consider two more points. First, the Lord’s creation reveals that He is a masterful artist, since He has filled every continent with beauty beyond compare. When Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1), it is the beauty and majesty of God’s creation to which the Psalmist refers. On the seventh day, when the Lord admired everything He had made, it is clear that He was exercising His aesthetic sense. Despite the ugliness sin has brought to the world, the beauty of God’s artistry remains evident. All this shows that beauty is important to the Lord.

Consider secondly that beauty is part of the nature or character of the Trinitarian God. A simple word search in a concordance will reveal that many of the places where Scripture speaks about beauty it is in relation to the Lord Himself.  In numerous places the Bible refers to “the beauty of the Lord our God” (Ps 27:4; 90:17), “the beauty of [God’s] holiness” (1 Chron 16:29; Ps. 29:2), and so on.  God shines on His people as “the perfection of beauty” (Ps. 50:2) while the beauty of His holiness is an object of praise (2 Chron. 20:21). It follows from these and other passages that beauty is an aspect of who God is. It is part of His character.

Now how do these Biblical realities help us to establish the objectivity of beauty? Quite simply, in order for beauty to be important to the Lord it must exist objectively. After all, the Lord could not say in the Psalms that creation actually declares His beautiful handiwork if the difference between beauty and ugliness is merely in the eye of the beholder. If the relativist view of beauty is correct, then all the Psalmist could say is that creation declares God’s beautiful handiwork to me, but if someone else finds no beauty in God’s creation, that is just as valid an assessment.

In short, if beauty has no objective existence, then when God pronounces that something is beautiful (i.e., His temple, His holiness, His creation), then that is just God’s opinion and it has no more primacy than the opinion of Richard Clark down the road. As Christians, such a position is unacceptable since the Bible commits us to affirming that whatever God believes is, by definition, absolute objective truth.

Oh, time for my train now...

Ok, I’m sitting on the train now and continuing. (Those who have read my series at Alfred the Great on the objectivity of beauty will see that I am condensing arguments I developed there)
 
This conclusion of the last section (that beauty is an objective quality) can also be reached through scripture’s teaching that beauty is an aspect of God’s character and a central feature of His holiness. It should be axiomatic that if God exists at all, then the attributes of His deity must necessarily be objective. Since this is true of creatures (if an elephant objectively exists, then all the essential properties which make the elephant what it is must also necessarily exist), how much more must it be true of God. Therefore the attributes of God, including His beauty, must necessarily be an objective quality.

Because human beings are made in the image of the Trinitarian God, every person has an imperfect yet genuine awareness of the difference between beauty and ugliness, just as every person has a genuine but imperfect awareness that there is a difference between right and wrong. Because we are images of God, the awareness of objective beauty is innate to us as human beings; because we are fallen, that awareness is imperfect and subject to distortion and corruption. Later on we will discuss some of the factors which distort and corrupt this awareness.

We have seen that the objectivity of beauty can be inferred from Biblical teaching. But this is something very different to saying that the Bible delineates to us a clear criteria for arbitrating between beauty and ugliness. There are no Ten Commandments of aesthetics in the Bible.

To say that a piece of music is beautiful may be just as true as saying that it lasts between five and eight minutes (depending on how fast the performer plays it), yet the latter and not the former can be measured and proven. If someone disagreed on the length of the piece, we could always get out a timer and measure it. But if someone disagrees that Schubert’s Trout Quintet is gloriously beautiful beyond words, there is no concrete or abstract measuring tape we can pull out to prove otherwise.

So does that mean that in practice at least, everything is up for grabs and the whole show is just subjective?

Not quite, and here’s why. First, there are some very basic and general aesthetic principles that can be inferred by studying what the Bible teaches about the Lord’s character. For example, since the Bible reveals that God is not a God of aggression, decadence, chaos, disorder and frustration, one could cogently argue that music which promotes these qualities as ends in themselves, is clearly contrary to the character of God and, therefore, ugly by definition. Now this does not necessarily mean that we shouldn’t listen to ugly music, but simply that we can, in principle, categorize music in these terms based on the revealed characteristics of God Himself. (See my earlier article "Is Certain Music Sinful?")

However, beyond these very general considerations, the Bible does not give us much direct guidance for determining whether Chopin was a better composer than Bach, or whether Michael Jackson’s music is inferior to Van Morrison. Thus, to say that there is an objective truth about beauty is not to imply that we can always know what that truth is. Only God knows absolutely what is beautiful. It seems reasonable to assume that human beings, even sanctified human beings, will always have disagreements about aesthetics.

But while it is true that the Bible does not give us a well defined set of parameters for determining what is beautiful, this does not mean that beauty is subjective, any more than the fact that the Bible does not give us a yardstick for determining which objects are green obliges us to believe that the perception of colors is purely relative. In both these areas (colors and aesthetics), the Lord has given us the faculties of perception by which we may acquire such information.

Just as our color vision is brought to life by experience, likewise our beauty vision is brought alive by experience.  Just as someone who was raised in a colorless room would never know the difference between blue and pink, so someone raised in an environment with little or no beauty will never cultivate an appreciation and love for what is beautiful.

Or we might compare it to taste in food: a girl who has grown up all her life eating food from McDonald’s will not suddenly know how to distinguish and enjoy the differences of various herbs or to discriminate between the subtle flavors inherent in different varieties of oranges. A teenager who has been played nothing but heavy metal music since he was twelve will require quite a lot of training and nurture before he will be able to distinguish and enjoy the difference between Bach and Handel or between Mozart and Haydn.

It follows that to say God has implanted us with an innate sense of beauty does not mean that it works automatically in everyone. Just as one’s sense of taste needs to be nurtured before it can function properly, so the sense of beauty also needs careful nurturing.

The same principle governs our innate sense of right and wrong, otherwise known as the conscience. Scripture tells us what happens when an individual, or even a whole culture group, constantly denies the inclinations of the conscience by despising God’s laws: the conscience ceases to function, or at least ceases to function very well (Romans 1:28; 1 Tim. 4:2). The sense of beauty can also cease to function when our minds are bombarded with trash, ugliness and decadence.

The uglifying influences of our society often have the effect of desensitizing our beauty-vision. The way to guard against this is to nurture our children to appreciate beauty. This is done, not merely by saying “this or that is beautiful and ought to be enjoyed.” Rather, the way to cultivate a love of beauty is to saturate a child’s environment with truly beautiful things, whether it be good literature, music, art, etc., at the same time as excluding what is ugly, banal and of poor quality. Regular exposure to beauty in this way will can work to awaken the child’s God-given inner sense.

This same point can be expressed philosophically by saying that knowledge which is a priori (innate) and knowledge which is a postoriori (derived from experience) go hand in hand. The one cannot exist without the other, for without a priori awareness, experience would be unintelligible, and without experience, what is innate could never be awakened.

Thus, to return to my example of someone who disagrees that Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet is beautiful, the way to respond is to awaken their beauty-vision. But suppose someone hasn’t been raised to appreciate beauty?  Suppose they are beauty-blind like some people are color blind – is there anything you can do to help such a person? Yes, and I again return to the example of colors.

If someone cannot see a traffic light in front of them, what do we do? We direct their gaze in a certain direction. Even then it may still be true that they do not see the traffic light due to an impediment in their vision. Some impediments are correctable – for example, by wearing glasses – while some are not – for example, due to blindness.

Similarly with beauty. If someone doesn’t appreciate that a piece of music is beautiful, we have to direct their gaze in the right direction. They may still not be able to see the beauty if there are various factors inhibiting their beauty-vision, which must be corrected.  Such impediments might include ignorance, prejudice, inexperience, stubbornness, haste, and so forth.  After these obstacles have been cleared away then, assuming there is no remaining impediment (such as madness), it becomes easier to awaken their beauty-vision.

How do we direct someone’s gaze in the right direction?  One way is by getting the person to see or hear the beautiful artwork in a new way. You could start by encouraging the person to notice factual things about the work, such as that the movement begins in C major but then modulates to G, or that the figures in the top left corner of the painting mirror activity that is happening in the bottom right, or that the cello is echoing the violin, or that in those days brass had royal associations (“and therefore you can just imagine the king marching by when you hear the trumpet, can’t you?”).

Other facts might include information about the background of the work, the artistic context, how the work conformed or didn’t conform to the dominant conventions of the day, the intention of the artist, and so on. For myself, knowing that the brass in Mozart’s Magic Flute was intended to give a royal sound, or that in Bach and Handel’s day the oboe and flute were reminiscent of the rustic bagpipe and shepherd’s pipe, greatly informs and enhances my aesthetic response. Facts like this can help a person to view an artwork from the inside, so to speak, like learning to speak a new language.

These sorts of factual observations about an artwork I will call Level 1 observations. After we have helped a person to understand facts about the artwork (Level 1), we can begin to show how aesthetic properties flow out of these factual observations. Aesthetic properties are characteristics such as elegance, poise, heaviness, drama, clumsiness, glibness, humor, smoothness, etc. To enjoy or to blame an artwork, a person must be able to perceive these types of qualities. If a person does not perceive these or other aesthetic features, they need to be shown how those qualities arise out of Level 1 factual observations. For example, “the lines make this painting graceful,” “the shift of key creates a tension,” “the rhyming pattern is witty,” “the color scheme is somber,” “the way she entered the stage was graceful,” etc.  In each of these examples, an aesthetic judgment (represented by the words in italics) arise out of the non-aesthetic factual features (Level 1). These aesthetic judgments form what I am calling “Level 2 observations.”

The next stage is Level 3.  After first pointing out factual features about the artwork (Level 1) and then the aesthetic properties which arises from those features (Level 2), we need to help the person make an overall verdict of praise or blame. This is where our category of beauty comes into play.

Beauty is kind of tricky because it can apply both to level 2 and level 3. On the one hand, it is one of many positive verdicts which arise from a work’s aesthetic features when we are at level 3. This is because the quality of beauty encompasses so many other aesthetic qualities that we can sometimes speak of it as shorthand for the aggregate of aesthetically pleasing properties possessed by a work, so that saying a work is beautiful is to give it a positive verdict. On the other hand, it is still important to remember that technically beauty is one among many positive aesthetic predicates, including some positive aesthetic predicates that beauty is incompatible with, such as those predicates which emerge out of an artistic and even painful rendition of suffering in the world . Having made that qualification, let us continue with our discussion of level 3. Besides offering the verdict that 'this work is beautiful' other possible verdicts might include statements like “that poem is worthless,” “that sculpture is magnificent,” “his opera is simply glorious,” or "Thomas Kinkade's paintings are escapist, utterly sentimental and therefore preach a lie about the human condition."  Our choice of an appropriate verdict-adjective will often depend on what type of aesthetic properties the assessment is based upon, not least because many verdict-adjectives overlap with certain aesthetic properties. For example, “majestically glorious” describes something different than “stunningly beautiful,” although glorious and beautiful are both descriptions connoting positive overall judgments. These overall judgments (Level 3) proceed out of the aesthetic properties (Level 2) which, in turn, proceed out of the factual features (Level 1) inherent in a work. So a negative level 3 verdict about Thomas Kinkade's paintings might begin by noting the factual reality (Level 1) that there are never any shadows in his paintings or that you can never tell whether it is evening or morning.

Sometimes the whole process works the other way around: after pronouncing an overall verdict, we support it by looking at Levels and 2.  A good critic may help us to see, hear or feel aesthetic features of the work and only afterwards  show how the non-aesthetic properties contribute to the effect. They can show us how the valuable features of a work depend on the fine details of the texture; how, for example, this word, or that color patch, or that chord is essential to the overall effect.  It is the task of the critic, like the poet, teacher or writer, to help us to see things in a different way, to bring alive the beauty that was present all along but that  somehow we missed.

This does not deny that after taking a person through the above procedures, he may still “just not get it,” or there may still be significant aesthetic disagreement. Even then, however, it is likely that if a person is taught in the above way, he will have grown to appreciate that which he might still refrain from praising. Furthermore, being educated about an artwork allows the individual to make an informed statement of why he doesn’t like something or where he thinks the critics have gone wrong, and then to intelligently compare and contrast it with other examples from the same genre that he would prefer.

All this runs directly counter to the popular idea that either you like something or you don’t, with the attendant assumption that our tastes are fixed like the colors of our eyes. Just as we may grow in wisdom, so we may (and as Christians should) grow in our aesthetic sensibilities. Just as we can and should aspire to grow in our appreciation for what is good and true, we can and should aspire to grow in our appreciation for what is beautiful.

Notice the implications here. By establishing that aesthetic growth is possible, which I just have, I have also furnished material for yet another argument for the objectivity of beauty. Before showing how such is the case, it may be helpful to review some of the ground we have covered so far. I have suggested that there are the following three Levels of remarks about artworks.

•    Non-aesthetic remarks. “The first movement is in C major.”

•    Aesthetic remarks. “The modulations for dynamic.” Words such as the following: witty, jolly, balanced, bland, graceful, expressive, garish, sentimental, clumsy, etc.

•    Remarks of overall verdict. “The symphony is magnificent.” “The oil painting is worthless.” “The sonnet is beautiful.”

I suggested that these three Levels are related. Remarks from Level 1 lead one into making remarks about Level 2, while remarks about Level 2 lead one into making remarks about Level 3. Often it works backwards: after pronouncing an overall verdict, we double back to support it. In either case, one cannot deduce an aesthetic description from a non-aesthetic one: you have to see it for yourself (or, in the case of music, hear it for yourself).

Discrimination and judgment in the arts are, therefore, matters of perception. To appreciate the gracefulness of a painting, we have to perceive the gracefulness; to appreciate the expressive emotional quality in a piece of music, we have to perceive that quality when we listen to it. Since discrimination in the arts is a matter of perception, it follows that it is not something one can be argued into any more than one can be persuaded that there are traffic lights. Although reasons cannot be given to justify the proposition that a picture is well balanced, we can give reasons to explain the source of the balance, and these reasons will rest on perception.

Some people use the fact that aesthetic appreciation is a matter of perception to try to prove that all aesthetic judgments must be subjective. However, the shoe is actually on the other foot, for understanding the role that perception plays in aesthetic judgments furnishes a powerful argument for the objectivity, not only of all aesthetic qualities, but all the merit predicates (including beauty) which arise from those qualities.

Consider that a statement is normally said to be objective if there is a way of getting people to see that the statement is true. Now formal proof or argument is not the only way to get someone to see that something is true – one can see the truth of some statements by observation/perception. The fact that I cannot argue people into seeing that the sky is blue does not establish that the sky’s blueness is subjective, nor that I have no rationally defensible way of getting people to see that it is. All I have to do is direct someone’s gaze upward and they will see that the sky is blue (assuming that it is).

Perceptual judgments do report objective truths, whether it is that the sky is blue or that the symphony sounds lovely.

It may be helpful to push the analogy with color a bit further. Our objective color language did not come about because we proved that certain things were colored and then devised a language for talking about that. Rather, our color language came about because we observed colors in the real world. At the same time, we gradually began to recognize that certain things can impede someone’s perception of color. The color language rests on the agreement among those who are capable of making certain sorts of visual distinctions and do not suffer from impairment.

In a similar way, it came about that human beings started to respond in certain ways to different kinds of objects, saying they were graceful, witty, elegant, garish, expressive, and so forth. This probably happened fairly early on in man’s history because just as God’s creative activity involves His own aesthetic enjoyment, as God enjoys the fruits of his own creativity (Gen 1:31), so the creative activity of those who are made in God’s images involves aesthetic appreciation. As we read through the Genesis narrative, we find different family groups taking dominion of different areas, and some of these areas were aesthetic. We are told, for example, in Genesis 4:21 that Jubal who was descended from Cain was “the father of all those who play the harp and flute, just as Jabal was “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.” (Gen. 4:20). Exploiting the earth’s resources to build pianos, cellos, orchestras and recording equipment is a way of fulfilling the dominion mandate and the cultural mandate and is, therefore, part of our calling as image-bearers of God.

Suffice to say, the Genesis account gives us every reason for assuming that probably very early on in man’s history, human beings started to respond in certain ways to different kinds of aesthetically pleasing objects. As history progressed, our aesthetic judgments became more refined, sophisticated and differentiated. We began to describe objects as being graceful, witty, elegant, garish, expressive, and so forth. And as with color, where someone’s vision can be obscured through color blindness, we recognized that certain factors can disqualify a person’s judgment: haste, impairment of organs, ignorance, prejudice, shallowness, etc.

Our own society is filled with influences that actively distort our God-given beauty-vision so that it may seem as if some people have no innate sense of the difference between beauty and ugliness. It is possible to imagine our society becoming so decadent that only a few people are able to appreciate true beauty any more. If that does happen (heaven help us!), it would be like the current situation with wine tasting, where there are only a small minority of experts who can make extremely subtle perceptual discriminations (for example, detecting the differences of flavor within bottles from the same vintage).

The fact that the majority are unable to make the correct perceptual discriminations does not mean that everything is subjective. In fact, we could go further. Even if there comes a time when no person on the entire planet is capable of recognizing the characteristics of certain wines or the sight of certain colors or the difference between beauty and ugliness, these properties would still have just as objective an existence as they currently enjoy. The perversion of taste, whether physical or aesthetic, does not open the floodgates to relativism.

Because aesthetics is a matter of perceiving what is objectively out there, we rightly describe aesthetic disagreements as one person failing to “see” what another person sees.  Our knowledge of beauty, like our knowledge of truth, is genuine even though it is partial and incomplete; and, because it is partial, some people will miss things that others see.  For creatures who perceive everything, as it were, “through a glass darkly,” this is to be expected. Also, because we are fallen images of God, it is a fact of life that what one person perceives as beautiful another person may not.

This does not mean that beauty is relative, for again we do not normally consider that disagreement about perception, even when widespread, means that everything becomes ambiguous. For example, suppose I give each of my dinner guests two glasses of wine, each from a different vintage. I ask each guest to guess which wine is from which vintage. Suppose further that there is widespread disagreement amongst my guests – they argue and argue but cannot reach a consensus as to which wine is which. Now such disagreement does not mean that the case ceases to have any objective bearing. Even if none of the guests is able to make the correct perceptual discriminations, an objective answer is nonetheless possible.

In the same way, it is not sufficient to assert that widespread disagreement on aesthetic matters undermines the objectivity of beauty. If a thing is objectively beautiful, that is a fact as solid as that the world is round. Now just as the world would still be round even if there were no one to recognize that fact (and even if everyone erroneously believed in a flat earth), so a beautiful sunset is still beautiful even if there is no one  to see and affirm its beauty. This is because God sees the sunset, knows it is beautiful, and He is the ultimate source of all beauty.

We saw earlier that the perception of objective beauty could be obscured by various factors and conditions. The rejection of the Biblical worldview seems to be one of those factors. Before defending this statement, it is necessary to explain what I am not saying. I am not saying that you have to be a Christian in order to appreciate beauty. I am also not saying that being a Christian automatically enhances one’s aesthetic sensibilities. But what I do want to suggest is that there is a broad link between our culture’s rejection of the Biblical worldview and our culture’s progressive rejection of beauty.

Many of the aesthetic norms which have characterized Western society have come as a direct result of the Christian worldview being deeply saturated in the fabric of our cultural ethos. Although the doctrine of the image of God as well as the doctrine of God’s common grace mean that unbelievers are capable of producing artifacts which truly reflect divine beauty, over a long period of time non-Christian cultures generally tend towards ugliness –  a corollary of the relativism necessitated by the rejection of any final standard of truth. A world without God is an ugly and frightening place. Indeed, if there is no God, then beauty is but a transitory parenthesis in a world in which the ugliness of chance, chaos and death have the final say over all of us. Medieval cathedrals, with their spires pointing to the heavens, were the appropriate artistic outworking of the Trinitarian worldview, while nihilistic art, with its hopelessness and celebration for the ugly is a consistent outworking of a world without God.

Conversely, over long periods of time Christian cultures tend to increase in beauty.  That is what happened in the Christian West, which gave rise to the symphony, polyphonic harmony, perspective in painting and many other developments that have made the world a different place, to say nothing of specific creative geniuses from Bach to Michelangelo, from Shakespeare to Beethoven.  Some of these men may not have been believers, but they lived, worked and breathed in a civilization that was built (albeit imperfectly) on the Christian worldview. Whether or not every great composer, artist or poet explicitly acknowledged that worldview, they worked on the basis of presuppositional aesthetic norms which arose out of the West’s Christian orientation. Long after our society threw off this heritage, these norms continued to operate like a lizard’s tail which continues to twitch even after it has been severed from the body. But a severed lizard’s tail will not twitch forever.

What is happening in our society today, and has been happening very gradually for some time now, is that our art and our ideas about aesthetics are finally catching up with the collective worldview.  As the nihilism birthed by both modernism and postmodernism has begun to seep into the very air that we breath, beauty has become one of the chief casualties. The result is that our world has become a very ugly place. The twentieth century witnessed the creation of a corpus of works, including much music, designed specifically to show that beauty, if it exists at all, is relative to the framework of the perceiver. Some art galleries intentionally juxtapose work from the great artists of the Western tradition with nihilistic art, the message being obvious: there is no essential difference between the two. As one artist was quoted as saying, “You complain that my art is just bricks. Well, painting is just paint.” Since beauty never did have any objective meaning, according to this theory, it is possible for contemporary artists to claim the great works of the past as their pedigree. There is no essential difference between the works of Raphael and the works of Francis Bacon.

It is more than mere coincidence that as society has gradually accepted the idea that beauty is  subjective, it has also produced some of the most repulsive, anti-beautiful art ever witnessed. Anecdotal evidence for the self-conscious pursuit of hideousness in art is legion and hardly need be adduced. One need only reflect on the Chapman brothers – that notorious duo who are rich enough to buy paintings of great masters, and decadent enough to deface and then exhibit what is left of the masterpiece. Granted that the Chapman brothers are extreme and, in some respects, non-representative, yet the conceptual framework underpinning their pursuits is typical. That conceptual framework is not that people have grown tired of beauty and desire ugliness instead, but that the very concept of beauty is itself without objective meaning. This is why Theodor Adorno praised Schoenberg’s music. “All of its beauty,” wrote Adorno, “is in denying itself the illusion of beauty. . . .”
But this is good news for Christians, since it presents us with an enormous opportunity. In the midst of the shallow ugliness that relativism has birthed in our society, the church of today has the marvelous opportunity to corporately witness to the beauty of God’s holiness. We should be people of beauty, just as we pray to be people of goodness, truth and righteousness.

To a world that is slipping into ever deeper degrees of ugliness, a rediscovery of Biblical aesthetics is necessarily at the heart of our spiritual warfare and evangelism. For too long the church has evangelized with Gnostic aspirations, thinking we must appeal simply to a person’s spirit or the mind instead of seducing the whole person with the loveliness of Christ’s Kingdom, confirming Nietzsche’s complaint that modern Christianity is anemic, opposed to life rather than an affirmation of life. Believing that God is only interested in disembodied souls, we have retreated from a central aspect of the good news.

The gospel is the message that Jesus Christ has saved the world from death. One way that we can show this is by letting the gospel confront whatever aspects of the death-principle are most prevalent in our age.  Since our age manifests the death-principle in, among other things, excessive degrees of ugliness, it follows that the articulation of beauty – in word, deed, music, drama, worship, dance and all the arts – is not an optional extra for the church, but a central feature in our annunciation of Christ’s Lordship. Through our artifacts, lives, homes, churches and all our other kingdom-building endeavors, we can and should constantly be announcing the beauty of the God we worship.  Our prayer should be that of Psalm. 90:17: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”

This project is only possible with a clear understanding of the objectivity of beauty. If we subscribe to the notion that beauty merely exists in the eye of the beholder, our witness as Christians will be severely diminished.

For further reading, see my series at Alfred the Great Society 'The Objectivity of Beauty.'
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