Beauty will Save the World...

I spent years as a child attending mass at my Roman Catholic School.  Each week we entered a church, fragrant with with candles and hints of incense.  Before us were statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and a statue of Christ crucified, as well as a priest wearing colorful robes.  Surrounding us were dazzling stained glass windows depicting numerous Biblical stories and saints and Christian symbols, much of which I did not understand...but it clearly meant something.

Later in my youth I joined a fervently evangelical Baptist Church.  Many evangelical churches - especially those with roots in the Puritan and Anabaptist traditions - have mostly eschewed iconography and art...though it does have a way of sneaking in from time to time anyway.
Indeed, when the church I attended remodeled its sanctuary (about the time I moved away for college), I was pleased to see that they replaced their opaque purple windows with far more colorful and attractive stained glass windows, each with identical images of the Cross.

These two churches point toward the different approaches Christians have taken to sacred art.  Some Christians (those in the Puritan traditions) have looked with suspicion on all sacred art as potential idols that break the Second Commandment, which says: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image [or 'idol']...you shall not bow down to them..." (Exodus 20:4-5).

Other Christians have pointed out that later in the Book of Exodus itself God instructs his people to build a beautiful tabernacle of Gold and fine cloth and carpentry in which to worship Him, complete with images of plants and angels and golden statues of angels as well.  These Christians (including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and others) have to varying degrees embraced sacred art as an important reminder of the creativity and beauty of God.

I too have come to believe that works of artistic Beauty actually have profound theological significance.  You may note that this is a theme running through my recent posts since the Notre Dame fire.

Not only do I believe works of Beauty have profound theological significance, but also that they will be an important pointer to the reality of God for some who may not be swayed by Reason or logical arguments for God's existence.

I've heard that Dostoyevsky, a Christian author who wrote the profound and theologically significant novel Brothers Karamazov (among others), once said "Beauty will save the world."  I think there is truth in that.

In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created the Heavens and the earth and all that is in them. "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).  The word for "good" in the Greek version of the Old Testament that was used by many of the early Churches is 'kalos' which means "good, excellent, and beautiful."

But no one who has ever gazed upon the stars, or stood on the rim of a great canyon, or watched the setting sun needs a Greek or Hebrew word study to tell them that God's creation is beautiful and that He is a wondrous creator.  And note: Man was formed in God's image, which accounts for our tendency to create beautiful things as well.  J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Christian whose magnificent work The Lord of the Rings contains a great many Christian themes, quite consciously saw his work in creating a fictional world as a reflection, however small and imperfect, of the world-creating work of the Living God whose image Tolkien was created to bear.

We have a good and beautiful God who creates a good and beautiful world (though it later became distorted by sin), and he populated it with people created to bear his own image who are themselves blessed with great creativity and love to make wondrous art to the glory of God.  This is why Christians across the ages have written amazing works of literature, composed lovely music, crafted intricate statues and gorgeous stained-glass windows, painted icons, built inspiring sanctuaries and cathedrals.

Even among Churches of the more Puritan traditions you will almost invariably find quite handsome pulpits and very nice leather-bound Bibles with gold-gilt page edges, and will hear lovely hymns being sung, which are all types of sacred art.  We humans cannot get away from this because we are embodied creatures who are creative by nature.

Fr. Patrick Smith, an Anglican priest who was a mentor to me in college (in explaining why his own Episcopal Church put such emphasis on beauty and artistic excellence, and was willing to commit resources to them) pointed out that God certainly does not disapprove of the material world or physical beauty - in fact he created it; and in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ he brought the very Life of God into the world of material stuff, transforming it forever.

This is the theological basis for embracing sacred art.

But such an embrace of beauty also strengthens the mission of the Church as well, which brings me back to the quote from Dostoyevsky: 'Beauty will save the world.'

There are many compelling logical arguments to believe in God.  Yet Beauty has a persuasive power that transcends logic and reason; Beauty has the power to resonate with us on a very deep level; beauty stirs our longing for Him who is the fount of all the beautiful things, the source of all songs and wonder.  We glory in all this beautiful sacred art not simply for its own sake, but also because it serves as a pointer to Him whose life is forever a Dance of supremely Beautiful, Sacred, and Divine Love.

It is into that Triune Dance that we are called by the same Christ who is also the true Way for us to get there.

I had an experience a few years ago that powerfully brought this all together for me (again).  I went with a group from the church I was pastoring to Saint Joseph's Abbey in Covington, Louisiana for a quiet retreat.  Our group was invited by the monks to join with them in chanting the Psalms at their prayer offices sprinkled throughout the day.
On our last night of the retreat, a storm rolled in after we had attended Vespers (Evening Prayer) and eaten dinner.  At first there was no rain, only a howling wind, and distant flashes of lightening and sounds of rumbling thunder.  I decided to walk to the glorious Abbey Church rather early before Compline (Late-Night Prayer), in order to beat the rain.  I found the church very dark - lit by a single candle in the sanctuary - with flashes outside occasionally lighting up the whole place.  When the rain started it came down hard and loud.  I sat down to pray and, after a few minutes in the quiet, turned on my MP3 player, and this is what I heard (close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in the vast, dark Abbey, with the storm raging outside):

Actually, the exact recording I heard was this one (which is even better, but has an annoying commercial before it).

I tell you, this experience was like another conversion.  In that moment I felt that even had I been a militant atheist I would have been converted to faith in Christ by the sheer transcendent beauty of the experience.

Indeed the words of the repeating chorus are the traditional Ave Maria ("Hail Mary") - half of which is taken from Luke chapter 1.  The other words of the more plain-chant sounding verses are also taken from the Birth narratives of Christ (such as Luke 1:38 and John 1:14).  The song tells of the embodiment of the Good and Beautiful Creator God in the flesh, through the Virgin Mary, taking up residence in this material world.  The song was not only about the incarnation of God in Christ in the world, but the beauty of the song, and of the Abbey where I sat, were indeed embodied, that is incarnate, witnesses to this same spiritual reality.  It is hard to fully put into words how Beauty and Truth came rushing together upon my soul in those moments of meditating upon the beauty of the Incarnation of Jesus.

By comparison, the worldviews of atheism and secularism and the kind of "generic popular culture" that secularism produces is utterly incapable of producing anything like this kind of sublime experience of deep soul-stirring beauty.  They can entertain, but they cannot inspire anyone with a genuine experience of transcendence; indeed, for these worldviews, there is no actual transcendent Reality beyond our own feelings.  For this reason, they simply haven't the spiritual depth and mystical freight that is necessary to drive men to erect cathedrals or to inspire the writing of Mendelssohn's "Lift Thine Eyes," or to sustain our Civilization into the future.

The fact that such timeless works of art exist at all, points us to the truth that there is indeed a Transcendent reality - a Divine Logos - And that Word, that Logos, says the Christian faith, was became flesh, and dwelt among us, and his name is Jesus.

So let the people of Jesus - in word, deed, character, and work - be people of creative and life-giving beauty.

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Blogger Rick Hixon said...

A hearty "amen" to all that you say here, Daniel! I love it!

I have to share this too: About a month ago, fooling around youtube, I came upon what I have to say may be the most beautiful choral piece I had ever heard. My thought, after listening to it several times, was "man, I can't wait to play this for Daniel." It was Voces8 performing Franz Biebl's Ave Maria!

Here's another astonishing paean of praise to our glad Creator: Ola Gjeilo's Lake Isle (featuring the choral group Tenebrae). Take time to watch and listen to this video on youtube. It is an audio/visual feast!


6:54 AM, May 21, 2019  

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