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Saturday, May 05, 2007

for glory and beauty, imperishable

"When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
(John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn)

Beauty is defined as the quality of something that brings “delight to the sense or mind”. In this post I am hoping to touch on how (post &) modern Christian culture has pretty much given away the intrinsic value BEAUTY to subjectivity in a way that leaves appreciation or scrutiny to mere preference. There is such a thing as absolute beauty, or in other words, aesthetic perfection, and as Christians we need to care about it.

If part of our chief end as human beings is to enjoy God forever (and it is), then we are to delight in Him by embracing his manifold perfections with intellectual fervor that evidences a renewed mind. This mind renewed by the Spirit should effectively transform us to discern true ideas that are good, acceptable and perfect. But, it likewise follows that we should delight in Him through our senses, by experiencing the manifold joy of the fullness of God and enjoying the riches of his creative perfections through touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.

Food, drink, visual art, poetry, music, architecture, story, the human form, all of these physical realities exist at the pleasure of the created order of God. Whether the residue of God’s fingerprints are undeniably clear or smudged and muted by the impacts of sin, the collected works of humanities’ creative abilities are shadows of the Ultimate. In part the Christian act of worship is joyful discernment of the good, acceptable and perfect qualities intrinsic to the essence of that which is expressed in art, culture and life.

What I am NOT talking about is creating a Christian equivalent of what the world offers. The activity of (post &) modern evangelical Christianity has a history of pursuing all sorts of sensual delights in a hopelessly lame way. (I once attended a church that now boasts the church feels “just like your favorite coffee shop”) I think it's fair to say that a large portion of American Evangelicalism has anchored the Gospel to a pathetic and kitsch subculture that is running away into complete banality and irrelevance. As long as Christians think that "changing the culture" means accepting the popular culture, and stripping away the “bad stuff” (alchol, nudity, curse words, Democrat politics, etc.), the mission objective will perpetuate Christianized worldliness. “Changing the culture" needs to be about wholesale swapping out of world views- "Spirit of the age" for the "Spirit of Christ.” The contrary results of post-modern and modern evangelicalism betray confused presuppositions about almost all aspects of theology.

This mentality has pursued intellectual delight and sensual delight to much the same end. Anti-intellectual theology and sloppy, topical and anthropocentric preaching have produced cheap grace or legalism and hordes of milk fed Christians, incapable of connecting their fraudulent presuppositions and values to the world around them. To steal in plain daylight from Doug Wilson, if a deep, thoughtful, God exalting, Christ centered personal faith is rich, hardwood, the faith of the masses is mobile home grade wood veneer. In an effort to sell church, a church sells out. It capitulates on hard teachings so controversy doesn’t send people packing, or needlessly bore the goats in the crowd who are just there to punch in to the religion time clock.

BUT, to their credit, in the midst of this doctrinal squishiness, moral relativism has been nearly always resisted. HOWEVER, the blind acceptance of aesthetic relativism and its snaggle-toothed offspring “pop culture", has given way to trite and unimaginative faux-culture that's always a step behind the world, soap and sponge in hand. Like Brittany Spears, Tickle Me Elmo, or OP shorts, its popularity is disposable. Loss of the ability to produce and appreciate things that pass the test of true beauty (transcendence and longevity) is evidence of jejune ecclesiology and the over-arching rejection of epistemic certainty and God-centeredness.

Absolute truth and moral ethic are championed by most conservative evangelicals, but aesthetic absolutes deemed impossible. Citing that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts”, or blithely accepting that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” somehow the Biblical fact God made a physical world, and it was good, is overlooked. It is as if an odd type of Gnosticism has crept in. Instead of denouncing all that is physical as evil, it despises the value of true beauty with ambivalence.

Not all of Christendom has failed in this area. But it is something that has shackled the mission of much of the American church to the rise and fall of worldly whims. Of course there is the error to the other extreme of worshiping beautiful things. Idolatry is still idolatry whether the icon is beautiful or ugly. We should be motivated to worship God when enraptured by beautiful things. We are in awe of Michelangelo’s brush strokes on the Sistine Chapel, but remember God made Michelangelo.

For those of us fed on the stale bread of aesthetic relativism, meaningful appreciation of beauty in art, culture and life seems daunting and elusive. Learning to appreciate true beauty can mean the painful letting go of comfortable preferences. It could be likened to the world shattering pangs as one is wrested away from the autonomous fog of untutored spiritual youth, and into the glorious doctrines of grace. The Scripture is not silent on the value and qualities of beauty, any less then it is on the sovereignty of God. As we must cast aside our preconceived false beliefs, we must also cast aside our flesh taught aesthetic sensualities, and in both strive to long for what is good, acceptable and perfect.

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  • Very well written! I can't help but wonder if, being Reformed Christians, we too have lost a real sinse of beauty. I am thinking of worship, of course. Much of the awe and reverence manifest in historic liturgy has been lost, as in some cases, reform has given way to destruction. Charles

    By Blogger CB in Ca, at 8:37 PM  

  • I think the spirit of the age has lost a real sense of beauty, and it overcomes us all. Thanks for the comment.

    By Blogger Garet Pahl, at 10:59 AM  

  • Responding to blogs online is tricky. It's hard to know a persons tone. Let me assure you that this response has been written in a calm, patient, and thoughtfull tone with hopes of gently reminding all theology buffs who some of their audience may also be. I agree with some of the things you have said. I hate to see Christianity become a Jesus-i-fied version of secular culture. I do appreciate reverence, holiness, and deep respect for Almighty God. However... one thing that consistantly sticks out to me when I get into conversations with or read the writings of many reformed Christians, is that the way you write and the things you put emphasis on make it seem like you are all saying that TRUE Christianity is so intangible for the common man. Being a mother I have so so so many duties that keep me very busy serving my family. Through it all I do delight in times of worship and prayer, reading and contemplation... but I certainly don't have the time to keep up to par with single college guys who spend hours upon hours reading, writing, and discussing THEOLOGY. I know most of the population is like me. THEOLOGY is just not the message of the gospel. Jesus gave his message of love, and grace, sovereignty, sin, forgiveness to very simple people. And very busy people. And no where does God advocate that we stop parenting, earning incomes, cleaning our homes, caring for oneanother in order to spend more time reading and reading and reading THEOLOGY. I just don't think He requires true love and reverence for Him to be as complicated and hermeneutically correct as so many THEOLOGIANS and seminary students want to make it. Just something to consider in your writings... If your goal audience is THEOLOGIANS then maybe it's fine. But if you want to reach those who are currently being reached by Fallwell, Warren,Osteen and others... consider who we are, what we have time for, and the simple key things that God truly is requiring of us, not as PASTORS AND THEOLOGIANS, but as engineers, mothers, software programmers, contracters, nurses, etc.

    By Blogger Rachael, at 12:40 AM  

  • I don't know Rachael, I think Theology, the study of God, is the duty of every Christian. I would suggest that our Christian culture clearly shows the results of people having abandoned a love for good doctrine. They are primarily milk fed, and they should be eating meat. Almost all of the people I encounter on my blog and that of others are exceedingly busy people with husbands, wives, children, 60 hour work weeks and other hobbies. But, we all happen to think that it's hard to love someone unless you know them, and we think the same idea is true for God.

    Unless knowing him in a deep and intellectually gratifying way is a disciplined part of one's life, false beliefs about God can creep in and rob one of the rich satisfaction of knowing him. The common phrase, "I don't want to know about God, I want to know God" is rubbish. You can't know God unless you know about him, or else you're are prone to worship the false god of religious sentiment.

    The people whose lives have most impacted the kingdom over the course of church history, are people who have loved and pursued theology. Whether it is Martin Luther, CH Spurgeon, CS Lewis, or John Piper (who pastors a church that sends the most missionaries in the country), the study of God is at the center of their burning passion for Him.

    By Blogger Garet Pahl, at 2:25 PM  

  • I agree that the study of God over a lifetime and growing in understanding and revelation is VERY important Knowing and teaching the truth of His word is essential. I never advocated that He shouldn't be studied. I'm only mentioning that the gospel of Christ was never one that He taught others through hours upon hours upon hours of painstakenly detailed hermeneutical study.

    By Blogger Rachael, at 5:01 PM  

  • ...upon continued reflection however I will acknowledge that perhaps it is only the initial evangelistic message that can be simple. The study in the life of a growing Christian should be committed and in depth. When i said, "THEOLOGY is not the message of the gospel" I was not thinking about the defintion being the study of God. I should have replaced the word Theology with the word "doctrines." I am speaking of doctrines or maybe even just opinions that try to make Christians feel as though they have not read all of the self approved past and present Chrsitian authors to make the cut as an true understanding disciple, or focus to much on the joy of their salvation and not enough on their own unworthiness and depravity. I will be honest and say that all of this really is not a reflection or response specifically to the article "for glory and beauty, imperishable," rather it is a response to an overall tone I keep picking up from BIG Piper fans and picked up in bits and peices from a few of your writings and profile on myspace! Sorry if I lumped you in with the pack innapropriately... or maybe you will say that is the pack you gladly stand with.
    I went back and read this article and really liked it the second time through and highly agree with much of what you said...
    I could start a whole new discussion with you on what is accptable from secular culture to be indulged in and considered beautiful by Chrisitans. It seemed like you wanted to take a pretty harsh stance against secular culture that does not glorify God, however I must then ask... What's up with your great love and appreciation for (in your words) "The MIGHTY Led Zepplin" ? Are you aware of the demonic influences in their lives and music?
    Good discussion... I'd love to keep it in a friendly and productive tone. You're great. :)

    By Blogger Rachael, at 9:30 PM  

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