First published March 25, 2013
I was talking with a friend recently, a non-christian, who mentioned that, if he were to convert on his death-bed, it would probably be to Roman Catholicism. His stated reasoning was that they had beauty, a full and attractive aesthetic.
How did we, Protestants, get to this point? Part of my friend's point of view, no doubt, stems from his own lack of familiarity with Christianity in all its varied shapes, and yet surely this points to a failure of communication on our own part. I think also it's also the result of our own lack of imagination.
Often the extent of our churches aesthetic efforts amount to a loud music team and a gleaming apple or three lying around (he says, writing from a mac) and yet these pre-packaged formulae have become tropes, Clichés which communicate nothing, and perhaps don't stand out from something people are likely to encounter in any conference centre, lecture or school.
Having said that, I'm not writing to knock churches for not having resident artists, or first rate architects, musicians, movie makers and writers. Rather, I am writing to encourage us all, as gospel-believing Christians, to recover the aesthetics that are embedded within the gospel, after all, are we not people who have been invited to 'taste and see the Lord is good'? (Psalm 34 verse 8).
Within the gospel, we see God stooping down amidst our own sin and decay, ultimately most fully expressed within Christ's incarnation. This gives us a gospel that spans all our varied experiences, whether of joy or pain. All of this is to say that an element of us understanding and imbibing the gospel in our lives is aesthetic. This category, often not talked about, or muddled behind insecure language regarding feelings and experience, is one which I can see having at least two applications for all of our lives.
Firstly, we can adopt an apologetical stance that makes use of aesthetics, in addition to more traditional Christian apologetics. Now, by an aesthetic apologetic, I mean an apologetic that primarily aims to make Jesus beautiful, or rather to show him as beautiful. This approach has a degree of malleability between people of different skills/temperaments/vocations. I myself, as an arts student, find stories to be compelling mediums for gospel communication, they often show people connections between unlike things, allowing people to understand the gospel not only as propositions to be believed but as a reality that touches on our whole life. Now, that's only one example in brief, but in conversations with friends I have learned that aesthetic categories are open to people, even in something not obviously artistic, such as mathematics. We have all heard of 'elegance' in equations, and then in science we have heard of the beauty of the cosmos, or in the smaller things such as human cells and genes. So I think we can see that aesthetics are open to all of us, as a valid way of sharing the gospel with others, as long as we pursue it with a little bit of imagination.
Secondly, the aesthetics of the gospel are an important resource to help remind us of the gospel. We already do this with our congregational singing, these aural reminders of God's goodness and faithfulness are something we are used too. I mentioned above that my friend thought the Roman catholic Church was the most beautiful church, no doubt a lot of the aesthetics inherited by the current day church is reflective of the fact that in a pre-literate society, visual and aural arts helped immensely to communicate with the majority of people. But even today, in which so much information is fed to us on the television, posters and the internet, it's easy for us to forget, or consider blasé, the aural reminders of the gospel we are used to on Sundays. So, let's recover a more fully orbed aesthetic that appeals to our eyes as well as our ears, so that we might not forget the gospel we hold so dear, and have constant reminders before us.
So, to sum up, I think we can see that the gospel gives us resources for aesthetic contemplation and communication. I think that recovering these within our own daily lives will help us be better gospel communicators and even receivers of the gospel ourselves. On top of that all, as the prophet Isaiah said: 'How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."'
See how close together the good news and the beautiful sit!
Dale Wang (22) is studying his final year of a BA(hons) in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading bible studies.
Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html