The True, the Good, and the Eye of the Beholder
The True, the Good, and the Eye of the Beholder
We often hear that worship rehearses us for heaven. This we believe. It is most certainly true that those who do not worship God on earth will not worship God in heaven. Even more, seeing and experiencing the beautiful rehearses our souls for heaven. The deeper and richer our grasp of beauty, though dimly reflected in this world, the greater our comprehension of all the beauties of heaven and heaven’s God. If this is true, it displays a miserable defect in evangelicals as a whole. The fact is, many unbelievers have a more real grasp of beauty than we who love the gospel. This article is an appeal to pursue in our education a Christian approach to aesthetics, a philosophy of the beautiful which encompasses the visual arts and music.
Evangelicals have generally stood for absolute truth and moral absolutes, while often reducing the value of art to a graphic on a tract. Convictions about absolutes in truth and ethics over against the relativism of government education is still a major motivation for Christian education. As we see the ugliness of godlessless should we not also have a compelling aesthetic motivation for Christian education? At this point, though, Christians really do not agree that standards of beauty in art are absolute. Many are about as agnostic about absolutes in aesthetics as government educationists are about absolutes in truth or ethics! Does it come down to the “I” of the beholder, or can we prove Scripturally that aesthetic values are to be based on absolutes?
The most foundational basis for a Christian aesthetics is that God is beautiful. “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple” (Ps. 27:4). We are also told that, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Ps. 50:2). The Hebrew term for beauty used in this text is also used in Esther 1:11, referring to Queen Vashti, “she was beautiful to behold.”
Many have a practical objection to recognizing real beauty in aesthetics. If we grant an absolute aesthetic standard based on God, how do we recognize it here below? It is true that agreeing there is an absolute standard in God’s nature, and identifying that standard so as to make artistic judgments should be distinguished. But if we do not hold the former, we will hardly make progress in the latter. Contrary to aesthetic agnosticism, God’s people in the Bible can and do recognize beauty in artistic objects. For example, this is clear in the construction of the tabernacle and in the priestly garments made for “for glory and beauty” (Ex. 28:2, 40). The first person recorded as being filled with the Holy Spirit is not filled to give a verbal message in prophecy or teaching or evangelism, but to create works of art. “And I have filled [Bazelel] with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze. . .” (Ex. 31:3-4).
If our artistic works, like theirs, reflect the absolute “beauty of the Lord,” then they reflect the absolute aesthetic standard. Good art of all ages is an aesthetic prism refracting the beauty of the Triune God in all imaginable shades and lines, never exhausting His majesty. That we fight for absolute truth and absolute ethics, but aesthetics are pretty much up to the “I”—shows that we need training to regain a Christian consensus on aesthetics. We need an aesthetic renaissance flowering with classically trained Christian artists, musicians, writers, etc. who are well equipped to recreate beauty on earth as it is in heaven.
If we would approach aesthetic training classically, we would see that it has its own trivium, too. We cannot expect the next Bach or Rembrant to emerge from America after training in the government schools and singing in the youth choir of the First Church. Training in the grammatical elements of aesthetics is necessary in order to advance to excellence in performance and appreciation.
Let us consider, for example, recreating a 21st century Johann Sebastian Bach (and I don't mean by cloning). If we would attempt it, remember the canvas of Bach’s life: 1) He lived at a time when Protestant worldview Christianity saturated his culture; 2) all his family before him were diligent musicians (“Bach” was nearly synonymous with music); 3) the music that surrounded him required high standards of dexterity, artistry, and robust harmonic contrapuntal development (many melody lines woven for the harmony); 4) he was in a church which breathed Protestant orthodoxy (both in Lutheran areas and the Calvinist court of Cothen where he composed the Brandenburg Concertos); 5) he was personally committed to glorifying God with his musical gifts as his entire life’s ambition, remember the “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria) signature on his manuscripts; and finally, 6) he was continually teaching his family music. Bach wrote music inspiring to kings and queens, yet some of the best loved pieces to this day were those written for family instruction and training.
I am not suggesting that this renaissance is simple or quick, or that art in some alleged golden era in the past is to be forever xeroxed for the future. No, we should set our sights for even higher than a Da Vinci, for works more prodigious than a Mozart, for pictures not as bland as Picasso, for sounds wilder than Stravinsky, for portraits more enlightening than a Rembrandt, and for poetry more captivating than The Iliad! It is a serious and challenging task for parents and teachers. And, of course, it is a task to be accomplished through the graces and blessings of our wondrous God. It is a sure conviction, though, since education transmits our values and our values ought to be Godly and God is beautiful. Therefore, education should consist, not only of knowing the truth, not only of learning righteousness, but of comprehending the beautiful. Only by a firm commitment to an educational approach that is fully inclusive of aesthetics will see the long-overdue recovery of the true, the good, and the beautiful.