The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Archive for the tag “Aesthetics”

Baby Steps Toward the Masterpiece

by Marc Hays

Thanks to a blue-light special at the Kindle store, I recently acquired an e-copy of N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. The first section addresses humanity’s struggle with justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty. His questions are honest and piercing.  His logic is so seamless, that I find it hard to decide on a pull quote without doing a great injustice to the surrounding material as well as the quote itself, but, having said all that, here’s a portion that is exceptionally tasty.  It is from chapter 4, For the Beauty of the Earth,

What we must notice at this stage is that both in the Old Testament and the New, the present suffering of the world–about which the biblical writers knew every bit as much as we do–never makes them falter in their claim that the created world really is the good creation of a good God. They live with the tension. And they don’t do it by imagining that the present created order is a shabby, second-rate kind of thing, perhaps (as in some kinds of Platonism) made by a shabby second-rate sort of god. They do it by telling a story of what the one creator God has been doing to rescue his beautiful world and put it to rights. And the story they tell, which we shall explore further in due course, indicates that the present world really is a signpost to a larger beauty, a deeper truth. It really is the authentic manuscript of one part of a masterpiece. The question is, What is the whole masterpiece like, and how can we begin to hear the music in that way it was intended? Read more…

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

The-Eye-Of-Sauron

We have often heard it said that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This is often said in response to a disagreement in artistic preference and does help maintain a sense of “agreeing to disagree.”  Being able to look past disagreements and maintain civilized, social order is a habit that many of us would do well to nurture, but is there any truth to the old adage?  Is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder?  Is there any such thing as objective beauty?  Something that’s beautiful even if no human had ever said, “Wow. Pretty.”

One way to pursue an answer to this question is by studying patterns in philosophical thought.  The three major branches of philosophy are: Metaphysics (the study of stuff and its origin, whether physical, spiritual or otherwise), Epistemology (the study of knowledge and how mankind comes to acquire knowledge), and Ethics (the study of the evaluation of human conduct).  Theologian John Frame makes a wise assessment when he generalizes this third branch into “Value Theory” instead of just “Ethics”.  Value theory steps beck from merely assessing rules and codes of conduct to encompass traditional descriptive, normative and applied ethics, as well as aesthetics (the study of beauty) and economics.  Aesthetics fits nicely as a sub-category of “value theory” but might be a tight fit under the category of “ethics”, or would it?

adolf hitler eyes

Here’s what I mean by patterns in philosophical thought. As Christians, when it comes to metaphysics, we do not leave the answers to the big questions about reality, existence, minds, bodies, God, space, time, causality, etc., up to the one asking the questions.  If someone says, “what’s true for you is true for you.  As for me, reality is in the eye of the beholder.”  That’s not an answer that receives much support from orthodox Christianity.  In fact, most folks would scoff, right before questioning the person’s sanity.

Stalin eyes

And what about epistemology?  How can I have knowledge of myself, the external world, and God? As Christians, is there some other point of beginning for knowledge and wisdom besides the revealed Word of God?  If God has said, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”, do we allow for some neutral zone where people can acquire knowledge on their own terms?  How is it that we have the possibility of knowledge?  Should we be rationalists or empiricists, or both, or neither?  Tertium quid, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

What about ethics?  Is moral human conduct up to the individual?  Is it a social contract?  Is it the greatest good for the greatest number of people?  Is the greatest good even recognizable?  When it comes to ethics, Christians are famous, if not notorious, for not allowing ethics to remain in the eye of the beholder.  We have the ten commandments, the two greatest commandments, Psalm 119, which is a really long song about loving the law, the entire Pentateuch, the law of God written on our hearts, etc.  The answer to this question of value theory rests in the revealed Word of God which contains His Law.  No eyes of any beholders here.

mao zedong face

So, I mentioned a pattern earlier.  Metaphysical questions?  Objective answers revealed by God.  Epistemological questions?  Objective standards revealed by God.  Ethical questions?  Ditto.  What about questions about beauty, another branch of value theory?  Does God have an opinion on what is beautiful and what isn’t?  Does He delight in some things and find others detestable?  If ever there was an opportunity to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this is it.  God sees.  God assesses.  God beholds and declares beautiful or ugly.  God weighs in the balances and finds some things wanting.

Pol Pot eyes

Once we’ve rejected the myth that all beauty is subjective, we can make some real progress towards a Christian aesthetic. So where do we begin?  There is the difference between “beauty” and “preference” to consider.  The smell of anchovies or the texture of sushi may come up in the conversation about preferences.  There is the fact that everything that God finds beautiful may not tickle our fancy. Author Nate Wilson commends us to the reproductive patterns of the leopard slug, if we want to expand our horizons of aesthetic study.  God created leopard slugs with all their mucous and odd protrusions, and God created bunnies and kittens.  However, we often see bunnies and kittens on posters containing bible verses, but we never see posters with leopard slugs reproducing.  Is there a verse somewhere in the Bible that extols the blessings of bunnies and kittens while condemning leopard slugs to eternal perdition?  Maybe we do not yet see creation through the new eyes that we have been given.

Are questions concerning objective beauty the easiest questions to answer?  Obviously not.  Does the present author have an entire system of biblical aesthetics worked out?  Uhhhh, nope.  Is beauty one of those square inches of creation about which Jesus Christ says with great affection, “Mine!”?  Yep. So, for those interested in embarking on the journey of Christian aesthetics, there’s a great article by Justin Hawkins over at FareForward.  Here’s a sample…

In the Christian understanding, humanity was made for the contemplation and enjoyment of God, and since the beauty of creation is the shadow of the radiance of the divine beauty, it is no mystery that we are attracted to it as to the echo of a lover’s voice.  In the beauty of creation, our Creator is speaking to us, and that is why we love beautiful things.

Ethics and aesthetics are too closely linked in value theory for one to be objectively true and the other to be left to individual preference.  The non-Christian would agree with me and say that ethics and aesthetics are very closely linked, and they both ought to be based on individual preference.  What should the Christian say?

The Medium is Nearly as Vital as the Message

“The reality is that sometimes the packaging really makes a difference in what you can take away from the book.  I remember when Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose first came out in the 80’s.  I was just blown away by it.  I was captured from page one.  As William of Baskerville wanders up the trail toward the monastery and begins to notice clues that wow everyone.  He out-sherlocked Sherlock.  And then through the labyrynthine theology that takes you to the great climax at the end, I was hooked.  I told every pastor friend of mine; every theologian; everybody I knew teaching at seminary, ‘You have to read this book!’  Several of them, having become accustomed to such messages from me, put it off until it came out in paperback.  And then I started to get this trickle of voicemails and emails…well, I guess it was faxes back in those days.  Anyway, a trickle of messages from folks saying, ‘I can’t get into this.  It’s obtuse.  It’s dense.  I’m not getting anywhere.’  And then I discovered that they’re reading it in a mass-market paperback!  On paper that would have been rejected for USA Today for heaven’s sakes!  Not even worth printing factoids on it.  So I told them, ‘Go to Crown or Barnes and Noble.  Go to the remainder table.  Buy yourself a hardback, and read it properly.’  Now that may seem silly, but in point of fact,  prose that is dense and difficult needs an appropriate architecture to contain it.  Aesthetics matter.  Aesthetics always matter.  We, who think the height of American architecture is some tin shed on a highway, actually believe that aesthetics don’t matter.   But when you walk into a stone cathedral in the middle of Stephansplatz, a block from Mozart’s home, you realize, ‘you know–tin sheds aren’t all they’re cracked-up to be.’  And neither are crummy paperbacks…  Medium is nearly as vital as the message.”

George Grant (the one in Franklin, TN) from the lecture “Shelf Life: Reading, Thinking, and Resisting the Tyranny of the Urgent”.  You can purchase it here.

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