An Aesthetic Gospel

A re-run, drug up from the achieves because I was using it for something else today and discovered I still like it.

aesthetic: adjective 1 : of, relating to, or dealing with the beautiful

God is the creator of beauty and a connoisseur of all that is truly beautiful. God is an artist and His canvass is creation. Beauty is an attribute of the divine like wisdom or holiness. Beauty has intrinsic value and needs no other justification than it is beautiful. In an age given over to the cult of pragmatism this may seem an extravagant claim, but it is true: Art needs no other justification other than it is beautiful. Does a flower have to justify its existence by being practical? Here’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson says about that in his poem The Rhodora.

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being

The human sense of beauty is a testimony to being created in God’s image. God made us intelligent beings with the capacity to appreciate beauty. This appreciation for beauty is not just a learned trait, but something inherent. Studies have shown that infants recognize beauty before they have had time to be influenced by any cultural cues. We are designed by the Great Artist to desire and appreciate beauty.

Creation, the Fall and redemption can be told in terms of beauty. An aesthetic gospel. God created man to be beautiful — a work of art. Man’s sole purpose in Eden was to enjoy fellowship with God and cultivate beauty. The Fall was not only a breach of fellowship with our Creator but a descent into ugliness. So much of the human story is told with ugly words like, envy, hate, murder, war, greed. Man has lost much of his original beauty but not his love of art and his longing for beauty. The Irish band The Guggenheim Grotto has a song that very perceptively recognizes that there is some mysterious absolute standard by which beauty is defined and a longing in each of to attain that standard and be a work of art.

When we’re young we set our hearts upon some beautiful idea
Maybe something from a holy book or French philosophia
Upon the thoughts of better men than us we swear by and decree a
Perfect way to end the war of ways the only way to be a…
Work of art, oh to be a work of art

But in time a thought comes tugging on the sleeve edge of our minds
Perhaps no perfect way exists at all, just many different kinds
Oh but if it’s just a thing of taste then everything unwinds
For without an absolute how can the absolute define…
A work of art, oh to be a work of art

Oh to be a work of art. It’s the longing for redemption. To be saved from the ugliness of sin that has marred every human and left a deep scar upon creation. It’s a cry for a savior. The desire to be beautiful again. This is not necessarily a vain narcissistic desire, in a deeper way it is related to a desire to recover our original estate as beings who are intended to bear the image of God. But if God is an artist, then Satan is a vandal. A vandal intent upon defacing the image of God that humanity was created to bear.

In 1499 Michelangelo completed his sculpture of the Pieta, a marble sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome depicting the body of Jesus in the lap of his mother after the crucifixion. The Pieta is a masterpiece that captures the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty balanced with naturalism. In 1972 a deranged vandal attacked the Pieta with a sledge hammer raining fifteen blows upon it while shouting, “No more masterpieces!” Before the man could be restrained he was able to inflict substantial damage upon the Pieta. The world was shocked and for a time it was feared that an irreplaceable masterpiece had been lost to a senseless act of vandalism. But the restoration artists were convinced that the Pieta could be saved and within a year it had been restored to its original beauty. Peri and I saw this great work of art a few years ago; it’s not only a testimony to the genius of Michelangelo, but a testimony to the skills of the restoration artists who are able to recover lost beauty.

Jesus is a restoration artist. He came to restore to beauty a humanity vandalized by a deranged fallen angel who has attacked our race shouting, “No more masterpieces!” On the cross Jesus absorbed the ugliness of sin into his own body and turned it into the beauty of salvation. This miracle is testified to by the very image of the cross itself. Originally the cross was a hideous spectacle that caused people to turn away in revulsion and horror. But now the cross has become an image of beauty depicted as a work of art in countless ways. Jesus transformed the cross from ugliness to beauty. This is precisely what Jesus wants to do with humanity — turn ugliness into beauty. An aesthetic gospel.

You can almost evaluate everything from a Christian perspective by asking the question, is it beautiful? Love, humility, grace are beautiful things; legalism, self-righteousness, judgmentalism are ugly things. Everyone recognizes this. A gospel communicated in terms of aesthetics could reach an audience that has no interest in a doctrinal presentation of the gospel. The “unrevival” I look for could bring a fresh emphasis on art, aesthetics and the beautiful life back into a church mired in dull pragmatism.