Beauty & the Gospel
by Terry Yount
In the modern era, beauty is unavoidably tied to the simplistic concept of “prettiness,” like that found in greeting card poems or velvet paintings of lighthouses. In truth, beauty is far more. Beauty reveals the gamut of human experience. True beauty is an ally of the gospel in that it parallels the human dilemma. In reality, a rose is beautiful, but it also has thorns.
When we investigate further, beauty reveals itself somewhere between the opposing forces of darkness and light, major and minor, protagonist and antagonist. Beauty can be appreciated often when seen in contrast with its counterpart — depravity. The honest painter, musician, or writer, gripped by the contrast between good and evil, is unafraid to portray both. In fact, the struggle between darkness and light is often the place artists do their finest work. For example, in Bach’s cantata Christ Lay in Death’s Strong Bonds, the choir sings about crucifixion and resurrection in several movements. Christ is portrayed as a suffering servant, walking the pathway to Golgotha until, at last, the chorus literally laughs its “alleluias” of triumph over death. If biblical Christians are careful in their doctrine to name sin, then in their art, music, and literature should they not do the same?
Indeed, as the church seeks a role in the arts, it must reclaim a more mature concept of beauty. As we recognize and embrace the heartlonging in many works of art, we may make a convincing proclamation of the whole gospel message.
Finding a way to the full expression of beauty, however, is a challenge. The danger is beauty’s menacing half-sister, sentimentality. How does sentimentality work against beauty? And further, how does sentimentality work against the gospel?
Sentiment is sincere emotional expression. Sentimentality is a device. For the artist, the greatest delight — and temptation — is touching the emotions. But by pushing aside darkness for light, he may distort reality and detract from the full impact of the beauty. However, when an artist combines darkness and light in a single work, there is emotional balance and clarity that resonates with reality. For example, Rembrandt’s The Adoration of the Shepherds combines darkness and light, foreshadowing tragedy in the wonder of the incarnation. Similarly, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion recounts the passion and death of Christ while summarizing the major themes of the atonement. Sentimentality does not point to the need for redemption — it generates a truncated gospel. Sentimentality does not go the distance toward the mature expression of beauty. It confuses the heart by substituting a false reality with actual fact. Sentimentalists have difficulty dealing with the harder facts of the Christian gospel because they form too harsh a reality.
According to theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie, the sentimentalist distorts reality by being emotionally self-indulgent (“Beauty, Sentimentalit y, and the Arts”). Sentimentalists must embellish reality according to their own feelings or experiences. (A classic example of sentimentality in music is the hymn “In the Garden” using this language: “He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own”). Is it possible our churches have embraced a distorted attitude toward the arts? Distortion may work against us. We may miss a marvelous opportunity for gospel proclamation.
Beyond sentimentality, the church may again flourish in its support of the arts, if we understand the true nature of beauty. C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, notes that beauty comes to us through ordinary things like books or music, but in fact beauty “was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.” This longing is the church’s greatest point of solidarity with artists, and as well with the larger world that appreciates the fine arts. What advantage, if any, is this concept of “longing” in our presentation of the gospel?
Lewis goes on to say that observers of beautiful things long “to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” Torn by pain, humiliated, or disillusioned, repentant sinners may come to the quintessential Beauty — the Christ — of redemption.
Reclaiming the arts, whether in worship or the larger community, will plainly clarify the church’s proclamation of the gospel. If the gospel requires hearts to contemplate the sinful human condition, so will our rendering of it in poetry, music, painting, and more. The longing we experience when listening to a great hymn, or any other expression of beauty in the Christian community, is not a superficial longing we may experience briefly at the moment. It is, in fact, a paradigm for the intense longing for beauty all sinners exhibit. The release from this longing will never be truly complete until we have found it in the love of God for His tragically sinful people. Our glorious God, who comes graciously to His church, intends that we “walk” up the road to Golgotha before we sing our alleluias.