What are Christian aesthetics good for?

January 28, 2014 — 5 Comments

springsteen-gospel

NPR recently had a long, rambling interview with Bruce Springsteen. At a certain point the interviewer asks about gospel music and the “religious impulse” in some of The Boss’s music:

Without overusing the word, you know, there’s a Christian element that runs through it because I grew up Catholic and so I was indoctrinated in religious language between eight o’clock and nine o’clock every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling. Five days a week, every single morning, the first thing you did was religion. And so you grew up with that language and it was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life and it served me. I suppose looking back on it, I would like to change some things but I wouldn’t have had that any other way in that it’s served me very, very well and continues to do so. I have a very deep connection to gospel music. I understand the language — I feel I understand the essence of the music itself.

Notably here, Springsteen says he draws from the deep well of Christian language because it makes for “good writing” and serves as “a wonderful source of metaphor.” And he feels “a very deep connection” to the music of the church. This despite the fact that his Catholic education—or “indoctrination,” as he describes it—”screwed me up terribly.”

This reminds me a bit of the time the “militant atheist” Richard Dawkins told a reporter for the Spectator that he has a certain love for the Anglican tradition in his native land, and specifically its aesthetics, even if he doesn’t for one moment believe any of its theology. Would he feel deprived if church buildings were to disappear from the English landscape? “Yes, I would feel a loss there,” Dawkins said. “I would feel an aesthetic loss. I would miss church bells, that kind of thing.”

These comments from Springsteen and Dawkins beg the question: What should Christians make of such (unexpected?) appreciation for the aesthetics, sensibilities, and cultural contributions of our faith, while the substance behind those contributions is largely or wholly dismissed? Is this good, to an extent? Or is it entirely bad, with the dismissal of the substance canceling out any possible value in the appreciation for the aesthetic?

I have two hands, so I’ll make a point for each and leave it at that.

On the one hand, appreciating the aesthetic beauty of Christianity—awe-inspiring architecture or gospel music or liturgy or what have you—is certainly not the same thing as embracing Christianity itself. (Many of us, from various Christian traditions, would do well to be reminded of that from time to time.)

On the other hand, could it be that for some, the Spirit uses aesthetics to woo even those who for various reasons have found certain claims and/or norms of the faith to be stumbling blocks?

[Image via motherjones.com]

5 responses to What are Christian aesthetics good for?

  1. Thanks for the two hands balance Tim. I agree that there is room for Christian aesthetics, especially liturgy and music that is beautifully done and doctrinally sound to attract and invite unbelievers. For many non-followers of Jesus, finding a fellowship where they feel welcomed and comfortable can be the first step before they actually decide to stay and build relationships.

  2. Aesthetics are aesthetics. I appreciate western pagan art and Buddhist art and Hindu art but I don’t embrace their beliefs. This is normal. Why should Christian aesthetic works be any different? If they are beautiful, they will be beautiful to many non-Christians. And faith supposedly is a gift, not a given.

  3. There are at least two related problems here. (1) Those who think their aesthetics are related to maintaining the faith, and (2) Those who think artistic creations are more expressions of faith than of art.

    I propose that most Christian aesthetic achievements are some combination of expressions of art and expressions of status through the expenses for the art. I do not want to ban art from churches, but suggest that most art and architecture do not contribute to the more important thing mentioned above by Barnabus, ” fellowship where they feel welcomed and comfortable”.

    Good liturgy is for the purpose of building Christian communities of mutual faith and support. It is a time for people to share and learn and learn to count on each other. There is no need for grandiose art, architecture, music, or staging. These have often been associated with the churches because it is hard to turn down a wealthy donor, hard to say no to beauty in any form.

    However, it must be asked whether the churches of the past were simply the only institutions available for such aesthetics and whether artists do not have other and more appropriate institutions for sponsorship.

    It must be asked whether these good things actually contribute to the building up of the community or attract people to the aesthetics regardless of faith.

    In other words, although often thought of as church arts, are not these things mostly expressions of Western Culture which previously had fewer places for display?

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