Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Christian Model of Aesthetics

I've been reading and enjoying the new book, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy, by Steve Cowan and James Spiegel (published by B&H). Both writers come from a Reformed perspective (which is pretty rare these days in philosophy), and their writing is clear and concise. I'll have more to say about it in a future post (D.V.), but the connection with this present post is that Dr. Spiegel has a very nice chapter on aesthetics. His footnotes led me to an essay he wrote over 10 years ago called "Aesthetics and Worship," The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2.4 (Winter 1998): 40-56. Many thanks to the good folks at Southern who created an online file for us.

Here's the opening:
As the twentieth century of Christian history draws to a close, I believe that we can safely conclude the church is at a low point in terms of artistic accomplishment. The golden days of church leadership in music, painting, literature, drama, and architecture are a thing of the distant past. Perhaps gone as well are the days when we Christians could entertain realistic hopes for a recovery of our leadership position in the arts. Therefore, two pressing questions loom for the church mired in an aesthetic malaise as the third millennium commences: what went wrong? And what can we do to make things better? The first query has been addressed ably by Christian scholars. Credible answers to the second question, however, have been sparse.

Curing the aesthetic ills of the Christian community will be a mammoth task, if it is to be achieved at all. In this essay I shall discuss the theological foundations of a Christian aesthetic and make some concrete applications, specifically to the matter of worship. First, I will develop a biblical theology of beauty and the arts. Second, I will spell out a particular practical approach to the arts implied by this theological aesthetic framework, giving special attention to the matter of worship. Evangelicals tend to be nervously suspicious of secular art, rigidly utilitarian in their approach to Christian art and apathetic about developing a biblical aesthetic. These prevailing attitudes represent so significant a deviation from a properly biblical approach to the arts that I am tempted to suggest that the church is guilty of what might be called the “aesthetic heresy.” But, alas, there has never been an official church aesthetic or doctrine of the arts, and without theological orthodoxy there can be no true heterodoxy. Still, the dominant view is grossly unbiblical, and recognition of this fact is the first step towards recovering a biblical aesthetic.
Spiegel defends the legitimacy and necessity of aesthetic objectivism by looking at the foundation of aesthetics: God's beauty and creativity. He shows that the Bible addresses the issue of art by both example and direct injunction. He then sketches a rudimentary Christian model of aesthetic virtues: technical excellence, veracity, originality, moral integrity, and intentionality. These are contrasted with the aesthetic vices: laziness, banality, artificiality, authentic utilitarianism. Finally he looks at "art as worship" and then "art in worship."

Here's the conclusion:
The Christian church, once the leader of the arts, is now scarcely taken seriously in artistic communities. Worse yet, the formal worship of Christians is compromised by mediocrity in this area. Our problem, however, is not for lack of inspiration, as the scriptures are brimming with aesthetic instructions, from the Genesis creation account to the hymns of Revelation, not to mention the nature of the Biblical writings themselves. We must recapture a truly Christian vision for the arts, and strive mightily to be aesthetically virtuous. The duties of the church pertain not only to goodness but to beauty as well.
The whole thing repays careful reading.