The Necessity of Beauty
There is a sadness to a religious faith that fails to embrace the role of beauty in giving witness to God through music and poetry. It is the sadness of a church that fears beauty will be “a wayward impulse,” leading us astray from God. Such fear has shaped the belief and practice of many Christians through the centuries. As Don Saliers observes: “Christian theology has shown a long and studied ambivalence toward human aesthetic capacities, especially toward relationships between art and religious faith.”1
This ambivalence stretches across the centuries from Augustine who oscillates between his love of music and his fear that its beauty will entice him from God, to Aquinas who insists that preachers and teachers “should not be involved in singing lest they neglect greater things,”2 to the influential contemporary homiletician David Buttrick, who counsels preachers,
Be concerned for craft. Not art, but craft. There have been books on “the art of preaching.” Skip them. Preaching is a craft to be learned like carpentry or cooking. Ego-driven self-expression is not what’s wanted. We can live without polished sermons, the kind that draw admiration from listeners. A good sermon moves in the minds of listeners like their own thoughts. They are not aware of your sermon as separate from their hearing. They certainly don’t give a hoot for aesthetic considerations; neither should you. Instead, you will study homiletic craft … 3
The distinction between “art” and “craft” is a modern one, and Buttrick sets them too sharply against one another when in fact they are closely related. The Oxford English Dictionary points out that “art and craft were formerly synonymous and had a nearly parallel sense-development, though they diverge in their leading modern senses.”4 Hence an earlier writer on homiletics implores preachers to perfect their art: “It is just such art as this that we ask of the preacher… that he shall take diligent heed to do what he has to do as well as he can.”5
We need to consider some of the reasons that preachers and congregations may initially be skeptical of preaching that evokes art and wonder. Perhaps the greatest and historically most persistent fear is that beauty will displace God, that it will become an idol, and religion will be reduced to what brings pleasure to the senses. Not having a theologically informed aesthetic amplifies this fear:
The lack of a theology of beauty, both of beauty in general and of divine beauty in particular, follows in part from fear and suspicion of the question, expressed in pejorative terms like “aestheticism” and elitism.”… Even those who have widened their concept of beauty to include moral and spiritual beauty have often failed to relate these to natural and artistic beauty, and so have tended to depreciate the latter as being transitory or as restricted to what is bodily.6
The fear that artistic beauty might entice us from the true worship of God is not entirely unreasonable. Yes, we have the potential to abuse the gift of artistic beauty, but that is equally true of all the gifts that God has given us. Sin can warp anything, even the noblest divine gifts, and if we dismiss a gift on the 14 basis that it might lead us to sin, then we will be paralyzed and unable to use any gift. But they also can be used to the glory of God.
Beauty as Countercultural
There are also pastoral and ethical reasons for using artistic beauty to draw us to the beauty of God. We live in an age where beauty has been commercialized and degraded. I think here of “the beautiful people” or “the beautiful life.” Beauty is reduced to being young, fit, rich, and glamorous. It is a lifestyle of extravagant consumption that is environmentally disastrous and often personally destructive. In light of this culturally diminished vision of beauty, the eternal beauty of self-giving love that pours from the heart of God needs compelling expression to awaken the holiest and healthiest capacities of the human creature. Using the beauty of art to draw us to the beauty of God thus supplies a countercultural vision of what it means to be beautiful people and to lead a beautiful life.
The countercultural vision of beauty includes a prophetic perspective that employs beauty in nurturing justice and peace: “The beautiful serves transformation by supplying images that contradict the inhuman, and thus provide alternative transforming images to those of oppression. We are, in a profound sense, redeemed by such beauty, for art does not simply mirror reality but challenges its destructive and alienating tendencies, making up what is lacking and anticipating future possibilities.”7 As Fred Craddock has reminded us:
The power of a revolution resides in the spirit that approaches life aesthetically. The great champions of the Social Gospel application of the message of Jesus and the prophets to the industrial, social, and economic problems of America were people who looked at those problems with aesthetic sensitivity. The poetic spirit of Washington Gladden was violated by injustice and economic imbalance; the ugliness and stench of poverty and disease stirred to action beauty-loving Walter Rauschenbusch. And those now involved in the church’s struggle against injustice would do well not to permit the aesthetic dimensions of the problems to be dismissed in the name of “stark realism.” The social crises of our time are, among other things, conflicts of harmony and noise, symmetry and distortion, poetry and prose, beauty and ugliness, fragrance and stench.8
Preachers can employ the beauty of creative art in their sermons to remind congregations that God gave us the gift of creativity to use in ways that reflect rather than distort the image of our Creator. The creation and performance of poetry, music, and other arts are a means of continually renewing our awareness of being made in the image of God. When the church forgets this, it risks “what Claudel called ‘the tragedy of a starved imagination,’ ”9 and consequently diminishes the vitality of its spiritual life. This is doubly tragic when people live in a world that is already brutalizing them with ugliness.
P.T. Forsyth uses the image of “drought” to describe the spiritual barrenness of a church that is without art. He is “insistent that faith without a sense of beauty, or a religion severed from imagination and ‘over-engrossment with public and practical affairs,’ leaves us with a drought in our own souls. It no longer evokes a sense of wonder. Art, in fact, is ‘not a luxury’ but a necessity of human nature.”10
No wonder, then, that the starved imagination of the church and the resultant drought in the soul have driven many people from the community of faith. They do not find the church to be an environment hospitable to the divine gift of creativity that is self-evident in their common life.
The Heart’s Longing
In a world filled with terrors, the heart longs for a vision of divine beauty, and when the church fails to attend to beauty, the life of faith often becomes grim and onerous. We distort the image of God in ourselves and in our understanding of God’s character, often concentrating on the power and might of God to the neglect of other divine attributes. An unimaginative and aesthetically starved faith not only diminishes God, it also diminishes us. We are no longer all that God made us to be. “Extract from a person’s life a healthy portion of songs and flowers and you have reduced to something less than human ‘the creature the Lord God has made to have dominion over land and sea.’ This issue involved here is no less than the nature of humanity.”11
The necessity of beauty becomes even more apparent when we see it in the context of the whole human community coming to terms with a global economy, a pluralism of cultures, and an ecological crisis. We are engaged in “a battle between vast destructive systems which feed on sameness, uniformity and power, and the fragile diversity of the human species as we struggle to evolve, not according to some evolutionary myth of progress, but according to that innate desire within our species to make meaning, to imagine worlds, to create beauty, even in the midst of violence and destruction.”12 We need preaching that contributes to the strenuous work of making meaning, imagining worlds, and creating beauty.
So when our sermons use the enduring beauty of excellent art, we are doing something far greater than prettifying our preaching. We are meeting an essential need of the soul. We are reaffirming Christ’s magnificent retort to the tempter: “ ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Thomas Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School, will retire in May after a nearly 40-year teaching career. He has written some 20 books in the fields of preaching and worship. He is also a flutist and a poet whose work appears in the hymnals of most denominations. He is dually ordained as an Episcopal priest and a Presbyterian minister. This article is adapted with permission from Wonder Reborn: Preaching on Hymns, Music and Poetry (University of Oxford Press, 2010).
1 Don E. Saliers, “Liturgical Aesthetics: The Travail of Christian Worship” in Kimberly Vrudny and Wilson Yates, eds., Arts, Theology and the Church: New Intersections (Pilgrim Press, 2005), p. 181.
2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 39, Religion and Worship (2a2ae. 80-91), ed. Kevin D. O’Rourke O.P. (Blackfriars, 1964), p. 251.
3 David G. Buttrick, “Side Thoughts on Preaching for Those Who Must Stammer God’s Unnamed Name” in William J. Carl III, Best Advice: Wisdom on Ministry
from 30 Leading Pastors and Preachers (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 35.
4 J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Simpson, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, vol. 3 (Clarendon Press, 1989), p 1104.
5 H. Rogers writing in 1840 as quoted in The Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1, p. 657.
6 Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction To Theological Aesthetics, Second Edition (SCM Press, 2002), pp. 18-19.
7 John W. de Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 199-200.
8 Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority, Revised and with New Sermons (Chalice Press, 2001), p. 72.
9 Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, p. 171.
10 de Gruchy, Christianity, p. 71. He is quoting P. T. Forsyth, Religion in Recent Art (Hodder & Stoughton, 1905), p. 7.
11 Craddock, As One, p. 71.
12 Tina Beattie, The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (Orbis Books, 2007), p. 75.