Reclaiming Godly Wonder

Thomas H. Troeger

(Adapted from Wonder Reborn: The Place of Beauty in Preaching and Worship, which will be published in 2010 by Oxford University Press. Used by permission of the publisher.)

Amidst the talk of the organizational health of mainline churches, I want to introduce a concern that may initially seem unrelated but that I believe is at the nerve of the long-term future of all churches: how godly wonder can be reborn through renewed attention to the place of beauty in preaching and worship. If the spiritual life of a church is moribund, sooner or later its demise as an institution will follow.

As a small boy I found the world to be overflowing with wonder. But as I became an adult the wonder of childhood dissipated, and I started seeing all things with a more calculating eye. Yet the residue of wonder never completely vanished. Beauty kept retrieving wonder again and again in my life. I felt wonder return in a more sophisticated mode when I took a course in physics because there is something beautiful about using equations to plot the path and force of material phenomena. I felt wonder when I studied philosophers who tried to disentangle the conundrums of existence because there is some- thing beautiful about the mind wrestling with the profoundest matters of life. I felt wonder when I had a deep conversation with my wife because there is something beautiful about catching a glimpse of how the world appears to another human being.

The Life of Astonishment

All of these were, however, scattered experiences of wonder, fragmentary intimations that fit no comprehensive constellation of meaning. What finally drew them together was when I worshipped, and the prayers, the reading of Scripture, the sermon, the music, and the visual environment were so interwoven that the very Spirit of the Creator breathed through the service, expanding my imagination.

What I experienced was not the untutored wonder of childhood, but the informed wonder of mature faith. I call it “godly wonder,” a way of perceiving, knowing, and being in which all the polarities of life complement and enrich one another. In a state of godly wonder, religion and science, feeling and thought, imagination and reason, faith and knowledge dance together, and we gratefully discover that what one lacks the other offers. Godly wonder means for me a state of prayerful astonishment awakened by the Spirit of God through the experience of beauty.

Preachers can help to mend our bitterly fragmented world by reclaiming the place of beauty in preaching and worship in order to renew our sense of godly wonder. This will not be easy to do: there is a long-standing wariness in the church about being attentive to beauty. Yet I think of all the times – whether in church or in other settings – where I have seen people surprised anew by the wonder of God through an experience of beauty.

I recall, for example, a particular concert at which the standing ovation went on and on and on. The audience members were stomping their feet, clapping as loudly as they could, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” We had just listened to an electrifying performance of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5. As the ovation continued, my wife turned to me and asked, “Can we sing the doxology now?” She was serious. Even though it was a secular concert in a secular setting, her response made perfect sense to me. For a moment life was transfigured by beauty. 

At the mention of the word, I can already hear the skeptical voices: What is beauty? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” “It’s all a matter of taste, and everyone’s taste varies.” Before we let these tired clichés suppress the urge to sing the doxology – the impulse to give ourselves completely to the praise of God because of what beauty awakens in us – let us acknowledge that in fact beauty is often the medium of grace that breaks through to the most disbelieving and hardened heart.  

Rather than attempt a precise definition of the word, I will identify some of the overtones that sound in my heart and mind when I encounter beauty. They are like the overtones on a musical instrument: when someone plays a fundamental note, a sequence of pitches simultaneously sounds, giving the instrument its unique timbre and voice. We recognize a flute as a flute or a clarinet as a clarinet because of its pattern of overtones. Most of us do not have perfect pitch, and so we cannot name the fundamental note that is played, but we know what instrument is playing from the character of its sound. Likewise, we do not have “perfect pitch” for beauty – we cannot give a fundamental definition that everyone agrees with. But we recognize the overtones, the characteristics that lead us to describe something as “beautiful.”

Here then are some of the major “overtones” that sound when we encounter beauty:

  • Beauty is more than mere prettiness.

  • Beauty has a gift-like, gracious quality.

  • Beauty can be a vessel of God’s creativity.

  • Beauty is culturally durable.

  • Beauty has room for what is disturbing and difficult.

  • Beauty helps us to see honestly what is there.

  • Beauty is best understood by a dialogue between our concepts and our experience.

  • Beauty is not the same as “mere prettiness” because, “to be beautiful as opposed to merely pretty, it needs to be associated with other values like truth or integrity.”1 Since beauty is more than prettiness, there is an enduring quality to beauty that is not always instantly detectable. It takes reflection and discernment. This is indeed a task of the church: “the church must always be in the midst of sorting out the immediately attractive from the culturally durable.”2

When we encounter beauty it has the quality of being a gift, something unearned that delights and enhances life at the deepest level of our being. Such beauty has ample room to embrace not only what is attractive, but also things that are disturbing and difficult for us to confront. Beauty has this capacity because it is “inseparable from truth and goodness. Indeed, beauty is the persuasive power of God’s truth and goodness. So beauty is in the end about honesty, about seeing what is actually there and being true to one’s own response to it.”3 The beauty of what God has done through Christ includes not only the joy of incarnation and resurrection but also the cruelty of betrayal and torture.

Aesthetic Ambivalence

Preaching on works of art that embody an under- standing of Christian beauty – preaching about a poem or musical work that reaches from joy to “holy saving sorrow” has the potential to awaken a range of aesthetic judgments in a congregation.4 Preachers, sensitive to this possibility, may decide it is the better part of pastoral wisdom not to risk the congregational unease or consternation that might stir. Yet those conflicts, set in the context of a faithful community, can be a source of rich conversation and growth. Although we might disagree about what is beautiful, “the very fact that when such disagreements occur we can talk, put forward reasons for our judgments, be understood and perhaps modify our views somewhat, indicates some shared criteria of judgment. As in the case of disagreement over moral issues, the very fact that we can discourse with those whose views are different from our own indicates the existence of some common ground.”5

There is 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 theologian Don Saliers observes: “Christian theology has shown a long and studied ambivalence toward human aesthetic capacities, especially toward relationships between art and religious faith.”6

Religious people sometimes reject aesthetics, assuming that the term implies “art for art’s sake.” It has meant this for some artists and critics, but “art for art’s sake” is not an automatic corollary of the term. For me “aesthetic” refers to a theologically informed way of studying how we respond to and assess our experience of artistic work, including attention to what moves the human heart. My aesthetic is shaped by the gospel of Christ.

The Deep, Dear Core of Things

Theological convictions about the character of God shape the aesthetic that I use in creating sermons based on works of art.

When I was a young pastor, I was initially reluctant to share with the congregation my passion for great English poetry because I feared it might be considered elitist or snobbish. Then one year, I decided I would base a Lenten study series on a number of poems by John Donne (1572-1631), a complex but profound poet. I was astonished not only at the number of people who attended but who became absorbed in the man’s poems. I had discovered the truth of Marilynne Robinson’s observation, “There is no snobbery in saying things differ by the measure of their courage and their honesty and their largeness of spirit, and that the difference is profoundly one of value.”7

I believe preachers can use a theologically informed aesthetic to preach on works of artistic beauty that renew a congregation’s sense of godly wonder. When it is experienced in corporate worship, it is more than a generalized feeling of awe and astonishment. It is an encounter with the numinous, the holy, the deep, dear core of things, the One who has created and redeemed us and in whose presence we are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”8

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 then be- comes 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.

This kind of dynamic relationship between aesthetics and prophetic witness can be traced back to the Psalms.

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright.

Praise the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.

He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle;

he put the deeps in storehouses. (Psalm 33: 1-7)

Instead of separating ethics and aesthetics, the psalmist presents doing justice and performing “skillfully on the strings” as actions that flow together in a single stream of faithful living, which in turn points to the creative artistry of God. By placing the values of righteousness and justice between the descriptions of human and divine artistry, the psalmist suggests that morality and aesthetics are seamlessly connected in the divine ordering of things. The movement from musical artistry to ethical principles to the creative work of God reveals that “the morality of beauty is something much deeper than that of ‘must’ and ‘ought.’ Its experience is inescapably personal, a loving and grateful approach to life itself. The fullness of being is experienced as a beautifying gift, an attractive appeal that solicits a loving response. Anyone who allows the beautiful, in all its dimensions, to bring its message home, knows that life is meaningful, a wonderful gift and opportunity.”9  

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. Contrary to the opinion that an appeal to the arts is elitist or high brow or of little interest to most worshippers, “the data reveal that the vast majority of church members in all three traditions [evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics] consider the arts (here, referring to painting, sculpture, music of all kinds, dance, theater, and creative literature) to be important in their personal lives. Among evangelicals, three-quarters do, and among mainline Protestants and Catholics, more than four in five do. This means that the typical pastor, looking out at his or her flock on a given Sunday morning, can be pretty sure that most of the congregation has some appreciation of the arts.” 10

The necessity of beauty becomes apparent when we consider the whole human community struggling to come to terms with a global economy, 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.”11 We need to make room in our preaching and worship for beauty so that wonder may be reborn as God is known and experienced anew. Without this, no amount of institutional tinkering will vitalize the church’s life and witness.

Thomas H.Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School, has written more than a dozen books in the fields of preaching and worship. His most recent books include God, You Made All Things for Singing: Hymn Texts, Anthems, and Poems for a New Millennium (Oxford University Press, 2009), Preaching and Worship (Chalice Press, 2003), Above the Moon Earth Rises: Hymn Texts, Anthems and Poems for a New Creation (Oxford University Press, 2002), and Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction (Abingdon, 1999). 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.


  1. Richard Harries, Art and The Beauty of God (Mowbray, 1996), pp. 47-48.

  2. Don E. Saliers, “Liturgical Aesthetics: The Travail of Christian Worship” in Arts, Theology and the Church: New Intersections, edited by Kimberly Vrudny and Wilson Yates (Pilgrim Press, 2005), p. 197.

  3. Harries, p. 11.

    4.  P. T. Forsyth, Christ on Parnassus (Hodder & Stoughton, 1911), p. 42.

    5.  Harries, p. 23.
    6.  Saliers, p. 181.
    7.  Marilynne Robinson,
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Picador, 2005), p. 85.
    8.  Charles Wesley, “Jesus, Show Us Thy Salvation”
(“Love divine, all loves excelling”) in Erik     Routley, A Panorama of Christian Hymnody, edited and expanded by Paul A. Richardson (GIA Publications, 2005), p. 67.

    9. Bernard Häring, Free and Faithful in Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, Vol. 2: The Truth Will Set You Free (Seabury Press, 1979), p. 108.

    10. Robert Wuthnow, All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American Religion (University of California Press, 2006), p. 137.

    11. Tina Beattie, The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (Orbis, 2007), p. 75.