Beauty is all the rage. You can’t get three sentences in modern theology without tripping over words like “aesthetics” and “beauty” and “Christianity and the arts.” And in many ways this is a welcome shift. The several-century Christian retreat from the arts seems in many ways on its way to a full reversal. Francis Schaeffer has begotten many godchildren, and they are busy exploring, engaging, and perhaps most hearteningly, creating.
But for all the promising signs of an incarnational Christianity, an orthodox faith robustly celebrated for the senses, I’m still worried about the sell-out potential.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to be the skeptic for the sake of being skeptical. There’s nothing innately virtuous about being a cynic. And I know there are plenty of faithful, courageous believers producing beauty in the world of the arts: from film to poetry to interior design to theater to photography to the culinary arts. I know there are many committed Christian men and women pouring out their hearts in praise to their Maker.
At the same time, I suspect that we are still, on the whole, missing one of the unique features of Christian art — if I dare use the phrase. And this is what I’m calling the aesthetics of prophecy.
Friends of God
First, biblically speaking, we should understand that a prophet is fundamentally a friend of God. Prophets are not first and foremost entranced mystics or socially awkward desert dwellers or future-telling locust eaters. Prophets are close friends of God. God speaks to them, and tells them what he’s planning. And like a good friend, God wants to know what they think.
God tells Abraham about what he’s planning with Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads with God to remember the lives of the righteous (Genesis 18). God tells Moses that he will destroy Israel and start over with Moses, and Moses insists that this would be terrible PR for the God of the Exodus (Exodus 33).
Prophets have access to God’s presence. They witness the deliberations of God, as Micaiah did, when the Lord had determined to get Ahab killed (1 Kings 22). Prophets speak on God’s behalf and speak to God on other people’s behalf. Because prophets are close friends with God, they can speak for him. And because prophets are close friends with God, they can speak to him for others.
And so, in the first instance, when I speak of the aesthetics of prophecy, I simply mean an aesthetic derived from this loyalty and intimacy with the God of the universe. Christians have been given the Holy Spirit and the word of God in Scripture so that we might share this friendship with the Father and the Son.
But secondly, this friendship with God is necessarily intense. God is a jealous God. He is invasive, exclusive, and fierce. There is no such thing as a lukewarm relationship with this God. The friends of God have no casual friendship with this God. From Noah to Jacob to Joseph to Deborah — it’s never casual. It’s all or nothing: worlds ending, families colliding, nations at war. This friendship is extreme. This is why James says that friendship with the world is actually enmity with God, and the Spirit yearns jealously for our affections (James 4).
When the prophets yell, when they cry, when they condemn, when they unleash their scathing invective, they do so as the friends of God, friends of a fierce Lover, friends of a Lover offended, a Lover enraged with jealousy over his unfaithful bride. The prophets have been caught up into this holy drama, and their hearts are full of God’s heart.
Of course the center of God’s heart is expressed in the cross: and there’s nothing tame, nothing casual about a man impaled on a cross. Yes, it means grace, it means forgiveness of sins, but it only means that because it first means horror, because it first means wrath and suffering and a burning, jealous love.
Perhaps it is nothing new, but it certainly feels like there is currently a steady wave of Christian objections to the prophetic. The prophetic tone is offensive. It seems extreme, over the top, and unnecessarily combative. What we need, we are told again and again, is an irenic tone, words seasoned with grace. We need conversations and dialogue and round table discussions.
Don’t get me wrong: there is most certainly a place for all of these things in the body of Christ. And at no point is a Christian free to disregard any of the fruits of the Spirit. But it seems highly suspicious when the theological trends are heavy on beauty and aesthetics, and at the same time, everything is simultaneously trending toward the irenic, the dignified, the slick, the elegant, the speculative, the interrogative. And everything is trending away from the fierce, the fiery, the confrontational, the offensive, the combative, the assertive, the polemical, the declarative.
But if the cross is our center, then beauty is the result of anger and love, joy and sorrow, suffering and ecstasy. Beauty rises from the ashes. It is formed out of broken ribs and broken dreams. Christian beauty is always cruciform, arising from a dead man, like an Easter earthquake, like giving birth to a child. I doubt you can call it beautiful if there wasn’t at least a bit of screaming involved, at least a few tears, and some blood and water flowing down.
This isn’t a call to imitate the faux artists of the world that need to gin up crisis and agony by their clownish bohemian rebellion, with the help of cheap liquor and cigarettes. Christians don’t need to pretend they are lost in order to create something beautiful. Christians don’t need to pretend because the gospel is already true. Christ suffered once for sin, rose up victorious over all the darkness, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and poured out his Spirit on all flesh.
If this gospel is true, the Truth comes at us like a freight train, like a tidal wave, like a fierce, fiery Love — like a friendship with the most intense Person in the universe. And the challenge is that somehow artists and theologians alike must reckon with the reality of that.