Occasionally, I dream of vising old English Cathedrals in forested hills cloaked in cool mist or walking into warmly lit churches in urban spaces bursting with liturgical beauty; the colours, the smells, the vestments, the music. The magical sense of wonder quickly fades as I wake, and I am left with a deep sense of longing for authentic Christian beauty which lingers for several days. To be sure, these ecclesiastical traditions and Christian experiences do exist, but Christian beauty in theology, liturgy, art, and devotion in much of Evangelicalism is sadly dead.
Contemporary Christian churches mimic rock concert stages; It’s now in vogue to paint the platform walls charcoal grey and fit concert lighting, and if you are lucky, you will find a smoke machine (the irony of liturgical incense with no meaning). One might argue that all this heightens the worshippers’ experience, but where are the beauty, the gospel meaning, and the impetus to draw people to devotion to Jesus Christ? These contemporary devices don’t point to anything specific. While they may express some degree of creativity no doubt, they are void of meaning and rich Christian expression that fills worshipers with devoted wonder.
Many of us have traded beauty for the mundane and the insipid, where Christian faith and worship have begun to look like any other secular activity. The Covid pandemic has not helped the situation either with the move to online services and despite much creativity and professionalism, has further removed us from experiencing authentic beauty. Not to mention Mark Zuckerberg’s coming Metaverse, where virtual Christianity will be on the rise. I appreciate that church praxis needs to move with the times, but surely not at the expense of forsaking the experience of the aesthetic beauty of the gospel of Christ. There are four spheres in which I believe should express Christian beauty:
When thinking about the beauty of theology the first thing that comes to mind is the seven-volume Herrlichkeit (The Glory of the Lord) on theological aesthetics by the Swiss theologian and Catholic priest, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s (I have a doctoral student researching this topic). See the suggested reading list below for evangelical works. I argue that there are primary two considerations when developing the beauty of theology, namely: (1) How the beauty of the Triune God informs our theology aesthetically, and (2) how we craft this theology of divine beauty aesthetically. The opportunities are only limited by our imagination.
Whether we like it or not all church services and personal devotions have liturgy, from Hillsong’s worship services to the exquisite divine liturgies in Eastern Orthodoxy. Here are some questions to consider: Does the liturgy in which you pray, and worship honestly celebrate the beauty of Christ and his gospel? Do the liturgical words, the confessions, creeds, litanies, intercessions, prayers, hymns, worship songs, and the images we use proclaim and demonstrate this aesthetic beauty? The same could be said about the sermon. It is up to us to direct our liturgies—whatever they may be—towards the celebration of Christ’s beauty.
When I talk of art in my appeal for Christian beauty, I have in mind music (worship), writing, church architecture, and anything else that is visually artistic. Protestants can and have produced brilliant art, and I am not talking about amateur ‘prophetic painting’ or professional graphic design work for worship service projections or websites for churches. While not related to congregation worship, I think of the Japanese Christian artist, Makoto Fujimura (perhaps a little too abstract); Dallas Jenkins’s, “The Chosen”; C.S. Lewis’s writings, Marilynne Robinson’s novels, and the list goes on. The question is how we might cultivate this artistic spirit for our Christian worship and devotion?
I rarely if ever use images in my devotion, but some years ago on a retreat, I sat before a large image of Willis Wheatley’s “Laughing Jesus” in prayer one evening. I remember a deep sense of Jesus’s presence. Generally, however, I use the Book of Common Prayer because of its structure, beauty, and Biblical content. For me, I want my morning and evening devotions to be filled with Christian beauty and rooted in historic Christianity. Without compromising on your prayers and Scripture reading there are several other ways to incorporate beauty into your devotionals in a way that celebrates the exquisite beauty of the Triune God. Consider what might work best for you, and experiment.
This blog may seem critical of some sectors of contemporary Christianity and even nostalgic of previous expressions of Christian beauty. Perhaps to some degree, this is true if I am honest with myself. But more important than that, I hope you will hear my appeal for Christian beauty for the future of Christianity in a world that is quickly becoming anti-Christian. Aesthetics are manifestations of the beauty of the gospel and in service to its goodness. In other words, Christian beauty proclaims and demonstrates the gospel message of Jesus Christ. If the gospel is as magnificent as we claim it to be, surely, we would do all we can to express every part of our Christian faith in aesthetic beauty.
Dr. Robert Falconer (robertfalconer.co.za) is the Masters and Doctoral Research Coordinator overseeing all aspects of student research at the M.Th. and Ph.D. level at the South African Theological Seminary.
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King, Jonathan. 2018. The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics (Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology). Billingham: Lexham Press.
Smith, James K. A. 2009. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Staub, Dick. 2008. The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2005. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Zahnd, Brian. 2002. Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity. Lake Mary: Charisma House.