Defacing Beauty with a Message?

Samuel Smith’s thoughts on our recent post about study of the arts being good in itself, from his comment and his maplemountain blog site:

Art does not have to have any “practical” utility to be of value. If it is good, it has value that need not be “useful.” And I mean useful in a practical way. To a large degree Christian artists have become utilitarians, seeing art as merely a vehicle for transmitting a message. And that is not the sole purpose of art. I won’t say that art cannot be a medium for a message, but I believe this very often serves to cheapen the art and the message it is presenting, usually in an ungainly way.

But aren’t we to live and breath for the glory of God?
YES!

When explaining my view on this, I often resort to “The Tree Illustration.” I am fond of trees, even with an amazing deficiency of botanical understanding (there’s something in that, I suppose). Imagine the most beautiful tree you have ever seen. What beauty, what serenity, what transcendence it conveys. It speaks plainly of the glory of the Creator. Now imagine that same tree, but with “John 3:16″ crudely spray-painted on the trunk. Now this tree, already displaying its God-given purpose, becomes polluted by being transformed into a mere medium for a message.

Now, hold on. I hear you. I know that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. That’s a fact. I am one who does not buy into the idea (attributed, I believe erroneously, to St. Francis of Assisi) that we ought to “Preach the Gospel, and if possible use words.” The Gospel is conveyed by words. God loves Words so much that he has chosen to communicate to man primarily through words, his Word, and most profoundly through his Son, referred to in Scripture as “the Word.” So words matter, the Gospel matters, and it must be preached using words. But that does not require that we put Bible verses on the Mona Lisa. That doesn’t help either the message of the cross, or the art done to the glory of God (or art that necessarily glorifies God by it’s sub-creative worth).

I believe that engaging in art, be it writing a novel, painting a canvas, composing music, sketching a tree, writing poetry, etc., has value. It has value even without a “conversion scene”, or an “allegory of Christ”, or “Bible verses above the lyrics”, or a “quota of Jesus references in a song.” It has value because it is part of the order of God to convey the beauty of the common, and the thrill of the transcendent in his world through every noble facet of our imaginations. Imagination is crucial to the Christian, it is where the Lordship of Christ is established and his reign issues in our lives. If he is not Lord there, then where? And I do not mean, by imagination, the unreal. But the most real. The place of the soul…our very selves. As C.S. Lewis said: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

. . . I think we ought to engage in art to the Glory of God, and that leads us necessarily to art that expresses Beauty and Goodness. Here’s my semi-concise pseudo-summary: We are either engaging in art for goodness’ sake, or we are forsaking good art.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • fw

    I read somewhere that for this reason, JRR Tolkein did not really like CS Lewis´ “Narnia Chronicles” and felt they lacked literary merit.

    I also read that this is the context that compelled him to then write the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.

    Does anyone know anything about this brotherly dispute between Lewis and Tolkein? Is there any truth to it?

  • fw

    I read somewhere that for this reason, JRR Tolkein did not really like CS Lewis´ “Narnia Chronicles” and felt they lacked literary merit.

    I also read that this is the context that compelled him to then write the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.

    Does anyone know anything about this brotherly dispute between Lewis and Tolkein? Is there any truth to it?

  • Nathan

    I think this may be missing the point.

    Let me take an extreme position and try to defend it:

    Christians should be those who live in both worlds: when what we say, do, create, etc. is done in accordance with the will of God, it is both a) “good in itself” and b) useful (practical), in an “ultimate” sense. I think that only Christians can do this.

    The illustration of the tree and John 3:16 seems a straw-man argument to me. How about not using spray paint, but rather carving the words in a beautiful way out of the wood?

    When I say “useful/practical” above, I am talking about for God’s purposes, namely that the Gospel be embodied in everything we say, do, create, etc., that all would come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. In embodying the Gospel in everything in a beautiful way, we glorify God, AND in this, we serve our neighbor in the most important way that we can in *a fallen world* (something Aristotle and other “art is good in itself” pagans do not have any real understanding of, I think) : by embodying the message to repent and believe in Christ, i.e. to “speak” (with actions ACCOMPANIED by the crucial WORDS) to them in the Name of Christ, to give them faith in Him.

  • Nathan

    I think this may be missing the point.

    Let me take an extreme position and try to defend it:

    Christians should be those who live in both worlds: when what we say, do, create, etc. is done in accordance with the will of God, it is both a) “good in itself” and b) useful (practical), in an “ultimate” sense. I think that only Christians can do this.

    The illustration of the tree and John 3:16 seems a straw-man argument to me. How about not using spray paint, but rather carving the words in a beautiful way out of the wood?

    When I say “useful/practical” above, I am talking about for God’s purposes, namely that the Gospel be embodied in everything we say, do, create, etc., that all would come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. In embodying the Gospel in everything in a beautiful way, we glorify God, AND in this, we serve our neighbor in the most important way that we can in *a fallen world* (something Aristotle and other “art is good in itself” pagans do not have any real understanding of, I think) : by embodying the message to repent and believe in Christ, i.e. to “speak” (with actions ACCOMPANIED by the crucial WORDS) to them in the Name of Christ, to give them faith in Him.

  • Nathan

    Samuel said:

    “I believe that engaging in art, be it writing a novel, painting a canvas, composing music, sketching a tree, writing poetry, etc., has value. It has value even without a “conversion scene”, or an “allegory of Christ”, or “Bible verses above the lyrics”, or a “quota of Jesus references in a song.” It has value because it is part of the order of God to convey the beauty of the common, and the thrill of the transcendent in his world through every noble facet of our imaginations. Imagination is crucial to the Christian, it is where the Lordship of Christ is established and his reign issues in our lives. If he is not Lord there, then where? And I do not mean, by imagination, the unreal. But the most real. The place of the soul…our very selves. As C.S. Lewis said: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

    Now, despite what I wrote above, I do actually agree with this. I don’t think everything needs to have a Bible-verse attached, but I do believe that our every fiber of our being should aim to enjoy being God’s kids and to constantly praise, give thanks to, and proclaim Him. For, if the Christian – who knows a Creator / Redeemer who is distinct from the cosmos – sees everything in the creation (things God created and people created) as intrinsically good – is it not also instrumentally good in that these things that are “good for their own sake” do not lead us to pantheism, but rather praise and thanksgiving of Him who is somewhat outside of the “system”? Also – and this is important – because of this life enjoying being God’s children and “naturally” proclaiming Him in thanksgiving, the reconciliation towards the whole world that has already taken place in His heart can also take effect in the hearts of all men – which as we know from the N.T., is one of God’s stated purposes.

    Here is some more Scriptural stuff to defend this view: Of course, the Christian is to “do everything in love” (I Cor 16:14), because everything ultimately comes down to the Gospel. The rule of God in the realm of worldly government and “natural law” ultimately exists so that persons may freely proclaim the Gospel. For again, in this fallen world, love ultimately looks like the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, providing for our neighbor’s very life “every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” What this means is that the Christian is not to lose sight of what his ultimate goal is, wherever he may be serving God in the left-hand kingdom. This message is of the first importance (I Cor. 15:3-4): we preach Christ crucified, and are determined to know nothing but this (Gal. 3:1-56) – and to boast in nothing but this (Gal. 6:14). Though a stumbling block and foolishness to the world, it is the power, wisdom, and salvation of God to all who believe. As Paul says, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should (Eph. 6:19-20). Finally, there is this fine Pauline “pure doctrine” passage showing how such is intimately tied up with proclamation for the neighbor’s sake: “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col 4:4-5). In short, the law is fulfilled in love whenever the Word of God becomes incarnate in human flesh, simultaneously speaking and showing Jesus Christ to the neighbor for their sake.

    The saints are living doctrine.

  • Nathan

    Samuel said:

    “I believe that engaging in art, be it writing a novel, painting a canvas, composing music, sketching a tree, writing poetry, etc., has value. It has value even without a “conversion scene”, or an “allegory of Christ”, or “Bible verses above the lyrics”, or a “quota of Jesus references in a song.” It has value because it is part of the order of God to convey the beauty of the common, and the thrill of the transcendent in his world through every noble facet of our imaginations. Imagination is crucial to the Christian, it is where the Lordship of Christ is established and his reign issues in our lives. If he is not Lord there, then where? And I do not mean, by imagination, the unreal. But the most real. The place of the soul…our very selves. As C.S. Lewis said: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

    Now, despite what I wrote above, I do actually agree with this. I don’t think everything needs to have a Bible-verse attached, but I do believe that our every fiber of our being should aim to enjoy being God’s kids and to constantly praise, give thanks to, and proclaim Him. For, if the Christian – who knows a Creator / Redeemer who is distinct from the cosmos – sees everything in the creation (things God created and people created) as intrinsically good – is it not also instrumentally good in that these things that are “good for their own sake” do not lead us to pantheism, but rather praise and thanksgiving of Him who is somewhat outside of the “system”? Also – and this is important – because of this life enjoying being God’s children and “naturally” proclaiming Him in thanksgiving, the reconciliation towards the whole world that has already taken place in His heart can also take effect in the hearts of all men – which as we know from the N.T., is one of God’s stated purposes.

    Here is some more Scriptural stuff to defend this view: Of course, the Christian is to “do everything in love” (I Cor 16:14), because everything ultimately comes down to the Gospel. The rule of God in the realm of worldly government and “natural law” ultimately exists so that persons may freely proclaim the Gospel. For again, in this fallen world, love ultimately looks like the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, providing for our neighbor’s very life “every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” What this means is that the Christian is not to lose sight of what his ultimate goal is, wherever he may be serving God in the left-hand kingdom. This message is of the first importance (I Cor. 15:3-4): we preach Christ crucified, and are determined to know nothing but this (Gal. 3:1-56) – and to boast in nothing but this (Gal. 6:14). Though a stumbling block and foolishness to the world, it is the power, wisdom, and salvation of God to all who believe. As Paul says, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should (Eph. 6:19-20). Finally, there is this fine Pauline “pure doctrine” passage showing how such is intimately tied up with proclamation for the neighbor’s sake: “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col 4:4-5). In short, the law is fulfilled in love whenever the Word of God becomes incarnate in human flesh, simultaneously speaking and showing Jesus Christ to the neighbor for their sake.

    The saints are living doctrine.

  • S Bauer

    As far as Lewis and Tolkien are concerned, frank has the gist of Tolkien’s evaluation of Narnia right but the chronology is confused. Tolkien had been working on the languages and mythology of what would become the First Age of Middle Earth for years before he even met Lewis. They met, Lewis became a Christian, the Inklings formed. Then the Hobbit (1937) was written, crafted out of (peripheral) pieces of Tolkien’s mythology but WITH no higher purpose or utility than being a good adventure story to tell children. Somewhere along here, Lewis and Tolkien had agreed they would both work on putting their ideas about myth and its power into stories – a “practical” demonstration of what they were talking about. Tolkien would write stories about “time travel” – or stories set in far off times. And Lewis would write stories based on “space travel” – stories set in far off places. The result of Lewis’ work was the Space Trilogy, published between 1938-45. The success of the Hobbit had led Tolkien to begin work on a “second Hobbit” that was to become the Lord of the Rings with all the grand mythic qualities the first book lacked. Tolkien read his story as it developed during those years to the Inklings and Lewis was instrumental in encouraging JRRT to finish, but that didn’t happen until the Fifties. For whatever reason, Lewis decided he would try something on as grand a scale as Tolkien’s work but using the “place/space” setting he had agreed to use. The result was the Narnia series which came out from 1949-1954. Tolkien hated the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and argued endlessly about it with Lewis because he thought it was far too overt in its references to Christianity, and self-contradictory. In other words, it was allegory, not myth, and Tolkien hated allegory. The point of all this is that The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were not responses to Lewis’ Narnia but the other way around.

  • S Bauer

    As far as Lewis and Tolkien are concerned, frank has the gist of Tolkien’s evaluation of Narnia right but the chronology is confused. Tolkien had been working on the languages and mythology of what would become the First Age of Middle Earth for years before he even met Lewis. They met, Lewis became a Christian, the Inklings formed. Then the Hobbit (1937) was written, crafted out of (peripheral) pieces of Tolkien’s mythology but WITH no higher purpose or utility than being a good adventure story to tell children. Somewhere along here, Lewis and Tolkien had agreed they would both work on putting their ideas about myth and its power into stories – a “practical” demonstration of what they were talking about. Tolkien would write stories about “time travel” – or stories set in far off times. And Lewis would write stories based on “space travel” – stories set in far off places. The result of Lewis’ work was the Space Trilogy, published between 1938-45. The success of the Hobbit had led Tolkien to begin work on a “second Hobbit” that was to become the Lord of the Rings with all the grand mythic qualities the first book lacked. Tolkien read his story as it developed during those years to the Inklings and Lewis was instrumental in encouraging JRRT to finish, but that didn’t happen until the Fifties. For whatever reason, Lewis decided he would try something on as grand a scale as Tolkien’s work but using the “place/space” setting he had agreed to use. The result was the Narnia series which came out from 1949-1954. Tolkien hated the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and argued endlessly about it with Lewis because he thought it was far too overt in its references to Christianity, and self-contradictory. In other words, it was allegory, not myth, and Tolkien hated allegory. The point of all this is that The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were not responses to Lewis’ Narnia but the other way around.

  • fw

    #4 S Bauer

    fascinating. Why was it that Tolkein hated alegory?

  • fw

    #4 S Bauer

    fascinating. Why was it that Tolkein hated alegory?

  • Nathan

    …”WITH no higher purpose or utility than being a good adventure story to tell children.”

    Perhaps I have just been jaded by postmodernism, but I am having difficulty believing that this is any author’s purpose – ever. In contending that all authors have purposes for their work, this does not necessarily mean that all of these need to be explicit, but simply that in light of talking to an author about his / her work, the author’s deeper and more heart-felt purposes, which were perhaps tacit / implicit, will began to come into view.

    If Tolkien did not intend for the Lord of the Rings to lead into further conversation whereby he may have talked to people about Jesus Christ – even if this was more of a tacit or implicit desire rather than an explicit one – I would find that to be quite sad and tragic.

  • Nathan

    …”WITH no higher purpose or utility than being a good adventure story to tell children.”

    Perhaps I have just been jaded by postmodernism, but I am having difficulty believing that this is any author’s purpose – ever. In contending that all authors have purposes for their work, this does not necessarily mean that all of these need to be explicit, but simply that in light of talking to an author about his / her work, the author’s deeper and more heart-felt purposes, which were perhaps tacit / implicit, will began to come into view.

    If Tolkien did not intend for the Lord of the Rings to lead into further conversation whereby he may have talked to people about Jesus Christ – even if this was more of a tacit or implicit desire rather than an explicit one – I would find that to be quite sad and tragic.

  • S Bauer

    *grrrmble* I believe I referred the words just quoted to the Hobbit. (The capitalized WITH was an inadvertent typo that I missed before hitting the submit button.) When I mention the Lord of the Rings I say, “The success of the Hobbit had led Tolkien to begin work on a “second Hobbit” that was to become the Lord of the Rings with all the grand mythic qualities the first book lacked.” One of those qualities of myth that Tolkien believed in was its ability to open people’s awareness to a grander Truth.

    As far as Tolkien’s aversion to allegory, he says he was repelled at its presence even as a child. So it was somewhat of a gut reaction. But he does discuss it in a more rational vein in his essay On Fairy Stories. It’s been a while, so I’ll have to check it out to say more.

  • S Bauer

    *grrrmble* I believe I referred the words just quoted to the Hobbit. (The capitalized WITH was an inadvertent typo that I missed before hitting the submit button.) When I mention the Lord of the Rings I say, “The success of the Hobbit had led Tolkien to begin work on a “second Hobbit” that was to become the Lord of the Rings with all the grand mythic qualities the first book lacked.” One of those qualities of myth that Tolkien believed in was its ability to open people’s awareness to a grander Truth.

    As far as Tolkien’s aversion to allegory, he says he was repelled at its presence even as a child. So it was somewhat of a gut reaction. But he does discuss it in a more rational vein in his essay On Fairy Stories. It’s been a while, so I’ll have to check it out to say more.

  • CRB

    I have question related to this discussion, but more in
    reference to the C.S. Lewis quote: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
    This may get rather unwieldy to deal with on this blog,
    but someone once asked,”If the human consists of body and soul, where does the spirit come in?” And if the spirit is resident only in the believer, would we therefore conclude that the non-believer consists only of body and soul, while the believer consists of body, soul and Spirit (meaning the Holy Spirit)?

  • CRB

    I have question related to this discussion, but more in
    reference to the C.S. Lewis quote: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
    This may get rather unwieldy to deal with on this blog,
    but someone once asked,”If the human consists of body and soul, where does the spirit come in?” And if the spirit is resident only in the believer, would we therefore conclude that the non-believer consists only of body and soul, while the believer consists of body, soul and Spirit (meaning the Holy Spirit)?

  • Elmhurst Erik

    So the Lordship of Christ can be established through art by speaking “Beauty” and “Goodness”. What then constitutes secular art? Something that doesn’t speak Beauty or Goodness? How does one determine when this form of Beauty and Goodness is established?

  • Elmhurst Erik

    So the Lordship of Christ can be established through art by speaking “Beauty” and “Goodness”. What then constitutes secular art? Something that doesn’t speak Beauty or Goodness? How does one determine when this form of Beauty and Goodness is established?


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