No Beauty without Ash: The Paradox of True Christian Art (or, getting ready for Easter)

Today’s post is written by Brandon Ambrosino, a self-described “post-evangelical, orthodox Christian,” who is active in the performing arts and is currently a member of Actors’ Equity Association. He studied Literature and Philosophy at Liberty University. You can learn more about him on Twitter, Facebook, and over at his blog.

As a Christian employed in the performing arts world, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the intersection – and, at times, collision – of my life as a Christian with my life as an artist.

And believe me, there are many times those worlds do collide. As a Christian artist, I’m committed to beauty: but understanding what beauty is, and coming to terms with if and how that beauty functions in the 21st century – ay, there’s the rub! Because as any artist will tell you, there is no beauty without ash; but as any Christian will tell you, there’s no ash without beauty.

The challenge of creating work that is authentic to a proper Christian aesthetic is one of balancing beauty and ash.

One theologian that has helped me think through these issues is Jeremy Begbie. An equally gifted musician and scholar, Begbie’s work explores the intersection of Christianity and art.

One of my favorite pieces by Begbie is “Beauty, Sentimentality, and the Arts,” which is part of a collection of essays titled The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. In this paper, Begbie offers both a critique of the problems facing contemporary Christian art, and a suggestion for how we might remedy some of theses problems.

According to Begbie, Christian art tends toward an “overharmonized beauty” which is what results when – to extend the metaphor from above – the ashes of reality are overlooked or trivialized. The reason for this trivialization is largely owed to one of the defining features of contemporary Christian art – “sentimental solipsism.”

Begbie outlines three features of sentimentality: (1) a misrepresentation of the world’s evil; (2) an emotional self-indulgence; (3) and an avoidance of any costly action.

An example of this solipsism is contemporary worship music: God is taken hostage to the worshipper’s emotional experience, and all other troubles are forgotten about.

***

Easter is fast approaching; but for many Christians, it could be faster.

I remember a few years ago, I went to church with my Greek Orthodox friend, Athena. I was raised a bratty Pentecostal, and was taught that my particular denomination – Church of God, Cleveland brand, the ones that scream in tongues – was the right one. The only right one. Anyway, the first thing I noticed was the Priest greeting everyone dressed all in black.

I went up to him and asked why he was dressed in all black. I don’t remember his exact answer, but he said something about mourning or remembering Jesus’ death. Like the good Pentecostal kid I was, I corrected the Priest: “Just so you know, Jesus is alive. So you can take that off.”

My younger sister voiced similar sentiments (see: sentimental) a few years back when she asked why I was going to a Catholic Church on Christmas Eve. “Aren’t those the ones that worship Jesus’ death?” she asked me with her hands on her 14 year-old hips.

“I don’t know who is worshiping Jesus’ death, sweetie,” I replied, “and I don’t even know what that means. But Catholics do remember Jesus’ death. Just like you and I remember it.”

Because our Pentecostal theology concentrated so much on what people refer to as “health and wealth,” we emphasized Jesus’ resurrection over his death. That emphasis was so marked that we looked down upon anyone actually remembering or meditating upon Christ’s death.

Admittedly, my remarks to the Greek Orthodox Priest and my sister’s remarks to me may not accurately characterize the mainstream trend of contemporary Christian art – but perhaps they caricaturize it.

Whenever we downplay the horror of the crucifixion for the more pleasing story of the Resurrection, we fall into the trap of sentimentalism.

Begbie insists that each day of Holy Weekend must be understood not only in relation to the other days, but first and foremost as an event in itself. In other words, “a premature grasp of Easter morning” must be avoided at all costs, or else we paint over the Gospel story with the shallow brush strokes of kitsch.

Every time Easter is celebrated, it must be discovered as an event that does not erase the memory of the crucifixion, but that redeems it.

Begbie offers as a solution to Christian sentimentalism the countersentimentality of the Great Triduum: we must equally commemorate the darkness of Friday’s agony, the anxiety of Saturday, and the unexpected surprise of Sunday.

The process of these three days must set the model for Christian art. Beauty without horror is kitsch; horror without beauty is absurdity. The way forward for the Christian artist may culminate in Sunday, but that way passes through – indeed must pass through – the grotesque despair of the entire week.

Christian art dilapidates into kitsch when sin is treated in such a way as if Easter Sunday has healed the world of evil. Christian art that fixates on our Edenic heritage is misguided in two major ways.

First, we’re not in Eden. Second, a simple “return to Eden” isn’t in the cards, either. The prophecies of Jewish and Christian literature do not look back to a return to a pre-evil Garden, but forward to a post-evil union of Heaven and Earth, described in Revelation 22:1-5 as a new Garden that goes beyond the old one.

A biblical eschatology hopes for the day when seemingly incompatible differences – Heaven and Earth, lion and lamb, beauty and ash – will find their union in the wideness of God’s mercy.

***

The LA Times recently awarded Pope Benedict the title “Pontiff of Aesthetics.” In this piece, Charlotte Allen praises His Holiness for reminding “an increasingly ugly and debased [world] that there is such a thing as the beautiful.”

But to Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict’s previous title) what constitutes beauty? Here is his answer from his message titled “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ.”

“In [Christ’s] face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes to the very end.”

For Pope Benedict, the definitive standard of beauty is Christ’s broken body. Calvary is horrifying, but where else are we to find redemption?

If we as Christian artists are to protect ourselves from sentimentality, we must always keep before our eyes the image of the risen Christ, reminding ourselves daily that even his resurrected body still bears wounds.

 

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