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.

 

  • EricG

    Great post! I know virtually nothing about art, but have been intrigued by psychologist Richard Beck’s book Authenticity of Faith, which talks about the “Kinkade effect” in Christian art – many Christians prefer to see Eden in art, not the ashes, as you put it. He has a theory that some people use faith to avoid existential anxieties and fear of death. He ran a study to test this with respect to art; Christians in the study generally preferred kitchy guardian angel stuff to even master-level art, and when Christians were primed by a reminder of death this preference increased.
    His book got me interested in art by Tim Lowly, who is a Christian and whose art depicts his severely handicapped daughter. It isn’t all ashes, but shows beauty in apparent brokenness. He gave an interesting lecture about his work, which was followed by someone speaking about how the blues combines ashes and beauty, as you put it. I wish there were more of that in in the Christian art and music world (or that I knew how to find it).

    • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

      Hey Eric,

      Thanks for reading. I’ve heard of the “Kinkade Effect,” although I haven’t read Beck’s book. I will check it out, and Lowly’s art. Thanks for the recommendations!

      If you’re looking for something to read, the book featured above, “The Beauty of God,” is fantastic! There’s even a section in there about jazz. The essay deals with the call-response nature of authentic jazz music, and talks about the “Oui, Oui,” or “Amen” aspect of Christian dialogue with the Spirit.

      Blessings!
      Brandon

      • EricG

        Thanks Brandon – that books sounds very interesting, and I will check it out.

  • http://culturemonk.wordpress.com culturemonk

    Splendid post,

    I was born a couple years before the death of Francis Schaeffer but his writings and ability to use art as a mode of philosophical conversation was a major factor in my progression away from evangelicalism and toward a deeper more satisfying expression Christianity. Schaeffer in many ways helped soften my calloused evangelical heart toward Orthodoxy and Catholicism (and other non-evangelical forms of christianity) but most importantly he helped foster my lifelong love of the arts on every realm.

    Thanks for the post, it reminded me of a lot of the stops along my journey thus far.

    Kenneth

  • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

    Kenneth!

    Thanks for these comments. I have always enjoyed reading Schaeffer. I actually ordered his “Art and the Bible” at the same time as “The Beauty of God.” Both were important to the development of my Christian Aesthetic.

    Blessings!
    Brandon

  • bobson

    In my world I see the work of two artist on a regular basis. One is Thomas Kincaid (everywhere!) and his paintings are wonderful. They always look like you can step inside and be in the painting, but when I step back all I can say is “oh, that’s pretty”.
    I have a number of paintings by a friend that has never sought fame as an artist and fame has not found him. Most people glance at these paintings and distort their face in disgust or or comment that they are bizzare. The people who stop and look, keep looking. They often want to go to the place in the painting but in reality the place is my friends mood that day; or they may start to cry for the woman in one painting, a woman with no expression at all but who draws out the viewers expression. OK, so I have my preference.

    Recently I have started thinking that the christian community should be more like an artist colony than a church. Free expressions of joy, beauty, pain and all the other facets of creation. Free to express the freedom we have as christians. Instead those who do express themselves stand out, not the norm. Anyhow, just thinking.

    • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

      Yes, it is curious that we stand out for expressing ourselves… seems strange. Good observation.

  • rvs

    Sentimental solipsism–an intriguing phrase. Useful. I am reminded suddenly of Butters from South Park–his “beautiful sadness” speech to Stan, which is inappropriate and righteous at the same time. As far as authentic Christian sentimentality goes, I hope more Christians revisit Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. That’s Christian art! Thanks for this great post.

  • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

    I’m going to read Sterne’s piece you’ve mentioned. My favorite work of literature ever is Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy.”

    Also… looking up Butters’ speech right now. :)

    Blessings,
    Brandon

    • rvs

      Tristram Shandy–so great! I like Tristram Shandy better than A Sentimental Journey, but the latter has my favorite ending in all of literature. The speech/Butters–I’d prefer that he would find another way to characterize the adorable goth kids, but the gist of the speech is tremendous and funny.

  • gingoro

    My husband kindly passed on you article as it directly touches on my own field. I am a visual artist working in fibers, though I have had shows with both sculpture and paintings. I did a masters in worldview studies at the Institute of christian studies in Toronto where my theses was on the value of making things, both practical and fine arts. It was there that my background in the born again ( and then what ?)background was radically changed . Good old reformed theology had room for a place for Christian art. I found that by using the categories of Creation, The Fall and Redemption it gave me a framework to work within. By this I mean that God created all that there is (and I’m open as to how and how long, just that what He made was good. In the Fall everything was broken. There isn’t a single thing that hasn’t been affected, including us Christians. But in the Redemption category God puts us to work in bringing about some transformation in whatever area we are in. Thus in my work I face the distortions caused by all this brokenness but try to find ways of saying this isn’t the end of the story. There is still beauty in these ashes.

    • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

      I’d love to see some of your work. Do you have a link?

      Blessings!

  • Sue

    Of course the image at the top of this essay was taken from the unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter movie The Passion by Mel Gibson. A movie in which the “hero” is systematically beaten to death.
    My advice would be to run as fast as you can from any religion that uses such a horrific movie as a missionary tool to promote its message. Remembering that at the time of its release it was promoted as a great missionary tool.

  • Sue

    The aesthetic experience (including the necessary great and sublime perceptual experience of real and true beauty) is not merely a “nice idea”. Rather, the aesthetic experience of Real and True Beauty – or the aesthetic and artistic Self-Manifestation of The Beautiful ITSELF – is a human necessity, even fundamental to the structure of the human body-mind-complex.
    The aesthetic experience of Real and True Beauty is neurologically based, or pre-”wired” into the human nervous system and brain.
    Any counter-aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) effort (or any effort that opposes, or runs counter to, the beauty-wired aspect of the human structure) is, in effect, a form of abuse of the human being – and of the necessary right acculturation of humankind as a whole.

    Which of course means that in no uncertain terms the film The Passion by Mel Gibson is/was a profoundly negative anti-cultural event. A full-frontal assault on the feeling-heart of its audience. An in-your-face abomination!

    The true and traditional purpose of Sacred Art is to draw the human being into the sphere of The Beautiful Itself via the aesthetic experience – in which the entire brain and nervous system, and indeed the entire body-mind and active life, is profoundly tuned to The Beautiful Itself.

    Such a purpose is of course impossible for anyone who watches The Passion by Mel Gibson!

    There is a profound intrinsic necessity for such a kind of vibratory participation in Beauty , or The Beautiful Itself, beyond conventional yes and no, beyond conventional beauty and conventional ugliness, and beyond conventional socially defined/constructed conventional “realism”.
    Such human profundity is a great and necessary purpose, which True Art (and. altogether, true culture and right civilization) should and must serve.

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  • ChrisB.

    Thank you for this.

    I am a songwriter, as well as a sort “non traditional” Christian (I love Cynthia Bourgeault, Meister Eckhart, and Buddhism).

    Because I’m a musician, people often rave to me about how amazing the worship band is at their church. And I try to sort of kindly say that I’m more into traditional hymns. Semi recently I attended a Pentecostal service where the band played a song that basically repeated “You’re a good, good God” over and over. And I could hardly keep myself from screaming, “that’s neither a prayer or a song!” So much of modern worship music and “Christian Rock” seems to me to be built on this notion that “God is really cool and awesome” and while that’s not offensive to me or anything, it seems in human terms to not actually be saying anything and in spiritual terms it sort of says too much. Because there’s no poetry, no metaphor.

    I need something more like this:
    “Who are these like stars appearing,
    these, before God’s throne who stand?
    Each a golden crown is wearing;
    who are all this glorious band?”

    Now we’re talking.

    • http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/ Brandon

      What beautiful lines! And what a great way of putting it… some Christian worship music doesn’t really say much.

      My heart delights with lines as these: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love…”

      Blessings,
      Brandon

      • ChrisB.

        That’s a great one too.

        Incidentally I liked your “Giving Up God For Lent” piece. One of my favorite mantras, is something that Meister Eckhart said, “I pray God to rid me of God.” In other words, I pray to God to rid me of my preconceived idea of God; I pray to God to rid me of the God I’ve created in my own image.

  • J.L. Schafer

    The comments about the orthodox priest wearing black reminds me of Johnny Cash:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXRmJyIyJbM&feature=player_embedded

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