05 September 2012

Sproul on Art - Report #1

The church I attend, of the Orthodox Presbyterian sort, is watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on "art and theology" in its adult Sunday School class. This series is called "Recovering the Beauty of the Arts." There have already been four sessions, so I am behind in reporting on them. Be that as it may, here's a quick little summary of the first video.

The first lecture is "Lesson #1: Aesthetics in Recent History." That's rather badly titled, because this lesson includes a discussion of the arts in the Old Testament. Especially for a Presbyterian, that's not really recent history, but pretty much all of human history. In this lesson, Sproul gave a whirlwind tour of some attitudes towards the arts in church history, including:
- Old Testament condemnation of idolatrous uses of art and commendation of proper uses
- the 9th-century Iconoclasm controversy
- visual art serving as "books" for the illiterate in the Medieval European church
- the Reformation reviving a new iconoclasm; Luther thought people were addicted to images and needed a "time out" from visual art
- the Puritans [over-]reacted to the three misuses of artistic expression in worship.

Those three misuses are:

I'm not actually sure how they differ from one another; they all sound kind of the same to me.

But I skipped what Sproul started with, which was a great little talk about Goodness, Truth, & Beauty. He talked about that fact that various church traditions tend to emphasize one to the detriment of the others. I quite agree. My own "Reformed," "Evangelical" tradition definitely prioritizes "truth" (doctrine) over "goodness" (practice/morals/social justice) and both waaaaaaaaaay over "beauty" (the arts). Sproul said that the three above-mentioned abuses all substitute Beauty for Truth. The abuse of forms, he said, led to suspending their use.

Note that he only cover Church History. He didn't talk about how Romanticism, with its worship of the artist, may also be responsible for contemporary Christian fear of the arts. We may be over-reacting by failing to adequately appreciate artists. He did address the fact that Christian artists (by which he meant Christians in the arts -- which is quite a different animal, let me tell you) feel cut off from the Christian community. This is often because of a misconception that art is "worldly." Historically, of course -- and he noted this -- the Church has produced the greatest artists [of the "West," which he did not mention].

One of the greatest lines in his talk was "God Himself is Beautiful." Indeed. That alone is reason for us to make great art.

More later! Meanwhile, which does your church emphasize? Beauty, Truth, or Goodness?


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this summary. I have been ruminating on this very topic oh so very long.
Our own church emphasizes none of the above. I feel supported as an artist there, not because of beauty, but because they love me. Truth is Christ-centred experience, eucharistic, communal. And Goodness is not contrived, but flows out of that.
Part of that is our Galatians 2:20 understand of self-death. But really, we are a fourth focus: Community. Dangerously narcissistic and tranformationally beautiful, community is our focus.

Iambic Admonit said...

When you say that your church emphasizes none of the above, do you mean that they have a good balance of all three? Or that they neglect all three? Or that they are focused on Love and on the Person of Christ so much that all three become subsumed under the greater priority?

In any case, maybe your church would benefit from watching the series, even just as a foundation for dialogue.

jfutral said...
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jfutral said...

As Romanticism is more a counter-Elightenment movement, it probably has less to do with Christian fear of the arts than just straight up rationalism. Romanticism is probably closer to Wesley v Calvin, or charismatic v non-charismatic.

I don't think Romanticism precludes the Puritan 3 (formalism, etc.). And I think Romanticism is less about worship of the artist except that the artists free expression of their feelings is what is important to the art. It is internal and individualistic. Of course since it is so focused on the individual, a cult of personality is probably inevitable. I could be wrong on both counts, but I don't think so.

Personally I think rationalism and the Enlightenment have a more direct affect with Christian fear of the arts than not, at least in opposition to Romanticism. "Truth" is material. "Beauty" is immaterial. Art, concerned with immaterial things, is less concerned with "Truth", thus secondary, if not totally expendable. Especially if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can it be relied upon for "Truth"?

But then, the real question becomes who is the ultimate beholder? (I won't even get into the question, "But what is 'Truth'?" and why assume it is only material).


Rosie Perera said...

My church is pretty strong on Goodness (on a corporate level, peacemaking and social justice; on a personal level, becoming more Christlike) and Beauty (our sanctuary is also our art gallery, and we weave the arts into worship and sermons often).

Some might say we are weaker on Truth, but I think if we err there, we err in a good way. We approach Truth from a very non-doctrinaire stance. We do believe there is Ultimate Truth, but we wrestle with knowing what it is, and with whether we have a right to assert that we know what it is over others who understand it differently (a fairly postmodern way of viewing it), and how revealed truth in Scripture actually applies to us in our contemporary context. We believe Truth is complex, not always black and white, and we sometimes don't understand or agree with it, and we can argue back with God about it. In that sense, it's actually kind of a Jewish way of approaching it, even though we're Mennonite.

Anonymous said...

Responding to your question:
No, I don't think our church is good at the other three! We are strong on Truth--teaching, bible and theology. But Goodness is not well emphasized--either in holiness or mission. Some of that is an intentional rethinking of holiness, but mostly it is a fuzzy concept of mission and a milk-toddler age congregation. And Beauty? Not there. Some of our pop music is fine, and some well written. Our sermons are literary, as are devotional moments. But it is a butt-ugly building with little inspiration. We do decorate nicely at Christmas!

Iambic Admonit said...


You say "As Romanticism is more a counter-Elightenment movement, it probably has less to do with Christian fear of the arts than just straight up rationalism." That's a little hard to follow, but... I still think that a popularized notion of Romanticism has a huge effect on American artists culture. Indeed, it is really only the popularized, trickle-down versions of any philosophies, etc., that end up affecting the majority of people.

So: I do think that there is a popular notion about the worship of The Artist. The most blatant example I can think of is "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand. And since artist-worship is a popular notion, it makes a certain kind of sense that Christians would over-react by putting artists down, at least for a while, historically.

Iambic Admonit said...

Also, I find your idea that "Truth" is material and "Beauty" is immaterial original and thought-provoking. Rather Chestertonian. Of course, the general concept is that truth is immaterial (abstract, metaphysical) and that beauty is material (physical). Your idea is evocative, though.

jfutral said...

"The most blatant example I can think of is "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand. And since artist-worship is a popular notion, it makes a certain kind of sense that Christians would over-react by putting artists down, at least for a while, historically."

When you get into this territory, you are talking more about exerting power than fear. Well except in as much as one exerts power to control or subdue their fear. I know of a church that had a guest speaker from Africa. The pay for his speaking was going to be the offering taken afterward. The offering was taken with this expressed to the congregation. Afterward, the church leaders gave the speaker only a minor fraction of the offering because, as they said, to keep the speaker "humble".

That kind of behaviour is about power. Interestingly I find that much preaching about art often falls within this realm, to exert power, though the preachers would never admit to it. Particularly about what should and shouldn't be accepted as "art".

The Enlightenment pursuit of Truth is about measurable, experimental, definable, predictable, Material, not abstract universals. It is universal in as much it is un-reliant on something as unreliable as emotion or "taste".

Beauty is immaterial because it is "in the eye of the beholder", no matter the physical. The physical/material is only as important as it affect the immaterial emotions.

From this position, except as can be explained by evolution, beauty serves no purpose. if material, it is superfluous.

To the rationalist, beauty equates to art. Art is about how it makes you feel. Feelings are unreliable. Intellect is not.

(Just to be clear, this is not what I believe. This is what I have found others to believe. Especially those coming from a deep Modernity)