Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Worship and Beauty, and the Difference Between Them

I don't think of aesthetics when I think of lambs or bulls getting their throats cut and being bled to death, or when I think of the gruesome sights, the disgusting smells, or the death shrieks and shudders that accompanied the relentless slaughter in the temple of God.
I don’t think of aesthetics when I think of the prophet Isaiah coming apart at the seams, or of the apostle John falling down on his face as if he were dead, when they got even a passing glimpse of God, into whose hands, if you fall, it is nothing short of terrifying.  In other words, the alleged aesthetic dimension of worship and of life with God has often been radically overplayed.
I certainly do not think of aesthetics when I consider the bloody anguish and horrid execution of Jesus on the cross, or the harrowing of Hell itself:  profundity and love, yes; aesthetics, no.
Nevertheless, I repeatedly hear folks say that they chose their church and their denomination, and that they evaluate the quality of their worship, on the basis of aesthetics -- a choice and reason foreign both to the Bible, in general, and to Christ, in particular.  Neither in His religious practice nor His teaching, does Jesus employ the concept of beauty either as a reason or a justification.  In no way does He consider beauty determinative for religious observance, or, if He does, He is completely silent on the matter.  According to Jesus, that’s not what worship is about; that's not how it proceeds.  It’s the same for Paul, of course.  For him, proper Christian worship is a matter of unity, truth, and seemliness, as he argues in 1 Corinthians 11, not of beauty.  As an apostle, Paul was many things; aesthete was not among them.  If it were, he would have been awed, not appalled, by the worship in Athens.  Both Jesus and Paul knew full well that Yahweh commanded the ancient Jews to worship Him in the ways He did because those ways were right, not because they were prettier or more pleasant than the ways of the Hittites or the Amalekites.
I am not saying beauty is to be despised or in any way undervalued.  It is not.  But beauty is no way to judge worship or to pick a church, things to be judged by their conformity to Christ’s teaching and practice, not our sense of visual or musical harmony, and not according to our artistic tastes and preferences, regardless of how elevated or refined we think them to be.  You don’t judge basketball teams or fire escape drills by aesthetics.  That’s not what they are about.  The same goes for worship and church selection.  If you do, you are assessing worship and making church choices on the basis of irrelevancies and tangentials.  You don't judge the quality of worship by aesthetics any more than you do by humor.  It's not about beauty; it's not about funny. 
As Ninian Comper advised, if you must have a church building (and it is by no means certain that you must), then the best way to measure its worth is its ability to bring worshipers to their knees as soon as they enter -- which is by no means the same as its beauty.  Lots of quite beautiful churches fail the test; lots of rather eclectic, confused, and unsymmetrical churches do it rather well.  A dirty jail cell or the sight of a bloody cross, ugly as they are, might do it far better than a cathedral, whether Gothic or Romanesque.  One must bear always in mind the distinction made by Sir John Betjeman between fa├žade and faith, so that, as he said, ear and eye do not outrank soul.
I’m not arguing for ugly buildings or for out-of-harmony hymns, the lyrics and melody line of which are twisted, deformed, and ill-suited to the purpose.  Nor am I saying that because beautiful buildings tend to evoke in us an aesthetic response, which we often mistake for worship, we therefore need ugly churches.  We do not.  Neither ugly hymns nor ugly buildings are the norm either.
Aesthetics is not the point; nor is its absence.  Biblical worship is the point.  But you wouldn’t know that from listening to Christians. 

1 comment:

Joe said...

Well put. I will be sharing this post with others. Thank you for your thoughts.