God the Word, hidden in beauty

Chartres Cathedral

Over at Read the Fathers — where I’m now the lead admin — we recently finished reading Justin Martyr’s Apologies. My week-in-review of this/these texts was concerned with Justin’s Logos theology, principally the idea that God the Word, the Logos of John 1 (‘In the beginning was the Word…’) exists as the Logos spermatikos in the minds and hearts of humans, even of pagans.

The presence of the Logos spermatikos is the reason why Greek philosophy is capable of getting things so very right. God the Word exists in all correct reasoning, in all truth, whether a disciple of Jesus is the one who expresses it or not.

This has come into contact with something else that has been rattling about in my brain lately, namely that beauty is a vehicle for God as well.

First, two fragmentary stories. Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option, tells how the beauty of Chartres cathedral was foundational for cutting through his atheism and converting him to Roman Catholicism. Only a religion that would produce architecture so beautiful was worth believing.

Malcolm Guite, who blogs here, during the Laing Lectures at Regent College 2019, talked about his conversion to theism when visiting Rome. He was not converted by the splendour of St Peter’s or my dearly beloved late antique mosaics, but by a visit to Keats House, where he read some Keats, and found there a beauty that his own reductionistic unbelief could not accommodate. I do not know what Keats’ own faith was, but his poetry is not explicitly Christian — mind you, this was Guite’s stepping forth into theism, not yet into the embrace of Christianity.

Beauty stalks the earth abroad, despite the darkness of so much pain. It is in cathedrals and poems and music and freshly fallen snow.

Beauty points people towards God.

A third, even more fragmentary story. My cousin’s husband Georg once started telling me a story about one of his seminary professors. This professor discovered the Rolling Stones. And he loved them. He thought this music was great. It was beautiful. But it jarred against the sort of Christian sensibilities he had at the time. How could people who so clearly do not know Christ produce such good music? This is honestly as far as the story got, before we were interrupted. I think (but am not sure) that Abraham Kuyper came up.

How I think the story would have ended was that the beauty of God does not restrict itself to those who know Him. We are all made in the image of God, after all. And He is everywhere. And so pagans like the Rolling Stones can make amazing music.

Let us come back to Justin, then. Beauty is a sign that there is a God. It is evidence, like logic and truth and good philosophy, that Christ is at work in His world, in the lives of people. Therefore, not only can it help save a soul, as with Dreher and Guite, it also produces results in human hearts, hearts restless since they do not rest in the embrace of the Most Holy Trinity.

The upshot of this, then, is fairly simple and perhaps less complicated than what I have written. Just as the Church Fathers were glad to ‘spoil the Egyptians’ by taking the truths of pagan philosophy and putting them into the service of Christ, so should we recognise beauty when we see it, regardless of its maker — whether it is the beauty of the Rolling Stones or of Buddhist art from Gandhara or of Virgilian verse. Praise God for it.

And then, let us seek beauty where we can, and pray for it to draw our loved ones into the rich warmth of God’s love.

Faith and the arts

Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome (my photo)

At the start of this new year, my friend Talita from high school put on her debut concert as a singer-songwriter, livestreamed over Facebook (Thunder Bay, Ontario, is far from Durham, England) from the Urban Abbey. It was the story of her journey as a musician, and a good number of friends from high school as well as her dad and sisters made appearances on the platform, performing alongside her, including Ryan Marchand who is actually a rock star.

It was a wonderful event, and there was a strong element of Talita’s faith in the midst of the theme of her emergence as an artist. Many of the beautiful songs, including her own compositions, were songs of the Christian faith, reflecting the beautiful truths of our beautiful God. It was great to watch this event. And I am so glad that the Urban Abbey provides a space for artists — performers and others — to ply their trade.

But few churches and Christian communities really do. It’s probably seen by some as a hipster sort of move. Historically, however, churches have not needed to sponsor the arts so consciously as this — it was natural. Notker ‘the Stammerer’ was not Sankt Gall’s Artist in Residence (and certainly not a hipster), but he wrote them beautiful poetry. The mosaicists of Palermo were simply plying their trade. The anonymous liturgists of the Gelasian Sacramentary did not need to make special pleading in the church.

But today, spaces like the Urban Abbey can be rarely found.

In Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, one piece of wisdom Chris R. Armstrong imparts is for evangelicals to get into art more — that the Incarnation makes Christian art important. God Himself became His creation. All creatures matter. Not only this — and this is not from Armstrong but is Tolkien language also expressed by Sayers in The Mind of the Maker — but we are made in the image of God, and one of the foundational properties of theism is that Our God is Creator. We then, are sub-creators in some way.

Turning back to Armstrong, evangelicals have not always made good art. Think of the King of the Hill line about how Christian rock doesn’t make Christianity better but rock’n’roll worse. Armstrong mentions Richard Wilkinson’s study of English literature 1860-1960 that found the only orthodox Protestants producing high literary art worth mentioning in that century were C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both sacramental Anglicans. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worth thinking about.

How can we make great art and beauty a natural part of evangelical faith?

The Gospel — the evangel of evangelical — is the most beautiful true thing in the world. The God who dies. The myth that is real. The cosmic-rending reality of Incarnation. The piercing of the Virgin’s Mary’s soul. There is high drama here. It is worthy of great art, and great art has been made about Christianity forever.

People of faith have always made art, often of a very high degree of skill and beauty. Just think on the Parthenon and temples of the Acropolis, the Pantheon of Rome, the tales told of the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, or consider the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the calligraphy on the exteriors of so many mosques. Think of the Homeric Hymns, the Poetic Edda, the Rg Veda. Greek tragedy and comedy began as part of a religious festival.

Christianity, in its worship of the Triune God, has given us the beautiful prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the verse of Gregory of Nazianzus and Prudentius and Ambrose, the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance liturgy, the fine intricacies of ars anglicana embroidery, the hymns of Charles Wesley, of Romanos the Melodist, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Isaac Watts, of Notker the Stammerer, of J. M. Neale, as well as the architecture of liturgy — Hagia Sophia, St Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, the mosaics of Santa Prassede, of Palermo, of Hagia Sophia, of San Marco in Venice.

Beyond the formal worship event, Christianity has given us so much (and so much more than the following): The Dream of the Rood, Dante (!!), The Quest for the Holy Grail, Fra Angelico,  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Requiem, William Byrd, countless mosaics and frescoes throughout the Mediterranean world, the Christian Latin epics of Late Antiquity, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and so many more without delving into Protestantism.

For the churches descended from the Reformation have their own rich heritage in the arts. St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, the prose of the 1611 KJV Bible, Sir John Davies, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis (who was also Roman Catholic — he lived in interesting times), J. S. Bach, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Guite, and undoubtedly so many others who escape me just now.

Let us drink deep from the beauty of the beautiful God, and we shall produce beauty ourselves.

Ancient – no, historic – religion got me into this mess: Beauty

Beauty is not an added extra in our lives. In all sorts of areas, beauty enhances life, whether it is a walk by a river, a trip to a cathedral, a gaze upon your (own) wife. Or poetry, or rhythmic prose, or a well-cut suit. Or Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Byrd, the Beatles.

Beauty is an attribute of God. We are taught this. We are told, ‘Look at the world around you — rainbows, clouds, the stars at night, flowers, the South Pole of Jupiter, the Aurora Borealis.’ God is the Creator, and all creations reflect, to some degree, their creators.

Beauty is another reason, besides the three linked to at the end, that I tend towards liturgical worship. It nourishes my soul. I wanted to include it in my discussion of ancient Christianity and patristics, but I have to admit that, outside of some of the more beautiful prayers of the Divine Liturgies of St Basil (recently discussed here) and St John Chrysostom as well as of the Gelasian and Leonine Sacramentaries, my study of ancient religion has not had that much influence in terms of my philosophy or love of beauty.

Not that ancient Christianity was un-beautiful. Consider the mosaics of Rome’s ancient Christian basilicas, such as the triumphal arch of San Paolo fuori le Mura, dating to the 440s:

Nonetheless, my deep-seated appreciation for historic liturgy and beauty in our approach to God has more to do with mediaeval, Byzantine/Orthodox, and ‘Early Modern’ Christianity. First came the Book of Common Prayer; from ages 19-21, I found this book impossible to pray with at Sunday services. It was all lip-service for me. But when I was 21, I used Canadian 1962 Compline daily in Lent, and this re-shifted and re-shaped me. And — it was beautiful.

That Advent, I went to a high Tridentine Use Latin Mass at St Clement’s Church in Ottawa. This had a profound effect on me, and it is still difficult for me to put into words. Here I saw the worship of God in a way very different from the mix of pop music and modern liturgy I had been raised in and devoted to. It was an elegant, reverent dance. It seem that here was a way of approaching God that truly took into account his majesty. And — it was beautiful.

Then, the next September, I found myself in Cyprus. Icons, incense, Greek chanting. Not always actually to my aesthetic taste. But drawing me in over and over again to this day — I cannot help but find it attractive. Rich, powerful, involving all my senses. And, today, I find — it is beautiful.

I visited the Basilica San Marco in Venice, and the mosaics stopped me dead in my tracks. ‘Glory be to God,’ slipped from my lips. I crossed myself. I can never be Truly Reformed. Lush medieval mosaics, delicate Byzantine icons, rich Victorian stained glass. Well — it is beautiful.

Architecture as well: Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s in London, San Pietro in Vaticano, Santa Mario Maggiore — beautiful.

Running around throughout this, I find myself confronted with the beauty of John Donne’s poetry, the 1611 Bible’s prose, the BCP again and again. I am caught by the beauty beyond Christianity in my beloved Virgil and Ovid. And then I circle back to the elegant arguments of St Anselm and the theology of St Gregory Palamas which, if I do not always agree with it, is at least beautiful.

We worship a beautiful God, and we have centuries of rich resources of beauty at our fingertips.

Taken together with all the other things I have been saying about liturgy on this blog, why would we cast it aside in favour of un-beautiful forms of worship?


Ancient Religion Got Me Into this Mess: 1. Doctrines; 2. Sacraments; 3. Devotion

Loving the Book of Common Prayer 4: Beauty

Baskerville_titleOne of the (chief) reasons many people love The Book of Common Prayer is the beauty of its language (I have already blogged about catholicity, ‘Protestantism’, and theology). This past Thursday, this beauty was in full force at the evening Eucharist at my local Anglican church, as the clergyman’s rich voice read out Cranmer’s Preface for Whitsuntide (as in 1662; very different text in Canada’s 1962 BCP!):

THROUGH Jesus Christ our Lord; according to whose most true promise, the Holy Ghost came down as at this time from heaven with a sudden great sound, as it had been a mighty wind in the likeness of fiery tongues, lighting upon the Apostles, to teach them, and to lead them to all truth; giving them both the gift of divers languages, and also boldness with fervent zeal constantly to preach the Gospel unto all nations; whereby we have been brought out of darkness and error into the clear light and true knowledge of thee, and of thy Son Jesus Christ. Therefore with Angels, &c.

Beauty and theology! It is beautiful, catholic, and deeply theological. This preface encapsulates all that is best in the Prayer Book, I think.

I first found myself truly entering into the Prayer Book in Lent 2004. My Lenten observance that year was the praying of Compline every night before bed. Compline is not one of Cranmer’s or 1662’s offices, but it is in the Canadian BCP on page 722. I do not actually know where the service originated; I imagine it is Victorian.

Whatever the origins of this service of Compline, it is written with the same beauty of language as Cranmer/1662. The traditional Compline hymn, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, is presented in J. M. Neale’s translation:

Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world we pray
That with thy wonted favour thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
From nightly fears and fantasies;
Tread under foot our ghostly foe,
That no pollution we may know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
Through Jesus Christ, thine Only Son;
Who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
Doth live and reign eternally.

This is a wonderful, rhythmic Englishing of the hymn, and it is eminently memorisable — my wife and I often pray it aloud before going to sleep. One aspect of the sort of beauty found in the BCP and other, older English texts designed to be read aloud is their attention to the cadence and rhythm of the English language. This makes memorisation easier.

Now, I don’t want this series on the BCP to simply become a clash of liturgies. Other liturgies have their glories and their place. I am especially fond of the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great, myself, and I’ve blogged here before about some of the Late Antique and Early Medieval offerings that have touched me.

Nonetheless, if we are drawn to the beauty of the Prayer Book, this is because said beauty is often what other liturgical books lack. A few years after Neale’s ‘Before the ending of the day’ was embedded in my heart, I was browsing a Roman Catholic book shop, and I picked up a book of hours, flipping to Compline. What I found … oh! the horror! I do not now recall which book it was, but given that Neale is public domain, they should have stuck with the Anglicans in Englishing the Breviary. If not this actual translation, it was similar to the one in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

Before we reach the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
That in your mercy you will keep
A guard around us while we sleep.

As we to end of life draw near,
Console us Lord, remove our fear,
May we with light and grace be blessed
And find in you eternal rest.

Most loving Father, hear our plea!
You rule the world with equity,
Together with your only Son,
And with your Spirit, three in one.

I’m not saying this is bad. It’s just not as good, largely on aesthetic grounds, although the content of the two is remarkably different.

In a world stripped of beauty, where the natural world is turned into a moonscape in search for oil, where contemporary architecture is vapid and utilitarian and ugly, where people graffiti (and non-artistically!) all the time, where Naples is falling apart before your eyes, where unbeautiful and ugly and painful things occur — cancer, terrorism, earthquakes — beauty is an imperative.

Beauty is redemptive, even.

Christ came that we might have life, and life abundantly. (John 10:10) Beauty is abundant living. It is a reflection of the Creator Who is Himself Beauty in all His glorious Oneinthreeness.

And remember, ‘Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.’ (Psalm 96:9 BCP [Coverdale] & KJV)

Beauty in a world of darkness (Tallis & Black Mirror)

Yesterday morning, I decided to watch the first episode of the Channel 4 programme Black Mirror at the recommendation of a friend. There is a synopsis here on IMDB. I felt kind of dead inside afterwards. This is, of course, part of the point of TV shows like Black Mirror — to hold up a mirror of the darkness of the insane, twisted world we live in. And I understand that. And maybe — maybe — we even need that sometimes. When we become too complacent with living with the darkness and forgetting to kick at it until it bleeds daylight. When we accept brokenness as ‘normal’ and the depraved and misguided as acceptable.

Yesterday just after lunch I went out, and I turned my phone’s radio to BBC Radio 3, where they were broadcasting live the lunchtime Proms. It was Thomas Tallis. When Tallis died, William Byrd said, ‘Tallis has died, and music has died with him.’ I’ve expressed my delight in Renaissance music here before, specifically in relation to Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts. Well, I found myself quickly and easily caught up in Tallis’s music. I hope that this is what the heavenly choirs sing, because there is little music in this world more beautiful. It made my heart sing. I was happy and transported to another realm. Seriously. If I were alive in the 1500s, I would have a very hard time swallowing Heinrich Bullinger’s distaste for Renaissance music. I’m not sure I could ever be Reformed in that sense.

As I listened to Tallis, I thought about Black Mirror. In the episode I watched, the Prime Minister was forced into a horrible situation that involved committing a lewd act on television. One of the fictional commentators on the show said that this was the first truly great piece of art of the 21st century. Obviously fictional, but this is the sort of dark, shocking thing ‘real’ art seems to want these days.

Tallis, on the other hand. Well, Tallis is obviously after something else. Something bigger and better. The sixteenth century is not all glorious light and beauty. It’s not all the chapel at Hampton Court Palace or the art in Venice’s Accademia. It’s not all St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s not all Cranmer’s Prayer Book or Shakespeare’s plays. It is also disease and death and filth and squalor and war and uncertainty and treason and changing political regimes and changing religious regimes and all the usual dirt and muck and sorrow and darkness of the world.

Tallis does not stoop down into the muck, pick up a handful of it, and compose music of dissonance and cacophony that reflects that. He does not put the sh*t of England on display (and yes, it must be that crude word to gain full force) and call it ‘art’. Instead, he raises his eyes to the heavens, to the rolling spheres. He looks to the beauty of God’s creation and man’s artistry. And he makes something that is fitting to the majesty of the Creator God — something that can raise us up beyond the muck and mire.

The world is an uncertain place today, just as it was in the days of Tallis. But I prefer Tallis’ approach, the approach of redemptive beauty. He puts the texts of Scripture and the liturgy to stunning, inescapably beautiful music. With Tallis, I am able to rise above the dirty filth of the Internet age. With Tallis, I can encounter the sublime. This is a great and terrible good. It is not escape, but rather refuge and solace.

The music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the poetry of Donne, the sermons of Andrewes — these are moments of glistening beauty that strike us at our hearts, shot straight from the bow of the Renaissance. And they are moments that are there to help us survive the disease and uncertainty and sorrow and pain and woe and terror that beset us every day, whether in the news or on the internet or down the street or across the stairway or in our own homes.

On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.

A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.

Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)
A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
He can’t help but be pale when carved out of ivory. Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):

Beauty.

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’

Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.

As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.

This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.

Christ in Glory
Blond Jesus, from Haworth Parish Church (my pic)

People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.

Chinese Jesus, ca. 1879 (thanks, Franciscans!)

And He is Beautiful.