The Center of Things
My last article discussed gun violence and, entirely predictably, I got some flak for this. One of the responses I got mixed American nationalism with Christianity (which is also entirely predictable). As some of you are aware from previous articles of mine I think mixing nationalism and Christianity is a dangerous thing. Fundamentally, nations don’t work the way Jesus does. Nations become great by playing a game in which a lot of people lose. Global power is a zero-sum game – if one nation wins another loses. Being for a specific nation inevitably means being against other nations who want to export the same goods, have influence in the same places, or are otherwise competitors. Christianity demands something very different, something that isn’t zero-sum and which isn’t out to make some people lose.
I use the unholy alliance of Christianity and nationalism as an example but it’s one of many where Christianity and the thing it is being allied to are methodologically very different. It can be very hard to proof-text these things, though. A general sense for methods is just not something that comes out of one or two verses. However, there is a sense that we have that covers these sorts of differences and I want to make a case that this sense is far more central to the Christian life than we normally think. This sense is our sense of beauty.
Our sense that things are beautiful (or revolting) is an integrative sense. There’s no one simple characteristic that makes something beautiful all the time without question. Instead, we synthesize a lot of material to decide that something is beautiful. Because of this, beauty is hard to measure. Also because of this, beauty is sensitive to the interplay of factors that are otherwise hard to sense. For instance, it is hard to measure directly whether something is done in a callous manner. However, most of us feel revulsion when we witness something done in a callous manner. We already have a sense tuned to make a moral judgment that is also an aesthetic judgment on something that is hard to measure. If we found Christ’s ethics beautiful we would (to return to our opening example) find the way nations compete to be revolting.
Most Christians already use this sense to some extent. Most Christians, for instance, would find a ceremony that involved idol-worship to be strongly off-putting. Most Christians find certain Christian symbols and ceremonies beautiful because of their connections to their own lives of faith. (Of course, the specifics often differ between people.) I would like to propose that there is a very strong role for this sense. If we can learn to find beauty in God’s works and be revolted by the works of the world and the devil we will be automatically steered right.
Let me state this more strongly: while we often think of Christianity as being at its core a set of doctrines it is instead a sense of beauty. There’s a common stereotype (common because some people really do live it out) of a person who knows doctrine backwards and forwards but whose faith is inactive and dead. On the other hand, if one finds God’s redemptive work stunningly beautiful one can’t be dead or inactive about that.
One of the reasons I focus on beauty is that it’s not really an emotional response. Emotional responses, the frequent counter to what is seen as cold logic, are inherently ephemeral. Emotions just don’t last. There are plenty of people who live their lives of faith trying to stay hopped up on emotion all the time and think they are bad people when they fail. However, I don’t know anyone who says, “That work of art is only stunning when I’m in a great mood already.” Beauty is compelling regardless of how we feel right now. It is more enduring than a fleeting emotional high but it is still connected to something very active in us.
Beauty is also connected to logic. The more one studies the Scriptures the more their complex beauty unfolds. The simple story of the gospels as commonly told is something well within the grasp of most children. Because of this it is, let’s face it, rather dull. Yes, it’s got some nice emotional elements but it’s not a good novel that you’ll ponder and find new excitement in. (I suspect that many children begin to drift away from Christianity in their teens in part because we do not keep pace with them very well and tell them our stories at a level that simply isn’t engaging for their growing minds.) The Bible, by contrast, always has new excitement. There’s always another fascinating way God is at work, another complex thing that draws us in and makes us think, “That’s amazing.” The more we study the Scriptures the more we find to be fascinated by. However, the role of good reading should always be to reveal these compelling things to us. If we are not drawn in by God’s work what is it doing in us?
Of course, learning to find God’s plan for the world beautiful isn’t easy. We all prefer our own power, our own aggrandizement, and our own good. However, there are huge advantages to finding beauty if God. If we learn to love what God loves we will rapidly find even deviations that are hard to express are off-putting. I, personally, find the way that many churches sell the gospel revolting. We sell Jesus like we sell a car or a tube of toothpaste. When I sell you a car I don’t sell it to you because you need a car, I sell it to you because I need to sell a car. When I give away cookies I don’t do nearly the same thing – people want cookies, I just need to alert them to the presence of cookies. Since Jesus and His works are beautiful why would I ever sell Him like He’s not? Instead, I’d try and show people His beauty and let them be drawn in. This isn’t easy to phrase. It’s not clear exactly where the line is between trying to show people Jesus and selling Jesus like a used car. However, while I can’t give you rules for that line I can tell you when I feel like you’re taking God’s grandeur and cheapening it.
Christianity is a thing of beauty. It’s a story about God’s love for the world unfolding to transform it and all its citizens. Christianity has a beating heart, a living center, something worth sharing. Let’s not sell our faith short. At the end of the day we’re talking about something so stunning in its wonder that it should take our breath away. Anything less isn’t God’s great work.