Protestants in the arts seem to be caught in a holding pattern of vision casting. In his recent book Senses of the Soul, the prominent evangelical theologian William Dyrness suggests that despite a surge of interest in the arts in Protestant intellectual life, there is still a “residual suspicion” regarding the arts in Protestant congregations. For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts is therefore a regrettably necessary, and largely effective, attempt to once more address Protestant distrust of the arts—which is arguably an inextricable groove of Reformation DNA.
Andy Crouch provides a fresh spin on his culture-making thesis, Eugene Peterson is characteristically sagacious, offering art-related anecdotes from a life of pastoral ministry, and Lauren Winner paints a persuasive justification for purchasing art even while the poor are still with us. Jeremy Begbie spurs artists to be “hopefully subversive.”
New voices are included as well. David Taylor, the book’s editor, provides some hard-earned lessons from liturgical experimentation gone awry. Josh Banner offers sound advice on how to critique other artists without extinguishing smoldering wicks.
For the Beauty of the Church gives us reason to hope that Protestant churches have come to a new level of liturgical maturity, understanding the necessity for restraint, humility, and historical precedent when enhancing the worship with art. John Witvliet, the director of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, rightfully criticizes churches for being overly-experimental and ignoring the irreducibly communal nature of liturgical art: “[A]ccessibility—a dangerous and controversial criterion for artists—is a significant and legitimate factor in preparing and evaluating art for worship.”
Unfortunately, however, the same book gives us reason to think that the necessarily conservative nature of liturgical art hasn’t been adequately grasped. Begbie helpfully reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s famous insistence that mastery of tradition precedes originality; but he also asks pastors: “Are you prepared to allow artists room to provoke the church to venture into risky arenas of novelty—a fresh ‘take’ on a parable, a hitherto unexplored zone of culture?” Banner describes the role of pastor as talent agent (don’t they have enough to do already?), and suggests that pastors “create a safe place for artist to risk.”
In the book’s introduction, Luci Shaw worries that the great flood of artful beauty in the church will “narrow its course into the well-worn channels permitted by tradition or custom.” Interestingly, the great American theologian John Nevin saw the liturgical deficiencies of American Protestantism more than a century ago, and inverted Shaw’s metaphor: “Rather than seeking novel forms of expression,” explains historian James Nichols, “Nevin held … the spirit of devotion flows best in long consecrated channels.”
For the Beauty of the Church shows a degree of respect for such long consecrated channels, but considering the weekly flashfloods of liturgical recklessness and irreverence that, Sunday after Sunday, douse helpless Protestant worshippers, it might have shown more. To be fair, screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi’s essay does provide the most direct advice on pursuing artistic vocations outside the church, a New Maritainian description of what it means to be an artist in pursuit of beauty. It is telling, however, that she is Catholic.
Indeed, the last century’s most accomplished thinker on theological aesthetics, Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Catholic, understood the dilemma with a disconcerting clarity. Surveying the history of Protestantism, he traced a perpetual feud between those who valued aesthetics too highly (Hegel, Schleiermacher) and those who reacted to such an over-valuation (Kierkegaard, Bultmann). The most serious recent attempt to reinstall beauty into the Protestant system, according to Balthasar, came from Karl Barth.
Yet even Barth could not completely extricate himself from the feud. He valued beauty highly, but was sufficiently suspicious of its dangers to limit its role within theology, let alone beyond it. Consequently, Balthasar asked an uncomfortable question:
Should we go the way of Karl Barth, who rediscovers the inner beauty of theology and revelation itself? Or (and this is perhaps implicitly included in Barth’s position), may it not be that we have a real and inescapable obligation to probe the possibility of there being genuine relationship between theological beauty and the beauty of the world.
Balthasar’s parenthetical escape clause aside, perhaps it is the case that a Protestant theology cannot fully engage beauty and the arts outside the church without surrendering the priority of revelation. Barthians will point to Barth’s lifelong love of Mozart, which lead him, though only in an end of life Retractiones of sorts, to the possibility of “secular parables” of the gospel outside the church.
Others, especially those in the domain of visual art, will insist this was too little, too late. Should Protestants think about this matter deeply, they may be swept into the Balthasarian project, well aware of its Roman end point. “Whoever loves beauty,” lamented the Protestant Gerhard Nebel, “will, like Winckelmann, freeze in the barns of the Reformation and go over to Rome.” It is no wonder that when David Taylor lists Protestant thinkers in the realm of theology and art, he discreetly consigns Catholic and Orthodox contributions to a courteous endnote.
Unless of course, Protestants rediscover their barn's blazing, but neglected, fireplace. Beauty is the guiding motif to Jonathan Edwards’ thought, and plays a greater role in his work than even in Balthasar’s or Augustine’s. (Amazingly, Edwards, the great theologian of beauty, makes not a single appearance in Balthasar’s encyclopedic theological aesthetics.)
Should we politely excuse ourselves from Germanic debates, Protestants can find in Edwards a theological canopy under which the arts can both flourish inside the church, and outside of it as well. As he wrote: “All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory; God . . . is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty.”
Dyrness is right to suggest that to thrive in the aesthetic arena, Protestants need to “allow themselves to be enriched by the Catholic and Orthodox past, that is in fact, also their own.” But Jonathan Edwards provides a compelling, home-grown Protestant resource as well. Here is the Protestant vision that might be expansive enough, one that can answer Balthasar’s troubling question.
Edwards’ thought can certainly underwrite the liturgical enhancement that For the Beauty of the Church does so much to encourage. But the pulsating centrality of aesthetics in Edwards’ theology may be enough to underwrite the endangered beauty of the art world as well. For the Beauty of the Church “outlines a vision for the church and the arts for the next fifty years,” which is an important, even urgent ambition. But to ensure its success, we best begin by looking two hundred and fifty years back.
Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com.