Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Aesthetic Contradictions

Excerpted from State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe by Gene Edward Veith, Jr., (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), 220-221.

I am of the opinion that theological traditions should not change their worship practices simply to accommodate cultural or aesthetic trends. I have seen Baptists try to be liturgical and I have seen Lutherans try to be informal. Believe me, in either case, it was not a pretty sight. Neither side can quite pull it off. The free-wheeling spontaneity of a revival service fits perfectly a spirituality built around religious experience and “decisions for Christ.” The intense concentration, timelessness, and sense of the holy in a traditional Lutheran service corresponds to their emphasis on the objectivity of grace and to the spiritual efficacy of the Word of God. Both styles of worship have an integrity of their own. The style fits the theology, a congruity of form and content which, whether or not visual images are employed, is essentially “artistic.”

A Baptist preacher dressing up in vestments and swinging an incense burner is ludicrous, as is a Catholic priest conducting mass in jeans and a T-shirt while playing a guitar. The sense of absurdity comes from an aesthetic contradiction — the form and content do not go with each other. The problem is not with the clothes or the artistic accessories. The preacher could get away with the guitar and maybe even a T-shirt. The priest could handle the vestments and incense. An individual might come to believe that a particular theological position is correct and, on that basis, change to another mode of worship. Changing the styles without changing the theology, however, is more than discordant. The form communicates the content, so that changing the style changes the message, whether it is intended to do so or not.

Changing churches out of theological conviction is certainly legitimate. One should never switch churches, however, purely on the basis of aesthetic preference. To choose or reject a church on the basis of how good a choir it has, the attractiveness of the sanctuary, or the aesthetic impact of its liturgy is to trivialize that church and to misapply its art. Churches are not to be concert halls, museums, theaters, or entertainment centeres. The focus should be on the content of what the church teaches — its understanding of the Word of God and its faithfulness to the gospel. Art can express that understanding and that faithfulness to varying degrees, but art should not be confused with or take the place of theology.


Bob Hunter said...

Great article that should be sent to every Ablaze! church.

RevFisk said...

Great book!