Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Christian Beauty

I've been thinking about this a bit recently. I think one of the implications that we (or me as a conservative evangelical at any rate) often miss of Christ is that he transforms our notion of beauty via the renewing of our mind (Rom 12:2). So part of what it means to be living as a Christian is to be displaying this sense of beauty (and to be becoming more truly beautiful ourselves as we come closer to Christ).

It would be easy to make one of the mistakes Hillsong are sometimes characterised as making here and then using the world's notion of beauty to inform how we should be becoming, but it's rubbish. And it's easy to criticise them as they are stereotyped, but at least they got far enough to realise there was an issue of beauty to be considered!

Here are a couple of quotes that illustrate something of what I mean?

But when the church puts belief into practice, in relation to man and to nature, there is substantial healing. One of the first fruits of that healing is a new sense of beauty. The aesthetic values are not to be despised. God has made man with a sense of beauty no animal has; no animal has ever produced a work of art. Man as made in the image of God has an aesthetic quality, and as soon as he begins to deal with nature as he should, beauty is preserved in nature.
Francis A Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man

Grasped in its proper Trinitarian depth, the gospel narrative not only breaks down all human perceptions of beauty, goodness, and truth, but reorients these broken perceptions around the centre to which it bears witness, and in this way reconstitutes and perfects them. Jesus' cross and resurrection are like a magnetic point around which history and culture take on a shape which could not be anticipated from any perspective they themselves provide, and which they could not otherwise have assumed...
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama

So what does this Christian conception of beauty look like?

The obvious answer is "Jesus", but it's also surprisingly deep. Do we think of Jesus as beautiful? Do we think of the woman's costly and humiliating devotion to Jesus (Matt 26, Mark 14) as beautiful? Do we think of the preaching of Christ as beautiful (Rom 10:25)? Do we think of the gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet 3:4) as beautiful?

There's some more thinking that needs to be done here...


Daniel Hill said...

You might like to look at
or at:
Delattre, Roland André, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of. Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968).

Anonymous said...

Have you ever noticed how traditional Calvinist churches were notable (and perhaps still are) by the conspicuous absence of any sense of Beauty or the Beautiful.

John said...

Anon - yes, that's why I'm saying it.

I'd expect Edwards to be one of the few Calvinists who got it more closely right. Thanks for the link Daniel; their server seems to be down and i'll try to read the link when it's back up.

Anonymous said...

I may be completely off base in my understanding of what you are getting at but I wrote this poem (such as it is)about how my becoming a Christian changed the way I saw the world around me.

Heaven and Earth’s Song

The mountains seem more majestic,
The trees stand tall and proud
The flowers more brilliantly colorful,
The birds more lovely sound.

The clouds now move with purpose,
The wind a message brings,
The stars twinkle in agreement,
The moon a chorus sings.

All nature recalls in native tongue
What was and again will be,
Of the rumored glory before the fall
A yearning that echoes deep in me.

Anonymous said...

Am I alone in thinking that much that passes for worship in churches is insipid, bland and devoid of beauty?

Banal choruses with moronic tunes, crusty hymns with language that is centuries out of date, rather twee, and often written by someone called 'fanny'. Garish banners that look like supermarket sales offers, and church interiors that stink of varnish and cleaning agents.

I have to confess that worship -wise, attending modern church services does very little for me in preparing myself to worship God.

Recently I was listening to Steeleye Span's' Gaudette. I found it a really uplifting song to listen to although it is sung in Latin. The words and composition are simply wonderful with Maddy Prior's clear and beautiful voice solo lifting up one's heart in praise.

How I wish there was more like it in modern worship.

Anonymous said...

nice to see madeline bassett contributing.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, That was unkind (though funny) and not true - though to be fair you wouldn't know it from the example given. However, nature is more lovely, even in its fallen state than the most beautiful man made cathedral. Someday it will be restored (re-created actually) to its former by the Logos.

Anonymous said...

For anonymous (with apologies to Adrian Plass)


A little birdie tweets and flits,
A voice says tenderly
"Oh perch upon the sturdy bough, And twitter just for me"

Dear birdie lifts his tiny beak
To sing full loud and strong,
The woodland creatures cock their ears,
To hear that warbling song.

Why sing now so loud and sweet?"
Tom Badger wants to know,
"Because" our birdie sweetly trills " I love my saviour so".

Tom Badger calls his merry friends
From all across the shire
"Come let us be" he gaily cries,
" A joyous woodland choir!"

Like brave Tom Badger and his friends,
Our song should loudly ring,
As with you faithful birdie sweet,
We twitter for our king.

Anonymous said...

Very cleverly done and I am undone, but finished. Truce.

John said...

I think you're right though debi, and iconoclast, though I don't know Gaudete (must look it up at some stage).

John said...

And pridespurge (or whatever you want to be called) - that probably was out of order...

Anonymous said...


You can find Gaudette on You Tube at

The English translation from the Latin can be found by googling 'Gaudette'

Maddy Prior IMO has a God given voice.

I confess that it was I behind the Adrian Plass ditty.

You will notice that I aimed it at anonymous because I indeed thought he was being unkind to you. I thought he might like to have his own personal prose directed to him from Ms Bassett herself.

Your poetic efforts are in fact very good and you should develop them and not be put off by anonymous-type barbs.

Apologies Custard, if this was taken the wrong way. My intention was to stick up for Debi.

Anonymous said...

Apology accepted and thank you. No harm done.

Anonymous said...

Custard, (and Debi)

Here are the words for Gaudete with the English translation. This really does something for me spiritually when I listen to it sung by Steeleye Span.


Gaudete, gaudete Christos est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete.

Tempus ad est gratiae hoc quod optabamus,
Carmina laetitiae devote redamus.

Gaudete, gaudete Christos est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete.

Deus homo factus est naturam erante,
Mundus renovatus est a Christo regnante.

Gaudete, gaudete Christos est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete.

Ezecheelis porta clausa per transitor
Unde lux est orta sallus invenitor.

Gaudete, gaudete Christos est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete.

Ergo nostra contio psallat jam in lustro,
Benedicat domino sallas regi nostro.

Gaudete, gaudete Christos est natus
Ex Maria virginae, gaudete


Rejoice, Rejoice!
Christ is born
Of the virgin Mary,

It is now the time of grace
That we have desired;
Let us sing songs of joy,
Let us give devotion.

God was made man,
And nature marvels;
The world was renewed
By Christ who is King.

The closed gate of Ezechiel
Has been passed through;
From where the light rises
Salvation is found.

Therefore let our assembly now sing,
Sing the Psalms to purify us;
Let it praise the Lord:
Greetings to our King.

Anonymous said...

Iconoclast, I checked youtube out and have to agree that the female singer has a beautiful voice. I did enjoy listening to Steeleye Span's' Gaudette (not that I'd ever heard of either Steeleye Span or Gaudette before). I'm glad you put the English words up, it certainly made it more meaningful. Thanks, I would probably never have been aware of this.

Anonymous said...

crusty hymns with language that is centuries out of date, rather twee, and often written by someone called 'fanny'.

Iconoclast, This would be Fanny Crosby you're talking about? Fanny Crosby who was blinded in early childhood by a botched medical treatment, whose husband died early and whose only daughter died in infancy? The Fanny Crosby who still managed to write hymns to God's praise? Could you do as much in her position?


Unknown said...

I like this post.

I often wonder if what you are speaking of is why a lot of conservative reforms and evangelicals miss out when Paul says, "All of Creation speaks of Gods glory" And we can actually see the beauty of God in and through his creation, sunsets,etc.

The mark of sin is shame and guilt and the easiest way to demonstrate it is to jump out of the shower and look at ourselves in a full length mirror without shame, horror and disgust. If that is our attitude towards ourselves have we really had our minds renewed and had a true revelation as to what the Blood of Jesus has truly done in covering and washing away all our sins.

Anonymous said...


I was not criticising Fanny Crosby per se but more the linguistic and musical styles in which hymns like hers were written which reflect her times but are so far removed from our present culture.

I always get the impression when singing many 18th and 19th Century hymns that I am in a time warp hearkening back to a era where piety was more widespread and traditional church going was the norm. It seems quaint and unreal to me. I simply cannot relate to that kind of style.

That's not to say that Fanny Crosby wrote some very fine hymns that reflected both her own experience of God and the amazing fortitude that she displayed with her blindness. Being of no musical talent whatsoever I could not begin to compete with her, but singing her hymns as also those of many of her contemporaries, does not get me into an attitude of worship.

All modern hymns and songs are not necessarily good either. A lot of modern material while not being old and crusty makes me feel as if I am at a football match rather than worshipping God in church.

I have been increasingly drawn to liturgies that are sung in Latin which although being old, for reasons I cannot yet explain, do bring me into an attitude of worship, Gaudete being but one example.

One particular modern chorus that makes me cringe has a line which if you listen carefully, can be made to rhyme with

'I'm a Gibbon!'

Otepoti said...

singing her hymns [...]does not get me into an attitude of worship.

But, Iconoclast, why are you waiting for the songs to do that for you? Aren't the hymns/psalms/spiritual songs primarily a response of confession/prayer/thankfulness to God?

Many of the crustier hymns from our psalter hymnal are not much to my taste, either, but applying the words to my heart as I sing is both humbling and encouraging.

a. they bring a sense of unity with the church in many times and places

b. they remind me that the value of worship in God's sight is quite a separate issue to what I find pleasing

c. I can take a moment to thank God for the lives of faithful hymn writers, viz. Crosby, Newton, Cowper, Doddridge, Kendrick.

d. Since I remember when I excoriated "What a Friend we have in Jesus" as a piece of snivelling Victoriana, I can see where I've come from, and be thankful that, unlike me, God is not proud.

The Steel-eye Span Gaudete - I first heard that in 1979/80! Yes, it's very jolly, but do remember that Latin is just what everyone used to speak - it has no special virtue for worship of itself.


John said...

It's good and fairly standard early Christian music - thanks.

I have a liking for songs in Latin and Greek, but only because I'm ok at them as languages. Why? Because it gives me a feeling of continuity with all the Christians who have gone before. Latin was the main language of Christianity from about 500 to about 1500, and Greek the language of the Early Church.