Brit on the Backroads

“Snarfflewood Meadow” by David Yapp

I just learned that my friend, David Yapp, has been writing a column for a California newspaper about his experiences painting in the Sierra foothills. Today while I was at work I got my phone to “read” me his various articles, and found them truly a delight. My only disappointment was when I exhausted all his articles and didn’t have any more left to read.

David’s writing, like his paintings, have a way of drawing the reader into a world that is both ordinary and wonderful. Moreover, his articles give a transparent, if sometimes unflattering, glimpse into the quirks and oddities of California people and animals, from a mysterious killer goose to a Merlot-loving bear.

Check it out David’s column at The Mountain Democrat, as well as his beautiful array of oil paintings.

Posted in Art

The Robin & Boom Show #09 – Conversation with Steven Schloeder on Ecclesiastical and Civic Architecture

What do recent developments in the rebuilding of Notre Dame cathedral tell us about trends in ecclesiastical and civic architecture? How does the sacramental understanding of architecture compare with modern architectural designs, including the proposal to rebuild the spire of Notre Dame cathedral along postmodernist lines? Jason Van Boom discusses these questions with architect and theologian Steven Schloeder. In this conversation they compared contemporary attitudes towards design with medieval understandings, looking at how these competing attitudes reveal a clash in what it means to be human. Van Boom and Schloeder also explored some of the symbolism of Catholic and Orthodox church structures, and what this tells us about God’s relationship to mankind.

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The Robin & Boom Show #07 – Interview with Dr. David Wang on Notre-Dame Cathedral (Part 2)

In this second interview with Dr. David Wang, we continue to learn about Notre-Dame Cathedral and the significance of the recent fire. Dr. Wang explains how Notre-Dame cathedral is an incarnation of a sacramental ordering of the world, a way of looking at creation in which “the small human being is in the embrace of an immensely larger immaterial reality, such that the small human being receives benefit.” Drawing on his experience as former head of the architectural department at Washington State, Dr. Wang contrasts this ancient sacramental understanding of buildings with postmodern architecture. The conversation steered into the implications of living in an increasingly machine-driven culture, in which our reliance on cyberspace and “disembodied communities” (i,e., communities bereft of any organic relationship to the immediate vicinity around where we live) are orienting human beings to new ways of negotiating embodiment.

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The Robin & Boom Show #06 – Interview with Dr. David Wang on Notre-Dame Cathedral

Jason and Robin interview Dr. David Wang about Notre-Dame Cathedral and its recent fire. Dr. Wang is a widely published expert on architecture who recently retired as head of the architectural department at Washington State University. In this discussion, Dr. Wang explains the origins of Notre-Dame and what its Gothic style tells us about the people who built it and about us as human beings. The spiritual ideas behind the cathedral stand in sharp contrast with the design of modern buildings and cities, which are based on what Dr. Wang calls “the sacramentality of the machine.” Understanding the sacramentality of buildings points to an important limitation in the process of rebuilding Notre-Dame, Dr. Wang suggested. This is because our culture has lost more than the spire and roof of this historic cathedral: we have lost continuity with the sacramental worldview that this cathedral embodies.

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Music and the Church Fathers

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music into the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to have this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that an abiding concern among many of the church fathers was music. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism was felt was in popular music.

The difference between their world and ours is not that paganism no longer makes inroads into the church through music. The difference is that many Christians today no longer think that music is an area where we need to exercise discernment.

If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church chooses to play for its worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you will get is not that your criticisms are false, but that it is based on a category mistake because this is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I was talking to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that certain types of music are more suited to various activities than other types of music. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that we make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

Here are some examples of what I mean. If you were to ask anyone to suggest a type of music to create a festive atmosphere, or a melancholy mood, to hype someone up before a fight, to create an atmosphere appropriate for seduction or a barbecue or a birthday party, we could all name certain styles and probably even certain specific pieces. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians are hesitate to suggest that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we talk about music. One of the reasons why Christians are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because they haven’t first understood about music from Monday to Saturday.

Partly this is because we haven’t understood how important music really is. It is commonly assumed among Christians that it is only the words that make a song good or bad. We’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm.

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a proper theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment:

 

Aesthetics and Creation

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

And though the good is weak, beauty is very strong.
Nonbeing sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly.

And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will still know how to say: this is true and that is false.

Thus finishes the poem ‘One More Day’, written by 20th century Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). Milosz, like Dostoevsky before him, realized the important role that beauty can play in helping us to discern between good and evil, truth and falsehood.

Truth, Goodness and Beauty Must Go Together

The interrelationship between goodness, truth and beauty is crucially important to us as Christians. As I argued last year in a piece about George MacDonald, goodness, truth and beauty may be distinguishable, they should never be divisible.

I once heard Douglas Wilson give a talk where he suggested that conservative Christians often excel when it comes to holding the fort for truth and goodness, yet are woefully lacking when it comes to beauty and aesthetics. Pastor Wilson went on to suggest that to have goodness without beauty is moralism. But to have truth without beauty is rationalism and lifeless orthodoxy. Equally, he argued, beauty without truth lapses into sentimental romanticism. (Wilson developed some of these themes with Douglas Jones in their excellent book Angels in the Architecture.)

I think Wilson is right. The area of aesthetics is an arena where we are obligated to think Biblically, yet as Christians we are often purely equipped.

Scripture is not silent on questions about art, beauty and aesthetics (I hope any specialist readers will forgive me for lumping these three categories together for operational purposes. I have given all the fine distinctions in my article ‘Music and the Objectivity of Beauty.’). Indeed, we receive insight in how to think about these topics right from the very opening pages of scripture.


Aesthetics and Creation

One of the striking features of the creation account is that God’s activity is not purely functional. He spends one whole day resting from His work and reflecting that it is very good (Gen. 1:31-2:2). The fact that God is able to sit back (so to speak) and appreciate His artwork tells us an important thing about His nature. It tells us that the Lord exercises aesthetic appreciation.

Even if it were not for the creation narrative, this same fact would be evident when, like David in Psalm 8, we consider the work of God’s fingers. When we look over God’s artwork, we see that not everything in our world has a purely functional or instrumental value. Whatever evolutionists may try to say, there are some things that God made just to look nice, to smell pleasant, and to sound delightful. This suggests that God puts a premium on aesthetic considerations.

Aesthetics and God’s Image-Bearers

When we read about the creation of mankind, we learn that men and women bear the divine image (Gen. 1:26-27). Whatever else this means, it means that we inherit many of God’s characteristics. Human nature exists as an imperfect reflection of divine nature. Thus, the things we see God doing in Genesis 1 and 2 – such as speaking (1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.), naming (1:5, 8, 10, etc.), making (Gen. 1 & 2), reasoning (2:18) and, yes, exercising aesthetic appreciation (1:31) – are also qualities inherent to us as God’s image-bearers.

To be God’s image-bearers means that human beings can appreciate objects that are aesthetically pleasing even as God can. Adam and Eve were able to exercise their aesthetic senses to appreciate all the wonderful things God gave them in the garden, to enjoy the beautiful sunsets and vistas, to take delight in the music of birds and water, to savor the aesthetically pleasing aromas of flowers, and so forth.

Not only do Adam and Eve enjoy God’s creation; they also make their own works, engaging in what Tolkien called ‘sub-creation.’ For example, Adam’s appreciation of Eve led him to create an aesthetically pleasing artwork to describe his delight, namely the poem of Gen. 2:23.

Aesthetics and the Fall of Man

Eve exercised aesthetic appreciation when she noted that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6).  Significantly, Eve’s sense of aesthetic appreciation was one of the things the devil was able to exploit when tempting her to sin. The words of Genesis 3:6, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes”, has obvious parallels to Genesis 1:31 when God saw that everything He made was good. The devil appealed to Eve’s God-given ability to appreciate what is good and pleasant, but used this to entice her to sin.

Merely because Eve’s aesthetic sense was one of the things used to corrupt her does not mean that this area is bad or beyond redemption any more than speech should be discounted since the devil spoke to Eve during the temptation. But it does underscore the danger that arises when our sense of aesthetics (in the case, seeing that the tree “was a delight to the eyes”) becomes unhinged from considerations of truth and goodness. The tree that God created was good and was indeed a delight to the eyes, but Adam and Eve’s sin was to approach this good thing in a sinful way.

Aesthetics and the Dominion Mandate

Even after the fall, our ability to appreciate things that are delightful, creative and beautiful remains a central facet in our ongoing vocation as God’s image-bearers. But it also remains central to our task of fulfilling the dominion mandate given to mankind in Genesis 1:26-28 and reiterated to mankind in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9.

When God instructed Adam and Eve to use the resources of the earth to take dominion (Genesis 1:26-28), He wasn’t just talking about farming. He was referring to using the earth’s resources in all legitimate callings. The dominion mandate was a challenge for man to develop the earth, which was rich with technological, cultural, intellectual and aesthetic potential.

Early on in the Genesis narrative we see family groups specializing in certain types of labor, with some focusing on using the earth’s resources to make artworks. We are told in Genesis 4:21 that Jubal who was descended from Cain was “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” just as Jabal had been “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.” (Gen. 4:20). No doubt other families specialized in metalwork, learning to make Jewry and other aesthetically pleasing objects.

Now fast-forward to the present day. The descendants of Adam are still taking dominion of the earth, and many still specialize in doing this through creating aesthetically pleasing artifacts. The only difference is that now our artistic creations have expanded beyond simply making harps and flutes like the family of Jubal. Adam’s descendants are now exploiting the earth’s resources to make cellos, oil paintings, novels, icons, orchestras, movies, recording equipment and opera houses. The list could go on and on.

It is true that given the reality of our post-fall world, these artistic artifacts are often tinctured with sin. The devil still uses our aesthetic sense to tempt us away from God’s commandments, resulting in beauty becoming divided from her sisters of truth and goodness. Yet this should not negate the reality that artistic production and appreciation remain crucial in the ongoing process of developing the earth’s resources to the glory of God.

Unnecessarily Little Extras

Of course, the area of aesthetics is not the only area, or even the most important, in which mankind fulfills the dominion mandate. But it is an important area nonetheless. It is true that few of us can make a living as professional painters, pianists, poets, film directors, sculptures, ballet dancers, novelists, architects or opera singers. For most of us, our involvement in art and aesthetics will be simply recreational, whether it be appreciating aesthetically pleasing artifacts that others have made, like movies, music and smells, or making small things ourselves like craftwork and music. But even when these things are simply recreational, there is still something profound going on. When we make something that is beautiful (whether it be knitting a sweater for a doll or singing a hymn), or when we appreciate an aesthetically pleasing artifact that someone else has constructed (whether it be watching a movie or enjoying fine clothes), we are exercising a faculty that marks us out as God’s image-bearers and gives glory to Him, provided that sin is not involved.

Similarly, the jobs that many of us are called to do which are not purely creative can still be permeated with subtle aesthetic considerations, thus underscoring the fact that human beings are not merely functional creatures. I am reminded of this when my wife takes a little extra time to set the dinner table nicely, perhaps by adding some flowers and candles, and putting on some pleasant music in the background. These additions do not have an immediate utility value. That is, they are not necessary for conveying food from the plate to the mouth. But they do add an aesthetic dimension to the meal experience that is part of what it means to enjoy the resources of the earth that God has given us. (And think, for a moment, of all the resources the descendants of Adam had to take dominion of throughout thousands of years just to get to the point of having CD players to add richness to our meals.)

When God created the world, He didn’t just make everything for its utility value, but He added ‘unnecessary’ extras to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Similarly with our works of sub-creation: some artifacts are good, not merely because of what they do for us, but because of what they are in themselves as aesthetically pleasing objects.

“Tears in Things”

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Psalm 19:1-2

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31

In Book I of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, the character of Aeneas travels to find a new home after his family and friends have perished in the battle of Troy. In the course of his travels, Aeneas finds himself in Carthage.

While walking the streets of the city, Aeneas and his friend come to a Carthaginian temple in which there is a large mural. The mural is a depiction of the Trojan War which Aeneas had fought in and in which many of his countrymen had perished.

As Aeneas stands in the temple gazing upon the depiction, he begins to cry and says, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent” (“There are tears for events and mortal things touch the soul.”) Also translated, “There are tears in things, and mortality touches the mind”, Aeneas’ reaction is a lasting reminder of the power that things have to affect us deeply.

The Greek hero Odysseus, who likewise fought in the Trojan war, also experienced powerful melancholy when years later he was presented with an artistic depiction of the event. In Aeneas’s case, he is reduced to tears through visual art in the land of the Carthaginians; in Odysseus’s case, he is reduced to tears through musical arts in the land of the Sirens and later in the land of the Phaiakians.

More than the Sum of the Parts

These stories from the classical world touch a familiar chord in human experience. Throughout history, art has had a powerful pull on human emotion. Art can reduce seasoned warriors like Aeneas and Odysseus to tears, but it can also lift us to heights of joy and happiness. Certain types of art can even blur the distinction between joy and sadness, invoking a type of bittersweet longing that is hard to put into words.

There is a certain paradox here. How can something purely physical, like the drawings on a wall or the sound-waves produced by a musical instrument or the human voice, have such a profound effect on the non-physical world of our psyche and emotions? Though we may not be able to answer this question with metaphysical precision, it is clear that when human creativity brings inanimate matter together in a certain way, the resulting configuration is often more than merely the sum of the parts.

Christian theology is full of similar examples. When Christ meets us in the blessed Eucharist, something is happening that goes beyond the mere physicality of the properties being presented to us. Though different Christian traditions have debated what actually happens when God’s people gather to receive the sacrament of communion, most would agree that in this event God somehow meets with man. When I receive and partake of the sacraments in faith, there is more going on than merely one person eating bread and wine, just as there was more to the mural in Carthage than mere paint.

In the world God created, things have significance.

God Saw that it was Good

Throughout human history there have been various traditions which have denied that anything spiritual, or even anything of significant value, can be transmitted through the elements of physical matter. For example, in the 3rd century the heretical Gnostics taught that while the world of spirit is good, the world of matter is evil. Consequently, they argued, there is a great gulf fixed between the spiritual and the material. The pure realm of spirit cannot have anything to do with matter.

Because of their low view of creation, most the Gnostics denied the physical incarnation of Christ. It would be beneath God’s dignity, they argued, for God to defile Himself by taking on a material body. Thus, the Gnostics taught that Christ merely appeared to possess a physical body.

In contrast to the Gnostics, the early Christians were committed to affirming the goodness of the created order. The God who redeems the world is also the God who proclaimed in Genesis 1:31 that this world is “very good.”

Mediating the Invisible

One of the ways Christians have affirmed the goodness of the world is through art. In using the stuff of the material world to express realities that transcend space and time, art points towards the integration of spirit and matter – an integration that would be impossible if these realms had opposite moral valuation like the Gnostics maintained.

Art, like the Eucharist, is a powerful metaphor of the incarnation of Christ (actually, many of the church fathers considered the Eucharist to be more than merely a metaphor but described it as an extension of the incarnation). When the Word of God took on human flesh and dwelt among us, He was the very image of the invisible God. This means that the eternal and infinite God was mediated through Christ’s humanity, just as the physical sacraments mediate to us the life of God. Similarly, when an artist skilfully employs the tools of his trade, he is capable of weaving into material form realities and emotions that transcend the material world.

When Aeneas stood before the mural at Carthage, the paint itself did not take on any new material characteristics, but suddenly it seemed tinged with sadness, melancholy and longing. “There are tears in things.”

More than Merely What a Thing is Made of

The Bible contains a number of examples of physical objects coming to embody or ‘contain’ invisible realities. The Ark of the Covenant, for example, was more than just a box with two pieces of stone, a jar of old food and a stick. Rather, the physical particulars that made up the Ark became a conduit of real spiritual power, as evidenced by the fact that those who touched it in an unauthorized way were suddenly killed. (1 Chronicles 13:9-10).

Similarly, Solomon’s temple was a place where the invisible God promised to dwell (2 Chron 7:16). In some mysterious way, the invisible and eternal God became associated with a particular building in a particular time and place.

Or again, consider how the Bible speaks about the universe itself. Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. This tells us that there is more to the universe than merely what it is made of. While scripture cautions us against identifying the universe with its creator, it also shows us that the physical cosmos conveys a sense of transcendence, pointing towards the reality of something beyond time and space. This shows us that the universe is more a work of art than an impersonal machine.

Moderns often struggle with this. Having grown up in a culture saturated with materialistic assumptions, we have been unconsciously conditioned to think that there is no more to a thing than what it is made of. According to this reductionist narrative, matter is dead, and paint is just paint.

But paint is no more just paint than the Eucharist is just bread or a star is just gas. There are tears in things.

Have you bought into Gnostic or materialistic assumptions about matter? Do you respond to the universe as something good, filled with a sense of transcendence, or do you think of it as a great impersonal machine?