Today’s guest post is from Boze Herrington, who blogs about art, poetry, fantasy, religion, and popular culture at The Talking Llama. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.
“Boze, why are you reading Shakespeare when you should be preparing for the end times?”
In the cult I was a part of in college, statements like this were often used as a way of attacking the spiritual maturity of believers who were “distracted” by culture or beauty. We believed that when Jesus returned to the earth in the next couple of decades, he would preside over the largest book burnings and CD burnings the world had ever seen. Any songs, movies, or novels deemed insufficiently Christian would be purged from the shelves of the libraries and scrubbed from the memories of the faithful, forever.
Unfortunately this mindset is typical of the thinking of many American Evangelicals. Things are not good in themselves but only to the extent that they directly portray Jesus.
For example, someone might engage in corporal acts of mercy such as feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and battling human trafficking. But unless this person is a born-again believer who presents the Gospel while doing it, it’s a “false justice,” a counterfeit justice, and a forerunner of the Antichrist’s end-times humanitarian movement. “If it’s not Jesus,” I’ve been told, “it’s not justice.”
Likewise with beauty. I’m an artist and a writer; I love beautiful things. But throughout my life I’ve been told that “God is not found in books and seminaries and museums,” that the music of Mozart and Beethoven is not honoring to Jesus, that I’m wasting my time looking for glimpses of God’s beauty in the material world when the fullness of his self-revelation is found in the Bible. And not being theologically empowered to deal with these accusations, I suffered for years with guilt and shame and self-condemnation, thinking I was a horrible person because I was fascinated with art, with culture, with the things of this world.
“A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music, and nature,” said Pope Benedict, “can be dangerous.” For the vast majority of the world’s Christians who belong to one of the great sacramental traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox), the world is an enchanted place.
In the Catholic faith to which I belong now, we have what are called “the three Transcendentals.” The three Transcendentals are Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. These are the ultimate desires of all humanity, the qualities towards which all of us are striving whether we know it or not.
And here’s what’s remarkable about it. God is not only connected in some tangential way with each of these three things. He IS each of these three things. He’s more than good; he is Goodness itself. He’s more than true; he is Truth. He’s not merely beautiful; he is Beauty.
What this means, ultimately, is that whatever is true, whatever is good, whatever is beautiful in the world or in human culture points to and reflects Jesus.
I can never fully convey the freedom I felt the first time it occurred to me that a song didn’t have to mention Jesus a certain number of times in order to honor him. The elegant lament of a French horn, the spirited clamor of castanets, the saxophone’s hopeless wail are all good in themselves because they reflect something in God’s heart, because Jesus is the incarnation of the reason by which the universe is woven and ordered, and music, good music, is inherently rational, and beautiful, and good.
“This is my Father’s world; he shines in all that’s fair.” And you don’t need to have a vision of the throne room up in heaven to see the splendor of God shining, for beauty isn’t some ethereal, abstract thing to be mentally apprehended; beauty is a tangible thing, a thing to be seen and tasted and savored, a thing of the body as well as the heart. Beauty himself has taken on flesh and lived among us. And in saving and sanctifying the world he has begun restoring it to its original goodness.
All my life I’ve been told that nothing matters except Jesus. The reality is that everything matters because of Jesus. And we see glimpses of his beauty in all that is good.
In the towering sobriety of high mountains,
In the playfulness and cunning of foxes and ‘possums,
In the shimmering vastness of dark waters,
In the splendor of fire and swiftness of wind,
In the elegiac phrasing of a novel by Fitzgerald,
In the radiant polyphony of a forty-piece motet,
In the infinite capacity for love and reflection expressed in a human face.
Like the bread and wine of the sacraments, through the Incarnation the whole world is now gloriously transformed into an icon of God.