Unless you never talk about art with people, or carefully limit all discussions of aesthetic taste to those who are precisely like yourself, you’ll know that such conversations can quickly become polarized. And when you talk with Christians about what art—or music—is appropriate for family listening or for a worship service, the heat increases. People may not be able to say what art is, exactly, or how to define beauty, or what distinguishes good art from bad, but most know exactly what they like and dislike, and assume that all right thinking people of good taste should agree with them.
I suspect this is one reason why so little attention is given to art and taste in churches, Sunday school classes and small groups. We instinctively recognize that tackling the topic is like walking into a minefield, so we keep our distance. Besides, few of us feel very confident leading a discussion on art and taste, and so we concentrate on truth and goodness, and let beauty slide. As if it didn’t matter. As if the Scriptures had nothing to say about it. As if taste in a fallen world is a private matter, and not something that needs to be placed consciously under Christ’s Lordship and brought intentionally to maturity.
The difficulties this state of affairs poses for the discerning Christian are many. For one thing, art and beauty are an essential part of created reality, and so need to be considered with care in light of biblical values and norms. Being made in God’s image means we were made for creativity, and art appears first not after the Fall, but before it, in the Garden of Eden. Though we might imagine that addressing truth and goodness while ignoring beauty is sufficient, it really isn’t. This three-fold division—truth, goodness, beauty—comes from classical Greek thinking, and fails, by itself, to capture the biblical vision of reality adequately. Viewed from the perspective of faith, truth, goodness and beauty are inseparable, because they all find their origin in the Creator, in whom they are one.
Fragmenting this essential unity into three parts can help us think and discuss them, but we can not act as if one of the three is insignificant. In the person of God as he has revealed himself, in his creation, in Scripture, and in Jesus we see them revealed together, unified. Which is why truth that is proclaimed or lived out in ugliness is not really the truth revealed in Scripture (even if the words seem correct). We need to help one another grow to aesthetic maturity within community, and if issues of art are so polarizing as to be ruled out-of-bounds, the community will be that much poorer as a result. Since life together as believers is such a high priority, we need to be able to discuss things amiably, even if it means we agree to disagree at points. And since orthodox Christianity is perceived, by and large, as unattractive to most postmodern non-Christians, addressing issues of art, beauty, and taste needs to be a high priority if we want to engage our world with the gospel in a way that can be understood and appreciated—whether they choose to believe or not.
In his book, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life, Frank Brown proposes a series of 12 assumptions which can help us find a way to move forward. They are not designed to finally settle issues of what constitutes good taste, but rather to help us be able to discuss issues of art, beauty, and taste, tastefully. What he writes is worth considering with care:
“Let me… [set] forth twelve assumptions that I hope could fruitfully guide discussions of aesthetic taste as they arise in the next stage of religious, and specifically Christian, development in relation to the arts… I regard them as assumptions or premises rather than as goals; but one could also look on them as habits of mind useful for exercising Christian taste in healthy ways…
“1. There are many kinds of good taste, and many kinds of good religious art and music. In view of cultural diversity, it would be extremely odd if that were not true.
“2. Not all kinds of good art and music are equally good for worship, let alone for every tradition or faith community. In terms of worship, therefore, it is not enough that a work or style of art be likeable; it must also be appropriate.
“3. There are various appropriately Christian modes of mediating religious experience artistically—from radically transcendent to radically immanent in a sense of the sacred; from exuberantly abundant to starkly minimal in means; from prophetic to pastoral in tone; from instructive to meditative in aim.
“4. Every era and cultural context tends to develop new forms of sacred music and art, which to begin with often seem secular to many people.
“5. Because every musical/aesthetic style calls for a particular kind of attunement, no one person can possibly be competent to make equally discerning judgment about every kind of music or art. Yet almost everyone is inclined to assume or act otherwise. That impulse is related to the sin of pride.
“6. It is an act of Christian love to learn to appreciate or at least respect what others value in a particular style or work that they cherish in worship or in the rest of life. That is different, however, from personally liking every form of commendable art, which is impossible and unnecessary.
“7. Disagreements over taste in religious music (or any other art) can be healthy and productive; but they touch on sensitive matters and often reflect or embody religious differences as well as aesthetic ones.
“8. The reasons why an aesthetic work or style is good or bad, weak or strong (and in what circumstances), can never be expressed fully in words; yet they can often be pointed out through comparative—and repeated—looking and listening.
“9. Aesthetic judgments begin with, and owe special consideration to, the community or tradition to which a given style or work is indigenous or most familiar. But they seldom end there; and they cannot, if the style or work is to invite the attention of a wide range of people over a period of time.
“10. The overall evaluation of any art used in worship needs to be a joint effort between clergy, congregation, and trained artists and musicians, taking into account not only the aesthetic qualities of the art itself but also the larger requirements and contours of worship, which should at once respond to and orient the particular work of art or music.
“11. While relative accessibility is imperative, for most church art, the church also needs art—including ‘classic’ art of various kinds—that continually challenges and solicits spiritual and theological growth In the aesthetic dimension. This is art that the Christian can grow into but seldom out of.
“12. Almost every artistic style that has been enjoyed and valued by a particular group over a long period of time and for a wide range of purposes has religious potential. That is because life typically finds various and surprising ways of turning religious. As Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”
Since the topic of art, beauty, and taste is so crucial for the discerning Christian, since we have such difficulty talking about it in community, and since Brown’s assumptions are so thoughtful, it all seems worthy of careful reflection and discussion.
Questions1. To what extent have you sought to nurture good taste in art and aesthetics? If you have not sought to nurture good taste, why not? If you have, how have you done so? When was the last time you visited an art museum? An opening in a gallery where you can meet and talk with the artist? What is the last book on art that you read?
2. Where are you best able to show creativity and imagination in your life and work? Where are you least able?
3. Do you consider growing in aesthetic maturity an essential part of growing in Christ and coming to spiritual maturity? Why or why not? If not, how do you justify your definition of spiritual maturity since the same God who reveals himself to be both truth and goodness also reveals himself as all glorious, and shows in his creation a riot of creativity and stunning beauty?
4 .Who would you identify as someone who has good aesthetic taste? How is their taste in art demonstrated? What makes it so attractive to you?
5. Is there a difference between “good taste” and “Christian taste” in art and music?
6. Have you ever been in a discussion of taste that went badly? That went well? What made the difference?
7. What is your (overall) response to Brown’s set of 12 assumptions? Do you find his list attractive? Plausible? Why or why not?
7. Discuss each of Brown’s assumptions at least briefly. Which of them can you affirm? Which of them would you challenge? What reasons would you give? What questions do they raise in your mind?
8. Is it possible that some Christians might find one (or more) of Brown’s assumptions difficult to accept? Which one(s), and why? If they were accepted by Christians, how might this change their discussions on art and taste? Would it necessarily lead to similarity in taste in art?
9. What art (to use Brown’s terms in #11) have you grown into but not out of? What was this process of growth like?