April 29, 2006

Beauty: What Do Pomegranates Have to Do with It? (Mere Conference 1.3)

Our third plenary today was offered by Frederica Mathewes-Green, prolific and award-winning author, and was interestingly entitled "A Golden Bell and a Pomegranate."

What is the purpose of beauty in presenting the gospel?

Vladamir, prince of Kiev in the 10th century, had to fight for the throne; he became king only after killing his brother. He had 7 wives, 800 concubines, and offered human sacrifices on a pagan altar. But he realized the wisdom of uniting his kingdom under one faith, so he had representatives from the three monotheistic religion. Of the Muslims, "There is only sadness." Of the Jews, "There is no beauty in their rituals." Of the Christian worship at Hagia Sophia, "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. God dwells there among men...their worship is fairer than that of other nations." Vladamir converted and converted his kingdom, and the Faith sustained all of Russia for almost 1,000 years.

Why, then, do Western Christians view art with suspicion? (She spent a lot of words describing the aesthetic of Orthodox worship, "a very rich experience touching every one of the senses...piercingly beautiful.") This doesn't distract people from worshiping God. On the contrary, it empowers worship. If your husband or wife takes you to a fine restaurant for dinner, do the violin music, linen tablecloths, and well-dressed wait staff distract you from feeling romantic?

The fear is of nominalism, that worship will become meaningless. It's possible for a person to read Scripture in a detached way and therefore not get the message, but that's not the Bible's fault. The kind of environment you worship in sends different kinds of messages. Worship spaces speak without words--think of an 18th century colonial church, a "seeker-sensitive" theater auditorium, or the club-like environment of an emergent worship space. This seems like we're trying to "sell" God and worship to people, packaging them so they'll appeal to us. Is this the perspective of Scripture? No, in fact, it is diametrically opposed to it.

What did God tell Moses to do? What were God's expectations of how people would worship him?

  • Build a box for the tablets and overlay it with God both outside and inside, even though no one would ever see the inside. Even though the first commandment forbade making images for worship, God commanded them to make images of cherubim for the beauty of the Ark. This idea carries throughout the making of the Tabernacle and the items in it. The worship in the Tabernacle was lavish.
  • God gave attention to even the smallest details of the priestly garments: "A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe."
  • There was a fragrance-component as well. There are 161 references to incense in Scripture, spanning both Old and New Testaments. It is an integral part of the worship of the people of God from beginning to end.

"I don't know that God needs to smell incense. We're the ones who need to smell it, and to see gold, and to experience beauty in every sense in order to comprehend the one who is Beauty itself." But we can be like Judas, who quibbled with Jesus over the offering of incense that was made over him. The unstated assumption is that the purpose of the church is to do good works, but Jesus pointed out in reply to Judas that nothing is stopping you from giving you to the poor. "We're not going to run out of poor people." He accepted the offering as not only appropriate, but beautiful. In the Scripture, we are shown unequivocally that we are meant to worship God with beauty, just as we are expected to surround a bride with beautiful things. But what does this have to do with apologetics?

Apologetics tends to concern itself with words, but we don't just witness with words. What kind of people are we? Do we show grace and truth by our living? Worship must be about God, "all signs in worship must be pointed in the direction of the Lord." We cannot expect a visitor to understand all this; it has been a mistake to try to adjust worship so that it is straightforward and easy to understand and less than mystical. It is a good thing for people to realize that there is more to God than they understand. It ought to make them suspect that there is more going on in the world than they realize. As they watch the worshipers around them respond to God, they are forced to ask themselves what they are responding to. Beauty can accomplish this. It complements the other purposes of apologetics, teaching and asking and answering questions. When a visitor enters our worship, he may not see what we see, but he will see that we are all "held rapt by something awesome."

Why use beauty in worship? First, because it is what God demanded, not because God needed beautiful things, but because we needed them. "Beauty sets the heart aright and orients it to God.

I very much appreciated Frederica's talk because I think it helps balance to what has often seemed to me to be a very Spartan attitude we free church Protestants have toward our worship spaces. I think she only answered half of her opening question, though. During the Q&A period, I asked for her comments on how the beauty of the Faith could be used in a more missional way--taking beauty to the world, rather than expecting the world to come to the beauty of our worship. Her answer revolved around Christian art. Is this all there is?

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