Picking up Gantenbein’s call in “The Good News in a World of Aesthetics” to thinking and engagement, Eastwood applies these ideas to his own interaction with people while growing up in England and working in Taiwan. His reflection on these concepts in the light of artistic and architectural aesthetics in traditional Chinese culture calls us to consider how the gospel speaks into what is considered “beautiful” and “good” in the minds of the people with whom we work.

David Eastwood has served for twenty seven years in Taiwan with OMF International. During that time his ministry has involved Bible teaching, evangelism, and leading church planting teams focused on Taiwan’s working class. David initially trained at All Nations Christian College but has since completed studies with Singapore Bible College and Spurgeon’s College, where the focus of his master’s thesis was “Contextual preaching to the Taiwanese working class.” He is currently the Field Director for OMF Taiwan.Eastwoo

A Response to “The Good News in a World of Aesthetics”

Mission Round Table 14:2 (May-Aug 2019): 18-20

The introduction to Gantenbein’s paper sets out the three challenges to Christian missionaries in a modern Western world:

  • The Context—an aesthetic image-orientated, experience-driven society.
  • Theology—generally word-orientated and negative towards aesthetics.
  • Church—either “museumized” (a new word for me) and seemingly irrelevant or at risk of succumbing to a non-critical contextualisation.

I don’t think many of us need convincing that we live in a world dominated by aesthetics. I agree with Gantenbein’s claim in the introduction that “Protestant and evangelical Christians are poorly equipped for this new context because they think and act from a word of God theology.” My own experience is that evangelical theological discussions are generally more concerned with focusing on the question of what is factual and true than with what is “attractive, influential, motivating.” Yet a focus on Scripture as the word of God cannot ignore the fact that in the absence of any picture of God, the Bible presents us with anthropomorphic imagery to describe the attributes of God and ultimately Jesus as the visible God made flesh.

As a young Christian keen to evangelise anyone who would listen, I remember a rare sunny summer’s day taking a walk with my brother and his girlfriend and trying various unsuccessful approaches to persuade them that God exists. Walking through the Cotswold countryside, we came to a graveyard and large, ancient village church. We went inside (in those days churches were left unlocked) and the cool dark interior with the blue light from the stained glass windows gave a sense of calm. Walking to the middle of the church we looked up at the beautiful vaulted roof and my brother’s girlfriend whispered, “Wow! No wonder people used to believe in God!” The beauty of the church was more effective than my wordy attempts to explain the divine.

Public domain image from https://www.maxpixel.net/Cathedral-Dom-Germany-Church-Window-1707634.

The fastest growth of churches today is also in churches with an “aesthetic” emphasis. But for many of these, the aesthetic has seemingly shifted from the feelings of awe, inspired by architecture and art, to feelings inspired by worship and atmosphere. I agree that this is seen strongly within the Pentecostal, charismatic and neo-charismatic churches. I think also we see in many traditional evangelical churches a struggle between wanting to be seen as having a strongly word-based ministry (hence claiming the focus of the service is on preaching and teaching) and the awareness that music and atmosphere play a key role in the whole experience of church. Recently, I had the experience of being in a darkened church interior where the worship band was illuminated by spotlights while the congregation could barely see each other. The feeling was of participating in a concert event. But then there seemed a huge disconnect when the lights came back on and I stood up to preach the sermon. People are trying to recover the sense of awe, transcendence, and the holy otherness of God.

For churches with a Bible/word emphasis, there is often a clear disconnect between the larger society where aesthetics is key and a church that fails to acknowledge the importance of aesthetics and so fails to consider how an aesthetic component is part of what they consider important to the faith—that is, the Bible, theology, and missions. Aesthetics is never completely ignored but is not integrated so that it is seen, on the one hand, as an element of conflict of values or a necessary evil (pandering to modern society) or, on the other, as an area of life where Bible-based teaching has nothing to say or contribute that is relevant. And it is this disconnect that this paper addresses. In this “dazzling context” of an aesthetic-driven society, Gantenbein says, “we would first need a ‘beautiful’ theology and then above all a theological aesthetic.”

Gantenbein thus proposes a theology of balanced aesthetics linking aesthetics to a solid foundation in the word of God. In the introduction, he summarises some of the philosophical background to the subject. Kant, for example, wrestles with the term “beautiful” to question if it is subjective or universal. For us, as Christians, the appreciation of beauty must originate from God, and in his conclusion Gantenbein suggests that the beauty to be revealed in the Parousia produces the strength to proclaim and create—to theologize and make art. But we live in a fallen world and to what extent is our appreciation of aesthetics conditioned by sin, culture, and environment? Clearly, some things that are beautiful and attractive are not always things that we should give our attention to (cf. Gen 3:6). These are the questions of contextualisation that we, as missionaries, need to grapple with.

1. Theological criticism of aesthetics

I appreciate the analysis of how the iconoclastic tradition of the Protestant reformations stems from the first two of the Ten Commandments. Living in Taiwan, a country where temple worship involves the use of many carved images of gods, I am very aware that the danger of a Christian use of idols is they lead to a lessening of God’s glory by shifting power from God to man. In Taiwan, by presenting images as conduits to the gods, a two-way relationship of dependency is created where the idols being served by man also serve as a way for man to influence the gods, thus diminishing their power. Theologically, the danger of associating man-derived concepts of beauty with God is that this achieves the idolatrous step of reducing God to something less than he is. But if it is correct that there is a true “beauty” associated with God’s glory, then to remove any aesthetic is to lessen God’s revelation of himself. God chose to reveal himself in part aesthetically, using emotive human language and anthropomorphic terms. If we look at the Old Testament use of language (e.g., in wisdom literature), architecture (e.g., the intricate details given of the temple), and the description of artists as being filled with the Spirit,[1] we might conclude God has accepted our limited understanding of true beauty but still wants us to appreciate him through the aesthetics of human poetry, art, and architecture.

I found Gantenbein’s explanation of the words of Jesus to Thomas to be interesting, as I have never looked at the text in this way before. It is incredible that even though Jesus is the visible picture of God and the fulfilment of all that Israel, the priesthood, the Scriptures, and the temple were supposed to reveal, we are left at the end of the Gospels with the idea that the hearer (or reader) is blessed by hearing about Jesus and that the actual visible witness is not necessary. That this shows that it is no longer necessary to see the physical Jesus to be blessed by God’s self-revelation is clear to me. That it sets a priority of hearing God’s revelation (word) seems also acceptable as long as removal of Jesus as the visible image of God from the earth is not used as an excuse for some kind of an aesthetic cessationism—a claim that the coming of Scripture means that God no longer uses aesthetics to communicate with us in any way. Jesus, as the image of God, is revealed in his teaching and mission rather than his visible appearance. But his teaching and mission is revealed to us in culturally-enmeshed stories whose appeal over the centuries has always had a strong aesthetic as well as didactic element. What’s more, there is no suggestion that the Old Testament has become irrelevant for us and that we are no longer to derive our theology from texts filled with pictures, images, and poetic language. In the section, “A theology of aesthetics,” Gantenbein shows that he is in agreement with this, pointing out that a theology of aesthetics should pay attention to the aesthetic experience “because the word of God is always communicated in a sensory manner way and aims at a holistic human experience.”

The paper prompted me to think a little about the distinction between “theological aesthetics” and “aesthetic theology”. Theological aesthetics highlights the beauty of the theological “substance”. Gantenbein’s demonstration that God himself, as the starting point for theology, is beautiful is of great importance. Other writers have focused on creation as God’s “beautiful design,” with human beings as the crown of God’s work,[2] but to ignore the fact that created beauty is now flawed beauty is to open the door to accepting aesthetic values uncritically.

Aesthetic theology focuses on the form of the gospel message and its perception by the recipient. This is the place where theology meets the challenge of aesthetic excess in culture. This is the starting point of missiology! We are rightly led back to theological aesthetics that is critical.

The paper hints at the strong link between ethics (what is good/bad) and aesthetics (what is beautiful/ugly) which obviously overlap in the area of values. “It is the relationship with ethics that nourishes aesthetics.” Both ethics and aesthetics are often culturally determined and in modern culture devoid of absolutes. Just as Christians cannot afford to be irrelevant to discussions about ethics in the modern world, we cannot be totally irrelevant to aesthetics when these shape and are shaped by values in society. This is worth more consideration.

I believe that many young Christians attempt to recover relevance only to throw out the old “museumized” aesthetics of Christianity. In doing so, they have also rejected the theology that went with it and are dangerously left with a Christianity driven by aesthetics and a desire to be modern at the expense of critical engagement.

2. A theology of the word of God

The second section of the paper takes most of us back into our comfort zones by returning us to the word of God. I found myself remembering my own studies in preaching and the discussion of the different roles the word, context, the Holy Spirit, and the listener play so that the preaching event becomes God’s word to an individual. There has been a lot of work done in recent years on the use of narrative in communication and the role of the listener in constructing the message. And for this reason, it was good to see some strong statements that aesthetics “arouses emotions and attracts attention but … does not formulate its message,” that “subordinating aesthetics to the word of God is necessary theologically,” and also that “aesthetics stands in the service of speech.”

3. Critical aesthetic missiology

The third section of the paper delineating a “critical aesthetic missiology” is key. All readers will benefit from pondering the very carefully worded definitions given here. Just as with other aspects of contextualization, it calls for a careful balance between recognising positive aspects within a culture that can be used and adapted by the church and a critical assessment of culture in the light of biblical values and theology. This is familiar stuff to most missionaries when it comes to religious language, metaphors, and rituals seen in the society that we are trying to reach. Even so, many of us may not have given much thought to this challenge in the area of aesthetics. I am grateful for the grid produced here which made it a lot easier for me to sort out the differences between a non-critical aesthetic theology and a critical theological aesthetics.

4. Hermeneutics and Apocalypse

In the fourth section of his paper, Gantenbein discusses an apocalyptic passage as a case study. Revelation seems to have an aesthetic value that for much of church history has been appreciated with little attempt at a historical analysis such as the one given here. The beasts have become symbols of Satanic opposition for readers who generally do not understand the necessary historical context. Obviously, this is not ideal, and it leads to a great danger of misinterpretation. In a sense there has always been a tendency to interpret apocalyptic literature in a postmodern way, with little consideration for the original meaning. The warning to the church of the non-existence of an autonomous aesthetics and the danger of uncritical use of the aesthetic side of her missiological model is a timeless message which Gantenbein has derived exegetically from a historical situation. As the conclusion to this discussion seemed to have been shifted to the last bullet point under church in the concluding section, the full flow of the discussion was somewhat harder to follow. Furthermore, the use of language in this section may make it less accessible to many readers. Even so, those who engage with Gantenbein’s lines of thought will find it to be a worthwhile mental exercise.

Conclusions

The concluding section was most helpful. Returning to the headings of Context, Theology, Church, and Missiology, this section concludes with a call for an “aesthetic-eschatological missiology of temporary crisis” which seemed to summarize or conclude the lines of thought followed in the paper.

As the paper is a discussion of an example of missiological contextualization, it contains a lot of thoughts and arguments which should be familiar to cross-cultural workers. The question of the relationship between the gospel and culture is something all missionaries have struggled with in many areas. And, as Bible-believing Christians, we are clear that the general hermeneutical direction should be from the core of the Bible’s teaching towards the culture. Yet at the same time, as missionaries, we are also aware that the biblical text and the reader exist within human culture and there is a complex interaction involved—in this case between aesthetic images, language, and values.

Though this work was developed from a Western perspective, I found myself considering how a different context might influence a critical aesthetic missiology. Some Chinese art, such as the Mountain and Water—shan shui (山水)—style, intends the observer to appreciate it philosophically from the perspective of someone standing inside rather than outside the painting. It is often intended to be appreciated with an accompanying poem. Does that perspective subtly shift the aesthetic understanding of beauty? Taiwanese folk religions are sensual and visual, the temples being filled with images and colours. But the architecture is not designed like old Western churches to evoke a sense of awe and holy otherness. If anything, it evokes a sense of presence, activity, involvement, and approachability. Yet, churches in Taiwan continue to resemble unattractive warehouses or school classrooms. I see similar issues in other countries in Asia.

Contextualisation in Asia has largely focused on texts and doctrines and so is often a library exercise for the sake of another PhD. But this has left the churches of Asia without missiological tools to handle either the beautiful aesthetics of their old cultures or the aesthetic bombardment of modern culture. I would like to thank Dr. Gantenbein for taking up the challenge of responding to aesthetic-dominated society by recognising not just the threat but also the opportunity to “demuseumify’ our churches and make them places where beauty is valued.

[1] See the example of Bezalel of whom it is said: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works” (Exod 31:1–5, NKJV).

[2] Jonathan King, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, Studies in Historic and Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019).

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