The Good News in a World of Aesthetics

This paper demonstrates that aesthetics challenges Christians in our contextual relationship with an aesthetics-dominated society, in our formulation of a theology that will make sense in this world while remaining faithful to Scripture, and in our practice of being the church. It shows the missiological implications are so great that we need to invest in deep thought to understand our situation and develop persuasive means of engaging our culture—particularly in its devotion to the artistic image—that will display the gospel message in all its beauty and ethical fullness.

A Swiss-French dual citizen, Dr. Jean-Georges Gantenbein has lived with his family in France for almost thirty years. He is a pastor, part-time Professor for Intercultural Theology of the Theological Seminary St. Chrischona, Basel, Switzerland, and Director of the Alsace-Lorraine region for Perspectives (evangelical denomination) in France. Dr. Gantenbein was ordained in 1991 and has since been a pastor in three different French congregations. He was a member of the Church Planting Commission of the Evangelical Alliance in France for more than ten years. His research focuses on developing a missiology for the Western context.

 

 

The Good News in a World of Aesthetics

Mission Round Table Vol. 14 No. 2 (May-Aug 2018): 11-17

 

Introduction [1]

Aesthetics, as the “science of beauty,” works on defining its object in contrast to “ugliness.” Specifically, it questions the meaning of art. While it only became a discipline of philosophy in the eighteenth century, some ideas in this field were being explored earlier. For example, Plato’s philosophy of ontological aesthetics which was based on the “beauty” of the idea, Aristotle’s concept of the transformative effect of drama on emotion, and Plotin’s identification of the total being with the idea of “the beautiful.”

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) was the first to coin the term “aesthetics” which he considered to be the science of sensible knowledge. However, his attempt to create a space for “the beautiful” was influenced by classical rationalism—art must copy nature. Paradoxically, Emmanuel Kant (1724–1804) gave aesthetics its status within and then outside philosophy. For him, aesthetics was a philosophia prima, i.e., its most essential element. At the same time, his understanding enabled him to remove it eventually from his philosophical approach.

The German philosophical movement which formed aesthetic notions corresponds to the poetic movement (Winckelmann, Klopstock, Lessing, Hamann, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller). The synthesis of both currents in the early nineteenth century was the origin of German idealism’s metaphysical aesthetics. Since then, different scientific disciplines have been applied to the science of “sensible knowledge.” However, Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) nihilism marked the end of the unity between the “beautiful” and the “good.” Scholars still find reaching a consensus on the theory of aesthetics to be a major challenge.[2]

My definition of aesthetics comprises a broad understanding that includes all present-day forms of art, experiences, image, music, feelings, and many other subjects of the aesthetically sensible.

Christians and missionaries face three challenges in a world of aesthetics as they live in modern urban societies around the world:

Context. Aesthetics increasingly dominates the context of our society—the flood of images, the enhancement of feelings, the experience-driven society, self-staging, communication, marketing, social media, and, above all, virtual space are keywords that well describe the increasing aestheticization of our society.

Theology. Protestant and evangelical Christians are poorly equipped for this new context because they think and act from a theology that emphasizes the word of God. This theological tradition, which in the time of the Reformation led to iconoclastic excesses, stands in high tension with aesthetics. In this tradition, the “word,” the Holy Scripture, plays a critical function with regard to the image.

Church. The strongest growth within the universal church is experienced currently in the “aesthetic” wing of Christianity—the Pentecostal, charismatic, and neo-charismatic part of the universal church. I call it “aesthetic” because in these movements the experience, the feelings, and the extraordinary are often brought to the foreground.

Now, an evangelical theological “workshop” has to face the aestheticization of society and of the worldwide church with few resources and instruments to meet these opportunities and challenges.

Context. In this fast-moving, dazzling context we first need a “beautiful” theology and then, above all, a theological aesthetic. The first concerns the language, structure, and appearance of this science; the second is rooted in God’s beautiful being. Many churches, young people, and artists try to adapt worship services, church activities, and evangelistic methods to the aesthetic expressions of our time. Even so, very little theological reflection on an attractive theology is evident, not to mention consideration of God’s beauty.[3] Much of what does exist remains a loan from present-day fashions. Some of it is useful; some only an imitation.

Theology. During the Reformation, Protestant theology produced various approaches to the image. Prohibition of images in the Decalogue was interpreted in a distinctively biblical way. Thus, fine and performing arts were seen as legitimately representing God within the frame of God’s commandment. A positive correlation between the image and the word of God, however, is often still lacking. While Catholic, liberal Protestant theology, and process theology think about a theology of culture, evangelical theologians tend to avoid the topic. This deficiency in evangelical thinking needs to be addressed.

Church. The growth of the aesthetic part of the universal church affects all continents. For some observers, this expression of faith is a successful, although unplanned, contextualization of the aesthetic practices of our society. Others fear that this is only another step, a pre-stage of secularization, an uncritical contextualization that will collapse after a period of growth. Theologians face the real challenge of a renewed ecclesiology that can respond to this “charismatization” and save the church from a “liquidation” of her message and herself.[4]

Thus, we are challenged by a theology of aesthetics in an era which defines itself by four “post-times.” We live in an age that is post-secular, post-Christian, postmodern, and post-factual. In this context—whether in Western industrialized societies or in developing countries—aesthetics is such a dominant feature that we can hardly avoid it. It is present in our community and our churches. Therefore, it is up to evangelical theologians to face this reality and enter into a challenging dialogue that will help us to make full use of these possibilities.

Because of the growing predominance of aesthetics in our societies, I propose a theology of balanced aesthetics. A theology of the word preserves the aesthetics from its isolation and implosion and links it to a more solid foundation—the word of God.

1. A theology of aesthetics

Part of the biblical and part of the Christian tradition—especially in Protestant-Reformed circles—have always opposed the domination of aesthetics, viewing it as opposing the word of God or leading almost inevitably to idolatry. I will first review this theological critique of aesthetics and then develop a biblical theology of aesthetics.

1.1. Theological criticism of aesthetics

The criticism of aesthetics from a theological perspective has its origin in the Decalogue, particularly the second commandment’s prohibition against making an image of God. Depending on the theological interpretation applied to the authoritative texts, a positive (pro) or negative (contra) iconoclastic tradition concerning images emerged in some regions and during various periods of Christianity. The radical iconoclasm that marked the Protestant reforms continued in the Reformed tradition and, to a lesser extent, in Pietism, when the sacred art of the medieval church had reached its climax.

A portion of the Decalogue is found on the Nash Papyrus, a collection of four papyrus fragments acquired in Egypt by W. L. Nash in 1903. These were the oldest Hebrew fragments known at that time. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The image is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art and is in the public domain in its country of origin, the United States, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

 

The negative interpretation of the second commandment is based on its proximity to the first commandment. The two commandments together raise the barrier against all idolatry, a constant and proven danger in the time of the prophets. A representation of God can take on an autonomous role for the observer and become an object of direct or indirect worship. The first and second commandments serve to protect the heart of theology (in the narrow sense of the term)—the oneness of God which also explains the sometimes justified and sometimes exaggerated radicality of the interpretations of the second commandment. The command protects God from all idolatrous assaults, whatever the form. However, this protection also concerns man, because God does not need protection from humans. Man must be safeguarded from idolatry so he does not worship a false god that does not exist.

The barrier raised by the first two imperatives is justified as it safeguards people from any attempt to picture the invisible God and highlights a more precise means of revelation—the word. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ’s earthly life, when he was visible, ends with his ascension as the Risen One, and God becomes invisible again. Seeing him must give way to the hearing of the word of God which recounts the revelations of the past.

Thomas becomes the model for all post-Easter believers who would like to see Jesus as he is but cannot fulfil their desire.[5] In contrast to what is written in many commentaries, Jesus did not reprimand Thomas but entrusted him with a great promise in the form of a macarism—a blessing (John 20:29). Thomas must no longer see himself as an aggrieved disciple because he did not witness the appearance of the Risen One like the other disciples. Thomas, and with him all the disciples of the generations to come, are just as privileged as those of Jesus’ lifetime because God continues to reveal himself; however, this comes no longer by sight, but by hearing. They must all listen to the word of God. The priority of the word of God over sight is maintained as it was in the Old Testament. In the Decalogue, the truth and uniqueness of God are protected. In the New Testament, after the ascension, there is a privileged form of revelation—the ultimate revelation of God in his Son Jesus cannot be surpassed (Heb 1:1–4). All that remains is the narrative of this event by the word of God. These two main axes, which run through all Scripture, motivate fundamental theological criticism in the face of aesthetic overload.

St. Thomas by Peter Paul Reubens. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The image is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art and is in the public domain in its country of origin, the United States, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

1.2. From an aesthetic theology to theological aesthetics

This criticism does not mean that we cannot develop an aesthetic theology. On the contrary, the doctrine of the word of God demands a theory of aesthetic experience, because the word of God is always communicated in a sensory manner and aims at a holistic human experience. The doctrine of the word of God assumes a critical role in aesthetics, but must, nevertheless, allow for a biblical and legitimated space so that aesthetics may develop. As indicated below, the possibilities for creating an aesthetic theology are many.

The cultural mandate of man (Gen 1:28) and his bodily constitution call for a general cultural creation, of which the aesthetic forms a part.

The second commandment does not forbid the creation of paintings and sculptures, but the worship of them as a deity. Linked to the first commandment, it fights against idolatry and divine representations. The Old Testament is not against artistic expression. This is demonstrated by the divine suggestions for building the tabernacle. Hebrew Scripture forbids, however, any idolatrous abuse of man’s power over God—the attempt to “control” God through artistic creation. When God appears through his revelations, a desire could arise to define him through artistic creation. In this sense, the second commandment becomes a counterweight to divine revelations—God does not allow himself to be identified by his appearance, but by his acts of liberation, his covenant, and his law.

Approaches to developing theological aesthetics exist, but, apart from the work of Von Balthasar, they are rudimentary.[6] Such a theology highlights the beauty of the theological “substance” (e.g., God himself, the figure of Christ, Easter, and the work of salvation) and not the beauty of the “form”. There must be strong congruence between the aesthetics of the “substance” and the aesthetics of the “form.” The relationship between the two is inseparable. The object of theology—God himself—is beautiful. His beauty is the starting point for the whole theological debate.

An aesthetic theology, by contrast, will focus on the “form” of the gospel message on the one hand, and the perception of the message by the recipient on the other. The aesthetical excesses in our cultural context naturally intersects biblical aesthetics at this point. The challenges of this correlation for contemporary missiology are enormous and should form the main axis of our contextual theology. Like it or not, missiology will find its starting point in the predominance of the aesthetics of our time. It should then develop links with aesthetic theology to lead on to theological aesthetics: an encounter with the true God beyond all forms of the perceivable. Thus, an aesthetic theology must, by definition, be attractive and non-critical to lead people towards a theological aesthetics that is fundamentally critical, balancing between the “ugly” and the “beautiful” of the divine revelation and God himself.

Theological aesthetics will always break the bonds of isolation which seek to contain it. The aesthetically sensitive cannot lead a proper existence in the long run, as we have already seen. Theological aesthetics is philosophically and anthropologically related to ethics, which also applies, of course, in theology. God is beautiful and good. The justification by grace of the sinner will always have a final moral implication. The “good” (ethics) and the “beautiful” (aesthetics) are inextricably linked. Thus, we could speak of an aesthetic ethics of the New Testament which appears, for example, in 1 Peter where the apostle speaks of “works.” The “good” and “beautiful” conduct of Christians in a hostile environment can have a missionary effect on the heathens (1 Pet 2:11–12). In Greek, kalos can be translated with both meanings—morality and beauty. If one separates the “beautiful” from the “good”, as is frequently done in our highly stratified culture, the aesthetically sensitive will gradually deteriorate in terms of substance. It is its relationship with ethics that nourishes aesthetics. Morality can live without “beauty” from a theological point of view, but without ethics, aesthetics is doomed to die.

Aesthetics, as a scientific discipline, sets off beauty and the ugly as rivals. Theological aesthetics does not only deal with the “beautiful,” as our experience of the infinite beauty of the Eternal One could make us believe. Even if in God there is only light, his revelation oscillates between the two poles. Beauty is an eschatological term and fits into the category of “broken by Christology.” The song of the Servant of God in Isaiah 53 describes this servant to us in most repulsive terms. Christianity has interpreted this text in a messianic way. The theology of the cross is in this sense “ugly.” However, this ugliness is a promise of its transformation on Easter morning which once again reflects the splendid beauty of the work of salvation. Theological aesthetics, therefore, has the crucial task to question the ambivalence of an appearance. It is thus sufficient for us to build an aesthetic theology and, in particular, a constructive aesthetic theology in the light of the doctrine of the word of God.

2. A theology of the word of God

God’s communication is a precondition for any knowledge of God and a relationship with God. The word of God, therefore, occupies a primary place in the doctrine of revelation.

2.1. The meanings of the word of God

I will begin this section by summarizing the different meanings of the word of God in Scripture and theology.

God speaks through his creation which he has already created by his word.

The word of Yahweh comes to his called servants, first to Abraham, then to Moses, and finally to the prophets. In this way, God reveals his will to judge or save his people Israel.

The expression “word of God” in the Old Testament means the word spoken by God and repeated by men. This word integrates oral heritage and, subsequently, the written tradition.

In the New Testament, this expression almost solely relates to the person, work, and teaching of Jesus Christ. In the prologue to his Gospel, the evangelist John identifies the word of God with Christ incarnate—the fullness of God’s revelation. Christ becomes the word of God par excellence.

Apostolic preaching has put the crucified and risen Christ at the center and defines the “word of God” as the historical Christ and considers his saving work to reside in the present.

The Reformers are in agreement about putting the weight on the vital importance of Scripture and its preaching, with Christ as its center. All Scripture is the word of God. Thus, God speaks to us through prophetic and apostolic words. Preaching is likewise “the word of God.” Like the sacraments, it is considered a particular expression of God’s grace.

All the Reformers agreed that the word of God cannot be heard, accepted, or believed without the work of the Holy Spirit. Lutheran theology argues that the Spirit works by the proclaimed word (per verbum), while in the Reformed tradition, the working of the Spirit is united with the word (cum verbo).

Karl Barth distinguishes between the incarnate word (Christ), the written word (the Bible), and the preached word (preaching). The last two forms are only indirectly identified with the word of God. God alone decides when they will become a direct word of God. The first form corresponds to direct identification.[7]

2.2. The effects of the word of God in the New Testament

The word of God is living and eternal (1 Pet 1:23). Likened to the gospel, it becomes the power for salvation (Rom 1:16) and leads to the new birth (1 Pet 1:23), a reality which proves that it is “the word of salvation” (Acts 13:26). The preferred medium for communicating the word of God is hearing (Rom 10:17). Faith is birthed by the word of Christ after his ascension. The elevated and invisible Christ will no longer be revealed by sight, but by hearing, as we have seen in our earlier discussion about Thomas. The Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in enlivening the word of God, both canonically and kerygmatically. His promised presence for the post-Easter age does not leave disciples of later times helpless in the face of the invisible. Rather, the Spirit will be the true Master of the word (John 14:26) who will illuminate every human conscience for salvation or judgment (John 16:8–11). These effects define him as the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). The word of God and the Holy Spirit bring forth faith. However, the word also remains the prime mover in the teaching that leads to sanctification (Heb 5:11–6:3; 1 Pet 2:2). It is, therefore, decisive for the “perfection” of the believer. The “parable of the sower” (Luke 8:4–15) would be better called the “parable of the hearer” because the seed—the word of God—seeks a favorable welcome in the soil—hearing—in which it has been sown. The dynamic effect of the word of God and its correlation with human reception through listening are best demonstrated in this parable. Finally, this word creates and gathers a new community (Luke 8:19–21). The church is founded the moment she hears and obeys the word of God.

The Sower by James Tissot. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 24.8 x 13.7 cm. From: Brooklyn Museum,  https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4502 (accessed 5 July 2019).

2.3. The importance of aesthetics in the Bible

These few sketches may suffice to show the crucial importance of the word of God in the Scriptures and its climax—the Son of God who is the word of God. Of course, aesthetic expression is not absent in the Bible despite pictorial and figurative restraint. God provides for it in his plan of creation and displays it in the “beautiful cult” of Israel. The prophets apply dramatic symbols when the word is no longer accepted. Christ uses various metaphors to picture a spiritual truth and to provoke a response from his audience. The concept of the parable in Mark holds the metaphor to be in service to the word (Mark 4:11–13, 33–34). The extreme aesthetic form which Jesus sometimes applies in this particular literary genre matches the closed attitude of his hearers: they “see” and understand the parable but do not want to hear God’s performative word that transcends the parable itself. Thus, the parable has only a temporary and self-destructive aesthetic function when the word of God is heard and received. The Bible uses an anthropomorphic approach to describe a metaphysical world that goes beyond man’s understanding. Besides, Christ is even called “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15–20), an expression not to be confused with the Greek conception of the image, but to be understood in the sense of God’s revelation. Jesus is the “imprint” of God, the “firstborn.” This word speaks as much for his pre-existence and incarnation as for his resurrection.

The biblical focus of the “word of God” has been examined by different theologies that range from seeing it as historical-canonical and kerygmatic words to being a theological hermeneutics and a hermeneutical theology. The written word of God refers to the eternal Word, the creative Word, and the incarnate Word. This word becomes a “linguistic event” every time it is announced and energized today by the Holy Spirit.

2.4. The relationship between aesthetics and the word of God

We have explored the theological possibilities of aesthetics and the word of God separately. It is now necessary to combine these two subjects. The substance of God’s word prevails over the futility of earthly aesthetics (Matt 24:35). Aesthetics arouses emotion or stimulates attraction but, in contrast to words, it does not formulate its message. The event of the cross tears apart all superficial aesthetics and brings us back to the heart of our hidden existence. Sin has also devolved through aesthetics. Pure beauty, therefore, will only be achieved in eternity. Pure aesthetics is out of our reach because it is an eschatological category. Finally, the word of God alone is the vehicle of salvation in Jesus Christ. It brings salvation under cover of an ambivalent aesthetics as Christology contains not only “beautiful” but also “ugly” aesthetic features. Thus, the word of God must always keep its first place and be given priority over aesthetics—this order is inviolable. But while subordinating aesthetics to the word of God is necessary theologically, aesthetics stands in the service of communication.

3. A critical aesthetic missiology

When moving from theology to missiology, it is necessary to follow the same approach as aesthetic theology corresponds to a “beautiful”, non-critical missiology and theological aesthetics corresponds to a critical aesthetic missiology.

“Non-critical” missiology means that we have an understanding of the aesthetic standards and expressions of our time and adopt them positively for our missionary efforts. This approach is the implicit imperative of Jesus’ missionary mandate to his church. A critical aesthetic missiology is a missionary approach which is beautiful in its form and content and nourished by a solid theological aesthetics, namely, the intrinsic beauty of God. It will question and renew the church’s expressions of Christian spirituality and its pastoral and missionary actions, and will itself produce new forms and works of art.

While the first model only works on the form, the second leads to the substance of things. The aim is to build a twofold opposite: the beauty and the ugly aspect of an aesthetic theology and critical aesthetic missiology that can both welcome the aesthetic demands of our contemporaries, and prophetically sort them out and expose them to the word of God. Such a missiological model necessarily introduces destabilization into the seeming certainty of the effects of present-day ambiguous aesthetic culture.

The “beauty” of Jesus on the cross will have an ultimate critical function in promoting a critical aesthetic missiology.

4. A hermeneutic of the Apocalypse

Which biblical resource best helps us to build a critical aesthetic missiology? The last book of the Bible—a letter full of images and symbolism—has attracted my attention. In the book of Revelation, theological aesthetics confronts the ambiguity of contemporary aesthetics. One could also say that the twofold opposite of the beauty and ugliness of theological aesthetics destabilizes the impressive but ambiguous pictures and miracles of the Roman Empire.

Choosing an apocalyptic hermeneutic for a reading of contemporary aesthetic culture seems risky. However, it is possible if we bring the message of Revelation back to its original context by clarifying its genre, the role of its images, and the political context targeted.[8]

Revelation is first of all a Christian prophecy, then an apocalypse, and, finally, a circular letter. Such an interpretative framework avoids the errors of a purely timeless or exclusively literal interpretation. It seeks the theological meaning of the texts and allows us to use a hermeneutic for Revelation that permits a reading of contemporary aesthetic culture. We have already introduced the theme above—the ambiguity of images of the Roman Empire in Revelation meets the theological ambivalence (twofold and opposite theological aesthetics) of the book. Since this book defines itself as prophetic, we can attempt a critical contextualization of the ambivalent imagery of postmodernity.

Revelation 13 describes the excessive aesthetics of the Roman Empire in the appearance of the two “beasts” which are part of the “satanic trinity”—the dragon or serpent in chapter 12 from which all opposition to God originates, the first beast that rises from the sea, and the second beast that rises from the earth. The two fearsome beasts are endowed with extraordinary power by which they produce miraculous signs. The first is miraculously healed after a fatal wound and rises from the dead to the admiration of the people on earth (Rev 13:1–10). The second upholds the worship of the first beast and in turn performs miracles (Rev 13:11–18). We face here an aesthetic of the miracle.

Revelation 13 is part of the “book of signs” which began in chapter 12 and continues to chapter 19. There are seven signs in these eight chapters: three in heaven (Rev 12:1, 3; 15:1) and four on earth (Rev 13:13–14; 16:14; 19:20). Only the first one is a “good” sign, coming from God. The others are expressions of God’s judgment or evil. Signs create certainty; they “prove” the legitimacy of the person, power, gods, or the true God who creates them. They are linked to their originator who must reveal their true meaning because miracles do not tell everything about the context of the event. However, it is their effect that makes them attractive as they produce anxiety and certainty in the observer despite the fact that the event is never fully explained and therefore requires an explanation from the creator of the phenomenon.

For example, the seven main signs in John’s Gospel (chapters 1–11) all point to Jesus, after which the use of signs stops because his glorification on the cross is no longer a sign, but the supreme and ultimate reality of the whole universe. It is the fusion of the sign with its author. There is only one reality, so the sign dissolves because the full meaning has appeared. The miracles of the two beasts (Rev 13:3–4, and especially 13–15) reflect, as many commentators point out, the military and political power of Rome. The second beast succeeds in staging an imperial cult to such an extent that the inhabitants make idols of the first beast. The second beast even manages to make the images of the beast “animate” (Rev 13:15).

After identifying the certainty of the aesthetics of the miracle, we now turn to the ambiguity of aesthetics. The sign provides certainty to aesthetics, but the latter is ambiguous because it is linked to the symbolic animal—“the beast”—which represents Roman power. John of Patmos thus reveals the false evidence of the miracle because it is linked to the misleading power of the empire and eventually, as a prophetic message, to all power of absolute evil. The ambiguity of aesthetics can contribute to total perversion as seen with both animals: the first representing imperial power and the other its powerful propaganda apparatus. John describes on Patmos the results of their actions—the promise of certainty through miracles has a considerable seductive power over men and the aesthetics of the miracle blinds men concerning the true nature of the aesthetics which is always ambiguous.

John’s apocalyptic imagery delivers an aesthetic counter-performance. It brings into play the twofold aspects of theological aesthetics—the “beauty” and “ugliness” of the gospel message and, in Revelation, the beauty of the throne of God and celestial beings in chapter 4—while questioning the certainty of the aesthetics of the miracle. Theological aesthetics meets an aesthetic ambiguity, and this is the time of revelation (apocalypse). Theological aesthetics takes on the prophetic role of denouncing a possible perverted, ambiguous aesthetic expression that serves to manipulate men as the message of Revelation denounces it. The Roman power is supported by the imperial cult and its propaganda apparatus (imagery) to manipulate the population. Here, the image (aesthetics) stands in the service of perversion.

This reading of Revelation helps us to balance our non-critical and attractive aesthetic model with a critical missiology. This means that the meta-narrative of the Roman Empire has been able to maintain itself through an ambiguous aesthetic and perverted imagery along with other things. The end of meta-narratives, as a postulate of postmodernity, calls the prophetic genre of the Revelation into question. Although we have seen the end of many historical meta-narratives, we must not succumb to the idea commonly asserted that leads to an ideological vacuum. It is against this illusion that the Apocalypse stands up.

Conclusion

We will finish this brief introduction to a critical aesthetic missiology with some clear statements on the domains mentioned in the introduction which is primarily developed through research in a Western context.

Context

  • The end of meta-narratives—the grand, all-encompassing ideological, political, religious, or philosophical narratives—which characterizes the postmodern era, strangely enough, marks the end of art history.[9] In the logic and dynamics of this era, art objects become autonomous; that is, they have a value in themselves without necessarily belonging to a school of thought or history. Art (especially modern art), we are told, is autonomous, and one should treat it this way.
  • The almost complete museumization of all Christian classical art in the West closes development of secularization. From paintings with biblical subjects up to sacred music and liturgical utensils, artistic objects have been removed from their original places and are preserved in museums to be admired by visitors.
  • The same applies to a growing number of Christian communities in the West—one increasingly treats them as “museums” of the past. The “museumification”, therefore, also concerns the church as a human community. In the eyes of our Western contemporaries, Christianity is already part of history and Christians are considered out-of-date, sometimes even reactionary.

Theology

  • Will we at any time soon enter a time which we can describe as a fifth “post-” era—the post-aesthetic one? Whether we do or not, I have tried to lead us towards a prospective theological aesthetics that embraces the aesthetic demands of our contemporaries to confront them with the beauty of Jesus Christ. The human and historical sciences are bound to describe the world by their tools and methods. The dogma of empiricism and scientific methodological reductionism constrains them to do so. However, they have the disadvantage of narrowing the horizon since their analysis concerns the past and ends abruptly in the present. The lack of hope in secular Western culture is blatant.[10]
  • What link could we make, then, between the aestheticization of the world and theology? We have seen above that beauty finds its theological habitation in eschatology. A prospective theology for today must, therefore, think and occupy precisely the space between a presumed aesthetic period—or perhaps one that has already passed—and the hope of the perfect beauty to come—the Lord’s return in glory. A post-aesthetic context has to correlate with a theology of pre-Parousia. Eschatology thus launches an essential movement in our present history. Christ’s disciples are waiting eagerly for this event. One could say that the expected supreme beauty produces the strength to proclaim (theologize) and create (make art).
  • The work of art critic Hans Belting is telling for theologians. His research interest is no longer only an object of art, but the relationship between the person and the object or as he puts it, the “faith” between these two. The interest shifts from the work to the view. What “faith” produces the image? How does an observer define the “true image”? These are the questions he explores. Belting’s research invites theologians to explore this “faith” in the image and to build a contextual approach with this idea which is also fundamental in the Bible.[11]

Church

  • The church will continue her rich tradition of critical and positive approaches to images and to encourage and critique present-day artistic creation.
  • The aesthetic wing of Christianity, embracing so readily the demand for images and experiences today, also handles the sword of the aesthetics of the miracle—the extraordinary life of faith in general and of healing in particular. However, this sword is double-edged, both in the domain of contextualization and the spectacular. There is a risk that it may itself succumb to a non-critical contextualization or become an autonomous sign that separates it from its origin (God). As a result, the church succumbs to a manipulated image and to worshipping her own experiences. Here, we are in the domain of what the Bible calls idolatry. The experience is cut off from the message of the gospel; it is no longer extra nos. In this case, it would be the end of the Protestant postulate, or, in short, the destruction of the gospel.
  • The hermeneutics of Revelation keeps the church awake. The book’s scathing criticism of Roman ideology becomes a warning to the Western church—she must not use the aesthetic side of her missiological model uncritically; otherwise, she will be reduced to the “beautiful.” An autonomous aesthetics does not exist but is linked to an ideology or a meta-narrative. The Christians of that time did not automatically have a clear understanding of the imagery of the Roman Empire, regardless of their oppression. Some people and parts of society, with Christians among them, were favored by the Empire and enjoyed some privileges; they could easily succumb to the cult of the Empire.

Missiology 

  • Some time ago, young evangelists discovered that cyberspace is a new place for mission. Many people live in this new reality for several hours every day. It is the synthesis of a technical feat and the human aspiration for a beautiful parallel world, a product seemingly far from classic Christian aesthetic expression. However, appearances are deceiving. As journalist Margaret Wertheim explains: “Cyberspace is not a religious construct per se, but … one way of understanding this new digital domain is as an attempt to construct a technological substitute for the Christian Space of Heaven.”[12]
  • This way of defining another reality also partially ties into artistic creation. Art is a means of mission for our Western society where images have replaced words and art has become autonomous. However, for evangelicals, evangelization is a strenuous activity because we have much to catch up on after decades of distancing ourselves from culture and art in particular. Not only is it a question of improving worship music or enriching the communication style of the church, but of encouraging the creation of a work that appeals to contemporaries, with a theology of culture as a background. Missiologists, in particular, need good resources to support artists in our ranks because they deal with the issue of culture on a daily basis.
  • Our artistic efforts need to become part of a rigorous contextualization model which I have called aesthetic-eschatological missiology of temporary crisis. We no longer have any choice. While firmly clinging to a theology of the word of God, we must joyfully and seriously confront aesthetics. We know that in the present period of crisis this challenging path is destined to be a temporary road for us to travel before the final bright light of the Parousia.[13]

[1] This contribution is a synthesis and reformulation of the chapters “The Domination of Aesthetics and Ethics” (197–203), “Aesthetics and the Word” (246–55), and “An a

Aesthetic Missiology” (314–22) of my doctoral thesis. Jean-Georges Gantenbein, Mission en Europe. Une étude missiologique pour le XXIe siècle, Studia Oecumenica Friburgensia 72 (Münster: Aschendorff, 2016) and a conference at the Doctoral School of the Theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, 5 October 2018. For most of the footnotes, it is necessary to refer to my thesis. In the original, I used the Nouvelle Bible Segond, 2002.

[2] Patrick Evrard, “Esthétique,” Encylopédie du protestantisme (Paris: Cerf and Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1995), 521–527.

[3] I am talking here about our age and not about the cultural richness of the past, the rich legacy of humanity, which is now “museumized” as far as the West is concerned. I am talking about an aesthetic innovation by the word of God. As I am well aware, generalization always suffers from exceptions.

[4] This alludes to the sociological approach by Zygmunt Bauman.

[5] Fréderic Rognon, “La foi au risque du doute,” Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 88 (January–March 2008): 21–53.

[6] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics, 7 vols. (London: T. & T. Clark, 1983–90).

[7] Markus Bockmühl, “Wort Gottes a) biblisch,” in Evangelisches Lexikon für Theologie und Gemeinde, ed. Helmut Burkhardt et al. (Wuppertail/Zurich: Brockhaus, 1994), vol. 3, 2186–8.

[8] I follow here mainly Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: CUP, 1993).

[9] Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987).

[10] See Bosch’s last contribution before his death: David J. Bosch, Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1995).

[11] Hans Belting, Das echte Bild: Bildfragen als Glaubensfragen (München: Beck, 2005).

[12] Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2000), 18.

[13] I would like to thank Mrs. Birgit Currlin (MA Missiology, MA Translation) for translating this article from French into English.

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