Confession is good for the soul, I have been told. So I shall indulge. How often have you looked at a piece of Christian art or product and cringed because it is just so much kitsch? I confess right now that I have, and it saddens me. Why is it that we, who have a more intimate knowledge of the Creator God, the Master Craftsman, should represent Him so shabbily to the world?
Recently, halfway through lunch, one of my friends mentioned that he was loath to part with his almost-complete set of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery books. I could empathise with him. Dorothy Sayers was a constant companion of mine through the many long nights of my years as a widow. She was a consummate storyteller who informed her writing with her Christian worldview. But one never felt preached at. And because she did what she did so well, her books sat on the shelves of saint and sinner alike.
A couple of weeks later, said friend’s wife points me in the direction of an excellent BBC documentary by Roger Scruton called “Why Beauty Matters”. All this got me to thinking again about Christ’s injunction that we should salt and light the earth. How do we do that without being in the world? Why do we not bring our light to bear in a world that is growing increasingly darker? Roger Scruton’s documentary was, for me, both comforting and uplifting. Quoting from Plato that “Beauty is a sign of another and higher order”, Scruton went from music to literature to fine art and architecture to show that beauty does matter.
The great artists of the past were aware that life was full of chaos and suffering but they had a remedy for this, and the name of that remedy was beauty. The beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow, and affirmation in joy. It shows human life to be worthwhile… (Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters, London, UK: BBC, 2009.)
When we show the innate goodness and beauty that God originally endowed all of creation with (remember the repeated “And God saw that it was good” in Genesis?), we help to draw humanity’s focus upwards. Cynics are wont to say that those who shy away from the hard realities of life are in denial or, worse still, escapist. If art is a reflection of life, why can’t we show it like it is?
Hence we have Marcel Duchamp, who was considered by some as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Marcel Duchamp did not produce many works of art, but he did achieve “fame” for his piece entitled “Fountain”… which was nothing more than a pristine urinal. Thomas Kinkade, however, was panned by the critics for his over-sentimental nostalgic renderings of country cottages, lighthouses and wintry scenes. And yet many have found solace and comfort from his paintings. “Kinkade’s Christian faith was essential not only to his popularity but to his own understanding of his vocation. Of his Christian conversion during his art school years he once said: ‘When I was saved, my art got saved.’ His faith impelled him to create inspirational art.” (Gregory Wolfe, “Art in a Fallen World”, The Wall Street Journal Online Asia Edition, April 20, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/87mbf7x)
When I heard Roger Scruton say in his documentary, “beauty is the revelation of God in the here and now”, I was reminded of how St John described the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:15-21. In order for finite beings to envision the infinitely glorious city, he had to paint a picture in superlative human terms — so that we can capture the eternal in the here and now.
Okay, so let’s say Thomas Kinkade’s art may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s consider the works of some of the old masters. I remember a family holiday in Spain that we’d saved and scrimped for. In Madrid, we took in a visit to the Prado Museum where we caught the tail end of a Rembrandt exhibition. Most of his major art works were based on Scripture, and here they were, being exhibited in a secular museum in a nation that has become increasingly secular in polity. Did anyone object to the Christianness of his paintings? When you come face to face with his exquisite use of texture and light, when you are confronted by the sheer beauty of the scenes he recreates, all you can do is stand in awe.
This is my apologia for a return to excellence and beauty in all that we do, not just in so-called spiritual things, but in the everyday as well. Why do we allow all that is ugly and crude to rob us of our right to transform society? Why do we abdicate our role as salt and light and then complain about how depraved society has become.
When Singaporean author, Emily Lim, lost her voice as a result of a rare voice disorder, she set herself to writing children’s books. Several of these books have won her international acclaim and awards. They are beautifully written and illustrated books that deserve every accolade that they have received. But, what for me is the real beauty of her books is the fact that there is now a generation of young children who will grow up knowing about unconditional love and acceptance, about courage and true friendship. About the sacred in the beautiful.