Unshackling the American Church: Cultivating Essential Beauty

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You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch–so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold.
—Exodus 25:31-36 ESV

In this “Unshackling the American Church” series, we’ve talked about conserving family and community, plus the Creation, but we haven’t truly talked about the need for beauty in our lives.

The Bible mentions by name human creators of beauty, the DaVincis, Michaelangelos, Tiffanys, Monets, and Rodins of their day. Moses returns from receiving God’s dictation for the tabernacle requirements and says this:

Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver–by any sort of workman or skilled designer.”
—Exodus 35:30-35 ESV

That passage and others like it scattered throughout the Scriptures carry extremely important connotations:

  • Artists are filled by the Spirit of God to create items of beauty
  • Artworks go beyond mere creativity and incorporate skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship
  • Artists are inspired by God to teach art to others
  • God values what is beautiful and skillfully created
  • God values art
  • God values artists

I’m one of those people who believes Eve was the most beautiful woman ever to grace the universe. I think that God used every bit of his perfect artistry to craft a woman who in her self carried the essence of beauty. If Man is God’s ultimate creation, then some amount of ultimate beauty resides within Man.

More than being a work of art, Man carries the Imago Dei, “The Image of God”, and therefore as God creates works of beauty, so does Man. As God is pleased by what is beautiful, by extension, so is Man.

God placed in us a need for beauty. I’m of the opinion that the need for beauty in people’s lives drives us to the extremes of both artful design and pornography. The onslaught of porn that is hurting so many people is amplified in part by a misplaced need to encounter beauty. Given our need for beauty, if people can’t find it in acceptable venues, they’ll go searching for it in unacceptable ones. As our own art world degenerates into filth, and art acclaimed by “those in the know” is little more than what a chimp can scribble out if given a pack of crayons, people are dying for beauty in their lives.

  • When we desecrate Creation, we destroy beauty.
  • When we build suburbs consisting of one bland house design another, we devalue beauty.
  • When we settle for kitsch rather than skilled art, we parody beauty.
  • When we denigrate artists, especially Christian artists, we tell God that beauty is not worth conserving and that His gift of artistry is not worth receiving. We’re actually quenching the Spirit of God.
  • When we turn our backs on beauty, we lose a precious part of what God formed in us as men and women.

And trust me, we Christians too often reject beauty, whether on purpose or simply from ignorance.

While at a conference earlier this year, Tim Challies was struck by the blandness of an enormous church he was visiting, later learning that this was a deliberate decision by the church leaders. When I read this, I grew angry.

Why?

First of all, the reason given—bland so as not to detract from the Gospel—is misguided. In fact, artful craftsmanship and beauty are PART of the Gospel. God’s Spirit now dwells in Man and with that indwelling come the gifts of the Spirit of God, including the artistic gifts mentioned above. To reject this is to ultimately reject beauty. And God does not reject artful beauty. Truthfully, the attitude expressed by the church leaders is the ungodly utilitarianism I mentioned in my last post. Under utilitarianism, nothing has any further inherent value than its function.

But God rejects utilitarianism. Reread the quote that began this post and note the lampstand. Its function is to hold candles inside the tabernacle of God. But God doesn’t concern Himself merely with function, for if He did, there would be no reason for the calyxes, flowers, and blossoms that adorn that lampstand. Nor would it need to have clever design that incorporates all those elements in one piece.

God sees beyond the plain. He also understands that beautiful items enhance worship. Even if we don’t see beauty in other aspects of our meager lives, at least in the presence of God beauty exists. There’s not much to see while wandering in a desert, but at least the tabernacle itself, the very dwelling place of God on Earth, was beautiful. That beauty spoke to the otherness of God in the midst of that stark desert.

The second thing that angers me about the church leaders’ decision to build a bland church is that they’re telling all the artists and craftsmen in that church that their work has no value at all for the church as a whole. How astonishingly bankrupt! And this from supposed Protestants! The Reformation’s imprimatur on all craftsmen and artisans blessed their work as holy unto the Lord. As Luther himself said on this issue of art:

Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and the mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it. That would be a Christian work.

God values artisans. (The Lord Jesus was a carpenter!) When artists and craftsmen serve the Lord with their art, they engage in worship. Yet there are churches that make artists into idolators even though God Himself has filled artisans with His own good Spirit. How utterly tragic when we tell those artisans that their work cannot serve God or their fellow Christians. Talk about quenching the Spirit!

And lastly, what a mind-boggling waste of money to build an enormous multimillion-dollar church complex that is purposefully dull. All across the country I see these piles of boring brick and I just shake my head. I’m sure someone thinks that designing an architecturally-interesting building filled with handcrafted artwork somehow detracts from God, but what detracts from God more than building a costly edifice that equally bores both the saved and the lost?

The truth of God exists in more than what we say with our mouths. His general revelation speaks, as do we when we act out the Gospel in actions rather than mere words. Words are not the only portion of the Gospel. So the leaders of that church are right when they believe that their church building speaks. The message that church building sends in this case? Our God is a dull god. And the people who serve Him are even duller.

When I’m in a beautiful church, it pulls me closer to God. When I’m in a drab and dour church, the opposite happens. Remember again one of the reasons God made the tabernacle beautiful.

It’s not as if beauty somehow detracts from worshiping God. For instance, we love this hymn:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

I suspect folks sing this hymn in those horridly ugly multimillion-dollar brick blocks they call a “church,” but I also suspect they don’t entirely believe it. The correlation between brick block churches and “Christians” who deny all experiencing of God, all wonder, and all mystery—the building blocks of beauty—is shockingly high.

How sad for them.

How sad for us too that folks who reject beauty in life are responsible for the dearth of good Christian art we see today. Where did it go? Simply answered, we saw no purpose in it, stopped being patrons of the arts, and held artists in contempt.

Rather than rehashing old points about Christians and the Arts, I’ll instead point to previous posts detailing this essential aspect of Christian living (especially part 2):

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain – Part 1

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain—Part 2

For 2006: The Church’s Brave New Brain—Part 3 (Conclusion)

We need beauty. God made us with a bent toward it because He Himself deems it valuable.

As I close, I’d like to head off the inevitable cry of “Graven images!”:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
—Exodus 20:3-5 KJV

Idolatry doesn’t begin with the artisan’s idol.  We must be discerning here. Just as true circumcision is not the removing of the foreskin, but the altering of one’s heart, so the other side of that truth shows that graven images are heart-based. If idolatry exists in a man’s heart, he will craft idols that reinforce the idolatry already there.

But a Christian’s heart has been changed, molded to hold the Spirit. Therefore, what a Christian creates is unto God alone, therefore it cannot be an idol, but rather an expression of worship to God. If we fail to understand this, then we fail to understand how God can forbid natural images in one place in Scripture and turn around and ask for their creation in another (our opening passage above.)

Christians harbor the fullness of God’s Spirit, and with that comes the inclination for beauty. Above all other people, we Christians should honor our artists and praise their gifts, even while we praise God for those gifts. To reject beauty is to ultimately reject the fullness of a Spirit-filled life. Those Christians that do renounce beauty miss the full blessing of what God intended for Man.

Today’s Christians must cultivate and conserve the beautiful, because if we don’t, no one will.

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Other posts in the “Unshackling the American Church” series:

12 thoughts on “Unshackling the American Church: Cultivating Essential Beauty

  1. Amen. I have always been of the mindset that things should be done in a way that creates, enhances, or brings out beauty as God created 🙂

    One of the thoughts I’ve had on churches building… having lived in several cities and seen abandoned, broken buildings, I often wonder why as congregations we don’t go there for our services? Buy the building and take what is ugly and abandoned and turn into something beautiful and glorfying to God? (instead of building a new building? – I know of one church that took an old skating rink and did that). Isn’t that what Christ does to us? He comes in, takes what was sinful and dead and makes us holy and alive! Beauty of the Gospel translated into beauty the eyes can see.

    My thoughts anyway.

    • That’s a great idea.

      Before they moved into a much larger facility, my previous church gave their old building to a new congregation free of charge! That’s another way to do it.

  2. Holly

    Have you read “Addicted to Mediocrity” by Franky Schaeffer (never sure if I’m spelling his name correctly) – it serves as an adequate introduction to the pervasive creative sterility, and out right banality, that so afflicts the church community today. He touches (but doesn’t elaborate) on the transcendent nature of beauty and the importance of Spirit-inspired art to the well-being of man.

    You are so correct – Christians are content to settle for cute and kitschy consumables (just visit your local Christian bookstore for a snort or two of so-called “Christian art”) when they should be taking the lead, setting the standard and EXCELLING in the arts, not bringing up the rear (again).

    Have you heard of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts)…they are trying (imperfectly, but it’s a start) to encourage artists of faith to produce work that is meaningful and, yes, even occasonally confrontational; “meaty”, in the biblical sense – and why not? High time, if you ask me.

    As an artist who also has to pay bills *sigh* it IS a struggle to find both the time and energy to simply create, and church officials eager to throw their patronage behind the arts and artists have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

    Nevertheless, I do wish the Church would return to her former glorious practice of supporting the arts by commissioning and paying decently for original paintings, sculptures, altarpieces, etc., by known artisans of faith – what a tremendous (and practical) encouragement that would be!

    The market (filled to overflowing with trends and gimmicks and collectors/dealers who have been convinced by critics that transgressive art is the only art that should ever grace a gallery wall or exhibition space) is no help, either; Christian artists who produce quality work are definitely swimming upstream in America today.

    I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

    Blessings,

    ~Holly~

    • Holly,

      Most definitely have read Schaeffer’s book, though I was confused by the mediocre movies he made despite having penned that book.

      I know few Christians making any living at the arts. A crying shame. However, I’m glad to see that there’s some inertia behind that art renewal movement, seeking to capture a more renaissance/realism feel in works today.

  3. As a bit of an artist myself I say “amen” to your concerns. It’s difficult, I think, for people who grow up in increasingly artificial surroundings to develop an appreciation for true beauty as seen in creation. Especially since that beauty isn’t often valued intrinsically but rather as something that can be manipulated (“man’s power over Nature” as discussed by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man).

    Regarding pornography, I wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with a misguided pursuit of perfection or “ultimate experience,” though those things contain a type of beauty themselves. But they’ve been divorced from their Source; we’ve made beauty self-serving rather than something to revere for the sake of its Creator.

    The trouble with a lot of art patronage of the past by the Church, though, is that the money was got at the expense of livelihood of parish subjects. It glorified the rulers of both church and land as much if not more than God. Manipulation, misuse, and theft governed and supported supposedly “Christian” art.

    But I also think that the Protestant aesthetic, in general, aimed to “clean things up” — i.e., take the blood off of Christ statues (or remove Him entirely and just put up pretty crosses), lighten up sanctuary colors, etc. and the effect was antiseptic. Sometimes, beauty is ugly, or rather, there’s more to beauty than mere aesthetic appeal.

    Anyway, great post.

  4. Very well thought out. I have always been against the building of extravagent church buildings, instead believing the money could be used to help/reach the lost and the poor. I see now that perhaps it would achieve a goal of reaching the lost. I still believe a church should make a priority of helping the poor, as well as the lost. I guess if a church is able to balance the two.. You’ve given me something to think about. God bless you, Dan

  5. I often have thought that our perspective of God is reflected in our buildings. In the Cathedrals, the entire construction was to focus our eyes to a transcendent, higher being. The awesomeness of the Cathedral reflects the attitude of the people.

    As Dan has so eloquently stated in past posts — we now build utilitarian buildings with no beauty, and these reflect our utilitarian attitude about God. He is no longer transcendent, but a vending machine for our needs.

    Also, it seems that the big, beautiful buildings were built for God, and the ‘big box’ model that is so popular today has been constructed for man’s use.

    Am I making ANY sense? Maybe I am just rambling, and if so, I apologize… I just feel that we have reduced God Himself to a utilitarian role in our life…

  6. robert baker

    A study of the creation, to account for the days of creation, relative to the chronology that followed it, each day as a thousand yrs.

    The Sabbath was from the creation of 7 days it is figurative of the entire period of this creation! To the conclusion and His objective is His rest or resting place forever.
    He rested on the seventh day!!
    The first ordinance was the Sabbath (as that is the object, it is emphasized by the rigid enforcement of the Sabbath laws, stoning to death Num 15v36 because he despised had no regard or value for the living God, was not dedicated to nor set apart (Strongs 6942). He waited 2500yrs to activate this figurative rest looking forward to His rest or conclusion, for a people to be with Him on that day, and on the actual day to be His elected, His jewels, His treasures. The value of being His chosen people is such a beautiful thing His elect must value the beauty of this priceless gift! Sabbath they regarded not, He emphasizes this again in Jer 17v21 they obeyed not nor inclined their ear!
    Israel under valued this election so desperately that is why they were cut off. The Christian religion does not even value it, the election, most just consider (it is just a religion) not that it is the gift of the life of the living God. (There is great guilt to this religion, it is rejected also as Israel was)

    He rested, He was not tired, He is the living God, this statement is to show his desire for a people His goal is revealed at the beginning, He is seeing this creation completed at the end of the 6 thousand yrs, the word RESTED in Strongs 7673 to come to an end, cause to cease. Then His Sabbath is in action at the end of this period the Sabbath of a thousand yrs, & thereafter perpetual forever to be with the Lord a simple statement but the treasure that statement carries is the beauty of the Life of God! The Bible is not just words it carries with enlightenment by His spirit.

    There is nothing in this creation that can give the value to the Beauty of the living God, to what can you compare this beauty how to give a value how precious is He? this beautiful wonder of life. There is nothing in this creation that can carry His beauty, Jesus carried His beauty and was killed by the Jews of the time, it is now carried by His Spirit and His word only. Words alone can not carry his beauty except by the Holy Spirit of God.

    When sight is far more than can be seen
    When sound is far more than can be heard
    When smell is far more than can be smelt
    When taste is far more than can be tasted
    When feeling is far more than can be felt

    Then you have the life of the living God who surpasses all of human senses and values humanity has no way to then explain this beauty, as nothing that humanity has can carry His beauty.

    But not to all as it can not be received unless you have the new birth seed of election,
    the transmission of the spirit finds no receiver, no life to be glad & rejoice at the signals from the spirit of the living God. Having ears to hear & hear not having eyes to see & see not that’s what the prophets say Isa 6v9&10 & Jesus said this to the elders of Israel. To tell a person that is not invited by Him about this beauty, they have no ears they will not hear, this is not by the invitation of man but of God only. A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven John 3v19 & many are called but few are chosen Matthew 20c16-22v14.
    The conclusion of this creation is the final Sabbath it will be continual! Night & day are finished, there is no night there, you have entered His Sabbath, (He has caused to cease) entered His rest, it is back to His light that shines forever to give us the light of His countenance, the full beauty of the living God. The light of the sun is not needed any

    more! Day & night are finished!

    1. light 1st Let there be light (Strongs 216) by extension light of face, or let it be expressed, let it be revealed, the conclusion in Rev 22v4 and they shall see His face, this creation is finished. this light was not the light of the earth but the heavens! as the sun & the moon were created on the 4th day. This light is His light above this creation was the first day, it is the day that is forever continues again in Rev, when it is His light that shines! Thinking only why, the first thing must be to show Him to reveal His Light or His beauty, heaven then reveals the difference between good & evil as Satan was cast out of it, he is used in this creation to prove us to try us, then at the finish he is cast into the lake of fire. The heavenly host had not all followed Satan & fallen as in the creation of man, they are not created in the same manner as us in this creation, born of father & mother. They did not inherit as us in a fallen creation, hereditary iniquity the fallen angles choose to follow Satan. The fall was through one Adam but it was then hereditary to all through birth in this creation! We were then in the domain of Satan we were then servants of or at least subject to Satan.
    That is why the fall was planned in the beginning of creation, with the fall of the first Adam, because it is the first purpose of creation that all would be under the fall to enable the creation of a redeemed and elected people, by the pouring out of His life, it was concluded from the beginning.
    His plan of creation, this is the Living God it is impossible for all things to have so called gone wrong, & then He has to put it right. By the sacrificing of His priceless Son created in His image, He was going to see His own life poured out given, it was going to be His own life that was going to be poured out, it was He that was suffering in Christ Jesus, the creator of heaven & earth to express his longing to manifest His heart, the depths of the Soul of the living God this is such a wonder for His people to understand. The value of His people is established by the price He paid to redeem them only, there is no other value that could be given, a person outside of the Kingdom of life will not be able to see or understand this wonder, it is for His elect to rejoice in it only.
    It was the plan of creation.
    Like the fourth day of creation He created light Strongs 215, but in the first day light was already created, why? The first light was in heaven above! This is the light of the world this is Him the first born of all creation, to divide light from darkness! That is a statement of the purpose, to show His goodness, to give the value to His beauty, to show His wonders, it is declared in the first day to divide the light from darkness. What does John say the light shinned in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not, John 1v4 the life was the light of men v7 bear witness of the light, v8 he was not that light but bear witness of that light, v9 that was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, v 10 He was in the world and the world was made by Him and the world knew Him not. To them v12 gave He power to become the sons of God even to them that believe on His name. v13 born not of blood nor of the will of man but of God!

    Satan is cast out is the first day the separation, as He does through all this time be ye sanctified or separate, His people.
    Look at the fourth thousand yrs from creation this light that shone is this new light of the new creation in Jesus. The fourth day is a figure of the light that would shine in Him the last Adam on that real fourth day.

    To divide the children of the day from the children of the night

    2. Firmament 2nd (Strongs 7549) space that holds visible objects. This firmament is the divide the great gulf fixed between us & them so that no one can pass from here to there or there to here as Luke 16v26 (Strongs 5490) chasm, as in the firmament, an expanse. He has created the divide in the beginning the separation. From the beginning He divides makes a clear difference in all things, it is irreversible, but by one the Son of life Jesus! This chasm is the great gulf that is at the end of this period of time, foreseen here that will separate His elected jewels, His sons & heirs of the promise shall be called & separated.

    3. Waters under heaven the earth & herbs trees 3rd

    4. Lights 4th to divide day from night greater lights day the sun, night lesser light the moon reflects the greater light in the same way we reflect Him, (the seasons Strongs 4150) (tent of meeting) designated times, season. A time for all things, as through to the conclusion of the 7000yrs times of covenant changes seasons, or days the 4th day. Then it is His light shines on the children of the day, in the fourth day of a thousand yrs, in the person of His Son Jesus. John give the beauty of this light ch 1v4,5,7,8,9. the light of the fourth day was looking forward four thousand yrs to this light that came down from heaven, in the person of Jesus as John testifies to this wonderful light of the world. John Ch3v19 ch 8v12 I am the light of the world. Ch9v5 ch 12v35 to 46 Mat 4v16 Luke 2v32 to lighten the Gentiles ch11v33 that they which come in may see the light

    5. Creatures moving fouls water fish living creatures 5th

    6. Cattle & everything that creeps & man v27 in His image 6th
    In this sixth day, He shows forward to when, He created complete His everlasting man for ever, in the life given by Jesus, now is the end of the sixth day of a thousand yrs His creation of His heavenly man is done, what must follow is His rest. The 7th day is His rest & we hold that priceless invitation to enter. The sixth day again looks to the final fulfillment of the fullness of the creation of heavenly man ready for the Sabbath that will be the final Sabbath forever & ever to be with Him the wonder of all life.
    7. On the seventh day His work was ended
    God blessed the seventh day

    The Sabbath
    1. It was not reckoned or required for the next nearly 2500yrs at the Exodus in BC 1500
    2. It is one of the most prominent & important ordinances in the Levi covenant, it was active in that covenant for 1000yrs until the complete & utter rejection of Israel & Judah, when He cut them off as His elect.

    They were already observing the sabbath16v22 they had gathered twice as much the elders told Moses. But no person told them to gather twice as much! They had already been told to take only an O-mer per person, Moses had already been angry with them for taking more. Yet in v23 he says it is OK. There is an abundance of this man-na from heaven, don’t just lay it up & let it stink. This is the real covenant there is an abundance of man-na from heaven don’t just leave it to rot consume this bread of heaven that Jesus spoke of which is Him the life of God. As 2 Cor 8 v15 he that gathered little had no lack Paul sure understood the relativity of the gathering of man-na, not to let the full truth be under valued don’t let it just rot this priceless truth feed it to all His people now it is time.

    It is NOW the end of a second period of 2500yrs the man-na is ready prepared, Sabbath is near! Its time to seek it with all your heart, the true beauty of God by His spirit you will find Him if you seek Him with al your heart Jer29v13.

    Why when it is of so great importance (the Sabbath)………2500yrs…………as stated Ex 16v23 the seventh thousand yr period you must have it, or you will not find it, as it is the Sabbath v26 there shall be none. Caused to cease it is the rest

    He had not a people to rejoice in the Sabbath prior to the Exodus, it was kept until the time of His people & family.
    This allegory must also be relevant to His heavenly sons and heirs chosen and elect, they will come together for the exodus from this world???? It is 2500yrs since the complete fall of the allegory sons and heirs chosen and elect. He will not tarry

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