Tag Archives: aesthetics

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What might a ‘Christian aesthetic’ look like? And why bother?

Late last year I was listening to the podcast Cultivated (one of my favourites), and about halfway through this episode the panelists started talking about what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might look like.

“That makes me think of a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot, that I’d love to talk about and explore, is: what would a Christian aesthetic look like, if you go beyond the content level, which is often how we talk about these things, right? Something is Christian if it tells a story from the Bible, or has a Christian theme or message. Protestants are prone to that kind of word/propositional orientation anyway, less than Catholics, who are oriented more towards the visual. What would it look like to think about an aesthetic, a form, that’s ‘Christian’, certainly in architecture there are certain forms or styles that we could point to and say ‘that’s a  ‘Christian’ aesthetic,’ that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity …” — Brett McCracken, Cultivated Podcast

It’s been something of an ‘earworm’ or a ‘brainworm’ for me since, coupled with my love of the idea that when Christians did start building their own buildings, they incorporated the cross into the floor plan, and put the highest point of the ceiling above the intersection, so that the space itself represented the story of the Gospel, and that Jesus death serves as the bridge between earth and heavens, that will ultimately bring heaven to earth. That’s a ‘certain’ sort of form — a provision of a habitat that helps us embody the Christian story from the ground up (though for most of us, who are architecturally illiterate, and textually literate, this sort of thing might be meaningless — greater actual literacy is not a reason to be illiterate when it comes to aesthetic stuff though). I love that idea — while also pondering if the very decision to own public buildings, rather than meeting in homes, was a good move (aesthetically or ‘formally’). I say this having been pastoring a church for four years that has now met in a rented public theatre, an empty ‘box-like’ room, and now a church auditorium with all the modern bells, whistles, screens and lighting — each ‘space’ has shaped the life and experiences of our community and our gatherings in profound ways.

The Cultivated conversation explores questions of form, or a Christian ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to Christians making art, I’m interested in considering what it looks like to ask these forms in our architecture — our use of space both public and private, and social architecture. How we create a ‘stage’ or a habitat where we embody the Gospel story as ‘characters’ and form habits.

One of the ‘modernist’ assumptions that ends up shaping ethics (how we live) is that we are consumers in a machine-like environment, that things have utility, which led to a corresponding rise in utilitarian ethics and pragmatism, and through all this, we Christians in our modernist framework have tended towards making pragmatic rather than aesthetic choices about space (and even art). Here’s a cracking quote from Karen Swallow Prior, from that same Cultivated podcast episode.

“We’ve inherited a lot from the Victorian age and we don’t even realise it. We often don’t even distinguish between Victorianism and Biblical Christianity. And one of them is utilitarianism. And so we have undue emphasis on the idea that things must be useful, that they must have a purpose, in order to be valuable, of course, you know, when we apply that to human lives we know what that results in, but I think that’s part of what makes us uneasy with art, that, you know, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘all art is utterly useless’ right, and what he meant by that is it’s just there to be enjoyed, it doesn’t have to fulfil a purpose, which of course is a sort of a purpose. Modern Christianity is uncomfortable with something that is just there to be enjoyed and take pleasure in… we think we have to be on mission all the time and fulfil some sort of purpose” — Karen Swallow Prior, Cultivated Podcast

Here’s the thing though; art does ‘serve a purpose’ — it is part of the ‘backcloth’ of life, part of the ‘environment’ we live in or the habitat we inhabit, art-as-artefacts are part of what forms a ‘culture’, and so art shapes our seeing of the world both directly as we engage with it, and subtly (by being part of our ‘environment’). And if we bring in my favourite academic discipline — media ecology — and one of its maxims: the medium is the message, then we start to see that forms do inherently communicate something along with content. To keep ‘ecology’ on the table — think about the relationship between the words ‘habitat’ and ‘habit’. If we want to be creatures of habit — those who habitually live out the Christian story because we are formed as characters within God’s story — not our own consumer-driven stories with us as the hero, but as disciples — maybe we should consider our habitats — how we structure and design space, including what it looks and feels like — an application of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ to how and where we meet and live…

I’ve been challenged to re-imagine how we approach church as Aussies who believe the Bible is the word of God, and that the Gospel is the story of Jesus arriving in this world as the king who conquers sin, satan, and death and who launches a kingdom — his people, to live a life, for eternity (but starting now) where these enemies have been destroyed, so that we’re free from their grip, and he is victorious.

I’m struck by how many of our practices as Christians are adopted from a modernist world with modernist assumptions — a couple in particular, that the world is ‘disenchanted’ (thanks Charles Taylor) and that we are simply ‘brains on a stick’ who need logic and facts to make good ‘rational’ decisions (thanks James K.A Smith). I’m simultaneously struck by the way this adoption of a ‘modernist framework’ as ‘the Christian frame’ has us reeling because we now live in a post-modern, post-Christian, environment and our practices aren’t keeping people (humanly speaking) or persuading people, and how much this framework has shaped our understanding of making disciples or Christian formation, and in this post, I’m particularly considering how that approach to formation has de-emphasised embodiment, and so de-emphasised our ‘environment’ and the arts. So that the idea of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ seems a bit wanky — we’ve lost a sense of deliberately Christian architecture or art, whether within the life of the church or in the witness of the church to the world (or both).

“I want there to be a place for evangelistic art, really, really, really good evangelistic art. I want there to be a place for art that has very obvious utility. I don’t have a problem with that. But once you get in the field of the Terence Mallicks, and he’s making a movie about creation, and dinosaurs, and trees and light. You’re asking yourself a really important theological question: How does God perceive light, and sound, and texture, and scent? Because that’s what he’s talking about. Because if we have a theological way to frame God’s care of those things in creation, then Terrence Mallick is a profoundly Christian artist…” — David Taylor, Cultivated Podcast

We reformed evangelicals in reacting against worldly idolatry of beauty (too high a view of creation), and the way we’ve seen that play out in the Catholic Church with its iconography and expensive cathedrals, have tended to over-correct, adopting and almost ‘dis-embodied’ approach to life in the world — so we think less about space, and place, and beauty than other streams of Christianity (including the Pentecostal stream, who have a different ‘frame’ but, perhaps, are more likely to uncritically adopt the forms that are popular in our world).

There’s been a recent pushback against modernity (and post-modernity) by people who realise we’ve been breathing the air for so long that it has become normal — that perhaps, to quote another podcast I’ve listened to quite a bit lately — Mark Sayers in This Cultural Moment — we’ve been colonised by our culture, rather than ‘colonising our culture’ with the Gospel. Sayers argues you should understand the west in three eras — pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian; that missionaries have often come from the ‘second culture’ — one shaped by the Gospel into the pre-Christian world (think Africa, or the world the early church operated in), and that the ‘third culture’ — the ‘post-Christian’ culture lives off the fruits of Christianity but ‘wants the kingdom, without the king’ — it has moved on to a new story about what human flourishing looks like.  In episode 2, After discussing Leslie Newbigin’s return from the mission field in India to ‘post-modern’ England, and his realisation that the ground had shifted such that the west is now a post-Christian mission field, not “Christian” or “pre-Christian.” Sayers talks about some of the misfires of the early ‘missional’ church (including his early attempts at a missional church), which adopted secular forms, or aesthetics, to shape the teaching of the content of the Christian story. He said his question was: “how do you do a kind of church that incarnates into the culture of my friends?”

“Gen-X culture was hitting… post-modern culture was hitting… so the question was how do we incarnate into post-modern or Gen-X culture. I planted this congregation. We didn’t have singing. We didn’t have sermons. It was conversation, you know, clips from the Simpsons, we didn’t have a “front”… I was very much influenced by some of the alternative worship stuff that was happening in the UK. It was an attempt to use the cultural forms, it was the framework of missiology, but there was a thing that I missed was that there was an assumption that if you did this and you just did mission, then it would re-energise Christians, it would bring alive their faith, it would bring the church back to its core purpose… the model then of the three cultures is the idea that the third culture is not a ‘pre-Christian culture’… it’s not a return back to culture one, we’re turning to culture three… what it is, is a culture that is defining itself against Christianity, wants some of the fruits of Christianity whether it knows it or not, consciously, and therefore has a corrosive and caustic effect. The science of missiology taught people in Christian culture not to colonise people in culture one, when they’re communicating the Gospel to them, but what I realised was happening was that when I was in culture two incarnating and using cultural forms to speak to culture three, a post-Christian culture, that it was colonising us.”

John Mark Comer, the co-host of This Cultural Moment, sums this up as ‘you go out with the Gospel of Jesus, and instead of influence, you are influenced. Instead of shaping, you are shaped.” You uncritically take on the aesthetics of the world, and they start to shape how you see the world.

James K.A Smith puts it this way, in a series of paragraphs from chapter 3 of his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit:

“In our desire to embed the gospel content into forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we re-tool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar… confident of the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms…” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

He says this ends up with us saying “come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar because we’ve modelled it after the mall”…

“”Forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message… what are embraced as merely fresh forms are in fact practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.”

“When we believe that worship is about formation, we will begin to appreciate why ‘form’ matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves towards the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the story that is carried in those practices. By the form of worship, I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute the elements of that enacted narrative.”

“Only worship that is oriented by the Biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituation of rival, secular liturgies.” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

Sayers and Smith are essentially pointing to the same truth, through different (though related) paradigms. If our forms or aesthetics are predominantly derived from the world around us (not that this is always terrible) there is a risk that we will be shaped by the world, rather than the forms or aesthetics that are predominantly derived from our story, and the practices of Jesus and teachings of the New Testament. Both Smith and Sayers/Comer land in the same place — spiritual habits — or ‘disciplines,’ shaped by the Gospel story, which include coming to terms with our embodiment as the key for transformation. Smith, for mine, leans too heavily into the medieval practices that developed as the church moved into ‘institution’

Now. I’ve written quite a bit about where I depart from Smith’s proposed embodiment of these insights (that I love), I think he ultimately picks the medieval, or pre-enlightenment (or Augustinian), church as a particular point in time disconnected from our modernist assumptions so that its practices will be counter-formative… while I think much older (pre-Constantine) practices of the New Testament and early church — forms and practices specifically developed in the Christian story — are both more disconnected from modernism, and from Christendom and its ‘forms’ — such the backdrop is more like ours, and the practices Christians adopted against that backdrop are more likely to be helpfully counter-formative for us. It’s not that everything between then and now is wrong, or that we shouldn’t be progressing in our telling of the story of God working through history to bring about his kingdom, it’s just that I’m not sure the practices produced by Christians when we were in the cultural ascendency are the ones we should pin ourselves to when trying to rehabituate and rehabilitate the church. I’m not sure it’s enough to say our post-Christian inclination to adopt the forms of our culture wasn’t at the heart of the church when it built cathedrals that looked a lot like castles (Solomon had a similar issue here); even though I’m prepared to cede that the medieval church, at times, might have had a less sinister approach to aesthetics and practices than it did when Luther kickstarted the Reformation (using popular forms from outside the church), and Calvin adopted a particular sort of iconoclasm that went far beyond doing away with inappropriate and idolatrous aesthetic practices. Anybody trying to learn from history inevitably goes back into the annals to find some point where they think the church departed from a faithful model, and to find faithful counter-examples; this is inevitably an inexact science built around drawing analogies (see Dreher and the Benedict Option for another example of this phenomenon).

I think we’ve often made the distinction Smith points to between form and content when it comes to the Gospel — being flexible on form and firm on the Gospel as an expression of the sort of ‘contextualisation’ Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 9. And it’s not that we shouldn’t play with expressing the Gospel in different forms — that’s part of being human and forms being cultural expressions — but I do wonder if we’ve been deliberate enough in developing a particularly Christian culture, or forms, or aesthetic that might pair with the Gospel content as we adapt our engagement with a variety of cultures so that our ‘medium’ and ‘message’ work together to disrupt and challenge idolatrous status quos (which are often packaged aesthetically). I wonder if we’ve created a universal flexibility on forms without grappling with the idea that ‘the medium is the message’ — and without critically asking what forms or mediums undermine our preaching and living of the counter-cultural, subversive, aspect of the Gospel.

Social architecture and how the habitat of the home shaped a new habit for the early church

Paul is able to both understand and embody a culture and challenge it in the way he does so — it’s what I think he does in Athens — and to do it in a way that doesn’t challenge the way we Christians operate in our own spaces, where he’s one of the architects (divinely inspired) of a radically different aesthetic, or form. A totally new use of space that is utterly subversive.

Paul’s treatment of eating immediately after he talks about his adaptability in 1 Corinthians 9 is interesting. Eating with people is a ‘form’ now (see anthropologist Mary Douglas’ fascinating essay ‘Deciphering a Meal’) and was a ‘form’ that had a particular meaning in the ancient world in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman culture. There are ancient records from the Roman world observing the dining habits of the Jewish people.

Living in their peculiar exclusiveness, and having neither their food, nor their libations, nor their sacrifices in common with men.” – Philostratus, Life of Apollonius V.33

“They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart…” – Tacitus, Histories 5.5.2

The Jews had a particular practice — not becoming impure by eating with gentiles. This form had a meaning — the Jews saw this as something of an aesthetic practice, a thing that made their eating more beautiful (and this is apart from the dining program aligned with their calendar of festivals).

The Romans had their own forms, or aesthetic, when it came to dining, Pliny the Younger describes a meal around the table of an acquaintance (and again, there’s a certain sort of ‘physical space’ required for this, and an ‘aesthetic’ created by that space, check out the adjectives attached to the content).

“I happened to be dining with a man, though no particular friend of his, whose elegant economy, as he called it, seemed to me a sort of stingy extravagance. The best dishes were in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food put before the rest of the company… One lot was intended for himself, and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” — Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.6

Paul takes that form and, with Jesus, talks about three particular forms — eating at ‘the table of demons’ (1 Corinthians 10:18-21), eating with non-Christians in their homes as an act of love and mission (1 Corinthians 10:27-33), and eating together as the church (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The act of eating together as a church required a particular sort of space — a home, organised in a particular sort of way that created a form — and this form might be part of a sort of aesthetic framework that transcends time and place.

What he describes in chapter 11 is a new and subversive form of eating; a new aesthetic; where people of different ethnic backgrounds and social class were to meet together around a table as equals, united as one by and in Jesus. This unity was a certain sort of aesthetic. A beautiful, embodied, picture of the Gospel. Part of a Christian aesthetic must grapple with the idea that as ‘images’ we humans are a certain sort of divine art (we are God’s handiwork, ala Ephesians 2). Part of our forms will include the way we inhabit space together. This form of eating together communicated the message — and it still does. What we eat — the content — around that form might change from culture to culture, across time and space (apart from the bread and wine), but the habit of gathering around a table might actually be at the heart of a Christian use of space — our social architecture in our public spaces and our homes. It creates, or assumes, a certain sort of habitat.

Sketching an aesthetic for Christian habitats — homes and church owned buildings

Let me unpack this a bit specifically as it relates to aesthetics and our how our ‘habitats’ shape our habits and our character, and how we might shape our ‘form’ or aesthetic, or architecture, in a way that is both adaptive to different cultures, or ethnicities, while simultaneously challenging where those cultures or ethnicities are affected by sin.

What would happen if we designed our spaces — be it home or church owned buildings — with some attention paid to architecture not just for utility’s sake, but with an eye to how aesthetics at a level not simply of ‘content’ (eg obvious pictures, or the colour of the carpet)  but also of ‘form’ — in such a way that the form helps us inhabit and retell the story of the Bible in such a way that it shapes our habits. We already do a bit of this when it comes to acoustics, and the ability for people to move through various stages of a church gathering in a functional sense (that supports the ‘habituation’ of good things). I was struck by something one of the pastors of the church whose venue we hire said about how deliberately they’ve designed their facility so that the space for the ‘service’ (the auditorium) is the same size as the space for eating and talking together as a community (the cafe area). It’s a great facility with an eye to a certain sort of aesthetic and attention to detail I’m not used to in the Presbyterian scene… but part of me wonders how much artificial lighting, smoke machines, and big speakers form the backbone of a Christian aesthetic (I’m not opposed to the idea that the development of technology is part of humanity’s role in God’s story, see John Dyer’s book From the Garden to the City for a nice balanced account of this). I’m also struck by how a poorly designed house (like ours) in terms of living, kitchen, and dining, space limits our ability to participate in the sort of eating together that happens in the early church; and my dreams about an ideal home or ‘church building’ are concepts with a certain sort of ‘social architecture’ underpinning them.

I’m not naively suggesting that this sort of focus on space or ‘the aesthetic’ will magically transform us — that we’re exclusively products of our environment such that the right habitat will automatically fix our nature; and I’m totally aware of our tendency to idolatry — that our default response to beauty is to objectify it and seek to make it our own — but I feel like instead of cultivating an appropriate approach to beauty, or aesthetics, to counteract our sinful hearts, we’ve uncritically adopted an almost negative view of beauty and baptised that as ‘utilitarian’ and so we’ve treated this as the Christian norm.

Here are some of my early thoughts, or ‘sketches’ about some elements (a certain sort of ‘content’ geared towards the ‘aesthetic’) and ‘forms’ (a certain sort of delivery of that content) that might be part of how we structure our spaces to be both beautiful and formative habitats that orient our habits around the story of the Bible as they act as spaces that help re-tell that story…

  1. Light and life.
    Natural light. I’ve been pondering how often we have church in dark rooms (for the purposes of projection and managing lighting), where there’s something from start to finish in the Christian story about God being ‘light and life’ — and some part of that is him being the creator of light. There’s something to the idea that the introduction of electric lighting has ‘deformed’ us in all sorts of ways (including the way the screens of our smart devices do things to our eyes and brains when, prior to their development, we’d have been sleeping). The use and availability of light shapes our practices. The Gospel is a movement from darkness to light, and we’re not meant to fear it. Do our spaces communicate something else, even if subliminally? Is projection (and lighting) a case of harnessing this good gift from God?
  2. Water.
    There’s something about how there are rivers running through the garden in the beginning, and the end, of the story (and, for instance, in Psalm 23) — and that it’s involved in baptism, that means some sort of refreshing, flowing, presence of life-giving water works nicely in telling the story. Plus, you know, that stuff about Jesus at the well and him being living water…
  3. Trees and fruit.
    The trees in the garden are a picture of God’s provision and hospitality, fruit his initial gift of miraculously sweet, juicy and sustaining produce (both on normal trees and the tree of life), which is also a metaphor for the ‘good’ or ‘flourishing life’ for Christians (think the parable of the sower, the ‘true vine’, the fruit of the Spirit). Tree imagery also features prominently in the design of the fittings for the tabernacle and temple, Ezekiel’s vision of the new creation, and the new creation described in Revelation 21-22. And of course, there’s the tree at the heart of the Christian story — the cross. I’m struck by how churches in the past put lots of emphasis on flowers, and how little I thought of that at the time, but how an experience of stepping in to a sort of ‘oasis’ when you gather with Christians — a space trying to capture something of the gardens at the beginning, middle (Gethsemane) and end of the Christian story might help the idea that we are an alternative kingdom — and this might spill out into a world (an environment) desperately in need of a better picture of relating to the natural world. I love the idea of a massive table laden with fruit being part of our experience of eating together — a recognition that for all our technological processing of food to make it more convenient and desirable (with sugars and fats), we can’t compete with what’s on offer in nature.
  4. Table/feasting.
    God shows hospitality to his first image bearing priestly people — with a garden full of good things to eat, and then Israel, his renewed image bearing priestly people are promised a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’; Israel marks its story with feasting (and fasting), with festivals tied to its life together. Sharing the passover, in particular, was a chance for the retelling of their story of creation/salvation through Egypt — and for Christians that’s the feast that became the first Lord’s Supper. I can’t help but feel we’ve been a bit reductionist and utilitarian with a move to individualised portions handed out during a service, formalising the ‘teaching function’ of the meal to what the priestly-pastor says during the carefully ‘demarcated’ time in our week, rather than this being something to do whenever we eat together. There’s an aesthetic element to the reduction of this practice (or its re-imagination). When Robyn and I have spoken about how we’d redesign our home, particular with hospitality being at the heart of our ministry philosophy, I’ve had this romantic idea of the kitchen and dining room being at the literal centre of our house, in a way that communicates something and also sets our rhythms for family (and guest-as-family) life together. We already have an obscenely big table that doesn’t really fit in the space allocated, but this is tucked in the back corner of the house. If the early church meeting in houses was a deliberate sociological and aesthetic practice — where our group identity and character were shaped by architecture — maybe we should consider how much our church buildings should take the shape of houses rather than auditoriums, concert halls, or whatever other space we uncritically adopt; or if we do start running spaces that look like public meeting halls, how we make them truly public not just big private spaces outside the home for us to use in ways that mirror the use of other private spaces that aren’t homes…
  5. The Cross.
    I do love the idea of the ‘cruciform’ church even as I’m subtly challenging the approach to space that began around the time we Christians moved out of homes and into cathedrals… but something of the ugliness of the cross and the utility it represented for the Roman empire being subverted and made beautiful in Jesus’ death is compelling to me in some way, and something about the reminder that at the heart of all the beauty in the world God chose this ugliness to shame our worldliness and to build something new needs to be at the heart of our theological approach to ‘aesthetics’ — if there’s no sense that the cross has challenged and overturned our appreciation of and use of beauty and creation then we’re trying to run ‘creation’ and ‘redemption’ as two separate poles in our framework rather than grappling with how those poles come together in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but part of our thinking must surely be asking ‘how does this experience of beauty prompt me to sacrifice my desire to grasp hold of beauty for myself by connecting me to its maker and redeemer?’ Maybe it’s that things are sweeter without the fear of death and decay — the promise that ‘all things will be made new’ — and part of an ‘aesthetic’ is the reminder that even the good things we have now are not yet perfected.
  6. Gold.
    This one has been historically controversial because churches have lined themselves with expensive gold while neglecting the poor; but there’s something in the way gold is threaded from being ‘good’ around the garden (Genesis 2:11-12), to plundered from Egypt, to used for the tabernacle, priestly vestments, and the golden calf — then in the gifts laid before Jesus, and prominently featured in the new creation. There’s an aesthetic quality to Gold — an inherent beauty — that explains its value, and there is something to an appropriate not using gold for our own ends but to glorify God that expresses a refusal to try to serve both God and money. I’m not suggesting that our use of ‘gold’ — aesthetically — be at the expense of the poor, or in any way idolatrous; in fact if the poor aren’t being included and welcomed into our ‘richness’ then we’re doing it wrong (and maybe that’s part of the historical issues with the church and wealth). I wonder if somehow it’s more about the way that gold reflects the light than about it being exceptionally valuable, and there are plenty of gold coloured things that aren’t made of gold. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that gold serves as something of a metaphor for the inherent goodness of creation, that can be used to glorify God or idols. I have some thoughts about how this might be approached aesthetically, in both church and home, that doesn’t require much more than a trip to Kmart.
  7. White.
    Part of a tendency towards dark colours in buildings has been a focus on a certain sort of aesthetic, but I wonder how much we’ve balanced light and dark in our approach. There’s a bit to be said for the idea that being ‘clothed in white’ is a bold and stark statement in a world where mess is everywhere, and as much as gold might be part of our aesthetic because of how it reflects and amplifies light, white does this too.

Exactly what ‘forms’ these different elements take could vary greatly, and so my sense is that an approach to the ‘aesthetic’ is descriptive rather than a one size fits all ‘prescriptivity’ — which means the quote from the podcast I opened with, the idea that part of an historic definition of a particularly Christian aesthetic is that people might say “that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity” is maybe not where I’m landing with this — and these forms aren’t distinctively Christian, you’ll find them in modern architecture, in Kmart, and in my favourite cafes. The extent that these are elements of a “Christian aesthetic” and not simply ‘beautiful’ is caught up with how the form/content stuff plays out in each place, and our creative intent as we carve out spaces that carry this aesthetic… but to want this to always be explicit is to fall into a certain sort of utilitarianism that kills art. Perhaps the thing that actually does away with the ‘Christian’ part of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ is when these things that are inherently beautiful are co-opted for idolatry or the service of self, not God. Part of a Christian aesthetic is recognising that Christians don’t have exclusive access to knowing what is beautiful in our world; we all innately recognise beauty. The problem with our use of worldly beauty or aesthetics has often been that it’s derivative, that we’ve simply tried to imitate cultural forms common around us, rather than creating our own cultural forms within our cultures built from our story. What we do have is the ability to connect what is true and beautiful to its source, God, and see it as the backcloth to his story — the redemption and renewal of the world in and through Jesus.

I, Crucifix

Icrucifix

I’ve loved Leonard E. Read’s I, Pencil since the first time I read it. I’ve been struck recently that the crucifixion of Jesus was much more complicated to orchestrate than a simple pencil. These words from Peter, in Acts, have been bouncing around in my head (along with John calling Jesus the “lamb slain before the creation of the world” in Revelation.

“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” — Acts 2:23

Some of the below either borrows, or quotes, I, Pencil. Which you should read for this to make as much sense as possible (though it should work without that). 


I am the crucifix. Those two wooden planks, fixed together in the shape of the letter t, a symbol familiar to boys and girls and adults throughout the world. A symbol of hope. Affixed to hospitals, churches, and flags. Carried into battle, marking the resting place of the fallen. I am the world most recognised, most powerful, most confused, brand.

I am simultaneously wondrous, and cursed, celebrated and condemned, wisdom and foolishness, power and weakness, honour and humiliation, love and loathing, an instrument of justice and of mercy. I am both physical, and symbolic. I was made to bring darkness and death, but now represent light and life. I do these things, and more. I am taken up in service of many causes, and cause many acts of service.

I am where the triune God, who created the world wrote his signature on the earth, in blood. I am the canvas for a divine masterpiece where His image was held up, writ large, for all to see.

I am the scene of the culmination of his carefully orchestrated plans for his world.

I am so significant that the books written about me could fill a library, and the pieces of me held in churches around the world as relics could fill a ship. Yet nobody knows what tree became me.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story has transformed the history of the world. And yet, I am a mystery, more than a pencil, a sunset, a flash of lightning, or even the cosmos itself. Sadly, I am taken for granted, as if I were a mere incident, and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For the wise G.K Chesterton observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

I, Crucifix, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile, or an airplane, or a mechanical dishwasher, or even a pencil, because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when we see that Rome once crucified 6,000 slaves at once, hung on crosses just like me, planted on the Via Appia.

Ponder me. A stauros. A cross. Consider my stipes and patibulum. The post and bar. Two planks of simple timber. Fixed together. What do you see? Not much that meets the eye. A few metres of hardwood. Splintered and bloody. Stipes implanted in the ground. Reused for victim upon victim. Some ropes. Some pegs and nails. I am physical, and yet symbolic. I have been emblematic for various causes through history, from warriors to medics, from haters to lovers. As an instrument of death in the hands of the Roman Empire I evoked horror, and humiliation, the very people who employ me most are terrified of my power — the orator Cicero insisted Roman citizens should not be confronted with the barbarity of even my name.

Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.

My family tree may seem, simply and literally, to begin with a tree; a cedar, an olive, or a fig tree, a tree of unknown species, grown somewhere around Jerusalem. Perhaps even the mystical dogwood — though unlikely. I grew from seed, sprouted, shot upwards, branched out, before being felled by an axe and stipped of branch and bark, turned to timber. My construction might seem simple. Two logs held together, and my victim affixed, by spike and rope. You may wish to contemplate the axes, rope, horses and carts, and countless other tools used in harvesting and carting logs to Golgotha and the barracks. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of iron and its smithing into axe heads and blades, the growing of nile grass and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong papyrus rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess tents, the slaves and soldiers overseeing the work, the cookery and the raising of all the foods to feed these mouths. Why, untold numbers of persons had a hand in every cup of wine the soldiers drink, and every piece of armour they wear! Timber was scarce in Jerusalem so my upright pole, my stipes, remained rooted, planted, at the place of the skull, while my victims bore the patibulum from their trial to their deathly destiny.

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in creating me, not simply my physical reality, but my meaning.

My origins may seem arboreal, and, indeed, corporeal, and yet, it is the ethereal, symbolic sense of my significance that is where my family tree truly begins. Erected, as I was, in Jerusalem, I carry the stench of a curse for the Hebrew, and the aroma of abasement for the Roman. These odours were cultivated by years of tradition and practice. My ancestors were creations of Darius I of Persia, and employed by Alexander the Great. The Romans perfected my use and made me the most despised symbol in all the world — 6,000 slaves, the army of Spartacus, were once nailed to my predecessors and dotted liberally, one every 33 metres, along the Appian Way, a bloody road map to Roman supremacy. Dionysius of Halicarnassus in book VII of his Roman Antiquities from 7 BC, described the path an individual would take on his journey to death on the wooden arms of my forefathers…

“A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at that time conducting in honour of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips. The culprit, overcome by such cruelty, not only uttered ill-omened cries, forced from him by the pain, but also made indecent movements under the blows.”

Observe my function, and my meaning. I am a well-honed instrument of humiliation and torture, the end of a torturous road for the accursed. Those designated as less than nothing in the eyes of the world. I am an instrument of death, and a symbol of power.

“Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect.”—Quintilian, Declamation 274, The Tyrant Struck By Lightning.

For the Jews, I am anathema. Moses proclaimed that one hung, executed, upon a tree, a tree like me, was accursed by the living God. By the time Rome occupied Israel, death on a tree was a special punishment for traitors — those who sold Israel out to foreign powers, the Temple Scroll discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, says:

“If a man slanders his people and delivers his people to a foreign nation and does evil to his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he shall die. On the testimony of two witnesses and on the testimony of three witnesses he shall be put to death and they shall hang him on the tree. If a man is guilty of a capital crime and flees to other nations, and curses his people, the children of Israel, you shall hang him also on the tree, and he shall die. But his body shall not stay overnight on the tree. Indeed you shall bury him on the same day.” —11QT Temple Scroll LXIV

My history, my family tree, as it were, the origin story behind my significance began even earlier than the practice of crucifixion.

It was no accident that my symbolic was turned upside down, that the Cross became a symbol of glory, and hope, of life, rather than death. It was part of a plan.

A plan that began with two other trees — a tree that brought life, and a tree that brought death. God’s plan to destroy evil, and his promise to crush the Serpent. Satan. A promise centred on the “lamb slain before the creation of the world”— the Lamb, the Son, whose hands flung stars into space and hold heavens and earth together.A plan that would see those hands skewered with odious spikes, on a cursed tree. His feet pierced, his side lanced.

The events that took place, painted in blood on my splintered canvas, were planned from the very beginning, even from before the creation of the world. It was no accident that the divine son of God, the Son of Man, found his arms affixed to mine, it was no accident that those looking on at these events hurled insults — they could do no less. It was no accident that the child of promise arrived at a time in history when I stood tall as a symbol of human power. The symbol that best represented the might of the god-kings of Rome, and their superiority over any who claimed to oppose their right to rule. It was no accident that Jesus was tried as a traitor by both Jews and Romans, and sentenced to an exemplary, cursed death. For many before him, I was a final resting place, corpses were left to rot on my cruel axis. But not for this one. And from this moment on, the fabric of the world was torn asunder, this rending of the heavens, itself, symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain, with this shattering of what was, and re-creation of what is, my significance was inverted. The curse reversed.

Does anyone wish to challenge the assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Indeed, every human hand that has been and will be — hands raised in rebellion against God — play a part in holding the divine Son’s hands to my boards, to holding me together at the centre of history. Every life gives significance to my promise of judgment or mercy. Judgment for the death of the Son, or mercy bought by the blood spilled into the grains of my beams, and on to the earth beneath.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the Romans who appointed me to my task, nor the Jewish crowd who looked on, not the governor, the timber workers, the soldiers, the quartermaster, the slave, the high priest, the Pharisees or teachers of the law, nor even those hung on my contemporaries on Golgotha, know how I came to be, nor wanted me, or wanted to understand my significance. Certainly I do not occupy the same place in their life, or those lives that came after me, that I do in space and time, or in God’s plans. The motivation of these people is other than me.

Perhaps it is something like this; when people are at last confronted with my significance and place in the plans of the God who orchestrated space and time such that his own shoulders rested on my wood, they are left wanting my significance to be their significance, their motivation, perhaps, at this point shifts, so I am the symbol they take up in order to live and know life.

The master-mind at the heart of my story, my creation, is astounding. The strings of history pulled, twisted, laid out and brought together in my being, and doing, are the product of an invisible hand at work. Not the work of an apprentice, but a virtuoso.

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable! If this is true of any tree — how much more of this tree. The tree at the centre of the universe?

I, Crucifix, am a complex combination of miracles: wood, rope, metal and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies and co-ordination of human history, superstition, culture, and power structures — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolise, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that I sit at the heart of divine creativity, that I am the backdrop for the divine drama writ large in history, authored and orchestrated from the beginning of life in this world, then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: faith in God. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

If I, Crucifix, were the only item that could offer testimony to what God accomplishes by divine creative expression, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Sunrise, sunset, the cosmos itself and its beauty is a testimony. The best of our humanity — love, the creation of relationships, life, art, and complex systems that enhance these things. Our co-creativity, our ability to write and appreciate stories, to bring threads together, woven into rich tapestries. The production line for apparently simple devices, like the pencil. The creation of supply chains. Human ingenuity and problem solving as a reflection of the divine nature.

Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard—halfway around the world—for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Let the event at the centre of the world shape life in it. Take up your cross and follow the one whose hands were nailed to my arms. Merely organise society— starting with your own life— to act in harmony with this lesson. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Crucifix, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Overthinking Sandwich Aesthetics

I love Overthinking It. They truly raise the stakes of analysis to amazing levels. Take this post on sandwiches. It opens with a rather spectacular chart of the relationship between ingredients and preparatory skill.

They also get points for knowing about coffee.

Coffee is in the top middle. The ingredients do matter here, some, but not nearly as much as the preparation. It’s very easy to take some high-end small-batch free-trade shade-grown hand-roasted Ethiopia Harrar, and turn it into something that tastes like cat piss by messing up the brewing process. Its opposite number is breakfast cereal. This is all but impossible to screw up: your culinary experience is determined entirely by which brand of cereal you buy…

But it’s their take on sandwiches that really deserves to be considered.

The atrocity at left [above]  is the “Bacon Whoopee,” available at the Carnegie Deli for a mere $22.  As a bacon-delivery vector, this is superlative.  As a sandwich, it is completely incompetent.  A properly calibrated sandwich is all about balance.  It is an exquisitely tuned chord.  Allow any one element to overwhelm the others, and the sandwich is ruined.  Ruined!  You need to be able to taste every component.  At the Carnegie Deli, this is not going to happen.  This is also the problem with the sandwiches at Subway.  It doesn’t really matter what you order at subway:  they basically all taste like the bread, with a little crunchiness from the lettuce.  (This is why when I have to eat at Subway, I just get the vegetarian sub.  It tastes the same, and it’s cheaper.)

The solution… summarised.

Cheese: The slices should be very, very thin, and no more than two layers… If you want more cheese, don’t put the layers next to each other. I list cheese first because it’s the sandwich’s limiting factor.

Meat: About two to three times the size (by thickness) of your cheese layer. Thin slices are important here too: this is the one thing that the standard deli sandwich gets right. But it’s not so much because of the flavor. It’s because a thick slice of meat is hard to bite through…

Lettuce, Tomatoes, Pickles, Cucumbers, and the like: The combined [vegetable] layer, though, should be exactly the same size as the meat layer. Obviously if you’re using something very strongly flavored… you want to use less…

Condiments: Less than you think… Spread thin, using just enough to moisten the surface of both slices of bread, and let it go. Grinding a some fresh black pepper onto the bread after you apply the condiments is often a nice touch.

Bread: …firm enough to hold the sandwich together… not be so coarse as to scratch the roof of your mouth. The two slices, together, should be about the same thickness as the meat layer…

Grunge grudge

Grunge is so 1990s. The music in particular, the aesthetic in general. I am so very sick of seeing invitations/flyers/advertisements/websites designed with a grungy aesthetic. It’s usually done by people with no real appreciation of the sub culture they’re advertising to (ie the iGen boys and girls in their tight jeans and stupid faux 80s haircuts with bits that have obviously been missed by the hairdresser).

Grunge is cool if you’re in Seattle and either the pastor of a megachurch or a founding member of Nirvana. Otherwise you’re pretty much a wannabe.

Next time you’re asked to design something to promote an event for the yoof can you please avoid the hackneyed dark colours, letters with bits missing and scant regard to horizontal and vertical aspects. Nobody thinks you’re cool anymore. We just think you’re trying too hard.