[February Synchroblog] Christianity and Creativity: Why It Matters

Years ago, I attended a church that avoided beauty. They met in a little white steepled building with a wood paneled arched ceiling within it that I just loved. However, the rest of the furnishings in there were worn and sparse, making it look like a forgotten and neglected room in an old house. I happened to mention to a friend once that the sanctuary would look so beautiful if it only had a carpet with a rich, deep color to set off the earthy tones of the wood. My remark was met with a terse, “It’s not that sort of church.”

Being new to the faith and having not yet discovered my own voice, I recoiled in embarrassment. I had obviously missed something important or perhaps I was engaging in the dreaded sins called lust of the eyes or the pride of life. I learned to believe that beauty was something that should be suspect, and that my love of beauty could be a character flaw. I learned to not trust my inner senses.

I have since come to understand that those church folks were simply afraid, for beauty can be a perilous thing. It sparks the imagination and moves it beyond safe boundaries, carrying the soul away with it to uncharted and unknown places. If we don’t protect ourselves, we become caught up in it, far beyond the mind and beyond the words in which we have always felt at home and so confident of what we know.

Many others have described to me their experiences of transcendent beauty, whether it be on a mountaintop in the Rockies or during a sunset on the beach. And so often, when they have described their sense of awe, wonder and encounter with sheer Presence, it was tamped down quickly by a well meaning Sunday School teacher who wanted to protect them from those new age-y ideas. Like my little church, they felt it best to keep this experience of beauty reined in.

However, an essay about creativity and Christianity is, in effect, an exploration of beauty. Beauty inhabits the cutting edge of creativity, says John O’Donohue. He proffers the idea that beauty speaks of things beyond words and rouses memories hidden in the depths of our hearts- memories of things both ancient and beyond time. Beauty reveals the wholeness and holy order of things. Beauty infuses our creative acts with meaning.

Frederick Turner adds that beauty enables us to go with, rather than against the deepest tendency or theme of our universe. It calls us back to something deeply ordered and good. In other words, beauty leads us to truth. It speaks of God. Therefore, the church is the right place to develop eyes for beauty; to learn to truly see. For in our relativistic world that is embroiled in either polarizing arguments or apathy in regards to what is good or true, beauty is able to transcend.

Beauty calls forth from our hearts the capacity to love and gives us sight to find the sacred anywhere on earth. It sees beyond exteriors, even the loveliest ones that tempt us to get caught in measuring a person’s worth by their physical attractiveness or charisma. It also sees beyond off-putting exteriors and actions that offend those who only have eyes to see failure or sin. O’Donohue says that beauty creates in us a reverence of approach for each other. Beauty does not allow us to see a mere human being. Instead, it gives us eyes to see sacred space, a container of the Holy in the other. We are led to draw near to one another with quiet astonishment.

Beauty gives us eyes to see God in the most distressing of disguises. Years ago there was a huge kerfluffle about Andre Serrano’s photograph, “Piss Christ.” It is a disturbing portrait of a plastic crucifix submerged in a vial of the artist’s own urine. Many people were deeply offended at this, feeling that the photo was an act of blasphemy. It became a prompt for all kinds of philosophical arguments and meanderings.

I cannot say what was in the mind of the artist when he made it. But my first reaction was “Oh my, he got it.” For isn’t this idea the essence of the gospel? On the cross Jesus submerged himself into the depths of what is dirtiest and darkest about us, plunging into our refuse, our shame. The unabashed and unhesitating descent of God into our garbage is love in its most powerful manifestation. The cross is that scandalous and it is that beautiful. Typically, our religious eyes want to claim only what is most clean and acceptable as a fitting receptacle for God. Yet God came not for those who are already well, but for those who are in most need of healing. Eyes for beauty will illuminate the presence of God in those whom we are very certain are offensive to him. Eyes for beauty may also help us to see God in ourselves.

What is probably most surprising about beauty is that it is enhanced by flaws. O’Donohue says that the beauty that emerges from woundedness is a “beauty infused with feeling; a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form.” This sort of beauty can compel us to cross the threshold of our separate selves into the experience of another in the form of compassion. It is the beginning of healing in the world. Some of the most amazing gifts in my life are my friends who are lifelong members of alcoholics anonymous. They trod along day by day, trading their thirst for the vine into thirst for the divine, carrying each other’s burdens and teaching the rest of us how to do it as well. Their lives have taken on a lovely Eucharistic shape. They exude beauty in a way that too few may ever understand.

Beauty illuminates the gospel story. It reminds us that the gospel is not a piece of theological doctrine to be apprehended, but a love story that tells of God breaking down walls of separation and then joining together God and man, heaven and earth, neighbor and enemy. Beauty “mediates between the known and unknown, light and darkness, masculine and feminine, visible and invisible, chaos and meaning, self and others.” Beauty transforms.

Ultimately, the question we must ask is not what is beauty, but who is beauty. I think it is right to say that God is beauty. To quote O’Donohue one more time, “When we claim that God is beauty, we are claiming for beauty all the adventure, mystery, infinity and autonomy of divine who-ness. Beauty is the inconceivable made so intimate, that it illuminates our hearts.”

Amen, church. Teach us to see.

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Links to Synchrobloggers below. More will be added as they come in!

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Showing 23 comments
  • Tracey Rollison

    GREAT post! I’ve always been attuned to beauty in all its forms. I never really thought about why some churches don’t do beauty until I read Schaefer’s Addicted to Mediocrity as part of an art history course I took at Taylor U. It really got me thinking, because I came out of a similar background where visual beauty, at least, was suspect, although musical beauty was encouraged.

    When you think about it, ignoring the beautiful things He’s thought up and made and sustains is a lot like taking the wonderful dinner your spouse just made for you, and turning up your nose and ordering pizza. Or it’s like having a friend introduce you to her boyfriend, Payton Manning, and completely ignoring that he’s a football player, and insisting on talking to him about insurance premiums or something equally ghastly.

    There are many people who have a God-given gift for creativity, whether it’s in an art like visual arts, or a performance art like music or dance, or simply wildly creative, like being an inventor. To deny then the ability to serve God with their gifts is to deny God’s wisdom in giving them the gifts in the first place! God gave them those gifts so that others might see Him more clearly.

    Again, great post!

  • nita andrews

    A Joni Mitchell quote that goes well with your thoughts..

    “You’ll bruise the fun if you play too good.” (This was her thought — because she knew she could play pool as well as a man..and yet she had more fun when she let mistakes go. She said she only broke her own advice twice in her lifetime.. “which is not bad for a lifelong tomboy.”

  • phyllis

    gorgeous, ellen. simply gorgeous.

  • Jeremy Myers

    “Beauty gives us eyes to see God in the most distressing of disguises.”

    That is a great quote, and so true, especially when we see God in the most distressing people.

    I didn’t see that piece of art you talk about, but I will try to look it up on google images.

    Thanks for participating in the synchroblog!

  • Eugene C Scott

    Beautiful, Ellen. Stunning insight about “Piss Christ.” I never saw it as a picture of Christ descending into our dirty world. It still offends me. Maybe it should and now for a new reason. If the artist saw that or wanted to communicate that, I wonder if even he received the graphic, ugly, beautiful truth of what Jesus did for us?

    We have too easily turned the cross into a beautiful piece of jewelry and forgotten how ugly and cruel–and needed it was.

    Finally, can art simply be beautiful and not have a message?It seems to me, in the written (particularly fiction) arts many Christian writers produce drivel because they have come to believe it must contain a theologically acceptable message.

    • ellenharoutunian

      Thanks for those points, Eugene. I agree, perhaps beauty is enough on its own and doesn’t have to have a message. Or perhaps the message is in the eyes of the beholder and what they bring to it?

  • Bethany

    I love this post! Such wonderful insight on the importance and true essence and power of beauty. Thank you for sharing it with the synchroblog!

  • Tammy Carter

    YES! “BEYOND safe boundaries”…love it! I believe too many of us hide behind “boundaries” and use this term as if we have ALL the answers to what that really means(without really studying it that well). Beauty MAY actually lie in the “dangerous” things where we have to get out of our comfort zones and take a few risks! And, wow…the “Piss Christ”…I remember that message Peter did on that…SO powerful and I also remember doing a watercolor of it at a very dark time of my life…sinful? Maybe. Cathartic? At the time it was. Forgiven? Definitely!!! 🙂 Thanks again for all your support and encouragement, Ellen!

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