Evangelical Aesthetic Poverty


I happened upon Clyde Kilby’s 1969 article entitled, The Aesthetic Poverty of Evangelicalism, in the Christian Harold today and thought it was worth posting. It is amazing how little progress evangelicalism has made engaging the arts. Much of what is determined to be Christian art remains somewhere between kitsch and just plain tacky. However, that said, there is movement albeit incremental. Some churches are turning a gaze toward the arts. Today’s culture is an art culture: fine, kitsch or otherwise. If the church wants to engage culture, it must engage the arts. Here is how Kilby described it in 1969:

I want to base what I have to say on three facts which I think indisputable. The first is that the Bible belongs to literature; that is, it is a piece of art…. The second indisputable fact is that…the Bible is an imaginative book…. The third indisputable fact is that the greatest artist of all, the greatest imaginer of all, is the one who appears at the opening of Genesis….

Now when we look from these three facts to contemporary evangelical Christianity, we find a great oddity. The people who spend the most time with the Bible are in large numbers the foes of art and the sworn foes of imagination. And I grow in the feeling that these people have quite an astonishing indifference to the created world. Evangelicals hear the great “I am” of God, but they are far less aware of the “I am” of his handiwork. Furthermore, when evangelicals dare attempt any art form it is generally done badly.

As to the evangelicals’ skittishness toward imagination, I have looked into the Scriptures and I cannot find such a prejudice there. One prominent evangelical holds that the triad of truth-goodness-beauty is Greek in origin, and the Hebrew concept is only that of the true and the holy. I doubt it. I doubt it primarily because of the glorious beauty I see every day in God’s handiwork, but I also doubt it from looking at Scripture. The Revised Standard Version shows ninety uses of the words beauteous, beautiful, beautify, and beauty (the King James Version uses seventy-six of these words), and overwhelmingly in a favorable sense. I see no esthetic difference between God’s word and his creative work. Even if his world were purely a functional one, the bee and the flower around which it buzzes would be equally glorious, equally fantastic, equally miraculous.

How can it be that with a God who created birds and the blue of the sky and who before the foundation of the world wrought out a salvation more romantic than Cinderella, with a Christ who encompasses the highest heaven and deepest hell, with the very hairs of our heads numbered, with God closer than hands and feet, Christians often turn out to have an unenviable corner on the unimaginative and the commonplace?…

Evangelical Christians have had one of the purest of motives and one of the worst of outcomes. The motive is never to mislead by the smallest fraction of an iota in the precise nature of salvation, to live it and state it in its utter purity. But the unhappy outcome has too often been to elevate the cliche. The motive is that the gospel shall not be misunderstood, not sullied, not changed in jot or tittle. The outcome has often been merely the reactionary, static, and hackneyed…

There is a simplicity which diminishes and a simplicity which enlarges, and evangelicals have too often chosen the wrong one. The first is that of the cliche—simplicity with mind and heart removed. The other is that of art. The first falsifies by its exclusions; the second encompasses. The first silently denies the multiplicity and grandeur of creation, salvation, and indeed all things. The second symbolizes and celebrates them. The first tries to take the danger out of Christianity and with the danger often removes the actuality. The second suggests the creative and sovereign God of the universe with whom there are no impossibilities. The contrast suggests that not to imagine is what is sinful. The symbol, the figure, the image, the parable—in short, the artistic method—so pungent in the Lord’s teaching and acting, are often noteworthy for their absence in ours. Is this not a case of humanism far more reprehensible than the sort of humanism we often decry?..

The final words of Kilby’s article yield the most the significant indictment against evangelicalism’s sensitivity to art.

Our excuse for our esthetic failure has often been that we must be about the Lord’s business, the assumption being that the Lord’s business is never esthetic.

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