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The beauty of Christ

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Following my brief analysis of the situation of the Church in late Modernity I left hanging the question, "What Now?" Given that the concepts that are central to the Christian faith are now no longer shared with many or most in our society, what does the Church have to do on Sunday morning to break through the impasse? The Church growth movements of the 80s and 90s concentrated on managerial solutions to congregational malaise. While some of this was useful it did not address the key causes of the Church's alienation from its surrounding culture; the seismic shift of our understanding of what it means to be human.

One solution to the malaise of the church, adopted by liberal Protestantism, is to conform the Church to the culture. For example, because the Nicene Creed is filled with difficult concepts its recitation during worship is dropped. If only we used more popular tunes to sing. This process, while making worship more accessible to the unchurched, weakens the church community because key concepts go missing. While it may look like a good idea at the time, cutting ties with the past will set the church afloat on the sea of disparate culture. The Church is an historical body, it receives its life and form from the past even as it reforms what it receives. Reduction of traditional elements in worship, in order not to offend the visitor, is in danger of conforming the church to the world and losing the crucial difference between the gospel and culture. We as church must understand that the Church, if it is faithful to its Lord, will be different from the surrounding culture, indeed that is expected. The church is an alien polity in the midst of society and it must remain faithful to its nature or lose itself. Managing difference by dilution is not the answer. The world will come to understand that there is nothing remarkable in the Church because it has become like everything else, market driven.

The solution to this trend towards conformity is to go back to the rich sources of liturgy and music and art that has sustained the church for centuries. The liturgies of the church are deep sources of theology that keep on giving as they are repeated as great art keeps on giving. Indeed, I find it remarkable that modern liturgies have not found it necessary to conform to the times and largely are not concerned with the false foundations to faith as enumerated in my previous article. We do not find natural arguments for the existence of God or a superstitious understanding of prayer, or appeals to universal morality. What we do find is a rehearsal of core concepts of the faith that we are able to hear with shock and interest again and again.

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However, we also find in worship sentimental hymns with bad theology and cloying tunes. For example, the following are words to a hymn still in use, particularly at Easter:

"He died that we might be forgiven,

he died to make us good,

that we might go at last to heaven,

saved by his precious blood."

This particularly icky sentiment reveals a drastically simplified theology of the atonement as well as an attachment to heaven as our ultimate destination. While one could, at a push, attach respectable theological meaning to these verses it is a big ask. Bad music and bad words often open the church to ridicule and confirm the notion that the church is a collection of emotional and intellectual cripples. However, not so with the formal liturgy of the liturgical churches, there, the words are revised and poured over to reflect a mature understanding of faith. Perhaps we need a similar scourging of the hymns we sing!

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The way forward consists not so much in doing a new thing but in doing an old thing more rigorously. I know that this sounds absurd given that new forms of worship have proven to be enormously successful using a literalist understanding of Scripture, popular psychology and by replacing the altar with a stage and drum kits. This is the ultimate concession to our culture, church as rock concert. However, we must not be fooled, we may be envious of their numbers but I do wonder what exactly is going on here. Is it not the age-old stage trick of emotional manipulation and enthusiasm that will one day fade away? These churches are often led by a charismatic leader and often fail to thrive after their departure. After all, Robert Schiller's crystal cathedral in Orange County California is now owned by the Roman church after it went bankrupt in 2011. It is not wise to bless movements in the church on the basis of numbers. A more critical eye is required.

Doing an old thing in a more rigorous way entails the abandonment of trite arguments for faith. Preaching should not be an effort to persuade by evidence and logic but an attempt to present the beauty of Christ. It is the image of Christ that is brought to life in preaching, a real living presence, as in the Eucharist. It is this image that fills our hearts with joy and knits together the Christian community. Our proclivity to rely on argument is a left over from Enlightenment rationalism and is often out of place in a sermon. In the seventeen hundreds in England much effort was directed towards an irrefutable argument for the existence of god and his providential care of the universe. The result may have convinced but it did not fill our hearts with joy. It was also not evident how this theistic abstraction related to the man Jesus.

In my previous article I proposed that after all of the traditional arguments for god had been stripped away in late modernity, the one thing that the church has is the beauty of Christ. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss Roman theologian has based a whole systematic theology on aesthetics. Its core understanding is that men and women are drawn to the beauty of Christ. The concept of beauty overrides evidence and argument. It follows that worship should also be beautiful. That means that we do not use cheap music or art or architecture. Pope John Paul II and after him Benedict XVI affirmed that great art produces a way to God. This is in contrast to the stark preaching halls of Puritans and modern evangelicals. The Christian faith is not, primarily, propositional, it is affective. That is why we sing hymns and take pains with our buildings and the art in them. A recent example of this may be found in the new Catholic cathedral in Bunbury WA with its towering paintings by Robert Juniper, recently deceased. The aim of the Perth based Mandorla Art Award is to foster Christian art that presents the beauty of Christ.

Far from diluting worship in order for it to be more accessible I think we should purposely intensify it so that when newcomers come to church they are confronted with a world different from the one that they left. This requires professional musicians and artists and designers. The beauty of Christ, the desire of nations, must be reflected in the beauty of the arts.

My take home message? The Church is an alternate polity that is fundamentally different from the world around us, especially in our world of late modernity. Our worship should reflect that difference. Conformity to this world will make the Church just another part of the world and not a very interesting part.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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