4. Beauty as Scripture’s Theme

The idea of beauty is present in the first chapters of the Bible, as God creates and then makes the evaluative judgement that it was “good”. God was not judging the morality of the world, but praising the the beauty of creation. The Bible opens with God creating a cosmos which was aesthetically pleasing to himself, including man in his own image.

Almost immediately, God commits the stewardship of the world to his image-bearers, essentially charging them to bring more order and beauty to the world, and so glorify him (Gen. 1:28). The Creator charges man with sub-creation, bringing the same order and beauty to the world, that God brought out of the formless void of Genesis 1:2.

Man’s sin introduces ugliness. Man’s rebellion demonstrates that, left to itself, the race will not image forth the beauty of God. Genesis 1–11 shows a race descending into ugliness, although even in its fallen state, humankind still constructs things of beauty out of creation.

God selects Abraham to create a nation of kings and priests (Ex. 19:6), who will mediate God’s kingdom and beautiful glory on Earth. Israel’s history through the periods of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Conquest, the Judges, the United and Divided Monarchies, the Exile and the Post-Exile shows that Israel could not keep its covenant obligations. A new and better way was to come in Israel’s greatest son—the divine Messiah.

In Jesus Christ comes the glory of God made manifest (John 1:14–18; Heb. 1:3). He is not merely made in God’s image as man, but he is God’s image, being fully God. He calls men to repentance and belief in him, so that the image of God in them may be restored, beyond even the glory of the first unfallen Adam. His death and resurrection is then explained in the Epistles as the means to union with God, and entrance into the kingdom.

By union with Christ, a process of beautification has begun in the believer (2 Cor. 3:18), which will consummate at the end of all things. Christ is committed to beautifying his Bride, the Church (Eph. 5:25–27). The church is now an embassy of this glory, displaying the beauty of God to the world (1 Pet. 2:9), witnessing to God’s glory through the beauty of their good works (1 Pet. 2:12). As the church acts as ambassadors of the glorious God, and ministers of reconciliation, they spread the glory of God.

The book of Revelation predicts the final judgement that will bring the ugliness of evil, with its curse, to an end (Rev. 21:4), and bring in the perfection of a faultlessly beautiful New Heavens and New Earth, enjoyed by those who have been beautified by God’s grace.

What is this beauty that the Bible speaks of? We have yet to study a definition in detail, but it can be closely mapped to the idea of God’s glory. God’s glory carries the idea of the refulgence and expression of His being. God’s glory is His being in delighted self-expression and manifestation.

Theologians such as James Hamilton have argued persuasively that God’s glory is the central theme of Scripture. While covenant is an essential idea, while kingdom is certainly central, both covenant and kingdom are still means to the highest end: the display of God’s glory. Jonathan Edwards argued this in his “A Dissertation Concerning The End For Which God Created The World“, the title of which does not leave you in suspense as to the contents of the book. And Piper has similarly gathered samples of texts which demonstrates that God’s glory (or name, or praise, or own sake) is the central desire of God in Scripture.

Without any theological contortions, we can fairly easily relate the central themes and practices of the Christian life to the theme of God’s glory. We turn to this next.

3. Beauty in Scripture’s Words and Forms

C. S. Lewis once wrote that the modern dilemma is

either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste—or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it. As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.

This is part of the problem we have with beauty. When we are in the act of abstracting beauty into a definition and thinking about it, we are not experiencing it. When we are simply experiencing it, we are not analysing that experience for the sake of defining beauty. The one act excludes the other. This is a problem for those of us who have inherited the philosophy of the Western tradition. To think about beauty is to lose its experience, and to experience it is to cease thinking about it.

The Hebrew writers of the Old Testament display no consciousness of such a dilemma. They never seem to abstract the experience of beauty into a philosophical, speculative concept. Consequently, to attempt to find a philosophical definition of beauty in the Old Testament will likely be an elusive exercise. Instead, the Old Testament writers are pointing to a shared value, even an ultimate value, found in creation.

By the time of the writing of the New Testament, the Jewish authors of the New Testament have felt the influence of Greek speculative thinking, but still display continuity with their Old Testament counterparts in combining concept and experience. The New Testament has a similar array of words. At least nine Greek words occur over 300 times, which carry the ideas of appropriate, well-bred, handsome, fine appearance or beauty, beautiful, good, useful, free from defects, or fine, pleasing, agreeable, lovely, amiable, magnificent, sublime, majestic, adorn, decorate, brightness, splendour, radiance, glory, honour, and fame.

The Literary Form of Scripture

Scripture not only speaks of beauty, but displays it itself. Form cannot be separated from content, and the Scriptures that describes beauty also employs it. The Bible is given in aesthetic form. Biblical writers chose to use sophisticated literary forms: narrative, poetry, wisdom and other forms that display a high degree of craftsmanship.

Literary structures such as parallelism, chiasms,  and sophisticated narrative structure abound in Scripture. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) examines in detail the forms in which Hebrew parallelism take, the narrativity within biblical poetry, the structures of intensification, indeed, even the powerful use of irony, wit, and humour. These literary structures demonstrate implicitly the importance of beauty to the Hebrews. Arranging the actual form of the narrative, poems, prophecies, and wisdom literature into recognisable literary structures displays the writers’ desires to communicate not only accurately, but also beautifully.

Aesthetic literary structures are equally abundant in the New Testament. Chiasm is evident in Matthew, Mark, John, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Timothy, Philemon, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. The Gospels each display a sophisticated use of selected events, summaries, discourses, travel episodes, interludes, and speeches to paint a portrait with a particular emphasis. In summary, New Testament writers remain in harmony with their Old Testament counterparts, seeking to convey content in an aesthetically pleasing form.

But word studies and literary form studies by themselves are not persuasive that beauty is central to Scripture. One could easily dismiss these lists as showing nothing more than Scripture’s gesturing towards the quality of excellence, or its adoption of commonly used literary structures. What is needed is proof that the Bible actually presents beauty as a theme, and not merely as a subordinate theme, but as its primary theme. To that we now turn.

2. Beauty in the Hebrew Bible

Few Christians would say that beauty is unbiblical. After all, they vaguely remember references to “the beauty of holiness” or the desire “to behold the beauty of the LORD”. But many might think of beauty as extra-biblical: mostly an aesthetic and philosophical concept, more at home in art galleries and philosophy lecture-halls than in churches and seminaries. And as that ancient biblicist Tertullian put it, what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?

This objection is the first of several stumblingblocks that modern Christians may have toward the concept of beauty. Are we forcing the square-peg of a Greek philosophical idea into the round hole of Scripture? Before I reveal all my cards on whether Plato and Paul could share a meal, I’d prefer to call for a cease-fire between biblicists and philosophers with a question for both: could there be a transcendental Reality that our English word beauty refers to, and which the Bible describes in several ways? In other words, could both Scripture and philosophy be pointing toward something transcendent that exists in God’s universe, even if the nomenclature differs between theologians and philosophers?

My answer is positive: the reality to which beauty refers is all over the Bible. Seeing it might require wiping some of the salt-spray of the Enlightenment from our hermeneutical lenses, but it is fairly plain to see, if you look.

Let us proceed inductively, working from the worm’s-eye view all the way up to the bird’s-eye view. We’ll begin with the vocabulary of Scripture that carries the ideas of beauty, proceed to the key verses about beauty, and ultimately scan the themes of Scripture that seem to support the idea of beauty that carry across the canon. We’ll also notice the actual form of Scripture: the beauty of its own literary structures.

Wait. Aren’t we begging the question with such an approach? Aren’t we assuming a certain definition of beauty to be proven, and then finding in the Bible what we were required to prove? Yes and no. It is nearly impossible to avoid some circularity when we try define transcendentals such as truth, goodness or beauty, because you keep needing the concept to validate if you’re finding the concept. But it is still possible to do an honest search, and find if the ideas broadly accepted as approximate to beauty  are found in Scripture. The vital thing is to keep allowing Scripture to hammer our idea into shape, and not try to tame Scripture with our philosophical whip.

Hebrew Words

A word-search on the English word beauty will not yield illuminating results, because the English equivalents of Hebrew words are variable, including such synonyms as glory, beauty, excellency, honour, loveliness, comeliness, pleasantness, and delightfulness. You could say that the Hebrews took the idea of beauty for granted, without seeing a need to define it abstractly or conceptually. Beauty is more of an adjective than a noun in Hebrew thought, more a descriptor than an idea considered in itself.

At least twelve Hebrew words carry the idea.

. In the Hebrew beauty-vocabulary, the ideas of splendour, majesty, honour, and glory mingle with the ideas of pleasure, desire, attractiveness and enjoyment. For the Hebrew mind, no division seemingly existed between what was lovely and loving it, between the desirable and its desire, between splendour and its admiration.

Hebrew writers are describing a phenomenon, not defining an idea. Obviously the phenomenon contains the idea: excellence or attractiveness, as well as pleasure and delight. At this stage of pre-speculative intellectual history, no separation existed between the experience and considering the experience in the abstract. The Hebrews knew both as a value and as an experience all that we now call beauty.

1. In Pursuit of a Doxology

In 1962, A. W. Tozer warned that the evangelical church was missing a jewel.

“Now, worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism. We’re organized; we work; we have our agendas. We have almost everything, but there’s one thing that the churches, even the gospel churches, do not have: that is the ability to worship. We are not cultivating the art of worship. It’s the one shining gem that is lost to the modern church, and I believe that we ought to search for this until we find it.

“The purpose of God in sending His Son to die and rise and live and be at the right hand of God the Father was that He might restore to us the missing jewel, the jewel of worship; that we might come back and learn to do again that which we were created to do in the first place–worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, to spend our time in awesome wonder and adoration of God, feeling and expressing it, and letting it get into our labours and doing nothing except as an act of worship to Almighty God through His Son Jesus Christ.”

If worship was the missing jewel in 1962, we might say in our day that we have lost interest in jewellery altogether. We have not simply lost admiration for the beauty of holiness. We appear to have lost beauty itself.

I don’t mean we have lost prettiness. I don’t mean we have lost pleasure in what we find attractive. I don’t think we’ve lost the capacity to experience the transcendent. I mean Christians appear to have lost a firm grip on the Reality that the word beauty points to.

Some believe beauty is nothing more than another word for pleasure, a synonym for what a beholder finds personally pleasing. Some believe it is an abstract adjective, describing ornamental or decorative excellence. Whatever it is, most evangelicals don’t mind living with two out of Plato’s three: truth and goodness, but not beauty. Ask a Christian to define beauty, and his nonplussed expression will tell you all you need to know. This is an idea that has dropped out of regular Christian conversation for at least a generation.

Ironically, simultaneous to this loss is a revived interest in theology and the arts, an interest in “aesthetic theology”, and much talk of the postmodern return to beauty, imagination and tradition. Yet for all this, evangelical music, poetry, literature, film, architecture, remains prosaic, propaganda-like, and mostly imitations of popular culture. A lot of it is, in a word, ugly, or at the very least, boring.

We have invented substitutes for true beauty, but their flimsy and fabricated natures are plain to see. Bored and listless worshippers, the poor adhesive quality of modern Christian teaching to the lives of its followers, the implausibility of Christianity to the onlooking world, the absence of compelling Christian alternatives to secular beliefs and practices all speak of something essential to the Christian faith that is mostly absent. Evangelicalism is largely a secular religion clinging to a supernaturalistic creed. Beauty’s absence from worship, discipleship, preaching, apologetics, and vocation is apparent, and yet denied. Our insistence that no problem exists only compounds the problem.

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say,`We see.’ Therefore your sin remains. (Jn. 9:41)

I’m convinced that beauty refers to the central reality of existence, and hence the central theme of Scripture. I believe it explains the central priority of the Christian life, and lies at the heart of the gospel, sanctification, worship, discipleship, evangelism, eschatology. I’m persuaded it lies at the heart of motive and incentive to act. I’m further convinced it answers questions of epistemology, being, ethics, and even the problem of evil.

Those are large claims, and one should always be wary of claims to have found the “one lens” through which to view everything. I am confident, however, that they can stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture and human reason shaped by Scripture.

In this series, I hope to make good on those claims. I’ll begin by trying to show beauty’s priority, from a biblical point of view. Second, I’ll pursue the question of beauty’s value, particularly from the point of view of philosophy. The third section will be dealing with beauty’s difficulty: the question of philosophical and biblical incompatibility, the notion of subjective and objective knowledge, the problem of equivocation of meaning, the difficulty of beauty’s misidentification, as well as the matter of taste and judgement. Fourth, I’ll turn practical: seeking a definition, a description, and then a method for pursuing God’s beauty in the special revelation of Scripture, and the general revelation of nature.

In short, I hope to present something of a doxology – a study or theology of God’s glory.

On Prayer and Talking to Yourself

Master, they say that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since you make no replies, it’s all a dream
– One talker aping two.

They are half right, but not as they
Imagine; rather, I
Seek in myself the things I meant to say,
And lo! the wells are dry.

Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The Listener’s role, and through
My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.

And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus, while we seem
Two talking, thou art One forever, and I
No dreamer, but thy dream.

Author unknown, quoted by C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm

Merry Christmas, Heretics, One and All

Security companies enjoy a kind of odd gratitude for criminals. After all, without the threat of crime, such companies would have little in the way of business. It’s thanks to the attempted and successful acts of crime that these companies develop their walls, fences, locks, and alarms.

Christians, too, should have a similar kind of gratitude toward heretics. If it were not for their attempted vandalism of the faith once delivered to the saints, we may not have developed such careful and ornate theological statements. Heretics helped shape our theology of Christ.

Our theology of Christ must, of course, be biblical. But at the risk of being misunderstood, it must be said that the Bible does not deliver systematic theology. The Bible delivers Spirit-inspired truth. That biblical data must be organised and harmonised, which is the work of systematic theology. And heretics have played an important role in that organisation, by helping us to recognise the borders and boundaries of what the biblical data reveal about Christ.

Very early, within the lifetime of the apostle John, the Docetists claimed that the Christ simply appeared to have a human form, but did not have one in reality, that Jesus was not a true man in the flesh. Around the same time, the Cerinthians taught that the human Jesus was distinct from the Christ spirit. The Christ spirit came upon the fully (and merely) human Jesus at his baptism.

One of the first Hebrew heresies was Ebionism: the Jesus was a man who had kept the Law perfectly, and God rewarded him by calling him ‘anointed’.

By the third century, another two heresies appeared. One was Adoptionism – that Jesus was only a man, but He was adopted by God at His baptism. A second was Sabellianism – the idea that God manifested Himself in three modes, but not in three persons.

The heresies came to full bloom in the fourth and fifth centuries. Arianism taught that Jesus was the first creation of God. Apollinarianism taught that Jesus was a mixture of divine and human, with the Logos replacing the human soul of Jesus.

In the fifth century, Nestorianism split the natures into virtually two persons, denying that Mary bore the Person who is God. Eutychianism taught that the human nature of Jesus was virtually absorbed and overwhelmed by the divine nature. Later, in the sixth century, Monophysites would teach that Jesus had only one nature, a divine one. Monothelites would deny that Jesus had a human will alongside the one will He has within the Trinity.

As these heresies developed, the church needed to respond. As security systems become more advanced with more sophisticated criminals, so the church’s statements about Christ developed from the “faithful saying” of 1 Timothy 3:16, to the Apostles’ Creed (A. D. 250), to the more developed Nicene Creed (A. D. 325 and 381). By the fifth century, we have the very precise statements of the Formula of Chalcedon (A. D. 451) and the Athanasian Creed (c. A. D. 500).

Chalcedon:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Athanasian:

For the right faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching His godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching His manhood; who, although He is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the godhead into flesh but by taking of the manhood into God; one altogether; not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ.

Thank you, heretics, one and all.

 

Equality is Medicine, Not Food

I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent. I don’t think the old authority in kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience in subjects, laymen, wives, and sons, was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically as good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve. It was rightly taken away because men became bad and abused it. To attempt to restore it now would be the same error as that of the Nudists. Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.
But medicine is not good. There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. That is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values―offers food to some need which we have starved.

― C. S. Lewis, Equality

According to Lewis, legal and economic quality is a convention we use to protect ourselves from one another. In other words, centuries of human abuse have revealed that while inequalities most certainly exist, we are seldom prepared to deal rightly with these inequalities, when we’re in a position to exploit them. Those physically weaker, financially poorer, or even intellectually less capable are almost always exploited by their superiors. It was the biblical religion that first rebuked this tendency, calling on Israel to care for the three groups most easily exploited: orphans, widows, and the poor.

Centuries of jurisprudence and political thought were necessary for the implications of these ideas to germinate and reach full bud: that every human being was to receive exactly equal treatment before the law and that every person was to be part of a collective decision-making process that would protect us from the abuse of power in one or a few. Legal and political equality became one of the checks and balances of a free society.

Conversely, Lewis believes our intrinsic inequality is actually a splendid and beautiful variety. “In the same way, under the necessary outer covering of legal equality, the whole hierarchical dance and harmony of our deep and joyously accepted spiritual inequalities should be alive.” Created differences, differences in appearance, ability, intelligence, talents, or gifts are not a thing to be despised, but celebrated. And we celebrate them when we respect hierarchy, orders, and roles in society, the family, and the church.

This freedom is now devolving into tyranny, as those obsessed with equality now pursue it for opposite reasons from the Christian thinkers of the past. In their thinking, it is not man’s evil and propensity to harm others that requires legal equality; it is actually man’s innate goodness and propensity to excel that requires actual, enforced equality of outcomes. Inequality represents cosmic injustice, and requires correction. We must no longer simply say that men and women are equal before the law; we must ensure that we have an exactly equal number of female plumbers and male kindergarten teachers. We must no longer say that two citizens have an equal right to participate in government, we must insist that those two citizens receive the same schooling, and have exactly the same grades.

This is a deep disease of the soul, which slowly kills a society. Lewis again: “When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget, but as an ideal, we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other―the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow―is a prosaic barbarian.”

The reason that the idol of Equality will kill its followers is that they will tyrannically enforce it on the world, while gorging themselves on perverted inequality elsewhere. “Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead―even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served―deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

Behold the society in which you live: where porn stars (famous prostitutes) are celebrated, while recognising distinctions between men and women can be a criminal offence.

The Difference Between Birds and Bruised Offerings

Leviticus 14:21-22 But if he is poor and cannot afford it, then he shall take one male lamb as a trespass offering to be waved, to make atonement for him, one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, a log of oil, 22 “and two turtledoves or two young pigeons, such as he is able to afford: one shall be a sin offering and the other a burnt offering.

Malachi 1:8 And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, Is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, Is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?” Says the LORD of hosts.

Often enough, those who seek to elevate worship from where it is in our era to something resembling biblical worship and worship worthy of the Self-Existent Creator are criticised for making worship ‘too high’.

I am a pastor and sensitive to this criticism. My role, partly, is to mediate between the world of abstract ideas and the grit and grime of hard-working, busy and distracted church members. My role is to read and study what my parishioners do not have the time or inclination to, and to present and teach what is necessary for their life and godliness. One of my roles is to be something of an interpreter, a simplifier (within reason) and an applier.

When it comes to planning and including the elements of corporate worship, I have a foot in both worlds. On the one hand, I have more time to read and understand some of the better hymnody of the Christian tradition. I could include some of it on a Sunday morning, and merrily sing it, to the bewildered expressions of those who have encountered it for the first time. In so doing, I would not be respecting the realities of life for my parishioners in expecting them to engage with a largely indecipherable hymn.

On the other hand, my responsibility is not discharged until I have urged the Christians under my charge to elevate their view of God, to grow in their understanding of a right response to God, and to expose themselves to the kind of hymn or prayer that is just slightly beyond their present grasp.

In this matter of worship, a tension will always exist between accessibility and elevation. What is accessible is by definition not above you; what is elevated is by definition inaccessible to you. And yet both are needed. Christians need a point of entry to understand and engage with God in worship. Simultaneously, they need to be pulled and urged to move up from their present understanding to a truer and loftier one.

In our age of radical egalitarianism, attempts to elevate the thinking and worship of others is seen as “aiming too high” or “returning to a liturgical mindset” or “leaving the simplicity of Christ”. It’s to this criticism that I enlist the Scriptures referenced earlier.

Clearly, God has mercy on poverty. His expectations of worship are not tyrannical. The poor Israelite could offer what was within his grasp. (I am certain that if the poor Israelite began to prosper, and continued to offer the poor man’s offering, God would have been displeased.) A poverty of knowledge regarding music, poetry or appropriate responses to God in worship might be winked at by God, at least initially. First-generation Christians are often bankrupt of ordinate affections when they first arrive, and God may receive unsophisticated and simplistic worship responses the way He received the turtle-doves and pigeons.

However, God has no tolerance for sloppy, lazy, and careless worship by those who know better. When Israelites were bringing Him lame, stolen, or diseased animals, they were committing blasphemy. They knew He deserved better, but gave Him what was cheap, leftover and worthless, because it suited them. In other words, they were worshipping themselves.

The difference between simplicity and shallowness is part of what guides me as I plan corporate worship. There are songs and hymns which are appropriately simple and unadorned in their quality. They represent an earnest but nevertheless biblical appreciation of truth about God without trivialising, cheapening, watering down or otherwise diminishing it. They’re simple, but not sentimental. They’re simple, but not shallow. They’re simple, but not trivial. And they’re necessary for God’s people to “sing with the understanding also” (1 Co 14:15).

On the other hand, there are songs and hymns which are not merely simple, they are shoddy. There are hymns that are not beautiful in their plainness, they are untruthful because they have cheapened the gospel into a kind of entertainment. They are foolish, comical, and lightweight. They treat the things of God too sweetly. These hymns are insidious. They are not turtle-doves and pigeons. They are bruised offerings. They are not the partial expressions of children or novice Christians. They are deliberately narcissistic and man-centred, crafted to gain a visceral response of pleasure. And no appeal to the need for simplicity in worship ought to lead us to use them.

As a pastor, my legitimate choices are between beautiful hymns that are simple, and beautiful hymns that are complex. Both are needed. The challenge is to discern, and to help others discern, where simplicity has become frivolity, and where profundity has become impenetrability.

A Tale of Two Sons

A great king had two sons, who were come to the age where one should be named as the crown prince. The custom of that country was that the king would choose his heir directly, without weight given to birth-order. He was hard-pressed at the choice, for they both loved him and had noble and kingly traits. He decided to test them. Whichever son pleased him most in the test would become the crown prince.

He summoned his two sons to his throne room.

“My sons, you are both fine sons, more pleasing to me than all the wealth and splendour of my kingdom. I am torn at the thought of choosing but one of you to rule in my stead, but the tradition of our country knows nothing of two kings ruling on the throne, nor should it. One of you must rule; indeed, one of you must rule over the other.”

His sons stirred, but did not glance at one another.

“I have chosen to put your kingliness to the test. I will judge the winner according to my own counsel, and there shall be no debate entertained. As I could crown one of you this moment without objection from the other, so I may judge the winner of my contest by my own wisdom.”

His sons nodded, their gazes still down, as was the law in that land for one in the presence of the king.

“The test is this: you will gather as much fame for my name in one year as you can. At the end of the year, your efforts will appear before me, and I will judge one of you to be king after me.”

The princes departed, wished each other luck, and immediately sought counsel from the wise men of the land.

The younger prince consulted with the old men. “Your father is looking to have his name loved greatly. Bring him some people who love him deeply and truly, however many or few, and you will be judged the wiser son.”

The older prince consulted with the young men. “Your father is looking to have his name loved widely, for he is a great king, and greatly to be praised. Bring him throngs of people, by whatever means, and you will truly have brought him the fame he seeks.”

The younger prince travelled amongst the people, staying in one town for weeks at a time. There he taught the people patiently, every day explaining the glory of his father’s wars, his mercy with his enemies, his justice in ruling, and his kindness as a father. Some were taken by the descriptions of his father. Many were indifferent, and the young prince’s heart often grew discouraged. Often he felt like he was trying to kindle a fire in green wood. What would he have to show for his work? A handful of obscure people who loved the king dearly? He at times questioned the counsel he had been given. Nevertheless, he persevered.

The older prince travelled amongst the people, setting up fairs and stage-plays, tournaments and circuses, contests and puppet-shows in the name of his father. He knew how much people loved these things, and knew that they would be drawn to them. Once they found out that such were provided by the king, they would love him as well.

He was not disappointed. Crowds gathered wherever he went. People thronged his demonstrations, and enthusiastically took his invitations to appear at the castle on the day of the king’s judgement. Occasionally, he would question the sincerity of those who followed his train and eagerly awaited the next amusement. However, he dismissed such doubts, certain that it was better to present a large crowd of king-lovers than a thin one, even if a few were there for the wrong reasons.

On the day of judgement, the older prince filled the castle’s courtyard with hundreds of cheering people, with many others outside the walls. When the king appeared from the royal balcony, the crowd exploded in praise, and the younger prince sensed he had lost the contest.

The king proceeded to give an oration, climaxing with the promise that his subjects could forthwith have direct audiences with him in the throne-room upon request. The crowd seemed unimpressed. No applause was offered, and a silence settled over the courtyard. Here and there a shout echoed, calling for more jousting tournaments, cock-fighting and banquets. The shouts turned into disgruntled jeering. The crowd was now angry and hostile. The king ordered his soldiers to dismiss the crowd from his castle.

The king retired to his throne-room and sat down. The younger prince came in, bringing with him a strange group of unimpressive peasants: a little child, a blind beggar, a woman of the night, a leper, a cleric, a widow, an orphan and a soldier. They had been weeping during the king’s oration, and now prostrated themselves before him, along with the younger prince. The king rose, called for a meal to be set out for this group, and lifted up each one by his own hand. He led them to the banqueting table and served each one himself.

Which son had brought more love of his father? Which son had been more ‘successful’?

Which of the two did the will of his father? (Matthew 21:31)

Jesus So Totally Rocks

“Like, Jesus so totally rocks!” says Dude.

Dude is expressing his love for Jesus. He is expressing it in terms familiar to him, terms he uses for many other things that he loves.

We can agree on this much: Dude loves Jesus, and Dude is expressing it in his vernacular. What we do not agree on is if Dude’s exclamation is just a skateboarder’s version of love for God, or if it represents a sentiment entirely foreign to the Scriptures.

In other words, is Dude’s exclamation just another culture’s expression of love for Jesus, or has Dude completely misconstrued what it means to love Jesus? Is Dude’s statement merely a contemporary translation of the idea of a Christian loving Christ, or is it a transformation of Christian worship into something entirely different?

Of course, most today would rush to defend Dude’s statements as sincere love for Jesus expressed in a rather coarse, or some would say, sincere, way. They would say that the fact that he is aiming positive sentiments towards Jesus means he loves Christ, and probably just needs to be guided into a more proper expression of that love. Or not.

C.S. Lewis would beg to differ.

“If we say that A likes (or has a taste for) the women’s magazines and B likes (or has a taste for) Dante, this sounds as if likes and taste have the same meaning when applied to both; as if there were a single activity, though the objects to which it is directed are different. But observation convinces me that his, at least usually, is untrue…

Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts. If like is the correct word for what they do to books, some other word must be found for what we do. Or, conversely, if we like our kind of book we must not say that they like any book.” (An Experiment in Criticism, pp 1, 4.)

Lewis goes on to argue that the kind of love people have for objects (in this case, books and music) is entirely different depending on what the object is, and what people aim to do with it. One wants to use the object, the other wants to receive the object. The one who wants to use objects typically picks the kind of objects which can readily be used: simple, undemanding, obvious, swift-moving (read: entertaining). The one who wants to receive objects chooses those which present some form of difficulty and are not immediately apparent to a casual inspection, and which have the ability to transform the one who uses them. The kind of object determines the kind of love.

So in what way does Dude love Jesus? Since “so totally rocks” is a sentiment used of several other things, we can understand what he means. If I were to translate Dude’s statement into somewhat more recognisable English, it might read a little more like this: “Knowing Jesus is fun. The experience of Jesus is greatly entertaining, even thrilling. I recommend Jesus to others, because He is as exciting as bannister skateboarding, Playstation or a rock concert.”

Dude’s experience of Jesus is clearly of the kind that Lewis saw as using what it likes. Dude sees worship as something to be consumed. But here is the crunch: if Dude’s experience of loving Jesus is synonymous with adventure sports, console games and head-banging, what is his view of Jesus? Again, Lewis put it this way:

“The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, course or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.” (Surprised By Joy, p220.)

If the object of Dude’s approval, which he calls Jesus, evokes the same affections as other forms of entertainment, it stands to reason that the object of Dude’s approval is another form of entertainment. Or to put it another way, he has imbibed a view of Jesus as an entertaining person. If the object of his approval were in an entirely different class of object (the transformative kind), he might, even in Dude-language, express his approval differently. In fact, he might find that Dude-language itself has become inadequate to express the affections he experiences when admiring an object far loftier, and more demanding, than what his culture had exposed him to up to that point. He might even conclude that much Dude-language has now become inappropriate to express what the Bible means by love for Christ.

This is what the gospel has done to every culture it has penetrated: opened blind eyes, transformed the inner man, and transformed the cultural forms (including language, art and music) that were hostile to the gospel. It has done this when its true message, made up of the true Christ and His true atonement, has been correctly translated to that culture, so that it could understand and believe on the true and living God.

Which leads one to the question: Has Dude truly heard the gospel?