David

Does God Hate Sinners?

God’s hatred is a necessary part of His love. Whatever opposes, harms, defiles or otherwise threatens what He loves experiences His displeasure, often erupting in righteous indignation: a divine demand for change. We could say that God’s hatred is an ally of His love, destroying those things which are destructive of the true, the good and the beautiful. People who love what God loves are told to hate what He hates, or those who hate Him (Prv 8:13; Ps 139:21-22).

God hates several things: pride, lying, murder, evil thoughts, evil inclinations, bearing false witness, sowing discord among brethren (Prov 6:16-19), formalistic worship masking wicked living (Is 1:14), idolatry (Dt 16:22), and divorce (Mal 2:16), amongst other things. In fact, most every reference to something or someone being “an abomination to the Lord” refers to something that is loathsome or detestable to Him, a strong indicator of His hatred.

But the thorny question is this: does God hate individuals? Could a God of love hate people?

A plain reading of Scripture seems to indicate that, at least in some ways, He does. God is said to hate all workers of iniquity (Ps 5:5), and everyone who is wicked and loves violence (Ps 11:5). God told Israel that He hated the nations He was casting out before them (Lev 20:23). God said to Hosea that He hated Ephraim (Hos 9:15). He loved Jacob and hated Esau (Mal 1:3-4). Even where the word for hatred suggests something weaker than antipathy, one can hardly doubt that God directs this affection towards individuals and groups of people, not merely actions.

How do we reconcile God’s love for all men (John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4) with His apparent hatred of people? One common suggestion is that the Bible is merely referring to God’s hatred of the person’s actions, where the action and the person are identified as one, but only the action is meant. But this only raises another question: can one make a sharp distinction between the sinner and his sin? And, more importantly, does God do so?

While it could be plausibly argued that an omniscient God is able to perfectly separate the sinner from his sin, the real question is whether God seems to do so in Scripture. On the contrary, Scripture often speaks of sinners and their sin in the same breath (Rom 1:29-32; 2 Tim 3:2-5). God’s wrath rests on both the sin (Rom 1:18-23) and the sinner (Rom 1:24-32). Furthermore, God does not send sin to Hell; He sends sinners there. It was not merely man’s sin in the abstract that was punished on the cross, it was Christ the Person suffering as the substitute for persons who are sinners. As one said, “There is no abstract sin that can be hated apart from the persons in whom that sin is represented and embodied.”

While a distinction between sinner and sin is a handy one for protecting the individual from God’s hatred, it simply cannot bear up under the weight of Scriptural evidence which has God showing hatred, or wrath, resting on individuals. Jesus condemns people as workers of iniquity (Lk 13:27), and will take personal vengeance on those who reject God (2 Thes 1:8). Deuteronomy 28:63 describes God’s joy in destroying those who are disobedient, which would be very hard to square with the idea of God hating the sin but loving the sinner. Even secular psychologists report a general difficulty with the idea of separating sin and sinner.

A more satisfying answer as to how a loving God can hate individual sinners than the division between doer and deed is to say that human beings are more than one thing. They are sinners, to be sure, but they are also made in God’s image (Jas 3:9; Gen 1:26). Insofar as the imago Dei is never erased, God cannot completely abhor the individual human. Augustine, when dealing with alms-giving, came close to this idea: “So then, we are not to support sinners, precisely insofar as they are sinners; and yet because they are also human beings, we must treat them too with human consideration.”

In other words, what it means to be God is to be able to love and hate sinners simultaneously. We’ll consider this possibility next.

The Hate That God Hates

God does not hate all hate. Some hate is actively encouraged by God. Indeed, if hate exists as the opposite of love, it follows that in many cases we must hate the opposite, or the destroyer, of what we love.

Some hate, however, is condemned by God. In the following verses, hate is the opposite of righteous behaviour:

Consider my enemies, for they are many; And they hate me with cruel hatred (Ps. 25:19)

They have also surrounded me with words of hatred, And fought against me without a cause. (Ps. 109:3)

Thus they have rewarded me evil for good, And hatred for my love. (Ps. 109:5)

Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all sins. (Prov. 10:12)

Whoever hides hatred has lying lips, And whoever spreads slander is a fool. (Prov. 10:18)

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, Than a fatted calf with hatred. (Prov. 15:17)

Though his hatred is covered by deceit, His wickedness will be revealed before the assembly. (Prov. 26:26)

idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, (Gal. 5:20)

For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. (Tit. 3:3)

Similar to this negative use of the word hatred is the word translated “malice”:

Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:8)

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. (Col. 3:8)

For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. (Tit. 3:3)

Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, (1 Pet. 2:1)

The problem with sinful hate is not its negative flavour. All hatred is negative, by definition. But if it is the negative form of a good love, then it is not evil. If you love animals, you will hate cruelty to them. If you love creation, you will hate its pollution or destruction. If you love human well-being, you will hate cancer. If you love babies you will (or you should) hate abortion. Hate, like love, cannot be judged in the abstract. Love is only virtuous if its object of its love is worthy. Hatred is only evil if its object is something God loves.

In these verses, malice refers to “a mean-spirited or vicious attitude or disposition, malice, ill-will, malignity” (BDAG).  In other words, malice delights in destruction. It does not hate something that is destructive of the one it loves; it hates another and loves its destruction. God does not delight in destruction for its own sake. “‘Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord GOD, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?'” (Ezek. 18:23)

God’s hatred is always His love acting against those things or people that corrupt, defile or destroy His love.

What sort of hate does God then hate?

We should never hate without cause. “Let them not rejoice over me who are wrongfully my enemies; Nor let them wink with the eye who hate me without a cause.” (Ps. 35:19). We know this ugly tendency in our hearts from the earliest age, where we develop a baseless antipathy towards another child, or character on a screen.  Evil is irrational, and does not answer to reasonable explanations. Ask Evil the question, “Why do you hate me so?”, and it will reply, “I just do”. This kind of irrational, blind, and senseless hatred is hated by God.

We should never hate out of personal revenge. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Rom. 12:19) Justice for injuries and evil done to us is a function of human government, not individual vigilantism. On the personal level, we are not to take vengeance on our enemies in our hearts. In fact, we are told to do something both inwardly and outwardly to prevent this. Outwardly, we should meet our enemy’s needs if the situation arises (Rom 12:20). Inwardly, we must avoid all forms of gloating and delighting if our enemy suffers (Prov 24:17-18).

We should never hate what God loves. Included in the things that God loves are: all humans made in His image (John 3:16), the Church (Eph 5:25), the people of Israel (Rom 11:28), righteousness and justice (Ps 33:5), a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7), and the works of His hands. While we may hate distortions, corruptions and perversions in something God loves, we may never hate the thing or idea that God loves.

This leads us to the perplexing question about God’s love: does God truly love the sinner and hate the sin?

Ten Mangled Words: Hate

Hate has become the only sin the left recognises. To them, it is apparently not possible to sin sexually, and any and every form is to be celebrated publicly. Slaughtering innocents (perhaps the most heinous form of murder) is to be cheered and encouraged. Stealing other people’s property is no sin if it is “redistributing” or “redressing inequality”. No authority or family bond is sacred; any and all can be dissolved in the name of statism, equality, tolerance or climate change. Lying and distortion have become commonplace. And what passes for  arguments for “better living standards for all” or “the top 1% paying their fair share” is nothing more than coveting your neighbour’s goods. That’s commandments five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten that you can break with no guilt and regret.

But there is one sin, and it may be unpardonable. Hate is the sin that the left regards as the chiefest of evils. If your words can be classified as hate-speech, you can be jailed. If your actions can be construed as a hate-crime, you will be face the wrath of the law. If the courts don’t nab you, general society will. You may be called a “hater”, a bigot, a racist, a Nazi, and many other epithets before you’ve had the chance to tell your apoplectic neighbour that you actually love him or her.

What is this sin of hate? Asking the question of your accuser may bring a momentary puzzled silence. Hate has become a catch-all word for opposition. Whether you oppose something the left cherishes in a quiet, private way, or in a loud, public way, it will be considered hate. Whether your opposition is a religious belief that something is sin, or whether it is a practical concern with the impossibility of some leftist ideology, it will be considered hate. Whether it is refusing to recognise imaginary genders and use the corresponding pronouns, or whether it is simply insisting that you and your own house regard heterosexual marriage as the only natural way of human sexual relations, it will be considered hate. Whether you defend Christianity against attacks, or whether you evangelise others, it will be considered hate. Opposition is hate.

In other words, there is a Tower of Babel of ideologies. As long as you join and co-operate, you’re fine. Bow to the image, burn your incense to Caesar, take the Mark and you’re a good, enlightened Christian. As long as you do not oppose any of the popular positions held by the left elites, then you believe in love. If you actively or passively oppose those positions, then you believe in hate. And haters don’t deserve civility. That is, haters should be hated.

The childish partiality of this use of “hate” is transparently obvious for any with eyes to see. But for a Christian, the word hate has more complexity. After all, there are several Scriptures that actually commend hate.

You who love the LORD, hate evil! He preserves the souls of His saints; He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked. (Ps. 97:10)

Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. (Ps. 139:21-22)

The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way And the perverse mouth I hate. (Prov. 8:13)

Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate. It may be that the LORD God of hosts Will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:15)

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luk 14:26)

But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Rev 2:6 )

Granted, hate does not refer to the same thing in all those verses. But that is just the point. Scripture clearly has kinds of hatred that it commends, and kinds that it condemns.

Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all sins. (Prov. 10:12)

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: …idolatry, sorcery, hatred, … (Gal. 5:19-20)

So should we hate, or should we not? Is hate an Old Testament phenomenon? If we are to hate, what kind of hate is “righteous hate”?

To repair this mangled word, we should begin by finding out what kind of hatred God condemns. Second, we should investigate the kind of hatred God Himself exhibits and therefore expects his people to have. Third, we should understand how a right hatred affects our understanding of love, including love for our enemies.

Taste and Preference: A Last Word

Why are there such different “tastes” among people? Is the debate over music in worship simply a “preference issue”? Are matters of music, dress, recreation merely matters of “personal style”? We have tried to sort out the meanings of the word “taste”, and have seen two distinct meanings.

The first is the act of judging, or discerning. It is the faculty that can tell good from evil, true from false and beautiful from ugly. When exercising judgement, we are doing more than privately enjoying personal likes. We are trying to find out what is worthy to be enjoyed, known and experienced. This is a public judgement, one that is meant to be shared, compared, and criticised by others. It is possible for this taste to be more or less true: to conform to what, according to God is excellent (Phil 1:10). That does not mean it will be easy, or that our judgements will ever reach unanimous consensus. Apparently, God built difficulty into the world. The fact that we struggle to learn how to love what God loves is instructive in itself. Perhaps true relationships require real thought, meditation, thorough testing and experimentation.

This judgement should be grown and attended to with the same diligence that we give to growing in moral holiness or in theological knowledge. Our aesthetic maturity is not some extraneous social grace, or an elitist boasting point, but a measure of whether we can perceive the world as God has made it. It takes long practice, and a refusal to simply choose what is easy and sentimental. It requires a self-consciously counter-cultural posture. But it is as necessary as the other areas of worldliness that we abstain from. Loving beauty is not an optional extra to the Christlike person. Good people do not love ugly things.

The second meaning of “taste” is what is usually meant by “preference”: the differing inclinations and interests of people.  As bishop Richard Harries points out, “[T]here are many kinds of beauty and whilst all forms will be characterised by wholeness, harmony and radiance, they will have these attributes in different ways”. If we then imagine a spectrum of truly beautiful things, we may still expect aesthetically mature people to find differing preferences within that spectrum.

Two caveats are in order.

First, such differences ought not to be termed “personal style”, a term which usually refers to an eclectic menagerie of beautiful and ugly, one which is supposedly immune from criticism simply because such a collection represents an individual’s choice.

Second, aesthetically mature people will be able to recognise why another object of beauty, while not their own preference, has merit and should be judged to be beautiful, or conversely, disdain an object as unworthy, in spite of the fact that it may be preferred by oneself or a close companion. The focus is not on freedom to choose; the focus ought to be on supplying plausible justification for your choices, giving warrant for your loves, not expecting the fact that you love something to be justification in itself for that love.

In those Philippians 4:8 areas, there is room for preference, indeed, room for opposing convictions. In what displeases God, there is no preference at all. If God has no taste for it, neither should we.

In summary, the question of good taste is not a simple one. Aesthetic maturity is needed, but relativism rules the day in our postmodern world. Narcissism, sentimentalism and kitsch provides an alluring and deforming effect on good taste. This bad taste is widely promoted through the media and structures of mass culture. Preference plays a role in explaining discrepancies over good taste, but preference has a far smaller role than aesthetic immaturity, loyalty to sentimental art, and cultural deformation.

Ironically, as in many areas of Christian growth, it takes the presence of a virtue to spot its absence. You need good taste to spot bad taste. You need good judgement to see the errors of bad judgement. Perhaps then, at the heart of Christian good taste is the attribute of humility: the patient, teachable, childlike spirit that is willing to admit its weakness or ignorance, learn from its betters, and develop the discernment to love what God loves

Taste Formed and Deformed by Culture

Taste is never shaped in isolation. We learn to love what we love from our family, our church, our school, and our society. In other words, taste is largely shaped by culture.

Culture can be defined as T. S. Eliot suggested, “the incarnation of a religion”. At the heart of any culture is Richard Weaver’s “metaphysical dream”: an unspoken but ever dominant vision of ultimate reality. From this vision, a culture creates worship, art, jurisprudence, custom, and social order. Quentin Faulkner says that “culture is perhaps best defined as the collective behaviour (together with the resulting artefacts) of a society engaged in acting out (symbolising) its most deeply held and cherished shared beliefs and convictions”.

Understood this way, culture is formative and , in some senses, determinative. As the composer Julian Johnson, puts it, “Culture is not something you choose: it confronts you with an objective force. To be sure, it is a composite product of individual consciousness and is amenable to our own work upon it, but it is far from being a matter of choice. Culture is no more a matter of choice than having two legs or being subject to gravity is; one can no more reject culture than reject electricity or weather”.

If culture is formative, much of what is wrongly called “personal taste” is actually shaped by example of others and exposure to others’ loves. Tastes are first received before they are scrutinised or even challenged. People begin their lives as members of a culture and identify with its loves and hates; it is only later that they begin to question if they wish to continue to own all that the culture holds dear.

“Ah!”, says the musical and aesthetic relativist, “this just shows that taste has no objective standard! It is completely different from one culture to another, and therefore no taste can be judged to be ‘better’ than another”.

Were humans all still living in isolated folk cultures in which they were united by religion, language, and geographical region, this study would have to consider how different folk cultures have approached beauty, and how taste should be related cross-culturally. But they aren’t. The technologies of mass culture have erased geographical boundaries. All that is left of folk culture are those remnants that have been selected by producers of mass culture to create new products: a movie about Native Americans, a pop song using Swiss yodelling, or a Disney movie about animals with themes sung in Zulu or Swahili. The truth is, we all live in the world of mass culture. The question of universals between cultures is really no longer a major question: we’re all in the same culture now. And it’s really a non-culture. Christopher Dawson says of mass culture,”[T]he new scientific culture is devoid of all positive spiritual content. It is an immense complex of techniques and specialisms without a guiding spirit, with no basis of common moral values, with no unifying spiritual aim…A culture of this kind is no culture at all in the traditional sense—that is to say it is not an order which integrates every side of human life in a living spiritual community.”

What kind of taste does mass culture produce in its members? Faulkner suggests two beliefs.

1. A belief in the individual’s right to pursue self-satisfaction, self-fulfilment, and self-gratification.
2. Confidence in the potential of modern science to create for us an ever improving quality of life, coupled with a fascination with the technology that is the result of modem science.

The kind of taste that most clearly corresponds to the first belief is what we disparagingly call kitsch (art that makes us feel good about feeling). The taste most properly aligned with the second belief centres on, in the words of Calvin Johansson, “media, presentation and image”. A culture given over to this will be one that emphasises what is more entertaining, such as exciting images, rather than text. When image dominates in a culture, a religion of the Word suffers.

In such a culture, taste is necessarily deformed, and such deformity reinforced. Indeed, only the mentality of the marketplace would define taste as entirely a matter of individual choice, like products to be purchased and consumed. Only a member of mass culture would see an eclectic selection of cultural products as “personal style”. “The equating of cultural choice with personal style signals the end of an understanding of culture as something related to objective spirit” (Julian Johnson).

Mass culture does not, and perhaps cannot, communicate transcendent ideals. Its art forms, made as they are to sustain narcissistic interest, are not capable of sustaining the Christian vision of a holy, glorious, and beautiful God. A culture of easy listening and easy living leads to the atrophy of imagination, and to simplistic sentiment.

When people are dominated by the sensibilities of mass or popular culture, it deforms taste in all the directions that Christian aestheticians have warned against: using art instead of receiving it, taking immediate responses as the “truth” of the work, promoting aesthetic relativism, and creating an appetite for narcissistic art.

Differences in taste can certainly be credited to the shaping force of culture. To what extent a person is embedded in in mass culture will have a proportionate shaping influence on his aesthetic taste.

Taste Spoiled By Sweetness

A discussion of taste is one of the most difficult (and unrewarding) ones to have, for most people are unreflective about their likes. “I know what I like!” is supposed to end the discussion, followed up with “different strokes for different folks”.

Aesthetic immaturity is one of the reasons for a discrepancy in taste among people. Some have not developed their powers of discernment to approve the things that are excellent (Phil 1:9-11). A second reason is the sheer allure of sentimentalism in art. Christians who care about truth and care about truthful affections should care about the dangers of sentimentalism.

Art that trades in sentimentalism is sometimes called kitsch, for it cheapens the aesthetic experience by giving a shallow substitute. Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wrote this much-cited description of kitsch:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

When in the grip of sentimentalism, people are not moved by the beauty of the object, people are moved by how moved they are. They feel deeply the depth of their feelings; they fall in love with their love. The art becomes merely something used to obtain what seems to them a moving experience. The only way this is possible is when the qualities of the object perceived possess only superficial schemas of beauty that are instantly recognisable and provoke familiar emotions. Objects of true beauty resist this treatment; they insist on one’s submission to them; they insist on honest scrutiny. Roger Scruton:

Kitsch, the case of Disney reminds us, is not an excess of feeling but a deficiency. The world of kitsch is in a certain measure a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them.

Sentimental art evades or trivialises evil, presenting a fiction of an unfallen present world, and so allows its viewers to wallow in pleasant feelings. The sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent, loving, grieving, hating, pitying, not for the sake of another, but for the sake of enjoying love, grief, hate, and pity. Sentimental art denies the need for sacrifice in approaching beauty, but in so doing deprives feeling of depth and reality.

Dorothy Sayers called such art “amusement art” and noted that what people get from it “is the enjoyment of the emotions which usually accompany experience without us having had the experience”. Nothing in such an aesthetic experience reveals people to themselves; it merely enhances and inflates an image of themselves as they fancy themselves to be.

Real art helps its participants to escape, not from reality itself but from their own unimaginative experience of it. They are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Sentimental art simply gives pleasure with the illusion of true imagination. Its consumers do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred.

Real art gives those who receive it a kind of objectification, in which they are able to see themselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. They see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Sentimental art is all-too human, and ultimately childish. Its consumers want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so they escape into non-existent worlds where they are already experiencing pleasure and existing as beautiful. Sentimental art turns its back on a world it has never known.

The problem is not the symbolism in sentimental art, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, sentimental art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which its consumers are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of man’s own making, where everything is selected and placed in one’s own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. One quickly recognises the stereotypes and fills them with the feelings one knows he or she is supposed to have.

For this reason, sentimentality is a form of art hostile to what Christianity purports to teach: a denial of self, so as to worship the glory of Another. Richard Harries goes as far as saying that “Kitsch, in whatever form, is an enemy of the Christian faith and must be exposed as such”. Kitsch is not only an aesthetic failure, but a moral and spiritual failure, too. Christ’s beauty is not a sentimental prettiness, and therefore sentimental art has the potential of leading into idolatry. Scruton similarly claims that kitsch is not primarily an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith.

Differences in taste are explained not only by differing levels of aesthetic maturity, but by the human propensity to prefer what is easy, familiar, and flattering. Here the difference is not mere preference, but whether art will be used selfishly or sacrificially, whether it will be an act of learning or an act of narcissism, whether it will be a childish encounter with ourselves or a receptive encounter with reality. Since Scripture describes man’s propensity for self-deception, and his inclination towards self-worship, it is no surprise that sentimental art is popular and that unreflective people consider it their preference.

Good Taste and Christian Taste

Even atheists used to believe in good taste. The infamous David Hume wrote in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals “In many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection.” (emphasis mine).

Today, it is hard to find a Christian who believes good taste is real, founded on objective realities, and possible to identify. Christians have changed places with relativists, and seem to be leading the charge.

T. S. Eliot reminded us that those desirous of good literary judgement need to be acutely aware of two things at once: “what we like,” and “what we ought to like”. Ron Horton said, “Whereas the immature approve of what they like and disapprove of what they dislike, the mature are able to approve what they dislike and disapprove what they like, or are inclined to like”.

Approving what we ought to approve of is clearly Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9-11. Scripture certainly calls for the development of good taste. “Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Cor. 14:40). “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy– meditate on these things. (Phil. 4:8) “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Heb. 5:14)

Taste is then a discipline that can be developed. Taste goes beyond preference, for to call something beautiful is to say more than just, “I like it”, but to make the claim public in some way, to call on others to share your evaluation. Differing tastes may correspond to the difference between two sorts of beauty. In other words, bad taste is a taste for bad things, the love of what ought not to be loved.

Taste may even be sinful. Frank Brown, in Good Taste, Bad taste, and Christian Taste, suggests four forms of sinful taste. First, there is the Aesthete, who glories in creation, but not in the Creator. Second, one finds the Philistine, who cannot appreciate anything artistic or aesthetic, things which “cannot be translated into practical, moral or religious terms”. Third, one meets the Intolerant, who elevates his own standards to the level of absolutes. Fourth, there is the Indiscriminate, whose radical aesthetic relativism embraces all aesthetic phenomenon without discriminating between the superficially appealing and that which has lasting value.

To even speak of sinful taste is highly controversial in a relativistic age, so a few qualifications are in order. First, taste is rooted in a broader cultural context, and cultures necessarily have differences. (This does not mean they do not share universals.) Second, judgements of taste do not function like logical theorems, valid scientific inferences or valid moral claims. Taste can, contra the Roman maxim, be a matter of legitimate dispute. An element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty.

With all that said, some form of consensus should be sought, otherwise no discussions of beauty could take place. How does one explain differing tastes in beauty? I suggest four explanations, which I’ll take in turn:

1. Aesthetic Maturity
2. The Prevalence of Kitsch and Sentimentalism.
3. Cultural Formation and Deformation
4. Natural Preference

Aesthetic Maturity

The idea that one’s ability to discern beauty is a discipline that can be practised is unfamiliar to many Christians. It wasn’t always so. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Hidden beauties are commonly by far the greatest, because the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden is it.” Again, even a sceptic like David Hume wrote, “though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.” So, who is qualified? Hume says, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

Edmund Burke saw the cause of bad taste as a defect of judgment due to lack of natural intelligence, or a lack of training and exercise in judgement. He added that ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, and all other passions that pervert the judgement, will pervert the ability to perceive beauty. Taste, according to Burke, improves as judgement improves, by growth in knowledge, and better attention to the object, and by frequent exercise.

Taste engages much of the human soul. It perceives, appreciates, and appraises. If so, aesthetic maturity must be closely related to other dimensions of morality and maturity, including responsiveness, wisdom, love, and discernment. An overall maturity of character is related to aesthetic maturity, and the corollary is that aesthetic immaturity is a defect in one’s overall maturity.

If, as the Greeks said, Beautiful things are hard, one would expect the mature to be able to patiently and carefully discern such beauties, whereas the immature and impatient will pass them over.

Church Visibility or Church Publicity?

Church leaders find themselves today harangued and prodded to build an “online presence”. This usually means a busy Facebook page, a Youtube channel, a Twitter account, a static website, live-streamed services and more. Without these, we’re told, a church is mostly “invisible” to the world, and is “failing to reach its community”. It is even called a neglect of evangelism, a failure to connect, or hiding one’s light under a bushel.

In urban settings, it is true that the Internet has become the primary source of information. Gone are the days of the phone book, the classified sections in the print newspapers, the community noticeboards and the leaflets for the mailboxes. These still exist, but people looking for services, restaurants, directions, and, yes, churches, are likely to Google before they look to some other source. Therefore, I have no quarrel with those encouraging churches to use these means. Indeed, my church uses some of them, and will likely use more of them in the future.

I do have a deep concern that many who are pushing for “more online presence” have lost all sense of distinction between very different things: visibility and publicity.

Visibility is allowing those who are looking, and even those who may not be, to come across your church. In years past, this was everything from your church sign, to its steeple, to the bells on Sunday morning, to an ad placed in the community newspaper. Now, in addition to these, a church does well to enable those looking for churches through the window of a computer or cellphone screen to be able to find you. Visibility is simply gaining enough presence on the web for a “seeker” to come across your church as an option.

Publicity is a very different animal. Publicity is the work of marketers, advertisers, promoters, publicists, and those masters of hype and spin. Publicity is the creation of an image, a “brand”, to produce an impression of success, popularity, and customer satisfaction. When a church pursues publicity, it paints an idealised image of itself for its target-market. The church is a “relaxed atmosphere”, where all should “come as they are” and enjoy a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Child-care is available, and plenty of parking, too. A nice “what to expect” page briefs the customer as to how to place this church on the spectrum of churches, so he can try before he buys. Photos of happy people abound, as well as pictures of the worship band, to assure you that there won’t be an organ.

Publicity works hand-in-hand with celebrity. The simple, but carnal, appeal to mass approval is supposed to confer importance upon the church. If the church’s social media has thousands of “likes”, followers or subscribers, if the pastor has his own radio or TV show or podcast (who doesn’t, these days?), if he has books published (preferably with his smiling face on the cover), if he is a sought-after conference speaker, then this must be hyped. The pastor becomes a brand, and if he has some particular spin or take on the Christian life, all the better. He can be marketed as the wild-at-heart preacher, or the ragamuffin Gospel preacher, or the Christian hedonist preacher, or the God-is-indescribable preacher, or the biblical-counselling man, or the current-affairs-and-prophecy man or you-fill-in-the-blank preacher. If you want celebrity, you can’t simply expound the Word each week: you need some unique schtick to distance you from the pack, and create hype around your personality.

Some Christians are so embedded in the celebrityism and exhibitionism of the web that they cannot see that these are hostile to the gospel. Publicity is the work of those wanting to sell something. It is a commercial animal, and it lives on the showmanship, competitiveness and shameless self-promotion of those hawking their products and selling their stuff. To treat your church, the gospel, or any man’s ministry in this fashion falls under the clear condemnation of Scripture:

“For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17)

“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)

Publicity does not simply create visibility for your church or ministry. It reduces Christianity to the level of every other product and service competing for customers. It speaks the language of consumers, and those Christians using it should not be surprised when those arriving in church have the attitude that the customer is king. It trivialises holy things by portraying the church as just one more accoutrement to the narcissistic secular man’s life. It seems to believe the opposite of what Jesus taught: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Lk. 6:26), “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14). It inverts these values and prizes what the Internet has trained us to prize: as many five-star ratings as possible, as many happy customer reviews as possible, and the endorsement of an “Influencer” with thousands of followers. It trains us to be exhibitionist instead of modest about our achievements, to praise ourselves instead of deflecting attention, and to hunger for online approval instead of seeking real-life faithfulness.

Yes, churches, seek visibility. People should know your church is there. But once you’re visible, that’s enough. Remember: He must increase, and we must decrease.

Royal Presents

The off’rings of the Eastern kings of old
Unto our lord were incense, myrrh and gold;
Incense because a God; gold as a king;
And myrrh as to a dying man they bring.
Instead of incense (Blessed Lord) if we
Can send a sigh or fervent prayer to thee,
Instead of myrrh if we can but provide
Tears that from penitential eyes do slide,
And though we have no gold; if for our part
We can present thee with a broken heart
Thou wilt accept: and say those Eastern kings
Did not present thee with more precious things.

Nathaniel Wanley (1634-1680)

The Magi

Sometimes I wish that Balthasar
Had not been gazing when that star
Appeared, so many years ago.
We were younger then and bold, though
Not so rash as to dash our lives
For sudden changes in the skies.

But nightly we watched their motions.
Their dance soon cast out all notions
Of conjunctions we expected.
This was new. Old, too: predicted!
A Magi six hundred years past-
Daniel, the Hebrew unsurpassed,
In wisdom great, and said to be
Possessed by the Spirit of God:
Israel’s God, Yahweh the Only.

Daniel wrote of a coming king
Whose throne would end all suffering,
A king to rule all human clans
Somehow from God and yet from man.
He’d crush those kings who’d not submit
And heal those humbled to the pit.
Meek as lambs; strong as a lion.
Strangest truth: His throne in Zion.

“Israel” We spat at the name!
Haughty hypocrites laying claim
To chosen status: God’s people.
“Never! All nations are equal”,
We’d say, by silencing the doubts
Gnawing at our hearts with proud shouts.

But what if? What if the Saviour
Was Jewish? Should our behaviour
Towards that old, ancient nation
Keep us from our own salvation?
Should we then make an enemy
Of God? Rather an embassy
Of peace, gifts of royal treasure
To secure his heart and pleasure.

If we needed confirmation
His grace surpassed expectations
And wrote on the parchment of sky.
Regulus, the king of stars with
King Jupiter the planet fifth.
A king’s king in constellation
Leo, sign of Daniel’s nation.

Thus the unforeseen decision:
We gathered goods, made provision
For the months we would journey west.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh, our best
Gifts safely in our camels’ sacks;
Soldiers, hunters, guides on their backs.

I will not lie: the road was hard,
The nights cold, the way often barred,
The inns dirty, the towns unkind,
The desert highways hard to find.
Caspar tried cheering us with rhymes
“Philosopher on camel’s hump
Is sure to come down with a thump!”
Truth in jest. We were just magi,
Not explorers. The weeks went by.

We could not agree what to say
To Herod the King on the day
We arrived. It was suicide
To ask a king to be our guide
To the king we sought.
But where else to begin, we thought,
But Jerusalem, the same place
Daniel foresaw Messiah’s grace?

Herod feigned his humble interest.
Beguiled we were, and soon dismissed
The warning in our hearts. He called
For the rabbinic crew who hauled
Their scrolls, and with ceremony,
Read the prophet’s testimony.

Micah, I think it was, who said
His birthplace is the House of Bread:
Bethlehem, a town one hour south.
Herod’s heart was dark, but his mouth
Spoke of his unannounced visit
To worship. Fools! Who can match wits
With a fox? Naive stargazers
cannot read those men like razors
who rule in palaces. We thanked
Herod, spurred camels south and banked
our hopes on more clear providence.

Our hearts soon leaped, we laughed aloud:
the star we’d seen now pointed south!
To come this far, the end in sight –
my heart was racing, my chest tight.
The town was small, the houses rough.
We knocked on doors and soon enough
We learned about a recent birth.
The house was small and hardly worth
A second glance. “Strange home”, thought I,
“To bear and raise the king most High.”

We entered in, lanterns aflame.
I know not how, but more light came.
In that moment, the room aglow,
Within my heart I came to know
The deeper meaning of this shame.

The light burst on my consciousness
Of course salvation must be thus:
To be rich he must first be poor;
To taste reward he must endure
The pain of God’s condemnation
Before he knows commendation.
If he would reign he must first serve,
He must refuse what he deserves;
Accept the scorn he has not earned
To purchase back what man has spurned.
To conquer pride, the king will kneel.
He’ll carry weakness so as to heal.
Our greed he’ll kill by giving all
Our hate he’ll quell by loving more.
To master death, the Son will die.
The King of Kings, Lord God Most High.
This I saw in the broken walls
The meagre food and dirty floors,
The weary couple, faces thin
The infant child of tender skin.

I confess I forgot my speech
My throat was tight, my knees were each
Without strength and I fell, offering
What I had, for so great a king.
Long I lay, in sweet surrender
To Israel’s God whose tender
Mercies fed us, the ‘dogs’ with crumbs
From Zion’s table, and who comes
To Him He will cast out never.

That night we slept: God, our Father,
In dreams warned us and rather
Than go to Herod, we escaped
His eye another way and scraped
Our way home.

But now this birth became a death.
Deaths, for those who’d only drawn breath
For less than two years. How many tears
Were shed that week and our worst fears
Came to pass. Our regret may not
Ever be soothed, the pain forgot,
Though it was Herod’s sin, his blot.

But the other death was now ours.
We weren’t those who’d left the towers
Of Persia with its religion,
No longer men who tried to win
The favour of a foreign Lord
With gifts. We’d lost, and found reward.
We were dead and at last alive.
Our home was now an idol’s hive,
Our family were but strangers now,
Our culture’s gods we’d disavow.

Yes, sometimes I wish Balthasar
Had not been gazing at that star.
But all such thoughts are soon expelled
And with the truth my heart is quelled.

“What will a man give in exchange
For his soul?” Nor is it strange
To lose your life for Him and find
You now can see, who once were blind.

David de Bruyn

(with HT to Eliot and Piper)