An Anabaptist Theology of Culture (1)

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon...It said:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
— Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humankind by country, or by speech, or by dress. For they do not dwell in cities of their own, or use a different language, or practice a peculiar life. This knowledge of theirs has not been proclaimed by the thought and effort of restless people; they are not champions of a human doctrine, as some people are. But while they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according as each person’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the condition of citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly strange. They live in countries of their own, but simply as sojourners; they share the life of citizens, they endure the lot of foreigners; every foreign land is to them a homeland (fatherland in original), and every homeland (fatherland in original) a foreign land. They marry like the rest of the world, they breed children, but they do not cast their offspring adrift. They have a common table, but yet not common. They exist in the flesh, but they live not after the flesh. They spend their existence upon the earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and in their own lives they surpass the laws. They love all people, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and they are condemned; they are put to death, and they gain new life. They are poor, and make many rich; they lack everything, and in everything they abound. They are dishonored, and their dishonor becomes their glory; they are reviled, and are justified. They are abused, and they bless; they are insulted, and repay insult with honor. They do good, and are punished as evil-doers; and in their punishment they rejoice as gaining new life therein.
— The Epistle of Diognetus V: 1-16
Second Century

From the Preface

Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Shalom of the City is born out of my experience of double historical consciousness: the awareness of how our specific cultural and autobiographical experiences shape our views of life; and my conviction that we are most faithful to the Christian faith by affirming its concrete historical roots in the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth whose life, teachings, death and resurrection are the orienting center of Christian life. I write from the premise that theological reflection can be of most help and relevance to others when it begins by acknowledging and affirming the concreteness of historical context, rather than by abstracting itself from and denying our historicity. The ecumenical conversation that has enriched my work the most over the years has been dialogue with partners who have been willing to share from their own historical experiences and theological traditions. Though we all see through a glass darkly, nevertheless it is through sharing our particular insights that we gain a fuller and richer vision of the Christian life.

The words tension, ambiguity, and polarity describe my double sense of Christian historical consciousness. I experienced this first in growing up as a Mennonite Christian in the farming community of Fairview near American Falls, Idaho. I had a very strong sense of Christian identity as a member of First Mennonite Church of Aberdeen, Idaho. We did not live within a homogeneous Mennonite community like other Mennonites I knew about in rural ethnic enclaves in Kansas and Pennsylvania. Our neighbors were of diverse religious backgrounds. I attended a public school. My parents were active in civic affairs in the community. In so many ways we were like those around us. Yet we were also profoundly different.

Being in the world but not of the world was an issue that pervaded our lives. That issue made us, in a fundamental sense, contemporaries of the Apostle Paul. Though we did not struggle with whether to eat meat offered to idols, or whether women should cover their heads (though I was aware of Mennonites who lived about 100 miles from us for whom that was an issue), we too lived with the tension of being in the world, but not of the world.

My friends represented a rich variety of religious backgrounds—some were Mennonite, several were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and others from various Protestant traditions. Though many of my school friends did not go to church, we shared much in common—our farm experience, 4-H projects, music, sports, the adventure of exploring the lava beds and the environments along the Snake River and around the American Falls Reservoir, and a passion for hunting. My brother and I learned Bible stories from my mother who read to us regularly. My family had regular devotions before bedtime and always prayed before meals, but many of my friends did not. Almost all our neighbors worked on Sunday. We were strict observers of the Sabbath, except for caring for the animals, milking the cows, and irrigating the crops in summer. In high school I was in a speech class with six other male students where I remember we had vigorous discussions about pacifism. When I turned 18 and registered at the local post office, I, unlike all my American Falls high school friends, registered as a conscientious objector to war. At American Falls High School I was active in student government, music and basketball. I helped plan the Senior Ball as class president, but then I did not attend because most Mennonites, as well as a few other conservative Protestants in the high school, did not dance. Many of my high school friends went to the local movies every weekend. Movies were not actually forbidden in our home; we just did not go very often. To sum up my high school experience, I shared so much in common with my friends. We enjoyed each other’s company. Yet there was something profoundly different about the worlds that shaped our lives.

Though there were many areas where I experienced the tension between the larger culture and the Christian faith as it had been passed on through my Mennonite tradition and family, the most severe tension was between those in the dominant culture who believed loyalty to country required military service and our conviction as Mennonites that to follow Christ entailed a life of absolute nonviolence. But we did not withdraw from politics. We believed deeply in democracy. Pacifism and politics belonged together in our family and in the Mennonite community of Aberdeen. My parents voted. My father, usually absorbed full time with farm work, would find the time, even during summer daylight hours, to listen to the radio during the political conventions. My father was active on the Soil Conservation Service and the local hospital board. An uncle was a member of the school board in American Falls—a quite pluralistic community of Protestants, Catholics and Latter Day Saints (LDS). Aberdeen was not as pluralistic. The two largest groups in Aberdeen were the Mennonites and the LDS. The Aberdeen school board elections were a most important issue—as the Mennonites sought to resist the control of the local schools by the LDS. We believed in public education, but in a public education that was tolerant of religious pluralism.

In 1958 I left Idaho to become a student at Bethel College in Kansas. In the context of a developing strong interest especially in philosophy and literature, Christian pacifism and politics continued to belong together for me as a college student. As a freshman I attended meetings of the Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship of Mennonite Colleges at the United Nations in New York City. I remember the visit of Martin L. King to our campus in 1959. I began to relate pacifism to issues of justice and to international issues of war and peace. At Bethel College I became acquainted with Charles Wells’ newsletter, Between the Lines, the pacifism of John Swomley and his analysis of current issues under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Many students were intensely interested in the presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy. Later when Kennedy was trying to decide whether to resume the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, I became active along with other Bethel College students in a nationwide movement of students who went to Washington D.C. to support Kennedy in his reluctance to resume nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

In the midst of these political concerns, a growing number of students had become interested in the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. We met together in small fellowship groups, both to learn more about the underlying theology and ethic of the Anabaptist tradition, as well as to express in our own lives and community life these convictions. It was in the context of this growing interest in Anabaptist theology and growing social and political concerns that I made the decision to undertake graduate study in theology and ethics—a road that led me first to Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, then to Berlin, Germany, and finally to Harvard Divinity School.

In the fall of 1963 an article in the Christian Century, The Peace Churches as Communities of Discernment written by J. L. Burkholder, then a Mennonite professor of pastoral theology at Harvard Divinity School, caught the interest of a number of students. This article had a profound effect upon my thinking, particularly his model of the church as a community of discernment which would be the basis for mission to the larger society. On the one hand, Burkholder sought to describe a model of the church committed to Lordship of Christ and engaged in a process of discernment of what faithful obedience means in a culture tempted toward either individualistic pietism or pragmatic secularism. On the other hand, Burkholder called for a creative or pioneering mission to the larger society, determined by the needs of the world and the gifts of the church. Burkholder called particularly for the church to engage in projects to arouse public responsibility. The concerns of seminary students about racism in Elkhart, Indiana, and by 1965, the growing concern about the developing war in Vietnam, were both extensions I felt of Burkholder’s point of view—a Biblical pacifism aimed at arousing public responsibility.(2)

After graduation from seminary our family went to Berlin, Germany, where again the relationship of pacifism and politics was of major concern to me—particularly the question of how a church can be faithful in a Marxist society. It was there that I first learned how the East German Christians (under the influence of Karl Barth) were applying Jeremiah’s advice for people in exile to seek the shalom of the city where they dwell.(3)

In graduate school I continued to struggle with the relationship of Christ and culture, particularly the relationship of pacifism and politics. I read Guy Hershberger’s War Peace and Nonresistance, H.R. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Ernst Troeltsch’s Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, and the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. These scholars all basically agreed that pacifism and politics did not mix, and this created in me a deep sense of dissonance with my experience of a passionate commitment to both Christian pacifism and to political involvement. . Their views did not fit what I had experienced growing up in Idaho. We were pacifists who were politically involved. We were Mennonites who had an identity that marked us off from others, yet we also participated in the culture around us. The paradigm of these thinkers did not fit my experience, my own sense of Christian responsibility, my reading of the Bible, my understanding of my own Anabaptist-Mennonite history, or the history of other so-called sect types like socially active Baptists and Quakers I knew.

And so I began the search for a new paradigm to understand and describe the relationship of the Christian and culture. That task began in earnest with my dissertation on Troeltsch’s Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. I concluded that Troeltsch did not adequately portray the creative and transformative role of sect-type of Christianity to which I belonged. This was because Troeltsch began with Constantinian assumptions in which he could only envision a politically responsible ethic if the church is closely aligned with the dominant political and economic institutions of society.

I owe my orientation in this book and my deep gratitude to that cloud of witnesses that has gone before me. Bethel College, where I have taught since 1970, belongs within the Dutch-Russian tradition in the General Conference Mennonite Church in the United States and Canada of culturally engaged pacifism.(4) Culturally engaged pacifism believes that Mennonites should participate vigorously in the culture and offer their peace witness as a contribution to society. It has its roots in the work of C.H. Wedel, the first president of Bethel College, who believed that Mennonites should engage culture eagerly and embrace the issues posed by modern learning. This tradition of engagement of the Christian faith with modern culture was continued by Edmund G. Kaufman who was president of Bethel College from 1932-52, and in his son, Bethel graduate and contemporary theologian, Gordon Kaufman.(5) In Canada this tradition is reflected in Frank Epp, also a Bethel College graduate, who throughout his life sought to address modern issues of contemporary politics and culture from the point of view of Christian pacifism.(6) My work in helping begin a Peace Studies Major at Bethel College in the early seventies sought to link the tradition of Christian pacifism and the insights of the social sciences. It was in the context of this work that I wrote my book, Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict: A Realist Pacifist Perspective.

I should also mention the opportunities I have had to work on committees whose deliberations have contributed to my perspective on a theology of culture. I serve on the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Committee, an advisory committee to the International Peace Office of MCC. We have struggled with issues like how we should respond to humanitarian military intervention in Somalia and Bosnia, and what policy we should have on the sanctions in Iraq. Earlier I served on a committee of the Historic Peace Churches and the Fellowship of Reconciliation that is interested in how Mennonites should relate to the ecumenical dialogue on peace and justice issues in the NCC, the WCC, and other Christian groups. From 1993-98 I participated with an ecumenical group of scholars and activists in developing a Just Peacemaking Theory, the results of which have been recently published.(7)

In this book I continue in the tradition of culturally engaged pacifism, though I go much beyond issues of political ethics to address more broadly a theology of culture in its multi-faceted dimensions. In part one of the book I focus on the church’s identity: the foundation of a Christian theological orientation for an alternative cultural vision to the dominant culture, and in part two I focus on how the church engages the larger culture.

My central thesis is that Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles and the Epistle to Diognetus suggest a model of the church today for our North American context. Christians live with the tension of being citizens and aliens who are called to live by an alternative cultural vision. A brief survey of church history show us how an alternative cultural vision was undermined by a disembodied christology influenced by Neoplatonism and by the imperialization of the church after Constantine. The free church or believer’s church tradition offers rich resources for a church that now lives in a post-Christendom age. The church’s calling is not to withdraw from culture, but to seek the shalom of the city where we dwell.

Artistic Imagination and the Life of the Spirit: Toward a Christian Theology of Culture

(Excerpt from Chapter 6)(8)

Nathan Soderblom has remarked that Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion music should be called the Fifth Evangelist. So was Bach for me. One night after singing ... in the Mass in B Minor under Koussevitsky at Symphony Hall, Boston, a renewed conviction came over me that here in the Mass, beginning with the Kyrie and proceeding through the Crucifixion to the Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem, all that was essential in the human and the divine was expressed. My love of the music awakened in me a profound sense of gratitude to Bach for having displayed as through a prism and in a way which was irresistible for me, the essence of Christianity.
— James Luther Adams(9)

Aesthetic delight is an integral part of being whole persons before God. Aesthetic delight is central to an embodied, incarnational vision of life that embraces the full range of sensual experience. A trinitarian view of God nourishes sensual delight—as the creator God who is the ground of all that is, as the one who is most vividly present in the concrete, historical Jesus, and as the one whose Spirit is present in and participates in the cosmos.(10) Any particular material form can become for us a sacrament, a vehicle through which the gift of God’s grace can come to us. We can experience sensual delight through the composition of sound and silence in music, the ordering of words in poetry and story, the visual impact of a sculpted wooden form or a Kansas sky.

Every day on my way to work I pass a large cottonwood. Planted near Kidron Creek, it is a wounded survivor of Kansas’ droughts, wind, and ice storms. Its gnarled trunk (two of us cannot encircle the tree with outstretched arms) and broken limbs testify to the wounds it has suffered from these hostile forces, though the wind which lashes the tree also brings the rain which is its life blood. It rises majestically, over 100 feet into the sky. I watch it change throughout the seasons—its stark form against grey winter sky, the yellow of autumn against blue, and the blanket of cotton it sends to earth each spring. The cottonwood is not only there as nesting place for birds and squirrels. It is there not only because of the shade it provides in hot Kansas summers, or the firewood it can provide in the middle of a blizzard. The tree is simply there, for its own sake, a thing of beauty, a delight to the senses. It is a form of magnificent beauty, expressed in the tension between symmetry when seen as a totality in the sky and the particularity of its parts. Its beauty lies in the juxtaposition of the perfectly ordered harmony of the whole and the jarring and unsettling bruises of the particular parts. The aesthetic experience of the cottonwood symbolizes the joy and delight God intends for humans whose brokenness and alienation have been transformed by the renewing power of God’s Spirit.

As creators of culture, we do not only experience life aesthetically. We participate in the creation of aesthetic form. The expression of our lives in aesthetic form is inevitable even when we are not self-conscious about it (or deny our participation, as some Mennonites have done).

Just as all behaviors have an ethical dimension, so do all dimensions of expressive and material culture possess an aesthetic sense. There are no aesthetically neutral customs. Even those behaviors which are overtly technical, have a dimension of symbolic expressiveness which reveals the ethics as well as the aesthetics of a community.(11)

The issue, then, is not whether we will express ourselves aesthetically in material culture, but how. My thesis is that not only are Christians called by God to know the truth and witness to it, and to live well with Jesus as their norm, but also to create beauty or aesthetic excellence. As actors in the world Christians participate with their fellow human beings in many tasks. We design, build, and live and work in homes and other structures. We worship in churches. We design, build and use furniture, eating utensils, and tools to accomplish tasks from gardening and farming to fixing our bicycles and cars. We design, build and use various types of technology from transportation to communication. We design and construct the space in and around our homes, our farms, our institutions, our communities, our cities. It is common for us to ask what it means to be ethically responsible in the performance of these tasks. But seldom do we ask whether we have any aesthetic responsibility. Does it make any difference what appearance we give to our cities, our institutions, our communities, our cars, our furniture? Are the things we design and use simply to be judged by how well they perform their function to meet our material needs or satisfy our pleasures?

The visible, outward form of culture should truly express the spirit within, the underlying values which orient our lives. It is my contention that in so far as the visible outward form truly expresses the Spirit of God within, our lives should honor God not only in living the truth and by living ethically responsible lives, but also by the creation of beauty, or aesthetically excellent form.

The problem is that not every aesthetic expression expresses or nurtures the human spirit. Not every aesthetic expression is excellent. As in the case of other areas of culture, a Christian theology of culture should help us to develop skill at discriminating excellence from shoddiness, superficiality, and pretentiousness. We need standards of judgment to discriminate among the confusing variety of aesthetic expression in our culture—in museum, concert hall, and city plaza—as well as in the myriad forms of aesthetic expression of ordinary people in all their cultural diversity (from adornment with clothing and jewelry to popular music and crafts). We can be awakened from our complacency and numbness to awareness and wonder. We can also be misled and seduced with values that detract from an authentic vision of life. In our response to the arts in our culture, we must delicately balance openness and tolerance so that we may grow and at the same time develop skills of discriminating judgment so that we know what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

But to make discriminating judgments about what is good aesthetically is complex and difficult. Can we do it? How can what is good, acceptable, and perfect be anything more than a matter of taste, relative to the context and setting in which a particular aesthetic form is developed? Is it possible to develop community standards of aesthetic excellence? Can aesthetic excellence be anything more than a matter of private opinion or personal taste? Does the Christian faith have anything distinctive to offer in this area? Given the difficulties of developing clear standards and practices in ethics, are we not being even more presumptuous to seek to develop standards of aesthetics that can guide us in our judgments and in our behavior as Christians?

First of all, I need to clarify what I mean by aesthetic quality. We can distinguish between an aesthetic experience, which we described above (the example of the cottonwood tree) as the sensuous experience of an object or art form, and aesthetic form. By aesthetic form I mean the shape or structure of an object, poem, or composition—the way it is put together. Aesthetic form is concerned with the way in which words are chosen and ordered within a poem; how a composer creates the desired affect by rhythmic patterns of sound and silence, and the arrangement of notes to produce melodic line or harsh dissonance; the use of color, light and dark, texture and line, balance and organization in a painting or sculpture; or the way light is filtered through the windows in my home and the shadows it casts on the ceilings and walls. By aesthetic quality I mean how well a particular form (a poem, a sculpture, a musical composition) is put together. The aesthetic quality of a form should not be confused with whether it expresses truth, whether it produces morally good effects, or whether it is useful or functional. A house functions to keep us warm, but its aesthetic qualities have to do with how it looks and how its space is arranged, judged by standards of aesthetic excellence.(12)

What I propose here is to open a dialogue on the question of standards of aesthetic excellence. The suggestions I make are tentative, and are intended to invite further discussion. Indeed I have more questions than answers about how we develop norms of aesthetic judgment. I can only briefly introduce this topic here, as one component in a larger theology of culture.

So why begin a dialogue, why open these questions? I raise these issues because I believe it is critical that the church not simply abandon aesthetic issues to the dominant forces of the larger culture. We cannot simply accept what the dominant cultural elites define as high culture or excellence. We cannot uncritically assimilate to the cultural standards of delight and pleasure as defined by advertizing, the mass media, or Hollywood. Nor can we simply give in to a pragmatic functionalism that fails to include aesthetic form as a significant consideration in how we shape the communities and cities in which we live. We must find a way to be discerning, to resist those forces in the dominant culture that are destructive, and at the same time to learn from, support, and help create those aesthetic forms that contribute to the well being of the city where we dwell. I quite agree with Frank Burch Brown who connects bad taste with sin.

Aesthetic sensitivity and judgment is so integral to the moral and religious life that people whose aesthetic sense is dull or perverse are in an unenviable position. The possibility that bad taste may be a moral liability is suggested in fact by the quite traditional notion that sin—which is not only wrong but also profoundly ugly—looks alluring to the unwary, whereas virtue—which is not only right but also profoundly beautiful—frequently appears drab at first sight. It follows that failure to distinguish genuine beauty from counterfeit can lead to moral error. Moral and aesthetic discernment often go hand in hand.(13)

However, a high aesthetic standard by itself certainly does not guarantee moral sensitivity. The Nazis are a prime example of an idolatrous aestheticism which was divorced from the moral life as a whole. The Nazis loved classical music and even brought Jews together to play for them, and at the same time treated the Jews as vermin.

The Christian faith affirms our embodiedness, that we are earthy creatures who touch, taste, smell, see, hear, and express ourselves in bodily movement. But how do we distinguish between the joy and delight of sensuous experience and the appeal to our delight and pleasure by the dominant North American culture which also is ready to embrace a superficial sensuality? Goods and services are marketed to us for the way they can give us pleasure and meet our material needs. We lack a standard for making critical discriminating judgments that can help us distinguish between materialism, and an aesthetically responsible expression of our lives in material culture that gives honor to God.

Materialism is our idolatrous commitment to things as a means to give us an ego-centered satisfaction. Materialism is the self-centered attachment to things that results in neglecting to share our resources with others and in the exploitation of the natural environment. To be committed to materialism is to live a one-dimensional life oriented to the profane at the expense of spirituality. To express human spirituality and beauty within material culture is not to view things as objects of our devotion, but as vehicles for the expression of the image of God. We seek to create not one-dimensional profane objects which we value only for their function or how they fulfill our selfish interests. Our calling is to create a material culture which reflects our attunement and coherence with God’s intentionality for the cosmos. We are called to create a material culture that is a response to the beauty of the cosmos as God has created it, that grows out of attentive seeing and listening based on profound respect for what is.

Some Christians bring to these issues a dualism of body and soul that denigrates the sensual, and that assumes human salvation is an ascent away from our earthy, embodied existence. In the absence of an aesthetic vision that embraces earthy sensuality as an integral element of the Christian faith, these Christians lack a standard of critical judgment by which to assess aesthetic issues. They tend to reduce our material existence to a pragmatic functionalism. What matters to them is whether something is useful for its intended function. A chair is simply to provide a place for us to sit or a house a place of shelter. Aesthetics is important to them, but the aesthetic qualities of a chair or house are simply a matter of private taste, not a component of Christian theological reflection. Inevitably, these tastes are formed by the dominant cultural forces around them—the advertizing media, television, the movies, entertainment and sports celebrities.

Therefore, since aesthetic form concerns the very substance of our everyday lives, we must begin to discern how we honor God with the form we create. Our task is to find a way to integrate coherently form and function, so that the aesthetic excellence of something is integrated with its function. We live in the midst of aesthetic squalor, and often Christians simply participate unconsciously in producing that squalor. Is it possible to recover a sense of what it means to be faithful to God in this sphere of our lives, so that the church can contribute to a shalom that includes the kind of delight envisioned in the eschatological vision of Isaiah?

In developing aesthetic norms, we need to stress that our judgments will inevitably be contextual. They will vary according to time, cultural setting, and a people’s experience. Standards of excellence change over time. Therefore, when we participate in this dialogue, we should not presume to be making definitive, universal judgments. However, it is important that we be clear about what we mean by standards of aesthetic excellence. Of course, people’s tastes in art will differ. Some prefer baroque music, others the music of the Romantic period; some like modern art, others the art of the Renaissance; some prefer Amsterdam over London; we differ about whether we prefer Victorian or Colonial architecture. By standards of excellence, we want to get behind these particular preferences and ask what it is that makes any or all of them excellent. Are there formal qualities of excellence we can identify that endure despite changes in style from period to period? What makes a city or our dwellings good or aesthetically excellent despite differences in style?

Should we equate beauty with aesthetic excellence? Much depends on what we mean by beauty. It is important that we make a distinction between two very different meanings of aesthetic excellence. When we speak of aesthetic excellence theologically, we can mean the ideal forms that God calls humans to create to express what humans and the universe were intended to be. Aesthetic excellence then means the ideal form God intended for creation or the new eschatological age for which we hope. The images of form in Genesis l and visions of the new Jerusalem in the book of Revelation both suggest such an ideal of aesthetic excellence. Such an ideal suggests a norm or standard for our own human activity as we construct a world of forms in the light of the image of God in us. The word beauty is an adequate word if we mean aesthetic excellence in this sense. We cite in this context Thomas Aquinas’ definition of beauty in the Summa Theologica:

Beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly brightness, or clarity, when things are called beautiful which have bright color.(14)

Contemporary artists sometimes create works which suggest such an ideal. Wilson Yates, for example, referring to the sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, says of her work:

I think that the very nature of art is affirmation, and in being so reflects the laws and the evolution of the universe both in the power and rhythms of growth and structure as well as the infinitude of ideas which reveal themselves when one is in accord with the cosmos and the personality is free to develop.(15)

What is beauty? The experience of the beauty of something includes both a sensory feeling as well as the intellectual sense of the rightness of the relationship of any object to its surroundings.(16) Robert Regier defines beauty as

dynamic wholeness. It is not merely a subjective response to a fragment, but rather a response to an organic or man-made system in which many fragments are interrelated (interdependent) in a dynamic way. This interrelatedness is dynamic when both unity and variety (diversity) are present in the form of a delicate tension. If the tension breaks either boredom (sameness) or chaos is the result. An aesthetic response occurs when one intuitively or consciously experiences dynamic wholeness.(17)

As we become increasingly conscious of the environmental threat to our planet and become disturbed by the aesthetic squalor of a materialistic culture, one of the functions of the artist is to help us develop a more adequate notion of dynamic wholeness, so that we might give form to our life on the earth that more nearly fulfills God’s intention for humans and the cosmos.


Merrill Krabill; Passion series;
steel, concrete, clay; 40x23x17

Aesthetic form may also express brokenness and alienation, disharmony, feelings of loneliness, anger and anguish. If by beauty we mean pretty or nicely decorated, then the word is misleading and can contribute to a false standard of excellence. For too many of us beauty has been reduced to prettiness or ornamentation. For example, we build the basic structure of our homes with little thought to aesthetic form, until we are about finished and then decide it is now time to decorate what we have done. The consequence is that so much of what counts as beauty is simply gaudy, excessive, and pretentious. An aesthetic form can be anything but pretty, jarring us into recognizing a truth that we have ignored or suppressed. My colleague, Merrill Krabill, a sculptor, uses rusty pieces of metal, broken chunks of cement, rusty wire, and blackened clay to construct sculptures to represent the passion of Christ. Krabill does not resist the word beauty if understood in the right way. One of the themes in his work is to explore the pain and deep sadness that lies at the core of life, not avoid it. In speaking of his work he says:

None of these images are ugly or represent an evil to be avoided. They are all beautiful in their way, if you are willing to use the word as describing an ideal rather than as being without flaw.... Somehow all the work is connected to a search for how to live well in a broken world. The pieces are bound with wire and chain, but that binding also holds them together. They are broken and the barbed wire, the bent and twisted metal, the broken clay, the broken glass and the red stains are all painful images, but the pieces are put back together and they are healing.(18)

His works invite deeper reflection because they present us with the stark reality of the cross. The word beauty with its usual connotation seems inappropriate to describe his work, yet we can still call a work such as his aesthetically excellent. We should not, therefore, necessarily equate beauty and aesthetic excellence. We can appreciate an aesthetically excellent work because of the way it portrays brokenness and pain. Speaking theologically, the artist, like the prophet or preacher, describes both the fallenness of the human condition, and the need of human beings and the earth to be healed.

What, then, are the standards we can use to judge aesthetic excellence? Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests three broad categories: unity or coherence; richness or intensity; and the fittingness of a work. By fittingness he means whether the aesthetic qualities of an art form are appropriate for the function the work is to perform. Wolterstorff illustrates this concept in a reference to a quote from Gustave Flaubert about his novel, Madame Bovary. The story, the plot of a novel is of no interest to me. When I write a novel I aim at rendering a color, a shade.... In Madame Bovary, all I wanted to do was to render a grey color, the mold color of a wood-louse’s existence.(19) One aspect of aesthetic excellence, then, has to do with whether the form of a work fittingly renders what is expressed in the work. Though the truth and aesthetic excellence or an aesthetic form should not be equated, we also cannot separate them. We can then say that a work is aesthetically excellent in so far as a work’s aesthetic qualities are fitting in relation to what the work is trying to do or communicate.

Merrill Krabill; Passion series;
steel, concrete, clay; 37x27x27

Grunewald’s or Merrill Krabill’s portrayal of the cross, for example, can be said to be excellent in so far as the aesthetic forms are appropriate to express the truth of suffering and brokenness which the cross symbolizes. Or, in so far as a work communicates something about the human condition, its excellence consists in the appropriateness of the aesthetic form to the truth that it reveals.

We can ask the same about church buildings, hymns, liturgical forms, sermons, and organ music. In what sense are the forms used suitable or fitting for the purpose of Christian worship? When we go to a concert hall to hear Beethoven, we expect the performance to satisfy our aesthetic interests. When we hear the organ or sing a hymn in the context of worship, it should fit with the purposes of the liturgy. We are not at a performance. At the same time, the aesthetic qualities of the organ music or the hymn should be excellent. The hymn text and tune should utilize appropriate aesthetical form to express the mood or idea of the liturgy. Brian Wren, theologian, poet, and hymn writer says:

I want to suggest that at its best, the human is a complex minor art form, combining theology, poetry and music. As such it merits attention from theologians and artists alike.... When read aloud, as a poem, a hymn text is time art. Each such reading is similar, yet unrepeatable. When the poem is sung as a solo or choral item, it moves the listener as songs do. When sung by a congregation, it invites commitment. Though some congregations behave as if they didn’t have bodies, singing together is an intensely corporeal, as well as corporate activity. Diaphragm, lungs, larynx, tongue, lips, jawbone, nasal cavities, rib cage, shoulders, eyes, and ears come into play. When body attitude combines with deepest beliefs, singers are taken out of themselves into a heightened awareness of God, beauty, faith and each other.... Hymns deserve to be seen as visual art: like other poems, their appearance on the page enhances their attractiveness, or detracts from it.(20)

In addition to this general criteria of aesthetic excellence which asks whether a form is suitable to its message or function, internal standards of excellence also apply. Though our tastes may differ, and though we may disagree about whether a particular aesthetic language chosen by an artist or a community fits our standards, Wolterstorff argues that two broad standards usually emerge in accounts of aesthetic excellence. On the one hand, we expect coherence, whether the parts fit into the whole and how the parts are arranged in relationship to each other.(21) Coherence can include dissonance and contrast. The principle of coherence is illustrated by a beautiful church built by Russian Mennonites soon after they came to Kansas in the late 19th century. But, when the congregation added an educational wing much later, they tacked on what looks like a box to the rest of the building. The addition probably serves its pragmatic function well, but there is no coherence between the addition and the original church building. Though contrast and dissonance can be an element of coherence, the addition simply clashes with the original church building and fails to enhance the aesthetic impact of the whole.

However, unity alone can be bland. So Wolterstorff says we also want aesthetic forms that are internally rich, varied, and complex. Coherence and richness come in degrees, and often the excellence of a form has much to do with how richness and coherence are balanced or proportioned to each other. One can achieve unity at the expense of richness and vice versa.(22)

Pete Seeger’s well known folk song about middle class American suburban culture illustrates vividly bland unity and conformity at the expense of richness and diversity.

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

By contrast a prairie ecosystem reveals a dynamic balance between ecological wholeness and coherence, and richness and diversity.

Learning from the natural world as a clue to aesthetic norms also suggests another important principle we must be sensitive to in our relationship with our material culture: Everything in nature is recycled. What is both suitable aesthetically and responsibly built, given the threat to the well-being of our earth? The production of junk that ends up in the dump within a few years (homes, cars, furniture, clothes, dishes, appliances) that does not have enduring quality, both in a functional and aesthetic sense, is irresponsible. We need to ask ourselves not only what stories and traditions we want to pass on to future generations, but what kind of material culture we are leaving them that has enduring quality. How can the material culture we pass on continue to enrich the human spirit generations after those of us who created it are gone?

In addition to Wolterstorff’s standards, I would like to add the term integrity, a term included in Aquinas’ definition of beauty. What would it mean to have integrity in how we express ourselves? We would not try to make material forms look like something else—i.e. synthetic products which we make look like wood or stone. We would also choose forms that are appropriate to the environment where we live. Is there any rationale for imitation English Tudor in the middle of Kansas? In the late 40s and 50s some Mennonite churches in central Kansas copied neo-Gothic architecture. These forms may have had integrity at the time and expressed the values of those Mennonites who chose these forms. On the other hand, these examples also illustrate a lack of attention to the distinctive values of the Anabaptist tradition. The long narrow nave in these churches with elevated pulpit and straight rows, may be appropriate for an emphasis on the proclamation of the Word, but the form is not suitable to Anabaptist emphases on community and corporate discernment. I question the integrity of contemporary postmodern architecture where malls, shopping centers, retirement complexes and schools are blessed with pointed non-functional medieval arches, turrets, and towers. How can the appropriation of medieval forms within a consumer capitalist society be an appropriate use of geography and history?(23)

I like the sensitivity to integrity reflected in Sylvia Judson’s report of a Quaker aesthetic. As originally an outsider to the Quaker tradition, she reports that she was attracted to Quaker simplicity, honesty and personal mysticism, but bothered by their unconcern for art. On the surface Quakerism would seem largely void of aesthetic expression when compared with the emphasis upon aesthetic form in the Roman Catholic tradition. But then she discovered this gem from the Book of Discipline of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of 1927:

True simplicity consists not in the use of particular forms, but in foregoing over-indulgence, in maintaining humility of spirit, and in keeping the material surroundings of our lives directly serviceable to necessary ends, even though these surroundings may properly be characterized by grace, symmetry and beauty.(24)

Much of the quotation above expresses well the traditional understanding of Radical Reformation social responsibility. What struck me was the last phrase—that true simplicity consists of surroundings properly characterized by grace, symmetry and beauty. Judson goes on to describe the integrity of some Quaker meeting houses with their good proportions, quiet calm and restful lighting, and the purity of line in honestly fashioned furniture. Meeting houses thus are forms of abstract art, where relationship of line, color, and especially of space express the spirit within. The Quakers experienced the power of God as Inner Light or Truth, and expressed that Spirit outwardly, not only in a life of social responsibility, but in the construction of their meeting houses.

These standards of excellence have important implications as well for how we view and design our cities. We, of course, open a huge and complex topic that we can hardly even begin to consider here. I nevertheless want to make a few connections for the reader. My wife and I spent a semester in Toronto while I was working on this book. One of our favorite places was Nathan Philips Square, a wonderful open space linked to the new city hall, placed among the skyscrapers of the downtown. The focus of the square is a public ice skating rink that serves as a welcoming place of meeting for the diversity of peoples that make up the city of Toronto. Cities are places where strangers meet. In the design of our cities it is critical that we have spaces where strangers can meet in safety and enjoy each other’s company. The Boston Commons was another of our favorite spaces which we were often drawn to in the four years we spent in the Boston area.

While we were in Toronto, the city celebrated the life and work of Jane Jacobs, author of the well known book, The Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs makes us aware of how critical the organization of space in a city is to safety and the flourishing of life. She is critical of city planners who have made mistakes by creating spaces in cities that are both aesthetically uninteresting and unsafe. The first several chapters of the book discuss sidewalks, sidewalks that are safe and draw people to them because they are places of joy and delight. She argues that the key to safe sidewalks is many eyes on the sidewalk, day and night. The most dangerous places in large cities, especially after dark, are often public playgrounds and parks near large housing complexes. She argues that the way we design our cities impacts whether we will have eyes on the sidewalk. If we zone a city so as to separate living spaces from all the functions people need, then we not only make people dependent upon the automobile or public transportation, but we also create empty spaces that can become dangerous and unwelcome for many times of the day and night. People need a reason to be on the sidewalk: a local restaurant, a sidewalk cafe where one can enjoy the art of people watching, a drug store, laundromat, tailor, cabinet maker, electrician, a church with its array of services from a day care to a food bank, a small corner grocery store, a magazine and newspaper stand. And all of these should be integrated with or in close proximity to living spaces—small apartments above stores, or houses nearby, with children playing on the sidewalk. Toronto has many such safe neighborhoods which makes it an attractive city and which draws people into these spaces. Rather than fleeing the city, many Torontonians who grow up in the city want to go back to live.

Soon after Jacobs arrived in Toronto, she led in the resistance to stop construction of the Spadina Expressway, a super expressway that would have cut the center of Toronto in half. Many U.S. cities have been ruined by such projects. Cities, cut in half, cause strips of blight right through their center. The expressways contribute to the flight to suburbs, as commuters leave central cities on the weekends and evenings only to return to the cathedrals of capitalism during the week—banks and insurance companies.

Wolterstorff outlines some of the aesthetic principles that he believes should govern how we put together our cities. He argues that the principles of aesthetic excellence in urban space are not different than other aesthetic forms. We should seek to balance unity and coherence with richness, complexity, variety, and contrast.

It becomes clear that most Midwestern American cities are aesthetically bad. What is almost invariably missing is any strong unity in the individual spaces and any significant variety among the spaces. Buildings are separated from each other to such a degree that the definition of space is minimal; and everywhere one gets the same feeling of openness and slackness. The streets are just as open as the plazas, the only significant difference being that they have a stronger axial orientation. And lacking any significant degree of completeness, the spaces of these cities are singularly lacking in any intensity of character. They are bland, the epitome of blandness. Moving through them is anti-dramatic. It is as if there were a hatred of the city at work, a deep wish to be done with it as soon as possible.... The ideal of almost all urban Americans is to acquire enough money to live out in the country; failing that, to live in the suburbs; failing that, at least to escape from the city on weekends and holidays.... The Midwestern American has an abhorrence for what is absolutely indispensable to a city—shaped space.(25)

The standards of aesthetic excellence we have identified above are not, as such, standards unique to the church, or to a Christian view of life. Norms or standards in aesthetics have a similar status as judgments we make about truth in scientific research. We cannot say that there is such a thing as a Christian science or Christian aesthetics. What we can say, though, is that through the creation of aesthetic excellence Christians either do or do not give honor to God. In so far as we create form in the world that is untrue, deceptive, unauthentic, aesthetically mediocre, not fitted to the cosmos in which we live, or unauthentic to our humanity as God intended it, we dishonor God by creating aesthetic squalor. In an alternative cultural perspective that seeks the shalom of the city where we dwell, aesthetic excellence is an integral component of that vision.

So as we fulfill our responsibility to God as persons filled with God’s Spirit of life, we will also nurture our spirits and the spirits of those around us in the creation of beauty and aesthetic excellence. Our responsibility to God will not be fulfilled if we only seek the truth and act ethically. We will also honor God in the creation of aesthetic excellence. The material culture we will create will then not only serve our utilitarian needs, but it will enrich our spirit and overcome the sensory squalor of our lives.