A bright orange sunset on the horizon fades into reds and yellows across the western sky. Large puffy snowflakes float down gently from the sky in no particular hurry to their resting place. A couple fuzzy-faced doe keep a wary eye on us humans while they enjoy some corn. These are some of the visual snapshots from a week at PBU's Wisconsin Wilderness Campus in the north woods of Wisconsin. The beauty of God's creation is on constant display in this setting.
However, beauty is not only found in creation. In exploring the relationship between Christianity and culture with WWC students, we reflected on the Cultural Mandate from Genesis I:28: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (NIV). This verse teaches us that God expects us to take charge over the world, to be stewards of what he has made, and to create a culture out of God's work of creation. We are, to borrow a phrase from Andy Crouch's excellent new book, Culture Making, to "make something of the world." God has not placed us in his creation simply to exist, but rather to revel in its beauty and to follow his example by making our own beauty-from buildings to inventions to art. We are to discover the truth that inhabits every corner, we are to act with love and justice toward all its inhabitants, and we are to use our skills and resources to create cultural artifacts whose beauty reminds us of the Source of all beauty.
This last responsibility was the impetus behind PBU's inaugural Worldview Conference on November 8, 2008. The theme was "Beauty, Art, and the Church" and a crowd of several hundred from the community gathered for a day of stimulating presentations. A highlight was Makoto Fujimura's reflection on Mary pouring the expensive bottle of perfume on Jesus' head. The disciples complained that this act was too extravagant. The money should have been given to the poor. Jesus, however, disagreed. He said that what Mary did was "a beautiful thing" (Mark 14:6). Fujimara noted that it is stunning that Jesus described this act as beautiful. He argued that our art should be an extravagant act of worship before God. Not simple and measured and safe, but extravagant.
A recurring note sounded throughout the day was the need for the church to take more seriously its responsibility to create beauty. Screenwriter Brian Godawa ("To End All War") was another guest speaker. He observed that many Christian attempts at filmmaking are so preoccupied with the message they are trying to communicate that they neglect the craft of filmmaking. It is a disservice to God, Godawa argued, to be concerned only for truthfulness and neglect one of his other attributes, namely¡ beauty. This observation has far-reaching implications. If God is a god of beauty (and he is), then we must continually monitor our cultural endeavors to ensure that they manifest our best efforts at beauty. Simple faithfulness to the message is not enough. We need to communicate beautifully.
Crouch's book continues this theme. He notes that in the twentieth century Christian fundamentalists have condemned culture and tried to separate themselves from it, perhaps forgetting that it is impossible to do so completely. Evangelicals like Francis Schaeffer have subjected culture to searching analyses, and others have imitated some cultural artifacts (like popular music) as vehicles for the Christian message. In addition, we consume culture every day-its fashions, books, music, technology, etc. The point, however, is that we need to do more than simply condemn or criticize or copy or even consume culture, as necessary as all these are at times. Crouch says that we need to create culture, to develop cultural artifacts that are both beautiful and purposively made for God's service.
God is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty and we need an aesthetic that is God-oriented. It has been the conviction of modern culture that beauty is purely subjective, that it is only in the eyes of the individual beholder. Art exists for its own sake or, even worse, to challenge the conventions of society as exemplified by some disconcerting attempts to call dung and urine art. The Christian worldview, however, teaches that art exists for God's sake. As his creatures, we make something of the world. We produce cultural artifacts in our role as sub-creators, as Tolkien would say, all to reflect glory back to God. Nothing in this universe exists for its own sake, save God. However, the beauty of true art, music, literature, film, dance, etc., reflects the glory of God and is rooted in the beauty of his creation.
Dr Timothy Yoder is an Associate Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Philadelphia Biblical University in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. He teaches Philosophy, Ethics, World Religions, Apologetics and other courses. He recently published a book entitled Hume on God: Irony, Deism and Genuine Theism (Continuum, 2009), in which he investigates the theistic beliefs of the Scottish philosopher David Hume.