Evangelicals and Beauty

Thoughts on Architecture and Meaning in the Arts

It’s rare that I get two emails on the same day sending me articles about the same subject, but one morning a few years ago, I awoke to find two emails in my inbox, one from Darrell Holley and the other from Andy Ball. Darrell Holley is a professor of English and Latin at Welch College. Andy Ball is an adjunct faculty member at Welch who teaches courses in worldview and culture in our M.A. program in Theology and teaches philosophy full-time at Wallace State College in Hanceville, Alabama.

They both sent me articles on architecture. They know I’m interested in this because a few years ago Welch College built a new campus in Gallatin, Tennessee. The article Dr. Ball sent was a piece by Jonathan Coppage on The American Conservative website entitled “When University Architecture Aims Nowhere.” Coppage is apparently tied to the New Urbanism movement, which I mentioned briefly in a blog post I wrote on Modern Art a few years ago.

The article Dr. Holley sent was published in First Things. It was entitled “Building on Truth: An Argument for a Return to Metaphysical Realism in Architecture and Urbanism” and was written by Phillip Bess, an architecture professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Both these articles were an encouragement to me. First, they confirmed the desire I had to design the campus of Welch College in a classical, timeless form rather than utilizing the passing trends of modern architecture. I’ll never forget the first conversation I had with Michael Marzialo, the historic design consultant for the new Welch College campus. He asked me what I wanted, and I said, “Pretend we’re poor Tennessee Baptists in the nineteenth century. We don’t have a lot of money, but we rode the train to see Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village and really liked it and wanted to build our campus in that style.”1 He said, “I can do that.”

I shared this with our architect Jim Sherrer of Design Development Architects in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he said, “I can do that.” (I appreciate Jim and our relocation consultant Bob Bass for bending over backwards to accommodate my architectural vision on a limited budget.) You can see some photographs of the campus here.

The other reason these two articles were encouraging to me is that they show that a conservative view of the arts—a conservative aesthetic—is still alive and well in the conservative movement. That these two articles come from two of the most influential conservative journals being published today, First Things and The American Conservative, speaks volumes.

And though I don’t always agree with Rod Dreher and The American Conservative on their views on the involvement of Christians in public life, I do sympathize with Dreher’s holistic conservative and Christian view of culture, which one sees a lot at The American Conservative. They tend to see their conservative religious worldview as applying to the whole of life, even to literature and the arts and entertainment, not just to theology and morality, or even just to politics. You see this, for example, in Dreher’s absorbing book Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots.

 I haven’t always thought this way. I used to think that my Christian worldview didn’t pertain to the arts or anything in the aesthetic realm; that was just a realm all its own off in mid-air that was hermetically sealed off from the rest of reality—from the rest of my worldview. But the more I read from the saints and martyrs of the Christian past, across continents and cultures and ethnicities and centuries and generations and educational levels and socio-economic backgrounds (and also the great non-Christian classical thinkers beginning with Plato and Aristotle), the more I noticed that they all disagreed with my peculiarly late-modern views on this. They often divided life into three basic categories—being (metaphysics), knowing (epistemology) and doing (axiology). And they believed that truth—in our view, the Christian worldview—affected all of these.

It wasn’t until recently in intellectual history that some Christians began to drive a wedge between these different categories, I think in many cases unwittingly—and I was one of them. More recently, a lot of Christians have begun to think that the Christian worldview applies to being (metaphysics), knowing (epistemology), and even—especially—the ethical part of doing (axiology). But philosophers have always divided axiology into two subdivisions: ethics (moral doing) and aesthetics (artistic doing, creating things).  But many Christians have started acting as though aesthetics is outside the realm of discussion when it comes to the Christian worldview. It’s just relative. So, in that view, Christian truth doesn’t pertain to the form of the arts or literature or entertainment, just to their content—whether it’s moral, theologically accurate, etc.2

The more I immersed myself in the Christian tradition, the more I saw how alien this subjectivist aesthetic perspective would have been to our forebears. This fact was exemplified in two things I came across a while back in my reading, from evangelical Protestant authors J. Gresham Machen and Edward J. Carnell.

I’ll quote Carnell first. In his Introduction to Christian Apologetics, Carnell, in a discussion of some secular thinkers who had begun to say that “the aesthetic experience lies beyond the interests of truth,” says,

This judgment is superficial. In life we do talk significantly about the “beautiful” and the “ugly” and, unless all culture and niceness are to be destroyed and man is to be lowered to the level of a beast, there is such a thing as art. . . . without eternal standards of the beautiful, it is meaningless to say that the Golden Gate Bridge is prettier than a crushed cigar-box. The Hermes of Praxiteles is then no lovelier than mud pies made by a sleepy idiot. But the fact that men do continue to speak of the beautiful is patent evidence that they have a standard in their heart by which to judge. If there is no distinction between Mozart and a chorus of howling cats, let us cease wasting words on such things as culture, loveliness, and beauty.

Carnell goes on to quote Philippians 4:8 as evidence that “aesthetic criteria lead us to a knowledge of God. God is the Author of the true and the good, and thus supports the beautiful.”

Machen, in Christianity and Liberalism, said:

The modern world represents in some respects an enormous improvement over the world in which our ancestors lived; but in other respects it exhibits a lamentable decline. The improvement appears in the physical conditions of life, but in the spiritual realm there is a corresponding loss. The loss is clearest, perhaps, in the realm of art. Despite the mighty revolution which has been produced in the external conditions of life, no great poet is now living to celebrate the change; humanity has suddenly become dumb. Gone, too, are the great painters and the great musicians and the great sculptors. The art that still subsists is largely imitative, and where it is not imitative it is usually bizarre. Even the appreciation of the glories of the past is gradually being lost, under the influence of a utilitarian education that concerns itself only with the production of physical well-being.

The two articles my colleagues sent me on architecture are very much in line with the Christian tradition on these matters. Recovering this tradition, with its notion that art and architecture have meaning and communicate truth—and thus resisting aesthetic relativism—will naturally follow from a traditional Christian understanding of the world. We are seeing more and more authors who are communicating this, and this development can aid in the renewal and reformation of culture in our day.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 2 footnotes
  1. The original quadrangle of the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson.
  2. For an excellent discussion of form and content, see Darrell Holley’s article “The Principles of the Christian Critical Tradition,” Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought (2000), pp. 153-70. It can be found here.
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J. Matthew Pinson

J. Matthew Pinson has served as president and professor of theology at Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee, for more than twenty years. Prior to that he served as a pastor in Alabama, Connecticut, and Georgia. His primary interests are historical theology, the intersection of ecclesiology and cultural studies, higher education, and leadership. He holds a master's degree from Yale and a doctorate from Vanderbilt and is author or editor of ten books and numerous articles. He lives with his wife, Melinda, in Gallatin, Tennessee, and they have two grown children, Anna and Matthew.