“But if you confess that the world was once beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beauty of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its production of the beauty that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster.”
– Abraham Kuyper
“What character would I eliminate if I wrote this?” That’s a question I ask myself after finishing every book. When I first started asking this question, villains came to mind: Grendel’s mother, Claudius, Sauron – the bad guys.
Of course, the older I get the more I realize how boring fiction would be without antagonists. Who would read Harry Potter were it not for Voldemort, after all? The answers I give to that question have shifted from those who create the most conflict in the story to those who create the least; bit characters, vanilla sidekicks.
Art in God’s World Involves Beauty Born of Tension
While this exercise may seem silly, it actually develops a necessary skill for the evaluation of any piece of art, written or otherwise: the ability to identify and appreciate tension. Beauty, especially beauty seen in the arts, is the result of tension, of one kind or another.
Obviously, the kind of tension that typically comes to mind is that between good and bad, right and wrong: Aslan and the White Witch. Christianity gives a full-throated voice to this tension.
While the world was created good, it is fallen – which is to say it’s both broken and rebellious – but Christ has come to restore and redeem creation. In other words, Christ has come to resolve this tension.
This story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption permeates the Scriptures, and because the Scriptures tell the true story of this world, it permeates our experience as well. Thus, for art to be affirmed by the Christian worldview, it of course can – and must – touch on these themes.
Granted, each and every piece of art won’t include each and every theme each and every time. A work that reflects the pain and depravity of creation is no less true than the work that points to the world’s inherent dignity and goodness, or a work that alludes to the balm and remedy brought by Christ, for that matter.
Is Beauty Eternal?
The fact that beauty is a result of tension – and the tension between good and evil is resolvable – poses an interesting and important question vis-à-vis the Christian aesthetic; namely, “is beauty eternal?”
The answer is more complex than one might first expect. The tension between “good” and “bad” is contingent upon evil, which is finite. Obviously, before the Fall and after the second coming of Christ, there is no such tension. This tension has a beginning (Gen 3) and an end (Rev 21).
At least the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) agree on this point: evil is not eternal. It has a beginning and an end. This tension will be resolved. But the Christian faith has a unique claim on beauty specifically.
Before the Fall, indeed before Creation, God lived in perfect love, peace, joy, and relationship. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit were one, yet three. Were God only one – were he a mono-personal being – there would be no tension in eternity past, let alone in the perfect world to come.
God is not such a being. While we can affirm the “oneness” of God’s essence, we can also affirm the various personalities of the Trinity. This tension between Father, Son, and Spirit is irresolvable. It is the governing reality of the cosmos. Of course, this reality is why we can say that love is eternal. There has always been “love,” a “lover,” and a “beloved.”
This is also why Christians can say beauty is eternal. Before the creation of the world, God was not stagnant. He was in a complex and textured relationship with his Trinitarian self. Tension is eternal because of the eternality of the Trinity.
At Its Best, Art Makes Us Worship
David Skeel alludes to this very matter in his book True Paradox. As Trinitarians, Skeel argues, we can heartily acknowledge there are more tensions in the world than those between “good” and “bad.” When we look at a truly beautiful painting, we appreciate the tension not only between right and wrong, but also between colors, shades, fabrics, etc. These tensions – those that exist apart from sin – allude to the complexity found in the Godhead.
This is why a given piece of art can have such a transcendent effect on the viewer. In viewing beauty, as with experiencing love, the connoisseur is coming in contact with something that lacks a beginning and an end. At its best, this is what art does. Art makes us worship – not the object, of course, but the reality that lies beyond the object: the Triune God of the universe.