Slothfully Tacky

In the past two months, two conservative journals have discovered what most of us already knew: There is a lot of junk out there being marketed to Christians. Nearly everyone agrees that a lot of the stuff is cringe-inducing and only confirms people's worst stereotypes of Christians. What they do not agree on is what we should do about it. Any answer to that question must start with remembering the place that beauty and aesthetics occupy in a truly Christian worldview. The first article about what is euphemistically called "Christian merchandise" appeared in the Weekly Standard magazine. In it, writer Stephen Bates gave readers a sense of just how much stuff is included in that category and how tasteless some of it can be. "Christian merchandise," he wrote, is more than books and music. It's outerwear, underwear, food, knickknacks, and even rubber duckies that say "Depend on Christ the King." Instead of well-known brand names like J. Crew and Fruit of the Loom, the stuff is branded with "Christian substitutes," like "J. Christ" and "Fruit of the Spirit." Neither Bates nor Jeremy Lott, who wrote about the subject for Reason magazine, use the lapses in taste as an excuse to bash Christians. Lott writes that these often-tacky "artifacts . . . can embody real meaning for those who use them . . . " since "they reflect their values and beliefs . . . " That is true, but only up to a point. The problem with these "artifacts" is not that they are inconsistent with people's beliefs. It is that there is something vital missing from those beliefs: an appreciation of taste and beauty. You see, an appreciation of beauty is not optional for the Christian. Pursuing beauty is as mandatory as the pursuit of truth and goodness, which is why aesthetics has historically been considered a branch of moral theology. St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and C. S. Lewis all wrote that beauty, like truth and goodness, has its origin in who God is, in His very nature. Aquinas said, beauty "participates in the divine brightness." Beauty gives us a glimpse of God's integrity, perfection, and majesty. Beauty points to the order and intelligence that sustains the universe. And it points to the source of that intelligence and order. Augustine and Lewis both wrote of the role that their love of beauty had in their conversions. In the Confessions, Augustine exclaimed "Oh, Beauty, so old and so new! Too late have I loved thee!" And in Surprised by Joy, Lewis described the "joy" and "longing" he felt as a boy when he listened to Wagner. The feelings inspired by the music provided evidence of the existence of something truly awe-inspiring -- the only thing that could fulfill his longing. I spoke recently to the Christian Booksellers Association. It's an outstanding association that has greatly raised the professional standards of the publishing industry and booksellers. And I'm optimistic that we are going to make a real effort to raise the standards of what it is we offer to the world. As Christians we can and should do better than the kind of stuff that makes us all cringe. An indifference to beauty, after all, is as foreign to the Christian worldview as an indifference to truth or to goodness. For further reading: Stephen Bates, "The Jesus Market," Weekly Standard, 16 December 2002. Jeremy Lott, "Jesus Sells: What the Christian culture industry tells us about secular society," Reason, February 2003. BreakPoint No. 030207, "Art as Torture: Rejecting Christian Ideas of Beauty."
  1. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life(Harvest Books, 1975).
St. Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine (Doubleday, 1988). Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics and Religious Life (Oxford University, 2003).


Chuck Colson


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