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Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

An Aesthetic Apologetic


William Dyrness writes this in his book Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life: is increasingly clear that in contemporary culture, for many people, the search for truth has been overtaken by the search for what is pleasing... aesthetics has come to replace epistemology as the central preoccupation of educated Western people. One no longer inquires about what can be known; one is more likely to be concerned about what feels and looks good. Although there are serious problems with this move... the perception of the significance of aesthetics is widespread and ought not to be ignored.

This is a good paragraph that captures something I've noticed over the past several years, and that is that art and aesthetics have in so many ways replaced truth and fact. Most people today will respond to something because it feels or looks good. Experience replaces knowledge. Aesthetics replaces epistemology. Art replaces fact. In this, the Christian has an interesting place. Trained in apologetics, many of us are prepared to give a rational answer. We are prepared to respond with reason, not with beauty. We are children of the enlightenment, not children of the renaissance.

What seems to be happening in this world we call postmodern, is that the importance of the aesthetic, or even the existential, is rising. Think for a moment of what Peter is saying in the classic passage about apologetics (in fact, the word apologetics comes from the Greek word used in this passage, apologia, that is translated "answer"):

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,  keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  [1 Peter 3:15-16]

What we have done in classic Christianity - at least since the enlightenment - is to give a rational apologetic for the hope that we have. I wonder, to go maybe a bit further than Dyrness, whether the new apologetic for a postmodern culture is existential and aesthetic more than it is rational. If people are looking for something that moves them, changes them, is powerful to them, and elicits something in them that they cannot explain, then certainly the gospel can provide this. The gospel stimulates lives well lived, work well done, and beautiful restoration of that which sin and the fall have tarnished, or in some cases destroyed.

Missionaries think about the cultures in which they live and attempt to contextualize the gospel in a way that is understandable to that culture. If - as Dyrness argues - we are becoming more aesthetically driven, then speaking the gospel through art and life is as important as giving a rational apologetic. What we may need today is an aesthetic apologetic.  It seems to me personally that the Christian aesthetic leaves much to be desired.  We can learn from times in Christian history like the Renaissance and the artistic work of the early Christian Celts to see what it looked like in their times. But, ...we need to figure out ways to develop a Christian aesthetic that is indigenous to the language of our culture, is experientially potent, and is spiritually sound.

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