The flagrant waste of beauty
One of the most profound and surprising days of my life was a day in 2008 which I spent touring the Vatican Museums with art historian Elizabeth Lev. Walking through the museums, she offered compelling insights and thoughtful interpretations of the frescos, adornments, murals, tapestries, mosaics, and statuary flagrantly littered throughout the sacred spaces of the Vatican. Where once I would have walked by, blithely ignorant of the meaning and the beauty present, she opened the windows of my spirit to appreciate the nuances of colour, placement, and figures selected for each masterpiece. It became a religious experience that ended up in worship.
I grew up in a Baptist church, a new modern structure, where the grey, flecked (industrial-quality) carpet warmly and appropriately coordinated with bright fuchsia-cushioned pews, blank walls, and with a plain wooden cross of smooth, engineered white oak the only adornment of the sanctuary. Its inoffensive blandness was designed to allow middle-class congregants to stay in their heads and rationalize their relationship with Jesus, where the train of conversion was pulled by fact and the emotions were appended as the caboose.
Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism exposes the historical framework that leads most evangelical worship spaces to be warehouses or theatres today, devoid of art and beauty, and the tendency of reducing faith to a personal transaction of becoming born again. In stripping churches of art, the Reformers tossed the baby out with the bathwater.
“This worldly Protestant asceticism … acted powerfully against the spontaneous enjoyment of possessions; it restricted consumption, especially of luxuries… [It was] not a struggle against the rational acquisition, but against the irrational use of wealth. But this irrational use was exemplified in the outward forms of luxury which their code condemned as idolatry of the flesh… On the other hand, they approved the rational and utilitarian uses of wealth which were willed by God for the needs of the individual and the community.”
This phrase “the rational and utilitarian uses of wealth” makes me catch my breath. This is the philanthropy world I am in. High net worth Christian donors today are heavy on securing a ROI on their donation investments: souls saved, wells dug, programs launched, classes sponsored. And I hear the voices of my past far too readily: we need to save the world, reach the lost, and expand the kingdom.
This utilitarian viewpoint is not common just within Protestant circles. Wallace Davis, a reviewer of Weber, cites Felix Rachfahl as a critic of Weber’s thesis, who stated that streams within Catholicism also embraced asceticism, even more severe than Protestant expressions. He states, “Rachfahl considered Weber’s notion of “inner-worldly asceticism” misleading … [He] insisted that precisely such a life-style was also demanded of Catholic laity and was not at all unique to the Protestant sects. Furthermore, he noted that such a notion has little to do with the Catholic conception of asceticism, the essence of which, he argued, is the rejection of the world…. Such forms of world-renouncing asceticism constituted a particular type of piety explicitly rejected by Protestantism, which demanded instead that a general Christian ethic permeate all aspects of an individual’s life.”
While Catholicism surely has an ascetic stream, the point is that the ancient streams of Christianity lived with these various tensions, and in general, created a culture where an appreciation for art and mystery was allowed to thrive and lead to worship. Unfortunately, when art is divorced from the Creator, it becomes a shadow that turns on itself and expresses itself in ways that reduce its ability to point to God. Gregory Wolfe, founder of Image Journal, a Seattle-based arts and faith movement, states, “Art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself.” This is the problem with much art that is generated today, which again contributes to how alienated it is from the church.
My wife and I are currently renovating a 170-year old Maritime house which is turning out to be a significant project, as one should expect. Our dream is that it will become a welcoming environment for guests who will experience true hospitality and grace while staying with us. During my writing of this article, we had a conference call with our contractor who jumped on a proposal from my wife to push out the kitchen window and insert a built-in window bench with bookshelves at either end, something we hadn’t planned for but is definitely an add-on. It’s an unnecessary frill as the original plan for just a flat window was fine. Cost-conscious, I objected to the expanding dream. I hung up, and continued writing, then stopped in my tracks. Here I was being utilitarian and graceless, when the proposed enhancement would add that extra layer of beauty to our home. Plus, it was my wife’s idea. And it was International Women’s Day. Repenting, I quickly sent a text message supporting the upgrade.
Just as the apparent wasting of the ointment in the alabaster jar when poured on the feet of Jesus, the beauty and mystery of art can lead us into worship. There’s not much about art that is utilitarian or practical, and money given to the arts has no real tangible outcome. However, as we push against the Protestant ethic, and make room for the arts, we recover missing depths of beauty embedded in the world which leads to worship.
I’d like you to experience just a taste of Elizabeth Lev’s sparkle as she explores the Sistine Chapel as I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Take a moment to watch this TED talk and be inspired, as I was.
 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), 171.
 Davis, Wallace M. “‘Anticritical Last Word on The Spirit of Capitalism,’ by Max Weber.” American Journal of Sociology 83, no. 5 (1978), 1107. http://www.jstor.org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/2778188.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Aab9079a33dbe54e7613614ea1f3138d4. Accessed on March 8, 2018.
 Howes, Graham. “Gregory Wolfe, The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery.” Theology 121, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 65–66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040571X17730983l. Accessed on March 8, 2018.
18 responses to “The flagrant waste of beauty”
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I was able to visit the Vatican last year with my wife, and spent 22 minutes in the Sistine Chapel, and loved it! I wanted to stay there longer, but our tour guide was on a schedule…
I have to be honest though, I felt heavy hearted in the Vatican. Such opulence, gold store-housed, massive quantities of wealth, while beggars gathered pennies outside. Perhaps I was most bothered by the apparent worship of the statues within every eye shot. Am I out of line for feeling such a way?
Don’t get me wrong, I was so glad to see it all. But I was wondering exactly what you meant when you mentioned the Baptist voices of your past saying, “…we need to save the world, reach the lost, and expand the kingdom.” To be honest, I think these things all the time. Where am I going astray?
Hi Jay… I don’t think you’re going astray. But I believe we are made for more than the utilitarian purpose of evangelizing the world. I think we are also made for enjoying an apple pie, of building a swing in the backyard for our grandchildren, or of losing ourselves in a murder mystery novel. It’s just that our calling in life is much bigger than just the spiritual purposes we normally attribute to our purpose.
I agree with Jay, we are called to “go, preach, reach, teach, and disciple” the world.
I have seen ROI profit motive philanthropy ideas go bust very quickly when the donors think that God needs their wealth and ideas to somehow “help Him” in His sovereign plans. For example, some wealthy donors wanted to introduce a 737 jet aircraft into missionary aviation. Their premise was to form an airline, raise money, give to the mission, advance God’s Kingdom. It all sounded and looked good until I read the financial plan, which included competing against the national government subsidized airline, use mission donor funds for 3-5 years during start up, and mixing mission money with for-profit money. The Holy Spirit told me “no” but the BOD said “yes”.
In short, to preserve unity we left for medical reasons to help my father with Alzheimer. Within 3 years the mission went bankrupt and the BOD was fired and replaced. I think there is inherit danger with well meaning donors and BOD’s who are driven by the profit motive if they do not first seek the necessary wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit before launching a new campaign.
You have your ministry work cut out for you for sure! Praying for you in this special and unique ministry calling.
I’m sure the investment of time with your dad in his latter years was valuable and a wonderful investment into the kingdom. Thanks Mike for your thoughts.
Interesting post as always Mark! I loved how you brought in the idea of when is there a place or time for extravagance. I think we can worship through beauty as well and I think God deserves the best of the best, but I know finding that balance between practical and over the top can be difficult. Also, way to honor your wife on IWD to make your house more beautiful and welcoming. When we built our house, we had the same idea in mind…for people to experience warm hospitality in a beautiful setting.
Yes I’m glad I clued into my psychological dissonance and redeemed myself with agreement to the upgrade. 😉
Mark. Thanks for the link to Elizabeth Lev’s description of the sistine chapel. I will make my kids watch this before we go to the Vatican. I have really been thinking about the aesthetics of church buildings. I remember in college I went to Moscow and Kiev I had a chance to go several famous Eastern Orthodox churches. I remember thinking, “how gaudy” that everything was gold plated and ornate. I do wonder if that was my protestant upbringing talking. I am looking forward to having time to explore some places this summer in Europe and to open my eyes to the beauty that can be reflected in the arts of the churches. I too am not sure where art ends and excess begins.
I wondered how you were going to handle Weber this week with his view of Catholics. You did well at responding and making me think of the drab buildings we have to worship the Creator of the Universe in. (btw when the Peterson B&B is done, let us know)
Greg, I am excited you and your family are going to Europe this summer and I hope we can perhaps cross paths in Italy or France.
And you (and anyone in our cohort) is warmly welcome to our home. We would love a visit!!
Mark, what a delightful and brilliant post. Your early discussion of church as “inoffensive blandness” for “middle-class congregants” was striking. It reminds me of the Homogenous Unit Principal (http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2010/august-online-only/down-with-homogeneous-unit-principle.html). I’m eager to hear more of your journey to Catholicism when we are in Hong Kong. Brilliant reflection on the value and importance of beauty and extravagance…I preached on Mary’s perfume from John a few weeks ago. I agree of the need to dismantle the utilitarian influence on society.
Yes let’s find a time to discuss in more detail. I’d love to share more.
Wow! To take the Weber text and use it to promote an understanding of Protestant asceticism and the need for encouraging beauty and art as a means to worship is profound. While the bulk of us have written about the threads of Calvinism we see in our own lives and the influence he had on the developing ethic you have taken an entirely different perspective.
I do wonder though. When the reformers were throwing out the ‘baby’ they did so because of their belief that the Church at the time had made those things the focus of worship rather than the means. Some of the changes they made were transformational in the way they communicated the Gospel. (Such as the movement during the Eucharist of the minister placed at the front of the table, performing communion on behalf of the people, to the back of the table, joining with them in the celebration.) Art has lost its purpose disconnected from the Church but is there still a risk that the ‘art’ becomes the focus of the worship? Take modern worship music as an example. How do we promote a balance?
My opinion is that the Reformers were right to be aggrieved by the excesses and idolatry in the Catholic church in the XVI century. But in their zeal I think they went too far.
Great post, I will admit I went to Elizabeth Lev’s website you posted at the beginning of the post and dug in and watched the TED talk, I should have scrolled down and seen your attachment. What a passionate talk about a beautiful piece of art. I took my family to D.C. last year and one of the days we took a visit to the national cathedral. It is a beautiful church with many pieces of art and sculpture. It was a worship experience in its own right. I think baptists have lost this experience within our churches. Thank you for this light into my own life.
I’m glad you were able to watch Elizabeth’s TED talk! I find her a brilliant communicator.
So if I read this correct Mark, you succumbed to the temptation of capitalism in a desire to please your wife. Hmmmm…yup…been there.
The question is…if I looked at this in a financially responsible manner, I might say that you were wasteful and overspending. However, if I look at this in the marital manner, I might say you were loving and considerate to the wants of your wife. So how would it look in the spiritual manner according to you?
Yes, Shawn, LOL. I succumbed. My contractor is very happy with me for this job has definitely grown since we began our aggressive reno.
You are right in saying there are multiple ways to view one action. It all depends how you look at it. I don’t think God cares whether I have a window bench or not, but He does care that I love my wife and honour her. And He cares that I use what I “own” (ie. steward) for others. And I think He cares that I am investing into our local economy and providing neighbours with work.
Mark, my husband Troy and I talk about the loss of art in the church a lot so when I read your statement, “In stripping churches of art, the Reformers tossed the baby out with the bathwater.” I really resonated with it. I believe the arts are meant to be at the center of worship as they are direct reflections of the creativity of our God in humanity and us emulating God in this way is an offering to God. We led an arts night many years ago at the community college next to our university in LA and I often had the conversation with artists displaying their work that I thought their art was beautiful and a reflection of something more in them, and sometimes I was able to share about how that something more was God and their being like the creator in their representation of creativity. It was such a wonderful experience.
Total side note but because you mentioned your wife, women’s day, and the woman with the alabaster jar (and Elizabeth Lev) I began to wonder if women were given a more prominent place in leadership throughout church history if the asceticism would have been less prominent and beauty would have remained? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
YES! I didn’t clue into this, but that’s a great observation. I think you may be on to something.