Are Christians scared of Beauty?

It’s a safe bet that your church has not talked about beauty lately. Which is odd, because we believe in a creator God that created a good world. Yet we shy away from beauty, especially in our modern buildings that are increasingly utilitarian. It sounds almost odd these days to say a church building should be beautiful.When you put the outspoken architectural critic of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), Elizabeth Farrelly, and pastor/theologian Michael Jensen (and an Eternity columnist) on stage, and ask them to talk about “beauty, aesthetics and the survival of Christianity” you get a lively conversation. And a packed house, as Sydney’s St James Institute late last week.

The new Gehry designed UTS building

The new Gehry designed UTS building

Elizabeth and Michael had already begun their discussion before the meeting started. In fact Elizabeth used her SMH megaphone on the morning of the event to opine “The conversation about Sydney’s new Gehry building resurrects the beauty question. To most people it seems a small question, almost trivial, a foible. I beg to differ. In my opinion it’s a question every bit as important as Medicare and motorways and massively more subversive, because it’s about how we connect to the universe.”

Starchitect (a word for a celebrity architect) Frank Gehry’s business school for the University of Technology Sydney was dismissed recently by Farrelly with the withering comment “Frank Gehry is the Kim Kardashian of contemporary architecture: all curves, no content”.

In conversation with Jensen she said, “For me beauty is fundamental to life. For me beauty is allied with the ancient and depth. I am interested in the transcendent potential of beauty.”

Jensen responded: “I believe that beauty is essential to human life because it shows us to be designed beings”. Referencing the  C. S. Lewis essay “The Weight of Glory” he added, “A hunger for transcendence is within us. The beauty we are so in love with is because the world was created.”

“I come to [beauty] as a pastor, meeting people who are not in church yet. Their lives are so filled with beauty and I want to tell them they have to think about this.”

(Michael is Minister of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, a beautiful building on a beautiful peninsular jutting out into Sydney Harbour. It is the sort of church building that Elizabeth Farrelly might well approve.)

Farrelly responded along the lines that beauty is perhaps not as commonly sought (or at least found). “I would not characterise the modern world as having a surfeit of beauty.”

Jensen playfully replied, “Can I retreat or explain? Maybe it is beautiful facades. I am astounded at the effort in advertising–a surface beauty. And there is a search for beautiful experiences”.

Farrelly, concerned that we no longer know what we mean by beauty runs with Jensen’s point: “The display of advertising for me is the opposite of beauty”.

And the architecture critic comes out once more “We seem to be incapable making places that delight and entrance us,” she said.

Farrelly seemed to me to be echoing the language of the (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer promise to shun “the empty display and false values of this world” and the ancient architectural writer Vitruvius’ definition of architecture as “Commodity, firmness and delight”. She’s right on contemporary buildings: we do better on the first two.

She goes onto reference the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s The Face of God. “He first alerted me to the fact that the word aesthetics does not mean how things look, but the meaning of how things look… Even when you are looking at a beautiful face you are reading that person subjectively, you are open to that person.” Farrelly says Scruton describes that openness as a form of “eros”.

“There’s a massive history going back to the Song of Solomon to see the relationship with God as an erotic one,” Jensen added. “It’s deeply personal, our longing for God.”

“Scruton’s point is that it is without ego, it’s not a desire to possess, it’s not very 50 Shades of Grey,” adds Farrelly.

Jensen also thinks Farelly’s favourite philosopher is worth reading. “Scruton talks insightfully about the depersonalisation of pornography. The truly erotic is about the person in the body.”

“The love of God in the form of the Cross is a relationship that is not one of domination. It is a person to person encounter,” he explains.

The conversation then moved to the dangerous turf of Churches’ aesthetics of worship. Farrelly is distressed at the banal products of contemporary society. Taking part in discussions about the design of Sydney’s Darling Harbour – a massive town planning exercise at the time – Farrelly found that the planners dismissed seeking beauty because the area was intend “for Mums and Dads”. She remains shocked, or disappointed at this attitude. “There is an assumption that the masses are not interested in beauty.”

Farrelly attends Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney – a “high church” that preserves traditional liturgy [a pattern of worship]. “The ancientness of the liturgy is beautiful for me because it is not cliché. [Avoiding] the cliché thing is important for me.”

Jensen confesses “I am not a liturgical native”. He comes from a generation of evangelicals that threw away the Prayerbook. “We took a gap and a break. In that time there churches tried to modernise”. He thinks there might have been good reason for the pause.

Ancient forms of worship are especially beautiful in Farrelly’s view and convey authenticity as a result. When a church is close in style to modern marketing, Farrelly is put off.

“Beauty has a negative quality that sneaks in and takes you unawares. Christianity bears this quality. I came to this very late. Christianity can save the world. The love thing is so revolutionary and paradoxical.”

Jensen sees a revival of the ancient in worship. “There is a return of young people to that. We look wrinkled and old, and this turns out to be to our advantage, because there is an authenticity to it.”

“The Gospel is compelling because it is a statement of love. It is not an advertising trick. It is about the one who came to us incarnate.”

Image courtesy of Jaasper via Flickr