Why Systematic Theology Texts Do Not Explore the Beauty of God…?

In reading for my thesis over the last year I have noticed that many systematic theology texts do not deal with the beauty of God sufficiently – usually as a sub category of another attribute. In fact, some do not treat it at all. I think Patrick Sherry has given one good reason for this in his book Spirit and Beauty.

“The question becomes even more difficult when it is said not only that God is beautiful but that he is beauty itself, the source of beauty in all other things. Of course similar problems arise with other divine attributes, like wisdom, power, and love. But the ordinary believer gets some handle on these other attributes by trying to discern the relevant divine actions, for instance God’s wise governance of the universe, His power manifested in natural phenomena or holiness, and his love shown in providence and especially, Christians say, in the life of Christ. In the case of beauty, however, it is difficult to find any corresponding actions other than God’s creation of beauty in the world.”[1]

Perhaps he is on to something. Nonetheless, (as he later argues) it seems that Christian scripture teaches that God is the ultimate source of perfection and beauty and that He values and offers himself as a beautiful gift to humanity.

Continue reading “Why Systematic Theology Texts Do Not Explore the Beauty of God…?”

Jack the Poet’s Wicked Heart

This post originally published on The Bottle and Cricket.

C.S. Lewis loved poetry. In his late teens he had great ambitions of becoming a poet. This desire grew after he published Spirits in Bondage in 1919. Perhaps his initial love of poetry came from his father Albert, who was an amateur yet soulful poet. No doubt that this love was fed as Lewis immersed himself in classic literature. It’s not clear if Lewis had high pretensions about his poetry or not. When Lewis published his long narrative poem Dymer in 1926 it was not met with much positive review, except from a few close friends. Years later Lewis confessed with ironic disappointment (alluding to T.S. Eliot’s favorite image) that…

I am so coarse, the things poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening – any evening – would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

Nevertheless, Lewis continued to write poetry. While Lewis never published a book of verse during his lifetime, some of his poetry appeared scattered throughout his prose. In 1964, the year after Lewis died, Walter Hooper collected, edited, and published a collection of his poems from scraps, letters, and miscellaneous works. In this collection is a short poem titled As the Ruin Falls. In this poem Lewis illustrates the painful and necessary beauty of introspection.

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love–a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

Lewis echos the prophet Jeremiah, who reveals his own grief when proclaiming that “my heart is sick within me.” It seems that in this particular poem Lewis took his own advice, which can be found in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, “look in thy heart and write is good counsel for poets.” This is not only good advice for poets, but also for all who desire to live a wise and contemplative life.

Lewis’ poetry may have never captured the attention of literary critics, but it was honest and beautiful in its own right.

An Evening with C.S. Lewis

In this one-man show, British actor David Payne portrays famous author C.S. Lewis. I have always been fond of Lewis’ wit and thought, and have, like many of his readers, longed to have known him personally. Perhaps Payne gives us a glimpse for what an evening with Lewis would be like. The setting is 1963, the last year of his life, as he hosts a group of American writers at his home just outside of Oxford. As his website proclaims “Payne captures the essence of the man who created the Narnia Chronicles in an enthralling, laughter-filled and poignant performance….utterly captivating!”

Seen on Justin Taylor’s blog.

Also see this dramatization from the PBS Special The Question of God.

 

Uncovering Idols (Part 3): Beauty Magazines and the Idol of Image Projection

Note: This is the last  post taken from the manuscripts of a series I preached titled “Uncovering Idols.”

Human beings were created to “image” God. Because of sin we cannot properly “image” God. But the Spirit conforms us to the ‘Image of Christ’ and we are enabled to do what we were created for.

Introduction

Idolatry is difficult to uncover in our society because it is so subtle, so covert. We don’t necessarily worship idols formed from wood and stone. Our idolatry is hidden in our hearts. Remember that “an idol is anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”[1]

What makes “uncovering idols” even more complicated is that are idols are, on the one hand formed by our inner desires, and at the same time socially shaped. In other words, our idolatry is “generated from within and insinuated from without.”[2] Idolatry is a problem rooted deeply in the human heart, but is also powerfully imposed on us from our social environment. So, in order to understand idolatry we need to

  • Examine the world around us.
  • Examine the world within us.

This is extremely important for the subject we are examining tonight, “the idol of image projection.” The very idea of “image” is quite informative on what it actually means to be a human being. In Genesis 1: 27 we are told that;

God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”

“Unlike the rest of creation, we are made in God’s image,”[3] we were made to literally ‘image God.’ Humans were created for this very purpose, to image, to mirror, to represent God within creation order.[4] Let’s make an honest observation: If humans were made to reflect God in our world something has gone wrong. In fact, a quick glance at the world around us reveals that something has gone terribly wrong. If we truly reflected God as we should, things would not be as they are. Now, as Christians we understand that our projection, or “reflection of God” has been ‘perverted, corrupted, and distorted.’ by sin. Yet at the same time the mirror has not been completely shattered. “Imaging” is still a very important aspect of human function, it’s what we were created to do. We just reflect the wrong things; we mirror God in the wrong way.

Our Culture: A Reflection on Self Image

If you need to be convinced of the importance of “image in our culture”[5] consider what’s projected at you as you pass through what one author called the ‘gauntlet of temptation’, more commonly known as the magazine racks in the checkout line. We have all seen it. On each of these magazine covers a message is proclaimed, a message reflecting what it looks like to have “the good life.” The images communicate to you that;

  • ‘This’ is what it looks like to be significant!
  • To be secure in who you are, you must have or look like ‘this!’
  • ‘This’ is what it feels like to have fulfillment!
  • You will have comfort if you surround yourself with ‘these’ things!

In the supermarket checkout line you are presented with a mosaic of images on magazine covers, images that reflect “the fulfilled life.” While standing in line you enter “a place of possibilities where you can imagine your life differently” a place where you can “choose who you will be.”[6] The message here is simple, “by the choices you make, you tell the world who you are”[7] Typically, this “ideal image” that is being projected can be accomplished by the purchase of certain products.

Think about it, we can construct our image by the things that we adorn ourselves with; how we posture ourselves. We communicate “our meaning” in various ways,

  • Our appearance communicates something about who we are.
  • Where and how we live communicates something about who we are.
  • How we talk, what we say, communicates to others who we are.
  • Our accessories and the things we own tell the world who we are.

In our culture it’s about projecting your significance, your “meaning”[8] to the world around you, and “our preoccupation is with the outward appearance”[9] is very clear. The most obvious cultural example of what I am talking takes us back to the line at the super market. Consider magazine covers again. I think one author put it well when he wrote that “magazines peddle unrealistic hopes to people desperate for some version of the good life.”[10] Magazines sell an unrealistic ideal.

The covers of these magazines are imprinted with our cultural gods known as celebrities. In many ways they have become “the physical manifestation of the fulfilled life.” They represent what we are told we need to be.

Take this months “O” magazine for example. This particular magazine typically features articles on relationships, spirituality, health, and helpful tips on just about everything. Just like many other magazines this one features a celebrity or cultural guru who is aptly pictured and invites us to participate in the fulfilled life.[11] In this particular magazine the cover shot is of a celebrity/guru, and by the way, she is on the cover of “O” every month.

Listen to what this particular magazine promises;

  • “Who are you meant to be: A Step-by-step guide to finding your life’s purpose.”
  • “How to talk so people really listen: 4 ways to make yourself heard.”
  • “Plus: 28 questions that will change the way you see yourself.”

Everything is geared towards “creating an image” for yourself. Now, let’s break the cliché literary rule and make a few judgments about magazines based on their cover, just based off the cover shot. Think about this for a second. In preparation for this image to make the cover of the magazine this celebrity;

  • She goes into several hours of hair and make-up.
  • They create a set with ideal lighting and backgrounds that accentuate the colors in her clothing and shaded in her makeup.
  • They shoot hundreds if not thousands of angles.
  • Once a photo is chosen, it then enters into a multiple phase manipulation process where a graphic designer adjusts the light and dark contrast, the colors, removes any blemishes in the skin, crops, and so on.

This is the absurdity of our cultural attempt to “image” fulfillment, as manifested in magazine covers. They present you with a person that embodies the “image” of the fulfilled life. But the person presented is not the person as they actually are. This is the paradox, what is represented as the ideal does not actually exist. In reality we do not get an actual image of this person. We get an image of what she wants to be perceived as.

This is something that we need ponder. There are many times when we try and cover who we actually are by projecting an image of ourselves that is not actually true. So we project an image not of who we are, but what we would like others to see us as. In other words, we try and cover our true selves.

The Twofold Perversion of “Image”

As human beings we find comfort in mere “window dressing,”[12] or “fig leaves” that we hide behind. This started in the Garden of Eden. See, before the fall Adam and Even were pure and clearly reflected the image of God. This is why humanity was made, to reflect the glory of God. This is where we were meant to find our significance, our worth, our security, our comfort.

Our image is a derivative image; it is derived from the one who created us. When we sinned, we were cast away from clearly reflecting the glory one whom we derive our image. This created a problem because we were created to reflect God’s glory. And now we were left to ourselves, to reflect ourselves. Therefore, since the fall we have tried to glorify our own image by adorning ourselves with all types of functional fig leaves. In short, we begin to bow to the idol of self-image. Two quick observations from Genesis that provide ‘examples of’ and ‘explain why’ creating and reflecting our own “image” is so devastating;

1. The fall was preceded by a heightening exaltation of “our image.”

Genesis 3:6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Adam and Eve wanted to be higher than God. In disobeying God’s clear command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, our first parents exalted themselves above God taking things into their own hands. They decided to “create their own image” apart from their creator. Reminds us of Paul’s word in his letter to the Romans in chapter 1, “claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man.” Which begs us to head Paul’s warning later on in 12 “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” Simply put, a heightened sense of “image” leads to unreasonable pride.

2. The fall was followed with a lowering perversion of “our image”

Genesis 3:7- “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”

Now Adam and Eve felt ashamed of themselves, and rightly so. Their self image became wholly negative- with a devastating shame and worthlessness. They no longer clearly reflected the God who made them. In verse 10 we see that shame revealed itself in fear. Adam hid from God in the garden. Even in us we see the effects of this shame in human despair. Here is the point of pointing out these two;

  1. heightening exaltation of “our image.”
  2. lowering perversion of “our image”

We (as humans) still fluctuate between these two today. “Man’s image is sometimes extremely high (in the form of sinful pride) or excessively low (in the form of feelings of shame and worthlessness).” Both cases are perversions of our created “image.” More often times than not we “exalt our image” as an attempt as a cover who we truly are. When we truly see ourselves for who we are, its obvious that left to our own devises we offer nothing but shame. I would argue that vacillating between these two (pride and despair) is inevitable when humanity cannot clearly reflect God.

Human beings were created to “image” God. Because of sin we cannot properly “image” God.  (Then where do we turn?) But the Spirit conforms us to the ‘Image of Christ’ and we are enabled to do what we were created for. (This keeps us from pride, and keeps us from despair.

But, I would not hesitate to guess that many of us in this room find ourselves vacillating between pride and despair because when don’t have a proper understanding, or forget who we are in Christ. Here’s our hope, we have a good God, a God who is on “mission is to restore creation to its full original purpose of [reflecting his glory].”[13] This proper “image of God” is, is being, and will be restored to us through Jesus Christ.

Restoration: Jesus Christ the “Image of God.”

1. God’s Image Revealed in Christ

Colossians 1:15- “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Though God is invisible, through Christ God becomes visible. Christ is the pure reflection of God! So the one who looks to Christ is actually looking to God. There is a remarkable passage in Hebrew’s proclaiming this same glorious truth.

Hebrews 1:3- “He (Jesus) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Think about that, Christ radiates the glory of the Father. In other words, Christ is the mirror image of God. Every trait, ever characteristic, every quality found in the Father is seen in the Son, who is the exact representation.

We begin to understand what it means to be created in the image of God as we look at Christ. As we are conformed to the image of Christ, the image of God will be restored. In fact, being ‘conformed into the image of Christ’ is the purpose for which God has chosen his people. Romans 8:29- “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Equivalent to the “image of God”) This is the purpose of redemption, to restore the image of God to man.

2. God’s Image Reflected from Christ

1 John 3- “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Think about that “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is.”

You will be conformed to him as you look at him “as he is.” Christ is the pure image of God. He does not need make up or digital manipulation, He is perfect “without spot or blemish.” Yet we often attempt to conform ourselves to the images of cultural gods who are not pictured as they actually are. Listen to the words of Paul.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all behold the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness, from one degree of splendor to the next, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor.3:18)

The complex verb that Paul uses is which means “to behold in a mirror.” “This word combines the ideas of looking long and hard at something, and resembling or reflecting something. We are called to long, contemplative gazing at the Lord Jesus and changing so as to reflect his image.”[14]

The more we gaze at and contemplate Jesus, the more the Spirit shows us his glory and the more we become transformed into the likeness of what we see. As we look at Christ we realize in our hearts His beauty. In other words, the Spirit conforms you by affecting the heart by what you see in the person and work of Christ.

3. God’s Image Restored Through Christ

Ephesians 4:22-23

“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Tim Keller unpacks the description of “putting on” Christ like a garment, which implies several important things

a) That our primary identity is in Christ. Our clothing tells people who we are. Clothing is a way of showing that we are identified with others of the same gender, social class national group. But to say that Christ is our clothing is to say that our ultimate identity is found, not in any of these classifications, but in Christ alone!

b) The closeness of our relationship to Christ. Your clothes are kept closer to you than

any other possession you have. You rely on them for shelter every moment. They go everywhere with you (hopefully). So to say Christ is our clothing is to call us to moment-by-moment dependence and awareness of Christ. We are to spiritually “practice his presence.”

c) Our acceptability to God. Finally, clothing is worn as adornment. It covers our nakedness. To say that Christ is our clothing is to say that in God’s sight we are loved because of Jesus’ work and salvation. This is why the gospel restores our original “image” which is not based on cultural standards or comparisons with others. Only the gospel keeps us from being prideful or disdainful of our image.

The gospel creates a new self-image. The gospel keeps us from excessive pride or excessive despair. In Christ we are a “new creation.”

Self-image can be a very elusive idol that absorbs our heart and imagination before we realize it. There is this cultural assumption that a reflecting a particular image of oneself will bring security, comfort, significance, worth. No! In Christ alone will you find your security, comfort, significance, and worth!

The question tonight is simple: “Is your sense of identity found in who you are as a child of God or how others to perceive you?” Like a mirror we reflect whatever we are oriented towards. We reflect what we revere.[15]

We have a desire to reflect and mirror because this is what we were created to do, we are imagers. Human beings were created to “image” God. Because of sin we cannot properly “image” God. But the Spirit conforms us to the ‘Image of Christ’ and we are enabled to do what we were created for.


David Nelson: “A Curmudgeon on Evangelical Worship”

A curmudgeon is a “crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man.” In my opinion this is a funny word to use in reference to critically thinking about worship music in the church today. Funny because,

1. That’s the way we view most complaints against the particulars of church life in the first place- as coming from the church curmudgeon.

2. What makes this title even funnier, in my opinion, is that Dr. Nelson knows that he will be charged as a curmudgeon for being honest. So, I guess I get the irony here…

Either way, I think these are good thoughts on trajectory of most worship music used in American churches today.

David P. Nelson is senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in systematic theology and worship. Dr. Nelson has contributed to a book on this topic titled Authentic Worship, his chapter is on “the use of music in worship.” I am not sure how many more entries he will post?

A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship

A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship, Part 2

A Curmudgeon Weighs in on Evangelical Worship, Part 3

The Return of the Curmudgeon: Disney-World Worship (Part 2): Musical Disproportionality

A Curmudgeon Weighs in on Evangelical Worship: Disney World Worship (Part 3): The Sovereignty of Technology

“The Christian and Aesthetics”

Today Justin Taylor wrote about a book titled The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy, by Steve Cowan and James Spiegel. He added a link to a journal article written by Spiegel titled “”Aesthetics and Worship.” This article is well worth the read.

The relationship between aesthetics and theology is something that I love to think about. Collide magazine recently published an article I wrote on the subject titled “Theosthetics: Thoughts at the Intersection of Aesthetics and Worship.” This article is my first attempt and developing my thoughts on the subject.

The subject of aesthetics is something we, as Christians, need to give much thought. We are pretty good at articulating our theology in relation to truth and goodness, but what about beauty?

I agree with Spiegel’s conclusion;

“The Christian church, once the leader of the arts, is now scarcely taken seriously in artistic communities. Worse yet, the formal worship of Christians is compromised by mediocrity in this area. Our problem, however, is not for lack of inspiration, as the scriptures are brimming with aesthetic instructions, from the Genesis creation account to the hymns of Revelation, not to mention the nature of the Biblical writings themselves. We must recapture a truly Christian vision for the arts, and strive mightily to be aesthetically virtuous. The duties of the church pertain not only to goodness but to beauty as well.”

I am glad that Justin Taylor pointed this out. If anyone else has found a good resource on the relationship between theology and aesthetics please let me know!

Heath Ledger, The Joker, and Christian Theology

I saw the ‘Dark Knight’ last week, and ever since seeing Heath Ledger’s Joker performance, a few things have been in my mind. Ledger delivered one of  the most chilling depictions of human depravity I have seen in a while.

The Christian doctrine of ‘depravity’ (The Greek word ‘porneria’, which can also be translated ‘corruption’) essentially speaks of humanities ‘active intent to corrupt or destroy’. This condition involves the concept of moral corruption and liability to judgment. (There is some debate among theologians over the proper quantitative word to be used in describing humanities depravity, ‘Are we totally depraved or radically depraved?’)

Either way this debate must take into account the fact that we were created in the image of God with the capacity for good, but every part of our being has been affected by sin (Rom. 7:18; Titus 1:15; Jer. 17:9; Eph. 4:18). Every person is sinful. It is this sinful nature that manifests itself differently in each individual person, yet all mankind is marked with the scars of sin.

Here is where ‘The Dark Knight’ comes into play, I was totally enthralled with Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. Ledger took the character to a whole new level, a totally depraved psychopathic villain. The Joker lived to create chaos, and seemed to be enslaved with a thirst for gratuitous evil. Ledger perfectly characterized ‘the heart of darkness’.

Not only was Ledger’s performance Oscar worthy, the Joker completely stole the show. So I began thinking, why is it that this evil villain seemed so believable? Why is it that Ledger’s performance resonated so deep, so memorable? If there was ever a time when an actor blurred the lines between art and reality, it is in this movie. Ledger managed to convince me (at least) that he really was ‘that evil’.

I think Christian Theology can speak to these questions. It is much easier for a fallen human being to depict evil than good. This is not a knock on Ledger’s performance, but an observation of reality. Besides the fact that Batman sounded like “the spawn of Clint Eastwood and a Grizzly Bear” (this is pretty funny), the character was unrealistic, ‘too good to be real’. The Batman represented an ideal, just like other ‘super-heros’ who reach beyond the regular abilities of humanity for some ‘greater good’. Being that good, or standing for good in the way batman does is much harder when your life is on the line. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, “no man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good”.

The scary thing is that the Joker never did anything ‘non-realistic’ (I am speaking in terms of ‘the possible’). The possibility of sin and destruction are part of this created order. These realities are the horrible effect of the fall.

See, the reality of evil was not an ‘original thing’, (evil is not a ‘thing’ itself, but the depravity of ‘things’) but the possibility of evil entered created order when the first man and woman deliberately turned there backs on God. This is where the Joker hits home; he represents the darkness of the human heart in its most depraved form. If anything, this character illustrates our need of the Gospel, and sheds a whole new light on common grace. I am absolutely thankful that God has placed moral order in this world to guide our sinful hearts. But more than that, I am thankful that God has provided a way for righteousness through Christ His Son. This is the meaning of the Gospel, that all of us deserve death (from those who are as evil as the Joker, to those who ‘mess up’ every now and then…essentially we are the same), but Christ has provided a way to eternal life and reconciliation to God in the Gospel.