Truth vs. Beauty at Church
In listening to the May 20, 2012 episode of the wonderful White Horse Inn, entitled “The Worship Experience,” the trajectory of the conversation and some of the comments got me thinking. I completely agree with the substance of the hosts’ ending position: that folks shouldn’t run from the truth of the Reformation doctrine on bigger issues to other traditions that do not hold those doctrines but have very different emphases on Sunday. The below considerations are to be seen only after one finds the true Gospel being preached: what then?
First, the Protestant side of this argument usually employs the general opposition between experience and doctrine, or aesthetics and theology, or feeling and truth. This episode had some qualifiers but basically used this as well. Don’t get me wrong, I am right on board with many of the WHI critiques of the triviality and shallowness of evangelicalism’s “worship service.” It seems clear that many evangelical church services are much more similar to a large corporate business conference or a pop concert of some sort than they are to anything recognized as “church” from the first 1,800 years of its existence.
All the disclaimers to the contrary, it seems that the opposition still stands. “We’ve got to stop being guided by our emotions…” Horton says. Well, yes, if they overrule the truth of the Gospel being preached we must stop. Yet, thoughtful believers are leaving Protestant churches partly because they are being forced to choose between the two. Rather, the conclusion ought to be: we need to start asking by what theological criteria can we figure out how this whole Protestant church thing looks and feels.
Second, using the above dichotomy to drive the individual decision of where to go to church. Not that folks shouldn’t be persuaded not to leave Reformation doctrine preaching evangelical churches for Rome or Constantinople—they should. But the persuading argument ought not use the opposition of “truth” to “beauty” (usually indicated by “smells and bells”) to do so. Why not?
Because in doing so one opposes one aspect of the image of God and indeed God himself—truth—against another attribute—beauty. Human beings are made to participate in truth, goodness, and beauty together, not choosing between them all (maybe where truth=Reformed, goodness=Main Line churches, beauty=Rome/Orthodoxy).
In a comment on the WHI episode page, Horton rightly states that “Style is never neutral.” We ought to—but it makes us, in all our American, pragmatic, and postmodern tendencies quite nervous—replace “style” with “beauty” or “aesthetics.” The appearance of your church’s building, the clothes worn by your pastors and congregation, the age/style/volume/instrumentation of your church’s music, the location of said musicians (if any), even the typeface chosen to print the bulletin/order are never neutral. The type of bread and wine (!) used, how each person receives it, the tone and content of any prayers thereabout all say something. We can’t help this; it’s how God’s created world simply is.
Even if one qualifies this discussion by saying, “We’re not talking about choosing between head and heart…it’s about God’s head and heart,” the anti-Rome/East argument still runs on the tracks of Truth, but Truth exclusively. What ought to happen is that the evangelical churches begin to take seriously God’s goodness and God’s beauty, and therefore the goodness and beauty of Christ’s bride because she is composed of image-bearers who have hearts and bodies, not just minds. Our feelings, our experiences of the world, our nearness to and participation in the beautiful, at bottom, simply matter.
As difficult as it might be to change this ship’s tack, it would greatly benefit our churches to begin to think through this, and to do so theologically, rather than continuing to oppose “our truth” with “their experience.”