Is the gospel beautiful? Can we seriously say the message about Jesus — a wandering preacher of Middle Eastern appearance, executed humiliatingly by the authorities, and reputedly returned from the dead after three days — is attractive, appealing, aesthetically pleasing, compelling even? I mean, it’s pretty outrageous, isn’t it, that we could even think that something so strange, brutal and seemingly impossible might be in the same category as a Rembrandt?
Well, maybe so. But in the world of art theory, there’s a very ancient debate about what beauty really is. About what the best art does to you. What kind of experience it gives you. And traditionally two very different kinds of experience have squared off against each other.
In the blue corner, there’s the (somewhat confusingly labelled) experience of the ‘beautiful’. Things in this category make you feel good — and probably even a bit gushy. Think babies, flowers, pastel-coloured impressionist landscapes — that sort of thing. Balance, proportion and order is the name of the game here.
Its overall effect on you is to make you feel secure. Empowered. To confirm your sense of self by that kind of ‘Ah’ moment in which you realise that everything is in its right place.
In the red corner, by way of contrast, are those things which provide an experience of the ‘sublime’. Think towering mountains that leave you giddy just looking at them. Or that sense (which can so easily tip over into savagery) of being totally overwhelmed and swept up in the moment in a large crowd. Or the awesome and terrifying vision that gripped Isaiah in Jerusalem’s temple (it’s recorded in Isa 6.1-7).
The sublime stirs and unsettles you. Whereas the beautiful leaves you feeling in control, this leaves you anything but. Your sense of self threatens to dissolve as a massive, yawning chaos opens up beneath you.
Of course the opposition isn’t always so clear cut. Sometimes (it seems) good art can evoke both experiences — if not at once then in rapid succession. According to its classical definition, for example, tragedy does this. Successful tragedies — Aristotle said — effect catharsis: we see and are caught up in terrible, painful events that stir up our passions within us. And yet watching a tragedy results in a purging of these emotions, leaving our sense of self and the coherence and legitimacy of society reinforced rather than undermined by the time the curtain falls…
All of which brings me back to where I began: What kind of experience does the gospel provide? An experience of the beautiful? An experience of the sublime? A bit of both? Or are these not quite the right categories? Discuss.