Don’t disdain the pragmatic and aesthetic sides of the gospel

This is going to be a short one. I just want to make an appeal for what I would call the pragmatic and aesthetic sides of the gospel. In classical Western discourse, there are three ultimate forms of value that we can assign to an idea: truth, goodness, and beauty. In our modern era of science and logic, truth has been privileged to the exclusion of goodness and beauty. This particularly takes place when we’re talking about the Christian gospel.

The default overriding concern we tend to have with the gospel is its accuracy. Is it faithful to the truth revealed in scripture? I’m willing to say that this is the most important thing about our presentation of the gospel. It’s not enough to tell any old story that sounds beautiful and causes people to do good. Of course, I also want to assert that the most beautiful story that motivates the most good is also the most faithful to God’s truth.

But I do think that we have choices in how we tell the story even within the boundaries of our faithfulness to the truth. As I wrote in my last blog, we can be wooed by a certain kind of misguided “Kantian” piety in which our mistrust for the subjective intuitiveness of beauty causes us to think that ugliness is somehow more true. Similarly, a contempt for the banality of having comfortable, systematic explanations for everything (what the philosophers call “metaphysical totality”) can lead us to the “Nietzschean” piety of embracing a conception of God that is demonic simply because it makes God sufficiently scary.

So to push back against the “Kantian” and “Nietzschean” false pieties, I would say that there are two measures of the truth of a gospel other than its accuracy. I consider the pragmatic measure, how good it is, to concern the degree to which believing it instills the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” A gospel which does not produce disciples who are filled with these fruit may be ruthlessly accurate in its use of scripture, but it is not a good gospel. Jesus said to judge a tree by its fruit. Notice that I’m defining fruit in terms of disposition rather than action. You can give an inspiring speech that motivates people to great achievements, but if the speech doesn’t cultivate spiritual fruit, you’re not preaching a good gospel. I realize that this probably sounds too individualistic for some people, but I live in the naivete that when people truly are filled with the fruits of the spirit that arise from a genuine dependence on God’s mercy, they will do justice more perfectly than with any other motivation.

The aesthetic measure of the gospel, how beautiful it is, concerns the degree to which believing it results in authentic worship. Now as I’ve written before, there’s a whole lot of performance out there that masquerades as worship. When I say worship, I’m not even talking about zeal. You can be extremely zealous for entirely demonic reasons. Hitler made his people a lot more zealous than most Christians will ever be. Worship as I am coming to understand it signifies entering into the organic delight and self-forgetfulness of a child. A beautiful gospel should leave you speechless and dissatisfied with your words when they do come.

So I guess what I want to advocate is a respect for the pragmatic and aesthetic in how we describe the meatier, more contentious dimensions of the gospel. There are some metaphorical translations which are acceptable for the sake of beauty and goodness and others which are not. As I shared with my friend Derek, I think there are a lot of problems that have to be overcome in talking about God as a judge due to the fact that judges don’t have absolute authority in modernity the way they would have in ancient Israel. Judges today have mandatory minimal sentences and a whole order of penal code to which they are subservient. If we merely describe God as a judge, we’re not describing a sovereign king but a bureaucrat who is beholden to a set of rules which are more fundamental and sovereign than he is. So I think it’s acceptable to make a translation in how we describe God’s judgment of sin for aesthetic reasons. Generally speaking, what I say about God’s judgment is that we will face the truth when we face God and our experience of that confrontation will depend on whether we have put our trust in Christ’s justifying sacrifice or in our own rationalizations of our deeds.

Now some aesthetic revisions are unacceptable to me. I am very opposed to any telling of the gospel which seeks to do away with the bloodiness of Jesus’ sacrifice on the account of its barbarism. I actually oppose this on aesthetic grounds as much as the grounds of truthfulness. Jesus’ blood is critical to the aesthetics of the cross, which is the most fundamental archetype of Christian beauty. What’s ugly is actually the false sterility of our reassuringly synthetic, blood-less lives and the violence that it imposes on the truth in which billions of less privileged people outside of our gated communities live. I also think we need to experience the brokenness of our default state of self-idolatry before the spiritual fruits of the gospel can blossom in us. Isaiah 6:11-13 has a perfect metaphor of a tree that must be cut down to a stump in order for God’s “holy seed” to send up sanctified branches once the dead wood has been cleared away. A gospel that says there’s nothing wrong with you and Jesus just came to make sure you realized that is going to fail at being a good gospel for this reason.

3 thoughts on “Don’t disdain the pragmatic and aesthetic sides of the gospel

  1. Pingback: Don't disdain the pragmatic and aesthetic sides of the gospel … | Christian Media Monitor

  2. Truth, goodness, and beauty sound like the abstract, ideal categories that the Greek philosophers emphasized along with their own definitions. Truth for instance is thought of as accurate alignment of abstract thought with reality. The Hebrews had a more practical, tangible view of everything. They defined truth as faithfulness to God and to what he had both done and said throughout the centuries.

    • That’s a fine observation but it doesn’t dismiss the importance of beauty and goodness to our presentation of the gospel. It’s true that truth and faithfulness are equated in Hebrew in amanah. That also means that “accuracy” is an inadequate oversimplification of what truthfulness would have meant to a Hebrew. Faithfulness implies an unwillingness to let God be made to look ugly.

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