In our first article in this series, we introduced the concept of developing a Gospel-shaped theology of creativity. Then, in our second article we took a look at how what the Bible reveals to us about God as Creator helps to inform our theological understanding of creativity. God is the original Creative, He is the primary viewer of creativity, and He invites us into a shared beholding of the beauty of His creativity. Now we will turn our attention to understanding beauty itself.
How does theology inform our understanding of aesthetics?
The Triune God and Understanding Beauty
Our God is Triune – eternally existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the beautiful mystery of the Trinity. To many it seems to be a far off point of theology with no relevance to our everyday life, far less to our creativity and understanding of beauty and aesthetics! However, as we have seen, God as the original Creative, defines creativity – and so does His triune nature.
In fact, several theologians have observed that what is often called ‘the beauty of God’ – His glory – it has a triadic/trifold pattern to it. This topic is far greater to explore in depth than the time we have here (perhaps in a future article we’ll dive deeper), but we’ll seek at least a basic understanding. Why? Because as we begin to understand a biblical theology of creativity and the arts – we must know what is beauty and aesthetics – for one of the primary goals of creativity and the arts is beauty.
Telling | Showing | Doing
We can see this in Genesis 1, however, one of the clearest texts for us to get an understanding of God’s glory is Exodus 33. In Exodus 33:18, Moses asked God, “Show me your glory.” God’s response to Moses is in three coordinated ways: by showing, telling and doing. Let’s look at the text:
“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you (showing) l, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence (telling). I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion (doing).” (Exodus 33:19)
Moses asks to see God’s glory, and God responds by showing, telling and doing. In Genesis 1, we see this same pattern in the creation narrative – God shows, tells and does. It is why creation itself shows God’s glory – Psalm 19:1 – “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord.”
God’s Triadic Glory and Creatives
OK, so let’s bring this home to us as creatives. How does seeing that God’s glory is displayed through His telling, showing and doing relate to us? Well, if as we saw previously that God is the ultimate referent for all beauty. He is the source and also the primary Beholder. Therefore, for our creativity to truly be beautiful, it must be modeled after God – the Originator of Beauty.
These 3 categories of telling, showing and doing can be correlated with these 3 aspects of beauty: truth, aesthetics, and power/practice. These are also sometimes also known as content, form and purpose.
All 3 of these must be present for something to be truly beautiful and good:
- Firstly, there must be some aspect of truth to it – that is, it must tell a true story, and be in agreement with God’s truth as the True reference point.
- Secondly, it must be aesthetically pleasing – that is, its forms must be (to borrow from Genesis 2) “pleasing to the eyes” – representative of pleasant sensory reception.
- Thirdly, it must serve some function – it must do something, achieve some goal, have power, or purpose that corresponds with God’s purposes.
These 3 things are meant to work together to arouse a response in our affections and emotions. When God saw that what He created was ‘very good’ – this is not some merely dispassionate statement of fact – but also a passionate exclamation of His pleasure and satisfaction in the work of His hands. We too are meant to have such emotional and pleasurable responses to true beauty.
Divine creativity does more than demonstrate God’s glory, it demands a response.
This Triadic Glory of God speaks to us as whole persons: our mind, affections and will. Thus, all beauty is derivative from God’s triadic glory and is meant to arouse a passionate response in its beholder. It fits together like this:
Telling | Showing | Doing
Truth | Aesthetics | Power
Content | Form | Purpose
This Triadic formulation can also be seen in and related to the traditional categories of Christian formation:
Doctrine | Piety | Ethics
Doctrine = telling truth content, Piety = shows the aesthetic form of our spiritual lives, Ethics = involves right doing with power and purpose.
Objective Criteria for Beauty
This then gives us a good basis for evaluating beauty or creativity. We can ask questions such as these based on the 3 categories:
- Is it true?
- Is it aesthetically pleasing?
- Does it accomplish some good purpose?
- Is the content honest?
- Is the form appropriate to the message?
- Is it powerful or compelling?
These categories now give us a good diagnostic for distinguishing between good and bad art or creativity. This is incredibly helpful in a world of subjective opinions and calling every and anything ‘art’. One only needs to think of the example of a banana taped to a wall selling for thousands as ‘art’ to see how the lack of objective criteria for what constitutes good art is an important topic.
Conversations around art and beauty often can end up as just expressions of personal taste or opinion (which are irrefutable since everyone is entitled to their own preferences). However, this doesn’t really move any conversation on the topic forward since there can be no agreed upon standard in discussions of subjective preferences. Thus, having a Biblical formulation or standard by which to make artistic judgments or assessment of beauty in the arts helps us to have productive conversations around creativity that aren’t just a bunch of people expressing their personal preferences and opinions. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with people having different tastes and preferences, but in our day where relativity rules – having an objective standard as a reference point can be so helpful.
In order to understand our world and the beauty in it, we must understand our God. Even the Greek word cosmos (often translated as “world” in the New Testament) means “orderly beauty” and is the root word from which we derive “cosmetics.” The beauty which God has made in His creation is an orderly one. So, we must firstly remember that God is the primary Beholder of beauty and we are invited into His seeing. Therefore, we must use His standards for beauty of content, form and purpose – truth, aesthetics and power – telling, showing and doing which express this “orderly beauty” in His world.
This concludes our first category of building a Gospel-shaped theology of creativity as we took a look at how our theology of God affects our understanding of creativity. In the next few articles in this series, we will take a look at the effect of the Fall on humanity and our creativity. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey!
The next article in this Gospel-Shaped Theology of Creativity series will be published next week Thursday.
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Articles in this series: