Sunday, November 25, 2007

Wesleyan Aesthetics

Philip Yancey:

I finished Wesley's Journal impressed with his physical endurance, his austere lifestyle, and his absolute devotion to the clusters of believers springing up all over Britain. But I could not help noting Wesley's lack of appreciation for the beauties and cultural riches that abound in that island nation.

Gazing at a lovely flower garden, he quickly demurred, "What can delight always but the knowledge and love of God?" He toured one of England's historic great houses and noted, "How little a time will it be before the house itself, yea, the earth shall be burned up!" And after marveling at the talents of a blind organist he added, "But what is he the better for all this, if he is still 'without God in the world'?"

Even the British Museum failed to make an impression. After remarking on its collections, Wesley wrote, "But what account will a man give to the judge of the quick and dead for a life spent in collecting all these?"

In short, Wesley viewed the common graces of beauty and culture with an attitude approaching disdain. More than once I wrote in the margin, "Lighten up, John!" (But by the standards of ascetics who lived atop poles and ate only bread and water, John Wesley himself was an aesthete.)

I've got to admit, Wesley had a point. So does Yancey. I'm not sure where is the balancing point between these two conflicting values. Further thoughts here.

Hat tip to Jay Voorhees at the Methoblog.


Oloryn said...

Just to throw another log on the fire, there's C. S. Lewis's comments in his essay "First and Second Things":

Until quite modern times – I think, until the time of the Romantics – nobody ever suggested that literature and the arts were an end in themselves. They "belonged to the ornamental part of life," the provided "innocent diversion"; or else the "refined our manners" or "incited us to virtue" or glorified the gods. The great music had been written for Masses, the great pictures painted to fill up a space on the wall of a noble patron's dining room or to kindle devotion in a church; the great tragedies were produced either by a religious poets in honour of Dionysus or by commercial poets to entertain Londoners on half-holidays.

It was only in the nineteenth century that we became aware of the full dignity of art. We began to "take it seriously" as the Nazis take mythology seriously. But the result seems to have been a dislocation of the aesthetic life in which little is left for us but high-minded works which fewer and fewer people want to read or hear or see, and "popular" works of which both those who make them and those who enjoy them are half ashamed.

Wesley's point, it seems to me, wasn't to denigrate "the arts", but to keep them in perspective. Wesley's 'lack of appreciation' may be less an indication of a lack on his part, than a reflection of the extent to which in our time we give "the arts" too high (or too independent) a place. Art is a good, but it's a secondary good - and, if Lewis is right in the essay quoted above, prioritizing a secondary good over a primary good results in the loss of that secondary good.

Jehovah Judah said...

Perhaps we should not approach the subject of balancing the sides when it comes to the person, but balancing the sides when it comes to the church. Wesley saw the world with disdain. William Wilberforce saw it with absolute curiosity. God gives each person strengths and weaknesses. We should use our strengths to support the church, and use the church to support our weaknesses. Wesley brings perspective. Wilberforce brings joy. Both are needed.

John said...

Oloryn, your analysis is excellent. I have just completed a book which argues for Christian expansion and interest in the arts. The author presented arguments why the arts were not contrary to Christian teaching, but was not able to effectively argue that the arts should be a great priority of Christians.

As Jehovah Judah says, balance is the key. Or was that Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid? Either way, too great an emphasis on the arts and too little can be in error.

Oloryn said...


Good point, and I agree that the balance at times isn't something that can easily be satisfied in the individual. As Chesterton puts it in Chapter 6 of "Orthodoxy", balance is sometimes "The collision of two passions apparently opposite" and thus sometimes difficult to combine in one person's life. The solution at times is to let different parts of the church go at their respective passions full force without denigrating or hindering the other, while at the same time paying enough attention to the "other side" to avoid making our own passion an idol.

Oloryn said...

Oloryn, your analysis is excellent.

John, I think you've just made my week :)