Truth, Beauty, and Rob Bell

My friend Trevin Wax says wise things in response to Francis Chan’s book on hell:

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T….

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

The substance of Trevin’s recommendation is, of course, exactly right.

But we ought to be careful about where we put the target and even how we praise Bell’s approach.  He’s obviously an effective and popular communicator, but then so (in his own way) is Thomas Kinkade.   They resonate with different demographics, of course, but both of them offer an aesthetic aimed at the lowest common denominator.  That has its own value, in the way that U2′s music has its own value.  But the intentionally populist approach inevitably must absorb the scintillation of the masses into its form, and the masses are sometimes more moved by what’s easy than what is beautiful.

As Trevin notes, conservative evangelicals are playing catchup when it comes to aesthetics (though see Matt Milliner’s work or David Taylor’s for signs of hope).   But there is no sense in buying a stock at its peak, a danger that those who see the strengths of Bell’s approach will be in danger of.  Bell will continue to make his mark and inspire both devotion and censure, no doubt.  But rather than look to Bell for guidance, some of us should hunt for the neglected and forgotten resources that can guide us to a form and style that manages to move without sacrificing substance.  Perhaps idiosyncratically, I think Augustine might be a good place to start.

Of course, walking down this path is a bit of a trick if you have to sell books.  We live in an aesthetic environment that has been so watered down by mass exposure to words and images that the genuinely beautiful creation risks being dismissed as “boring.”  It is easy to view the Mona Lisa and wonder what the big deal is.  But to gaze, wait, and listen for the strains of the world beyond takes the discipline of a saint, and in the last analysis it is saints that we desperately need.

All that to say, I’m not ready to call Bell’s work beautiful, despite his overwhelming popularity and ability to connect with my generation.  Because we live in a world where beauty is hardly valued and her imitators adored, we need a more subtle way of discerning what will be around in 500 years from what we will have forgotten in 50.  That’s neither here nor there when it comes to Bell’s work directly, but it does leave space for a conversation about the aesthetic merits and limitations of Bell’s approach in such a way that requires us to look beyond Bell toward the beautiful itself in order to discern whether his work will endure.  Because though it may not always be popular, the beautiful will almost always last.

 

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  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    Clearly, no one is trying to make drivel. Or at least most people are not trying to make drivel. Artists want to make works of art that will stand the test of time. Your words bring up two issues for me. 1) Great art is at least in part an issue of culture and timing. Great work at the right time will be considered great work for a long time. Great work at the wrong time may be considered good, but probably not great. We are really not in control of our timing. But just because something is popular does not mean it is not great. Popularity and greatness have an interesting relationship, but they are not mutually exclusive.

    2) Greatness usually is the result of being surrounded by greatness. I am afraid that the Christian taste-makers often are so afraid of secular work that they reject the ability of non-Christian (or even Christians of a different stream) to create greatness. I remember reading a book review from Tim Challies. I respect Challies, but I disagree with him a lot theologically. A significant reason for my disagreement is his conception of authority. He was reluctant to recommend a book on prayer, that otherwise he thought was very good, because it quoted several Catholic theologians and priests. His conception of authority is based in part around association, so finding good in someone that he cannot completely endorse in everything means he has a hard time endorsing in anything. If we are afraid of finding greatness outside of our own little stream of Christianity, we will likely be unable to ever really create greatness on our own. There is a reason that the NT writers spend so much time talking about the body and the other metaphors for the church. We really do need the rest of the church (even those we disagree with) to help us actually be the body that we are called to be.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Adam,

      Lots of good stuff here. I agree that great art is partly a matter of timing. But it’s also partly a matter of training, and certain time periods might be better trained to discern great art (and produce it).

      As to being surrounded by greatness, I think that’s right on the money. Chesterton was so good in part because he had to match wits with Shaw, and Lewis had Tolkien. The conversations we insert ourselves into will shape a lot of the quality of our output.

      Matt

  • http://pilgrimsgrace.blogspot.com/ G.S.James

    Thanks for a very interesting look at truth and beauty Mr. Anderson.

    One thing I question is why beauty has to be complex? Beauty is beautiful because we perceive it. We see art, and hear music, we sense beauty around us. Perhaps Rob Bell isn’t the same kind of beauty as Kierkegaard’s depictions “Works of Love,” or as meticulous as the work of Kant. His book isn’t a master piece of raw, factual, truth, but to be honest very few people are reading that in the coffee shops, and dentist offices.

    I’m not suggesting beauty is confined to what can be marketed, and there is something to be said for the fact that books like Rob Bell’s sell; really well. He’s a publishers dream, and I can see both good and bad that asking a lot of questions could to Christianity.

    The average person doesn’t read the great and classic theological literature, but the people who write books like “Love Wins” do, and while Bell’s book infamously asks more questions than answers I think the beauty of the book is that it asks the common reader to think about the truth they believe. It expresses complex trains of thought in a way that is immediately applicable and it portrays God in a way that draws people to discover more on their own. The beauty is not in its complexity but in the ability to be understood. In one way I think Beauty and Truth are inseparable in that I see beauty in a well conveyed truth. While Rob Bell’s book may not be the fountain of truth but I think in its own way, and in its right place, it can point people to the Source of Truth.

    If nothing more I think it’s interesting to watch different parts of the Church to react to this one pesky little book.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      GS, I completely agree that Bell’s book has functioned as something of a “clarifying moment” for North American Christianity.

      I think your point about simplicity and beauty are interesting, and I don’t want to say that beauty has to be complex. However, the simplicity of many things that appear beautiful often seem to have a deeper complexity on closer inspection (and maintain their beauty all the way through). So leaves are rather simple in their form, but that form is composed by a complex structure that is beautiful all the way down. In other words, a simple beauty should be able to hold up under scrutiny, and I’m not sure Bell’s can.

      That’s ad hoc and more hypothesis than anything. Thanks for spurring new thoughts! : )

      matt

  • Kyle Smith

    I think I will have to that although Rob Bells books may not last the turn of the century, or ever be considered classics. I think his impact will. He has touched the minds of an entire culture of Christianity and there is no way that will not have long term effects.

    My other thought about Rob Bell is perhaps he hasn’t merely sacrifice ‘beauty’ for mass-appeal. But rather found a way to communicate beauty in a way that the masses could understand.

    There are the genius that can’t be understood, but are smart.

    And then their are the genius who are smart enough to take what they know and communicate it on a level where the average man can understand it.

  • http://about.me/matthewjmiller Matt Miller

    This post has me pondering again something I think about a lot, here and there: the relationship between the beautiful and the popular. I don’t think many truly popular works achieve real beauty, though there are obvious counter-examples, from the Bible to hymnody and from Dickens to Tolkien.

    The challenge of creating a work both truly beautiful and truly accessible–simple on the surface but rich down deep, like your leaf example–may in fact be far greater than creating something which only those of sophisticated tastes find impressive. I’m not trying to denigrate “high art” works (I’m an English major, so, yeah), but there’s a more receptive natural audience for that sort of work than for popular work which strives to go beyond the superficially entertaining.

    What I can’t quite decide for myself, though, is whether our age of mass-produced, corporate popular art actually makes the coincidence of beauty and accessibility more hard to come by than in previous ages. Or maybe it’s that our larger audiences necessitate a simpler definition of “the popular” than in past ages.

    Thanks for spurring these meanderings.

  • Brett

    Thanks guys, I like this conversation.
    From my four years at Wheaton and from reading some of the Christian blogosphere, I think Ive found similar things about “beauty” and belief. The one suggestion I have is that more precision might help clarify talk about “beauty”-while it is a helpful word to use, it might not be the best word. Maybe words like “aesthetic” or “ethos” might be better. They don’t have quite the same intrinsic goodness that “beauty” has. Then we probably should parse out what different kinds of aesthetics we are talking about, because I think there are a lot of different aesthetic categories influencing how much we “like” a book.

    In the end I fear that the wrong kind of ethos/beauty is getting too much say for a lot of “young evangelicals.” Ive seen far too much consistent correlation between theological/ecclesiological belief and one’s subculture, musical taste, college major, and Macbook usage to not think there’s a problem.