Whether a Protestant aesthetics is possible remains, unfortunately, a question which Protestants must answer.

In “Dante, Bunyan, and a Case for Protestant Aesthetics,” William Dyrness  argues that not only do Protestants have an aesthetics, but have one that is shaped by the distinct contributions and emphases of the Reformation.

It’s a rich essay, and I don’t want to address the substance of his argument here.  But in light of recent postings about vision, this excerpt caught my eye:

Whereas the dominant trope for Dante is seeing light, for Bunyan it is reading a text. The light is meant to elicit love; the text calls for interpretation. Of course this distinction should not be overstated. After all, Dante’s descriptions appear in a text and Bunyan’s text appears in the form of a vision or a dream, and both call for interpretation. But there is an important difference between them. For Dante objects and persons become an interpretation and elaboration of Christian truth; for Bunyan scriptural texts illumine the persons and objects of his journey. Matilda embodies and explains in her appearance the felicity of life in the world for Dante; the furnishings in Interpreter’s House are for Bunyan object lessons of a world ordered according to the Word of God. As Barbara Johnson says: ‘For the Protestant reader, texts are instruments rather than objects, and they are viewed in salvational rather than recreational terms.’  This difference leads to engagement with the world in vastly different ways. For Bunyan, as Thomas Luxon points out, ‘looking at things is presented under the metaphor of reading and interpreting them’.  Reading and rightly interpreting these living words stand in contrast to Dante’s practice of seeing things as images of divine love, seeing images as words. The one sheds meaning, Bunyan believed, while the other obstructs it. But the trope of reading does nothing to diminish the emotional impact of what is read and understood. If anything this impact is increased. ‘Words, we see, are to be preferred to images,’ Luxon argues, ‘but faith in the word plants a new image on the heart, a lively image that speaks far more clearly than mere words notionally understood.’

I’m sympathetic to the point that the words don’t diminish the power of images, but enhance them.  For as affective as movies are, we forget sometime how limited they can be.  We might empathize with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett, but only Jane Austen’s original script gives us all the nuances and introspective insights that the movie format prohibits.

But I don’t want to press the point too much, and it’s worth pointing out that this emphasis works against the possibility of a Protestant aesthetics.  It’s hard to justify making images if we give them a secondary place to words.

But what’s clearly at stake when we think about the arts is eschatology.  According to Dyrness, for Dante the world is felicitous.  For Bunyan, the world’s an object lesson of what’s to come.

In other words, “already,” meet “not yet.”  The tensions that undergird Christian theology collide in our appreciation and cultivation of the artistic life.  We might say, then, that Thomas Kinkade’s art isn’t simply bad–it’s theologically wrong.  Regardless of where we fall on the Dante/Bunyan spectrum, his sentimentalization of creation owes more to Romanticism than either Protestant or Catholic theology.  A healthy dose of Dante or Bunyan would help him out considerably.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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