Much has been written and spoken in response to the killing of nine people during Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston SC - some of it does not bear the dignity of a response, much of it verges on appropriating the very real suffering of others as our personal cause. There is a temptation to repeat the phrase that the Christian should have "The Bible in one hand and the Newspaper in the other."
But a very astute Barth actually said…
"The Pastor and the faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper."
"Take your Bible and take you newspaper and read both. But interpret the newspaper from your Bible."
I fear the church has become reactionary joining the chorus of unison voices as we all seek a cathartic experience, and I do not mean to devalue those expressions as we seek to make peace in our own ways. But the church is called to be prophetic - speaking truth to blindness. We live in a time where one finds it necessary to speak out in condemnation because there is the very real risk that someone will in interpret our lack of condemnation, our silence, not as respect but as condoning the prejudice and hatred in others.
We as human beings have a penchant for identifying the things we hate, as the cause of hate and thus perpetuate a vicious cycle and whirlwind of propaganda, and creating such a noise that nothing meaningful can be heard or understood; for (let me be clear) Hate is not made possible in our culture by bad parenting, ignorance, differences, or the prevalence of guns.
Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of our post-modern era wrote that "Aesthetics is the consideration of humanity's state of feeling in relation to the beautiful." Heidegger went on to argue that only and "anti-aesthetic" or "post-aesthetic" view of art and beauty can help us understand its true significance, our basic sense of what is and what matters.
Heidegger essentially declared war on beauty, in the interest of a mechanistic post-modernity. And the past several generations of Americans have with religious fervor chased the illusive promises of the "American Dream," all the while devaluing the only things of infinite value. We as a people far from being united by what and who we are, have learned to be united only against a common enemies. (i.e. Soviets and Terrorists) We deny the intrinsic value of human life, quantifying humanity as wealth producers and consumers thus making beauty in the form of the image of God, only the means to an end: wealth and consumption.
But Stephen looking up to heaven displays the transcendent in and exclaims his praise in the face of beauty while being stoned.
Acts 6:15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Acts 7:55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Hate is made possible in our culture by the cultural war on beauty itself as an end in itself, as intrinsically valuable, as universal experience of transcendence - beauty instead is superfluous, unnecessary, without utility to our industrially refined capitalistic sensibilities.
Only in a culture like this: where beauty or its imposters are harnessed to sell products do we find a utility which is marketable, is it possible to devalue that which we personally find no utility for... Only in a culture like that is it possible to walk into the sanctuary of a church and shoot Nine people.
We think we know beauty, but much of what we experience is merely reminiscence of something past, a comfortable feeling, salacious, even pornographic - or it is our attempt to appear erudite in the face of esoterism. But beauty, true beauty, when experienced is transcendent. Beauty inspires, and this is what makes art special: The Sistine chapel is not beautiful because of the frescos, and the millions of people who experience the work of Michelangelo, rather the Sistine chapel is beautiful because it gave Michelangelo the means to attempt to express through fresco, his own personal experience of transcendence.
This is historically the unique relationship between the church and the arts, and this is why the church must stand for beauty, teach not art appreciation (mechanist appreciation) but beauty appreciation, the praise of a beautiful God for the Beauty of the earth. We as a body are called out to display Gods glory, or as Romans 8 says:
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
So we must also try its expression, though we fail, though we feel hideous, though we engender ridicule, and especially because we invite hate.
"so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three. And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that "Beauty will save the world" but a prophecy. After all, he was given the gift of seeing much, he was extraordinarily illumined. And consequently perhaps art, literature, can in actual fact help the world of today."
The church is called to be beautiful: Be ye perfect, in Matthew 5:48; or a pure bride, Ephesians 5:27; to walk in light... But all we can truly do is try - to appreciate all beauty, to let it affect us in our core, express that we have been changed - To bear witness that we have experienced beauty.
One blogger has written "why do the hateful come to houses of worship"
"I thought about a church gathered for prayer and Bible study last night, and how they had opened their circle to let a stranger join them. And I thought about a mosque in Arizona, and how the faithful walked past angry, mocking crowds with guns in order to worship. And I thought about the temple in Maryland, and the anti-Semitic graffiti they found one morning this spring.
“There’s a reason the hateful choose houses of worship. It’s because that’s where so many of us put our hope."
No. The hateful choose places of worship, because the house of God’s family represents a safe place to try, it represents sanctuary. The hateful choose places of worship because that sanctuary represents the experience of the transcendent and the encouragement to seek out transcendence. The hateful choose places of worship because the experience of the transcendent requires the acknowledgment of beauty - and hate is the denial of beauty; it is the war on beauty. God allowed the fullness of his revelation; of his beauty to be nailed to an ugly cross, in order that a beautiful people might rise up and help redeem this world for the Beauty, the Glory, and the Majesty of God.
Let me end with this exhortation from Kurt Vonnegut:
"Go into the arts. I'm not kidding.
The arts are not a way to make a living. There are very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something."
We must as a people bear witness to beauty.