There is an old joke that has an evangelical say something like this to a liberal—“I’ll call you a Christian if you call me a scholar.” But whenever conservative believers enter into the world of such trade-offs, the end result is always something like Simple Simon going to the fair. They come home, if they come home at all, shivering in their skivvies. They don’t get the scholarship, and they lose the faith once delivered. When you sell your birthright for a mess of pottage, at some point in the affair you find yourself with no birthright anymore and no pottage anymore either.
Lewis stated the principle this way:
“It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
In a similar context, I recently argued this: “Wanting to Matter is the central lust of evangelicalism, and this is why evangelicals are having such trouble believing the Word (John 5:44).” Not only have evangelicals wanted to matter in the world of scholarship, they have also wanted to matter in the world of the arts. And then what happened?
This desire has opened up a broad way for those have wanted to address our need to “engage with culture.” I do not object to the denotations of these words—one of the tags on this blog is “Engaging the Culture.” That’s a good thing. (By the way, speaking of this, stay tuned for our roll out on next year’s Grace’s Agenda.) So engaging with culture is not only grand, it is also necessary. But many use the tagline “engage with culture” as cover for their developing plans to compromise with culture, surrender to culture, or otherwise lick the boots of culture.
As we have engaged with culture, this has entailed engaging with the arts. But what engaging with the arts has meant practically is that many of us have decided—instead of giving ourselves to the hard word of aesthetic discipline—to imitate the world by We are not engaging with culture, we are learning to preen and prance as though we had.copping a pose instead. We are not engaging with culture, we are learning to preen and prance as though we had.
If you want to learn what the “tell” is for this, look for this combination—claims for the aesthetic development coupled with a dramatic increase in ugliness, amateurism, or incompetence. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Christians urging us to leave behind our suburban white bread ho-hummery, to strive for excellence in the arts, with the disconcerting result that they are then wide open to all kinds of suggestions coming from the Faction for the Uglification of America. The list of their accomplishments is a very long one, but the prep work for it came in the early stages from people supporting our calls for truth, goodness, and beauty. But then what we got was blue hair, tattoos, and Queequeg piercings.
What we got was a creepy gay offertory at Tim Keller’s church, one that ended with an artistic tip of the hat to the forthcoming threesome. I suppose as a dance it was a success in that none of them fell over, but as an attempt at Christian art, it was ugly. Leave aside the moral question for a moment. I simply want to point out that it failed on the very grounds being used to justify it. You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you will go. If you are willing to shatter scriptural standards for the sake of the artistic triumph, that is the first problem. But the second was that your artistic triumph was actually lame. It was poor. It was bad. It made sensitive souls go ick ick ick.
Evangelicals in the arts—apart from a robust, resurgent, aggressive, and somewhat belligerent Puritanism—are always going to be squishy and soft. They are going to enter the salons diffidently, hats in hand, shuffling quietly. They are not going to notice the “kick me” sign that someone stuck on their back.
I mentioned something in passing the other day about Eugene Peterson’s shipwreck, his train derailment, his helicopter crash, his apostasy. But there is another element to this. The soft evangelical, the moderate, and the burgeoning liberal all have this in common. They fancy themselves attuned to the arts. They believe that—unlike the fundamentalist rubes—they actually care about how the glancing light through the stained glass falls upon the altar. But again, aside from the questions of truth and morality—“Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”—we need to remind ourselves that the aesthetic refinement of the compromisers is not all that.
Here is an observation I made a few years ago about Eugene Peterson’s aesthetic understanding in Wordsmithy.
But it was his 2002 colloquial rendition of the Bible, The Message, where Peterson really made it as a writer. But translating the Bible means translating the Psalms, and the Psalms are one of the poetic glories of all human history. Now Peterson’s conviction is that “give us this day our daily bread” and “pass the potatoes” come “out of the same language pool” (p. 2). He wants continuity of language whether we are studying the Bible or fishing for rainbow trout (p. 4).
The misfire result is that in the Message Psalms he has taken a collection of Hebrew glories and crammed them full of English cliches — “lie through their teeth,” “within an inch of my life,” “the end of my rope,” “only have eyes for you,” “down on their luck,” “every bone in my body,” “sit up and take notice,” “rule the roost,” “the bottom has fallen out,” “free as a bird,” “kicked around long enough,” “my life’s an open book,” “at the top of my lungs,” “nearly did me in,” “sell me a bill of goods,” “wide open spaces,” “stranger in these parts,” “hard on my heels,” “from dawn to dusk,” “skin and bones,” “turn a deaf ear,” “eat me alive,” “all hell breaks loose,” “raise the roof,” “wipe the slate clean,” “miles from nowhere,” and, as they say on the teevee, much, much more. If cliches were candied fruit, walnuts, and raisins, the Book of Psalms in The Message would be a three-pound fruitcake.
Aesthetic relativism can keep bad artists afloat for a little bit. But they all eventually sink, the evangelicals first.
 C. S. Lewis, A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works, ed. Patricia S. Klein, 1st ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2003), 358.