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EPISODE 10: How Art and Beauty Shape our Discipleship

As we pursue “discipleship of the heart and mind” we know that art and beauty can enhance the “heart” part. Art lover Brett McCracken explores this and challenges us to pursue wisdom through the arts.

Show Notes:

The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World by Brett McCracken (2021) | Amazon

brettmccraken.com

thegospelcoalition.org

TRANSCRIPT


Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and my conversation partner today is Brett McCracken. Brett is a senior editor for 1the Gospel Coalition. He is a recent author of the book The Wisdom Pyramid. He writes a great deal about art and creativity and beauty, and especially about film. Brett, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thanks so much for having me, Randy. I'm looking forward to this.

Wisdom Pyramid?

You know, I really enjoy your columns on The Gospel Coalition. You challenge me to think more expansively about how to grow as a Christian, particularly through beauty and art and film. You've written this book, The Wisdom Pyramid. Can you give us just a little bit of what do you mean by that, wisdom pyramid?

Yeah. Well, I mean, the short kind of summary is, if you can picture the food pyramid graphic, which was kind of when we were growing up in grade school, it was used to help us learn what a balanced diet looked like for our physical well being, for our physical health, kind of what food groups were conducive to that. So I'm basically taking that concept and applying it to wisdom. What are the knowledge groups, if you will, that are conducive to a life of wisdom? And how do we orient our diet, so to speak, around sources that are nourishing and nutritious? And making sure that we're not bingeing on junk food or building our diet around unhealthy sources. Which, sadly, I think a lot of us are doing in the digital age. Which is the problem that I felt like I wanted to address in this book.

Yeah. Your book looks at the problem. “The Sources of Our Sickness” is the section of your first book, and it's about taking in too much digital media, spending too much time on our phones, and I just thought your insight about that was really very helpful. I wasn't thinking, though, that we'd spend a whole lot of time on that side of the coin, so to speak.

Good, good, good. Too depressing, anyway.

Well, I will say you did a really great interview with Collin Hansen on The Gospel Coalition that seemed to look at that. So, for our listeners, I recommend that you go there. But in the second part of your book, which is actually the larger part, you say, “Well, so now where's the sources of our wisdom? And obviously the things are the Bible, the church, other people, fellowship with other Christians.

But there were three chapters that I want to zoom in on, of nature, books, and beauty, and in particular, I want to spend most of our attention on this beauty. How does art and beauty contribute toward us growing more and more Christ like?

Yeah. Well, I mean, we could literally talk for hours about that, I'm sure, Randy. I’ve given so much thought to that question in my own life, as someone who just intuitively sensed that that was true. Just growing up in the church, growing up a Christian, but also growing up loving the arts. And ever since I can remember, I loved movies, I loved literature and fiction and even going to art museums, and music, of course. And I always felt like, “Man, there's something spiritually enriching about this.” As much as those categories of the arts and faith can be put in opposition to each other, in ways that make it sort of oppositional. For me, in my life growing up, it never felt that way. It always felt like there was actually more harmony there and more kind of just intuitive connection with beauty and faith.

So when I came to write this book and I was thinking about the categories of knowledge that I wanted to talk about as sources of wisdom, I knew that beauty was going to have to be one of the big categories. And one of the chapters that I looked forward to writing the most was writing the chapter on beauty. So there are a lot of directions I could go right now in describing what's in that chapter on beauty in the book.

But for me, one of the big things that it boils down to is this idea that wisdom is not merely a cerebral thing. It's not just facts to pack into your brain and knowledge to just kind of file away like data. Wisdom involves that, but it also involves kind of that affective level, that emotional kind of sensory, tactile level, right? God created us to be more than just brains on sticks. He created us as full-bodied creatures who have eyes to see and ears to hear and fingers to touch and senses, to experience creation, to experience the world that He created. And He did that for a reason.

And another big idea here is that we are creators too, right, by virtue of being created in God's image. And one thing we know about God is that He’s a creator. He’s an artisan, right? The world is His masterpiece. It's inherent to God's character and His being, this idea of creation and creativity. So bearing his image as humans, that's a huge part of it. So if we want to understand humans, we want to understand the world, we have to understand creativity. We have to practice creativity. We have to kind of process the world creatively and appreciate it and taste and see that God is good, as Psalm 34:8 says. So I’ll stop there and let you kind of talk or followup. But there's so much we could say about this.

How Does Art Affect Us?

Sure. Well, you probably don't know this. I think some of our listeners know. I was a music major in my undergraduate days a million years ago, but I didn't become a Christian until halfway through my college experience. So for the first half of my college experience, as I look back at it now, I worshiped music. I was looking for music to do more than it could do, and it was a colossal disappointment. I should say a series of many, many disappointments. And the pivot came for me with C.S. Lewis's insight that there are always these disappointments, and then his classic statement, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” But at first I had to kind of disconnect from music a little bit, because I really was worshiping and idolizing it. But then, after a while, I was able to come back to music and so appreciate it as a second thing. If you keep it a second thing, it's tremendously beneficial and enjoyable and growth inducing, as long as you don't make it an ultimate thing. And if you do worship it, it's dissatisfying, and it becomes ugly in a sense. But maybe zoom in a little bit. What is it that art does to us? So now I'm looking at it from the other way of we are living out God's image bearing as we create. But how about from the other side, from the receiving side, how does it affect us?

Yeah. And that's the side that I kind of… that's my entry point with the arts, really, is as an enjoyer, appreciator, consumer, curator, so I have a lot to say about this. What you were just talking about, with worshiping music and worshiping the arts, I think that's an easy thing to do because the arts, they're kind of charged with transcendence, right? There is an aspect to it that feels otherworldly. And I think that's part of the clue to why it's important for us in Christian wisdom, because ultimately beauty… I see it as a signpost to the source, right? To use C.S. Lewis's language, he talks about… In various places, he talks about… The beauty that we experience in this life is just kind of downstream from the source of beauty, capital B Beauty, that it's the fountainhead, it's somewhere beyond, and we sense that it exists, because all of this beauty that filters down to us in little ways, if that feels so transcendent or pricks us in this way that tunes our hearts to something beyond ourselves, beyond this world, then we just feel like there's got to be something that this is coming from.

One of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis's work is in Till We Have Faces, and I think it’s Psyche… it’s something about, like, “The sweetest thing in all of my life has been the longing for the place where the beauty comes from.” And I think that kind of captures so much of Lewis’s thought, which has been really influential for me, in thinking through beauty from a theological point of view. Every human, I think, at some point or another, has an experience of beauty, whether it's beauty in nature, whether it's seeing a sunset and that just mystical sense that there's something going on in watching the sunset that transcends every culture. Every human, no matter where you are in the world, finds something meaningful about that. Or whether it's music. Whatever cultural expression of music you're talking about. Or a movie. Whatever. At some point in your life, you probably can name this experience of beauty, where you're left longing for the deeper beauty, the source of beauty that causes these encounters with it in this life. And so I think that's why surrounding ourselves with beauty is surrounding ourselves with this knowledge that there's something transcendent beyond. It's a beneficent, it's a kind, it's a good something that would let us have these brushes with transcendence through music and poetry and visual art and all these things.

I was talking to a journalist a couple of years ago who was a non-Christian, very secular, kind of hipster journalist, and we were talking about music, and she told the story of going to a rock concert. It was this band Animal Collective, and she was saying, like, “Yeah, I had this weird experience. I don't believe in God. I don't believe in religion or any of that, but when I'm at this concert, I just had this spiritual feeling. It was like transcendence. It was like a knowledge of something beyond.” And I told her, “Yeah, exactly. This is what I, as a Christian, who loves the arts and loves beauty and loves Animal Collective concerts just like you, this is what I name. I name this God. A good, abundant, gratuitous, loving God has bestowed his creatures with common grace to such an extent that they can create beauty themselves that manifests His own kind of character and His own beauty.” And this gets to your book, Randy, right? That you're talking about evangelism and beauty. I think there's so many opportunities with beauty to bridge conversations with non-Christians, with secular friends, because everyone loves the arts. Everyone loves beauty in different ways, different genres, but it's just inherently there's something spiritually interesting going on there.

Well, now I need to pay you for inserting that commercial for my book into this podcast, but the timing may be tricky, because the book is not going to be out until September, and I'm pretty sure we'll air this podcast beforehand.

Preorder it.

So stay tuned, everybody. There's this book coming out called Mere Evangelism, where I look at C.S. Lewis and say, “Here’s ten insights about evangelism that we learned from him.” Lewis is so great about giving us these pointers, but then he's very clear to say, “but that's not enough.” They point us in the right direction, and they show us something about the goodness of God, the beauty of God, but we need to take several more steps precisely to, “Who was Jesus? What did He do on the cross? What difference does that make?”

Right. Right.

Being an Artist

Well, let me turn it into just slightly a negative direction. We won't stay there too long. But artists, I think, have had this kind of a difficult relationship with the church. I think many of them are drawn to it, and yet at the same time, there's kind of like an uncomfortable thing there. And I've heard you speak about this. What is it about being an artist that is both drawn to, but maybe repelled by, the church?

That's good. Well, I have spoken about this quite a bit, so there's a lot I could say. Artists, I think, tend to be freedom oriented, right? They want to be able to do anything, express anything, say anything. That's kind of part of being an artist, I think. And yet church and faith generally, religion, has inherent limitations to it, right? There are boundaries, both in terms of belief, what's orthodox, what's unorthodox, and even in things like community. To really invest in a church is to limit yourself, to kind of say, “This is my people. I'm going to put down roots here. I'm not going to be this aimless Jack-Kerouac-style wanderer, which artists, I think, tend to like to do. So I think that's why there's sometimes tension, this freedom versus limitations challenge. And yet there's also lots of mutually beneficial things with artists and churches.

Of course, for most of Western civilization’s history, that relationship was explicit in terms of the church as a patron of the arts, churches commissioning artists, some of the greatest works of architecture, the Sistine Chapel, all these things were born out of a healthy relationship between the church and artists.

And I think artists, even if they don't believe in the Bible as truth, find a lot of inspiration there. There's plenty of secular artists out there who can't escape the Bible and Christian imagery in the stories they tell and the art that they produce. So it's a vast, deep repository of inspiration for artists, the Christian story, which is such an epic story.

And then, I think, from the church's point of view, there's so much to be gained from artists and from people who care about beauty. On the practical level, it's nice to have people in your church who care about beauty and how things look and quality and excellence in the worship music and the look and feel of the worship space and all of those things. And it's a shame when I see churches that don't avail themselves of the artisans and the talented artists in their church for those purposes.

But on another level, artists are just good question askers. They're the people in the world who I think are attuned to existence and the wrestles of existence in really profound ways. Sometimes too much, I would say. Sometimes artists, I think, go too far in almost turning the wrestles and the struggles of human existence into an end unto themselves, which is unhelpful. But to the extent that they're good listeners, they're good observers of the human condition, that's a gold mine for the church, I mean for pastors. If I'm a pastor trying to, like, walk someone in my congregation through some area of brokenness or pain in their life, I want to have learned from artists and from storytellers and people in the humanities. I want to have learned things about humanity that I can take to the ministry. So, even for myself, I'm a part-time pastor. I'm a lay elder at my church. So I do a good bit of discipling people and having conversations with people. And I've found it to be such a great asset for me that I'm so immersed in the arts, because every amazing film that I watch teaches me something new about the human condition. It gives me more vocabulary for what it means to be a human in an authentic way. And even if the answers that these films end up giving aren't really great Christian answers, the way that they raise the problems and authentically, honestly depict the challenges is super helpful. And I think Christians can learn a lot from that.

I think the distinction you just made there, that artists tend to want to go in the direction of freedom, and the church, by definition, does indeed draw lines. “This is what we believe. This is truth; this is error.” So there's an inherent danger or tension there. But I love the way you say that we need each other. So the theologian who wants to parse and say, “This is right, this is wrong,” needs the artist to kind of see dimensions within that.

I went years ago to a Christian writers conference, and the guy who was one of the speakers of a workshop was talking about: What is it that an artist does? Or as a writer. What do artists do? And I love this. He said, “Artists tend to linger longer.” And even that sentence is an artistic, poetic sentence, but the artist looks for just a little bit longer and goes, “You know, that blue is slightly different than that blue,” or “Isn't that an interesting choice of font?” or, “Did you hear the triangle in that beginning of the third movement of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony?”

So I gravitate toward this. And by the way, I have to throw in: So look at the Bible that God has inspired. It’s certainly got plenty of doctrine and the epistles, but it also has the Psalms, and it has poetry, and the Song of Solomon, and we need all of that. We need story, in the narrative. We need the poetry. We need the fantastic images of some of the prophets. Well, go ahead.

One of the things, before I forget, that I wanted to say, to what you were just talking about, the linger longer idea, is that I think so much about beauty is inefficient, and that's a good thing. The arts are not about getting from point A to point B in the most direct, efficient way. And as much as that can be frustrating to people who are kind of conditioned to be efficient and to optimize every moment of their day and to get things done, which I think Protestants, the whole Protestant work ethic, we tend to be really bad at this, which is maybe why Catholics have been better at art. Because Protestants have been so oriented around efficiency that we don't make space for beauty. Which beauty is inherently, I think, inherently gratuitous. It doesn't have to exist. There's nothing essential, arguably, that it does, by some definitions of essential. So, yeah, I think that's something I talk about in the chapter on beauty in The Wisdom Pyramid, is the value of beauty slowing us down and helping us to linger. And by doing that focusing our attention, especially in a distracted age that we live in, where our attention is taken from one thing to the next with rapid pace, and we never linger long enough on anything to really digest it. The arts, that's what they do. They focus us. They take a frame, literally around one little segment of reality, and they focus our attention on it. That's what a painting is. That's what a poem is. That's what a photograph is. And we need that. We need things that help us slow down and really confront reality in a world where we just rush from thing to thing so quickly.

Now, I realize that every question I ask you could be an hour's worth of answers. So I know that this is ridiculous, that I want to ask a question about film, and I know you could talk for hours about film, but we don't have hours. But I know it's one of your great loves and one of your expertise. You write so many film reviews, but they're not just reviews. They’re almost like, “Here’s how to watch this film.” Tell me just a little bit, or tell our listeners about, so what is it about film? How can that contribute toward our spiritual growth and maturity?

Wow. Yeah.

I'm sorry it's so broad of a question, but-

It’s literally a book that I'll probably write one day.

Please do. I think it'll be great if you do.

Yeah. Well, I guess one thing that comes to mind for me is there's a quote from Andrei Tarkovsky, who is a great Russian filmmaker, a Christian, and he described film as an art form as sculpting in time. And I love that image. If you can picture a physical sculptor, working with a mound of clay to kind of form something beautiful, a cinematic artist works with a clump of time. Like, time is the media. It’s the substance that the artist is working with. And so movies—the reason why I love movies, I think, boils down to this: Movies confront us with time in a way that really awakens us to the way that we're wired for eternity. And this is why Lewis has been so important for me, because he talks in these terms as well, how we're constantly feeling this tug towards eternity, feeling like we're not fully at home in this world, and part of that feeling of alienation in this world has to do with the temporal and the fact that things…. Just when you're enjoying something and just when you're experiencing something beautiful, it's gone, right? The sublime moment of the sun going down beneath the horizon is an instant, and then it's gone. Some of the most amazing experiences with beauty that we have, you can never replicate it. You can never do it again.

I get emotional talking about like, some of my favorite concerts that I've gone to, and just the memory of that experience, of the concert experience. It's almost too beautiful to talk about. But it has to do with this idea that time marches on. It's unidirectional. You can only go forward, but cinema allows us to traverse through time, right? A movie, it almost lets you play God or experience God's perspective in the sense of, like you can time travel. You can go back in time to a historical period. You can go forward in time to the future. You can slice up time in a way that makes us experience ten years in the span of a minute of screen time. So this whole idea of sculpting in time is a really unique part of what makes films so powerful. I think audiences find transcendence in movies so much because it allows them to get a glimpse of what life is like in a world where time isn't such a relentless slave driver, where it's something that we can have malleable. We can actually take some sort of control over time when we're watching a movie. And you can't do that in normal life.

Oh, you're right. There's so much here. I really do hope you will write that book. I'm often struck that there are some art forms that you can experience them all at once, so to speak. If you stand in front of a painting or you stand in front of a sculpture, there it is. It's all there. The whole thing is there. And it's not going to change no matter how long you stand there. But with film and with music, it has to occur in time. You can't speed it along. You can actually, but that would be horrible. I mean, you could fast forward in movies, but that's terrible. Or you could just listen to certain segments of the symphony. But if you really want to get it, no, it's going to be 45 minutes for a symphony or 2 hours for a movie, or longer.

And so here's the ironic thing: It seems to me that when I get into one of those experiences of listening to a symphony or watching a movie, so it has to occur in time, and yet it feels as if time stood still while I was in it.

Yeah. That’s good. Well, because we're so rarely actually present in time as it unfolds, right? That's kind of one of our Achilles heel aspects of being human, is we're always itching to think about the future or dwell in the past. We're hardly ever present in a moment that is happening. And I think art, these experiences of kind of set duration that you're describing, a concert, a song, a movie, they're the closest we come to being still and to being present with time. And that's another part of their power, I think.

And it kind of speaks to what I was saying earlier about beauty as something that slows us down in a hectic world and can still us in a frenetic, busybody age. So yeah. That’s a really good point. And can I just say, I'm really dismayed at the fact that movies are moving away from theaters to mostly being an experience that people have on their computer screen or phone screen, because the temptation there is always to pause constantly while you go make yourself a drink, fast forward, rewind, just basically take control over the time, which is what we do in every other part of our life in the digital age. So I really suggest, if you really want to appreciate the arts, give yourself over to it and relinquish your power over it. So go to the movie theater and just sit still in a movie and let it happen to you for 2 hours.

Yes.

Rather than just consuming it on your terms at home.

I wonder how, when we all are set free from the pandemic, will we go back to movie theaters? I hope so. And maybe even with a greater appreciation for them. And I sure am looking forward to that. I want to go back to a live orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center.

Oh, my goodness! Yeah. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that. I've only gone to two movies in a theater in the last eleven months, and usually I go to two movies a week in the theater. So I'm dying on the vine here.

Well, if I can push it just a little bit into a very pragmatic discipleship, I find that staring at a painting or watching very, very carefully, watching a film, or listening very intently to a piece of music, it then has benefits outside of those experiences, where I pay attention to life better. I can focus in on a person I'm talking to better. I can read my Bible more carefully because I'm slowing down and looking at words and repeating patterns of words. So, for those who may be listening and saying, “Well, this sounds very nice. I’m really glad these two artists guys are talking about this,” but I think it does have very, very pragmatic benefits of loving our neighbor, loving the Lord, and being more grateful for all that's happening in the life and the space that God has sovereignly chosen for us.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I totally agree with that. I think that it's part of why I included beauty in The Wisdom Pyramid and even books. In the chapter on books, what I'm saying about books is not that you become wise by all the content in a book. You can, but really, it's about how reading a book can train you to slow down and really process and think well. So beauty functions in the same way. The wisdom doesn't just come from the content of the beauty. It's just what it does to you as a human and kind of how it kind of can slow you down and help your senses to be sharper. I think that's the thing about beauty is, like, books help you become a better thinker. The arts help you become a better sensor, right? A better seer, a better hearer, a better taster, if you're talking about the culinary arts. So, yeah, I think that that's why it's good for our wisdom to be immersed in beauty, because it helps us better observe and attend to the world through our senses.

That's a great phrase there. Attend to the world through our senses. That's really good. Well, we can obviously talk a whole lot more, but I'm going to draw this to a close. I really recommend to our listeners Brett McCracken's new book, The Wisdom Pyramid. I hope you'll also check out his blogs and film reviews and articles about the arts on The Gospel Coalition. Brett, is there anything else you want to make sure that you say before we wrap this up?

I mean, no. Just thank you for having me. We could talk for hours, I'm sure, and it's one of the things about Inklings-type kindred spirits, is you long for more opportunities to just sit around a pub table in Oxford and just talk about all this all night long. So if we can approximate that experience through Zoom or whatever we're using now, then I'll take it. But maybe one day we have a conversation in an in-person setting about all this.

Well, let me say this in closing, when we get set free from COVID, Lord willing soon. So I want to come out to California, where you are, sometime in January or February, where it's miserable here, and enjoy the weather. And then I want to invite you to come to DC, where quite a few of our art museums are free, part of the Smithsonian. So there are times when I'm downtown, I'll just pop into the National Gallery of Art and look at one painting, because I can do it without feeling like, “This is costing me money. I love it.” So I've got to make you jealous for what we have, because I’m pretty jealous-

Well, I am, because I do love DC. So I will take you up on that one day.

Okay. That's a deal. Well, let me draw this to a close. Once again, we hope that this podcast has been helpful for you. We hope all of our material at the C.S. Lewis Institute's website, cslewisinstitute.org, that all of our materials, and this podcast in particular, will be helpful for you as you seek to love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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